Estonia may look like a European country out of a children’s storybook, but it’s bracing to become another Afghanistan.
The Defense League is preparing more than 25,000 volunteers, including women and teenagers, to fight a deadly insurgency against a Russian invasion. It’s training them to make IEDs and strike Russian convoys in hit-and-run attacks, and the government is encouraging everyone to keep guns and ammunition in their houses and hidden in backyards and forests.
They are not overreacting.
“There’s no doubt,” British army Colonel Rupert Wieloch said on the BBC a couple of days ago, “that Russia is looking at Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania as potentially the same as what they did in Ukraine and Crimea.”
And they stand no chance in a conventional stand-up fight if it happens. Estonia is tiny. It’s barely 150 miles across at its widest and could be swallowed by Russia in matter of days. Only 1.3 million people live in the entire country. Its army is only 6,000 strong while hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers are dug in on the other side of the border.
Training soft European civilians to fight like Iraqi and Afghan insurgents (minus the suicide bombing and terrorism) sounds a little bit nuts, but Estonians would have no other choice but surrender if Russia invades and NATO doesn’t come to their aid.
NATO should come to their aid, and the Estonians should not have to do this. They’re in good standing with the alliance which requires every member state to assist any other member state that’s attacked. They decided some time ago, though, that the West might not have the stomach for this sort of thing anymore.
The Obama administration has caved to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin over and over again, and earlier this year the Estonians got a loud and clear signal from even the Republican Party when its nominee Donald Trump said he might not jump to Europe’s defense if its member states “aren’t paying their bills.” Trump didn’t single out Estonia, which has sent troops to fight alongside Americans in Afghanistan, but former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich did single out Estonia as a country unworthy of full protection, despite the fact that Gingrich himself championed NATO expansion into Estonia shortly after the Cold War.
“Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg” he said on CBS News. “The Russians aren’t gonna necessarily come across the border militarily. The Russians are gonna do what they did in Ukraine. I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg. I think we have to think about what does this stuff mean.”
America’s bipartisan world weariness isn’t the only reason Estonia is digging in for the worst. Europe’s Baltic region was quiet before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, but it’s not anymore.
“A drive across the Baltics reveals a constant hum of military activity,” Washington Post reporter Michael Birnbaum wrote this summer. “Camouflaged convoys snake down dim roads late at night. Armored personnel carriers idle alongside fields. Belgian, British and Spanish fighter jets thunder across the skies. Before the Crimean annexation, it was rare to see a combat vehicle in the Baltics. Now they are omnipresent, amid a constant cycle of military maneuvers and rotations. The biggest military operation in Europe this year is underway in Poland, where 25,000 troops from 24 nations are engaged in combat exercises that include live fire from tanks.”
And this week, Estonia accused the Russian air force of violating its air space for the sixth time this year. Russia denies it, of course.
If Russia decides to invade Estonia, it won’t be hard for Vladimir Putin to come up with an excuse. Estonia is 25 percent Russian. All he has to do to claim the Russian minority is being mistreated and needs Moscow’s protection. Sure, it will be a ludicrous claim, but that’s exactly what he did when he invaded Ukraine, annexed the Crimean Peninsula and fomented war in the Russian-speaking Donbass region.
Katja Koort, an ethnic Russian born in Estonia, wrote about the tension between her community and the Estonian majority here in World Affairs two years ago.
Today, parts of the Russian community in Estonia remain quite isolated because many ethnic Russians have stronger links to their historic homeland than to their country of permanent residence. Considering the fact that more than three hundred thousand Russian-speaking people (including Ukrainians, Belarusians, and others) are living in Estonia, accounting for approximately a quarter of the whole country’s population, it’s no surprise that the reluctance of some of them to integrate into Estonian society has caused a number of socioeconomic and political problems, most visibly in major industrial areas of the Soviet era like Ida-Viru County, bordering Russia in the northeast, and the capital, Tallinn. More than twenty years after the restoration of Estonia’s independence, the opinion that time would automatically resolve the integration issue of non-ethnic Estonians, and that the younger generation born here would blend into Estonian society, has not been confirmed in practice.
The role of Russian media in inciting such ethnic hatred cannot be underestimated, even more so because the standards of official Russian media have sunk back to where they were during the depths of the Cold War. With a few cosmetic exceptions, Russian television news today resembles Stagnation Era propaganda: the nightly program transmits an exaggerated and biased picture of an evil and threatening Western world that now includes the Baltic states, Georgia, and Ukraine. As a counterweight, authorities present a glorified picture of Russia, on display most recently at the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II is another favorite theme of Russian programming, and one particularly useful for Putin during his misadventure in Ukraine. Indeed, the victory is evidently the only achievement in recent history that not only upholds Russians’ national pride but also helps justify current military intrusions into neighboring countries that are still portrayed to the people within the Russian sphere of influence as peacekeeping missions undertaken to defend the Russian people. Ironically, Russia’s actions in Ukraine today are very much like those of Nazi Germany in Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938–39. In this light, Putin’s assertion that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the last century sounds especially ominous.
Estonia’s fears may be overblown. A Russian attack against a NATO member is a very different proposition than kicking around largely defenseless nations like Georgia and Ukraine. Putin knew perfectly well that the United States wouldn’t declare war against him when he attacked isolated countries, but he’d be risking another world war if he struck the Western alliance, especially when British, Belgian and Spanish fighter jets are traversing the skies.
Also, the dovish Obama is on his way out. Hillary Clinton might replace him, and she’s always been more hawkish than he is. If the Republicans take back the White House, I’d expect Trump to instantly reverse his opinions of Putin and NATO if Russia actually mounts an invasion of Europe.
Estonians aren’t willing to bet their country on it, however. Besides, even if Europe and the United States do come to Estonia’s aid in the event that Putin miscalculates and thinks he can get away with something he can’t, Russia will still win the first round.
“If Russian tanks and troops rolled into the Baltics tomorrow,” writes Dan De Luce in Foreign Policy, “outgunned and outnumbered NATO forces would be overrun in under three days. That’s the sobering conclusion of war games carried out by a think tank with American military officers and civilian officials.”
A report by Rand Corporation backs that up. “In a series of war games conducted between summer 2014 and spring 2015, RAND Arroyo Center examined the shape and probable outcome of a near-term Russian invasion of the Baltic states. The games' findings are unambiguous: As presently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.”
The UK’s Daily Mail sent a journalist to the Russian-Estonian border recently and quoted a Russian businessman who lives in St. Petersburg and has a weekend apartment in Tallinn. “Each time I cross here,” he said, “I think it may be the last. Suddenly things are different and people are talking of World War Three. This is the front line between East and West. I am worried, full of foreboding about what happens next.”
Frankly, I doubt Russia will actually invade Europe, but I don’t doubt it the way I doubt Russia will send fighter jets into the skies over New York and Washington. I’m plenty sure that’s not going to happen, but Estonia (and Latvia and Lithuania) isn’t New York. The fact that we're even talking about this is not a good sign. Putin might test the US and Europe with a small and plausibly deniable operation or incursion like he did in Ukraine, where he lied and said Russian troops weren’t involved. That’s how Gingrich said Putin would probably do it, and he’s right. And if the West responds with nothing but hand-wringing and talk, Estonia had better fill up its sandbags.