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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Leave Baltics in Ruins

KLOOGA, Estonia -- Stray dogs deserted by their fleeing Russian masters roam the streets of this tiny coastal town; some of the streets themselves are pitted and cracked from years of being driven over by Soviet tanks.

Once, Klooga was a tsarist-era resort. But its grandeur swiftly declined recently after former Soviet soldiers withdrawn from East Germany were quartered at a base here. Estonians say they looted some of the region's deserted yet well-kept 17th century mansions.

One such mansion -- a stone and plaster beauty with a curved driveway and sweeping staircases -- now has no roof. On the second floor, under an open sky, small saplings grow amid a mulchy topsoil formed from wet leaves and muck blown in by the wind.

"Until four or five years ago it was in good shape," said Mari-Ann Rikken, a spokesman for the Estonian Foreign Ministry. "But when the Soviet troops arrived from East Germany, they had cars. And they needed to build garages. So they tore the roof of the building to build garages."

Such recent horrors are minor compared to the pollution and ecological damage the Soviet Army wrought over decades throughout the Baltics.

The Estonian Environment Ministry estimates the Soviet Army did about 54.8 billion kroons ($4 billion) worth of damage to the country's environment during their 50-year occupation.

Spokesmen for the Latvian Foreign Ministry said the figure could be even higher: more troops were quartered in Latvia than anywhere else, and the capital of Riga was also the capital of the Baltic Military District.

The most serious ecological damage comes from oil and fuel spilled at Soviet airbases -- where military standards allowed for chalking up a whopping 10 percent of all airplane fuel spent to waste and spillage.

"At a civilian airport, a ton of spilled fuel is considered an accident. At the Soviet military airports, fuel was free -- provided by the Soviet government. And a ton of lost fuel was nothing," said Aidas Vaisnoras, vice president of the Baltic Consulting Group, which has been evaluating Lithuania's environmental damage at the government's request.

"Nobody knows how much fuel was used at the military's airports, but sometimes they would have hundreds of flights a day, huge transport planes. Locals said those monster planes would leave lakes of spilled fuel on the runways," Vaisnoras said.

At a Soviet airfield in Tapa, Estonia, the groundwater is so soaked with jet fuel that it is flammable. The same is true at Lithuania's Silauliai airfield: locals there skim kerosene from the surface of springwater to heat their homes.

In Zvarde, Latvia, officials say it will take 30 years to clear land mines scattered for miles across a military training field. In Tallinn, the threat of land mines threatened plans to hold a celebration Tuesday at the Tondi military base." They are continuing to sweep the area where the party is to be held," Rikken said. "My daughter is in Tallinn, and I've been thinking, What if she wants to go? I don't want her to go if there's going to be a risk of land mines."

Estonians and Latvians can only now begin cataloging the Soviet military's environmental abuses. In Lithuania, however -- where Russian troops pulled out last summer -- investigators have had a full year to sift through the damage. They questioned Estonia's $4 billion figure.

"In Lithuania, we also tried to make evaluations before the troops left. But it wasn't until we had largely unlimited access to the military sites that we could begin a serious study," Vaisnoras said. "The Estonian estimate is a political estimate, not a scientific one."

Vaisnoras refused to offer a monetary figure for the damage in Lithuania -- his final report will be ready by January -- but said the environment suffered roughly the same in all three Baltic states.

"As we joke here, Lithuania is still under occupation, and will remain so until these sites are cleaned up," he said. "We still have the Russian Army here in the form of the pollution left behind, because that pollution effectively closes many of these sites to the people."