Feb. 24 is usually a time for celebration in Estonia as people there and abroad observe the country’s Independence Day.

But this year, the day was somber, said Caroli Leiman, president of the Seattle Estonian Society. 

“We watched how Russia bombed Ukraine, how our friends had to flee Kyiv,” she said. “It’s hard for people to watch the events unfold.”

For Washington’s Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian communities, news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine conjures painful memories while also leaving them wondering about the fate of the Baltic countries.

The events have brought back unpleasant recollections for many, Leiman said, especially older people who left Estonia after World War II and those who grew up in the Soviet Union and saw its collapse.

Ukraine attack leaves Baltics wondering: Are we next?

Leiman herself can still recall being taught what to do in case a tank went past her small school while growing up in northern Estonia in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

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“This is very scary to watch because the events are fresh in a lot of people’s memories,” she said.

While there is some reprieve for Baltic nations who are NATO allies and members of the European Union, there is a real fear about how far Russia can push things, she said. 

“It all depends how the West and the rest of the world actually respond to Russia,” Leiman said. “It’s a very delicate situation. It’s not black and white.”

The Estonian community stands with its Ukrainian friends, Leiman said. 

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have relatively small populations: approximately 6 million in total; Ukraine’s population is approximately 44 million. The three countries east of the Baltic Sea became NATO members in 2004. Ukraine is not part of NATO.

The countries were annexed during World War II and under Soviet rule for 50 years, until the collapse of the empire in 1991. Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians remember that heritage, especially as President Vladimir Putin has referenced the Baltic countries in his justifications for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said Guntis Smidchens, an associate professor of Baltic studies in the University of Washington’s Department of Scandinavian Studies.

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“Of course they are thinking of the Soviet period, because he is constantly reminding them,” Smidchens said.

There are about 2,200 people in Washington who were born in Latvia and Lithuania, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, which doesn’t have separate numbers for Estonians. A 1960 Seattle Times story noted that “many refugees from the swallowed-up Baltic nations have made their way to the United States and other western countries, where they keep alive their national traditions. There are more than 500 displaced Latvians in Seattle alone.”

Those in the Seattle area and beyond who have family in Lithuania or recently immigrated to the U.S. are worried, said Rasa Raisys, president of the Lithuanian American Community of Washington state. Her 18-year-old daughter is currently studying there.

Raisys said she is horrified there are countries that would even consider invading a democratic country. Ukrainians elected their government democratically, but Putin is choosing to impose his dictatorship, she added.

“There’s a deep sadness for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine,” Raisys said. “Our hearts are with them.”

Demonstrations have been held in all three Baltic countries condemning Putin, and Lithuania’s president declared a state of emergency Thursday.

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Raisys said she feels there’s a sense of security with the Baltic states being a part of NATO. Article 5 of the NATO treaty states that if a NATO ally is a victim of an armed attack, every member will consider it an act of violence against all members and take action.

“But there are no guarantees,” Raisys said. “Who’s to say the Baltic states aren’t next because (Putin) wants a nice thoroughfare all the way from Russia through Kaliningrad to the Baltic Sea?”

“But I hope that is an unfounded concern,” she said.

More about Russia’s war on Ukraine