Last week, I warned that the next step for Russia after seizing the Crimea over the status of ethnic Russians would take place in the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. All it would take, I argued, would be for Moscow to foment unrest in those ethnic-Russian communities, antagonize the governments in both states, and then insist that Russia had to intervene to protect them. More than a quarter of the population in both countries consist of ethnic Russians, while in Ukraine it only came to 18%.

Now it looks like Moscow will skip over the unrest pretext and demand the right to act as economic protector  in Latvia:

Russian Ambassador Aleksandr Veshnyakov created a new wave of concern in Latvia with recent remarks saying it may soon become easier for ethnic Russians in Latvia to obtain Russian citizenship.

Mr. Veshnyakov told Latvian Radio 4, a Russian-language public broadcasting channel, that proposed legislation in Russia would allow granting Russian citizenship to ethnic Russians in Latvia to “save the Latvian noncitizens out of poverty by giving them citizenship and a pension without having to stay in Russia.” Russians constitute 27.6% of Latvia’s population of 2 million, the largest ethnic group among the minorities living in Latvia.

The comments come as many in the three Baltic nations—part of the former Soviet Union—have expressed fears about being the target of possible Russian expansionism. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—all members of NATO and the European Union—have been working to forge economic ties with Europe by joining the euro zone while also scrambling to lessen dependence on Russian energy.

Russia has justified its moves in Ukraine as a defense of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. Moscow has complained about Latvia’s alleged mistreatment of ethnic Russians there.

Using income inequality to muscle governments? Inconceivable! In the case of Latvia, though, the issue isn’t ethnic-Russian poverty but the expression of Russian imperialism that drove Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea, after his puppet Viktor Yanukovich had to flee for his life.

This attempt to destabilize Latvia by making a quarter of its population Russian citizens gives away Putin’s game. It also serves as a direct affront to NATO and the West. Ukraine never did join NATO, but Latvia formally joined in 2004, as did its Baltic neighbors Lithuania and Estonia. Lithuania has a minimal ethnic-Russian population — less than 7% of its population — but Estonia’s population is 25% ethnic Russian. It’s no small wonder that all three nations are now “jittery” over an “unpredictable” Russia:

Standing in the shadow of a massive, grey former KGB building in a busy Vilnius street, Lithuanian pensioner Rimantas Gucas worries history could repeat itself if the West fails to stop Russia from absorbing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

As Lithuania marks 24 years since it broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union and a decade since it joined NATO, people here and in fellow Baltic states Estonia and Latvia are jittery over Russian moves in Crimea.

So far, they’re relying on NATO:

Vilnius University analyst Kestutis Girnius is, however, more circumspect about the threat posed by Moscow. He said EU and NATO membership make the Crimea scenario highly improbable in the Baltic states.

“Since NATO would lose all credibility if it failed to defend them, it has an overriding motive to come to their defence. Russia knows this, and thus will avoid tempting fate,” he told AFP.

At least one might have thought this, until Veshnyakov pledged to make Russian citizenship available for ethnic minorities. That’s a clear signal that Russia intends to interfere in the Baltic states to a much larger degree than before, which is already a challenge to NATO.

Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments VP Jim Thomas argues that NATO needs to respond in a manner that Putin will understand — by moving nuclear forces into the Baltics:

First, NATO should reconsider its so-called Three Nos from the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. The Three Nos were shorthand for the NATO allies’ joint declaration that they had “no intentions, no plans, and no reason” to station nonstrategic nuclear forces in new member states. But NATO left the door open to future deployments if front-line allies were threatened. While NATO still lacks the intention and plans to station nuclear forces in new member states, such as Poland, it now has more than sufficient reason to do so.

A preliminary step should be making the Polish air force’s F-16s capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons so that they could participate in NATO’s nuclear mission. That should quickly be followed by site surveys to identify suitable locations for potentially storing nuclear weapons on the territory of front-line allies, including Poland, if relations with Russia further deteriorate.

Second, NATO should reinforce its front-line allies with additional conventional force deployments. The time has come for the U.S. and other NATO allies to consider permanently stationing forces in Poland and Romania as well as the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to back up their words of strategic solidarity. Their mission should be defensively oriented, establishing what military strategists call “anti-access, area denial” zones. (This might include missile defenses to protect major bases in those countries along with anti-air, anti-armor and anti-ship weapons to counter air, land or naval incursions.

Taking these steps in the Baltic states would reduce Russia’s temptation to encroach on their sovereignty in the name of “protecting ethnic Russian populations,” a pretext it has used in Ukraine. It would also preclude Russia’s option of a quick, Crimea-like operation to establish a fait accompli on the ground before NATO can decide to act.

That might be a bigger provocation than the US and its NATO allies really want at this stage. However, moving larger ground forces into the Baltics and returning the missile-defense shield to Poland and the Czech Republic will make a big enough impression in Moscow to give Putin at least some pause. Right now, he’s not even bothering with creating pretexts of unrest to force Russian hegemony onto current Western allies — and if we don’t react to it, we may find those allies rethinking their alliances and looking for better deals.