SECURITY OF ESTONIA ON THE BORDER OF FREE WORLD
The geographical position and smallness of Estonia are a great possibility and at the same time also an inevitable challenge for us. Estonia is the smallest country in Europe and in the whole Western world that has managed to survive and become successful in spite of its forced situation politically and geographically.
Estonia’s location on the geographical and political world map is one of the important grounds for our current success story. Both the fact that we have excellent models like the Nordic countries, and the fact that Russia never lets us stay in our comfort zone in our development.
Estonia’s location is often viewed only in terms of neighbourhood to Russia. It has of course been the most critical issue of our existence throughout history. I will dwell on Russia later, but I would like to start with the main factor of Estonia’s success story – our being part of the Western world and, in particular, the Nordic space.
Estonia’s location in the Western world of today has been the most conclusively defined nearly a quarter of century ago by Samuel P. Huntington in his famous theory of the clash of civilizations. Later, Estonia’s position was fortified by its accession to the European Union and NATO.
The imaginary dividing line that Huntington drew on River Narva indeed marks the contact area of two civilisations, the West and the East (Russian orthodoxy). The existence of the latter was thoroughly described by British historian and philosopher Arnold Toynbee in his fundamental study in the first half of the past century.
The history of Estonia is a convincing proof that the border area of two different civilisations is a heightened security risk area. Our security does not depend only and exclusively on the independent political will of Estonia, it is directly connected with the relations between civilisations, between the East and the West. The more critical the relations between the great powers are, the higher the risk factor for us.
Despite all ordeals, Estonians have never given up or renounced their identity. In his book “Silverwhite”, which was published in the dark time of the Soviet occupation in 1976, Lennart Meri wrote about Estonians: “There are few nations in the world who have remained settled in one place and been faithful to a location for such a long time. We know by name our spring sites and larger trees, river bends, and moraine slopes, which we demandingly call ‘mountains’, and we have a legend to each one of them. The earth speaks to us in our language but of course it is not the voice of forests or waters that we hear, but the whisper of dozens of generations, a distant echo of their labours and joys, toils and struggles, truths and counter-truths.”
This whisper of generations and the distant echo of joys and toils teaches a simple truth to us – no matter how complicated our today may be, we will persist. In fact, never before have the native people of this land had a time that is so free and full of opportunities as now. It is a value that we have to keep and protect. And we have many good friends and allies for that. Also here, in our neighbours.
Estonia is a North European country, and we belong to the Nordic space. Although from time to time we tend to speak of ourselves as an East European country or a transition country, it is time to stop doing that. Estonia is a democratic state, and, according to many indicators, more successful than some much older European democracies already for years. We have nothing to be ashamed of, because we are pioneers in quite a number of fields (for example, cyber security).
Thanks to Estonia’s close neighbours in the north and in the west, our quick resurgence was possible in the beginning of the 1990s. Actual economic support and a model of a successful free society gave a quick start to Estonia. Sweden and Finland have remained our greatest trading partners and sources of investment all through this quarter of a century.
At the same time, the changing of the political map in the Nordic-Baltic region has been of historic dimensions. With the passing of time, there are fewer and fewer separating borders and obstacles hindering good relations. We are moving closer and closer to a Nordic Benelux, as President of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid describes our future space of belonging.
Indeed, let us think back just for a moment what the political map in Northern Europe was like at the end of 1991. The Soviet empire had just collapsed. Estonia and the other Baltic countries had restored their independence but still seemed to remain light years away from the Western countries. Visa waiver with Finland and Sweden was not established until 1997.
At the same time, Finland and Sweden were also between two worlds and epochs in the beginning of the 1990s. In 1995, tandem accession to the European Union broke their firewall of neutrality. From that moment, they both entered the new political map of Europe, at the same time steering the Nordic region to an irreversible integration course. Expansion of the European Union, NATO and the eurozone into the Baltic countries, and the Nordic-Baltic cooperation have created an extraordinary opportunity for mutually profitable integration of one of the most progressive regions of the world.
Although the total population of NB8 (Nordic-Baltic) countries with its 32.5 million is smaller than for example that of Poland on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea, the total of the economies of small countries exceeds the economy of Russia by one fifth. Not to mention that that there is probably not a single success analysis of the countries of the world that does not rank the Nordic countries at the top.
Certainly, the Nordic countries also have a sizeable loan burden from the times of rapid welfare growth. Security and defence spending have been secondary for a long time. Dividends of peace were still popular not long ago. However, a line has been drawn here. Sweden’s decision to take its army back to the island of Gotland this year meant the end of voluntary disarmament. The reduction of defence spending has been discontinued also in Finland and other Nordic countries. Security threats are viewed similarly.
Both in Finland and Sweden, security debate is livelier than ever. As recently as a couple of years ago, it seemed unthinkable that there could be public debate to discuss Sweden’s or Finland’s positions in connection with possible accession to NATO. Today, all topics are open and the Baltic Sea is increasingly becoming an internal sea of NATO in terms of security.
We are closer to the formation of a unified Nordic region than ever before. Historically, all preconditions for it have been created. We think and act in the same way. We are in the same legal and value space in the development of our societies.
The enlargement of NATO to the whole Nordic territory would change the security of this region in a way that no earlier agreement has been able to do. Russia’s very agitated opposition to Sweden’s and Finland’s approaching to NATO is an obvious indication that the spreading of the defence league of the free and democratic world to the whole Nordic region would make our region unattainable to external political influencing and threatening. It would be comparable to the fall of the Berlin wall.
Looking from the outside, one could well ask why the successful Nordic countries should worry about security at all. We are together a peace-minded group of small countries oriented towards innovative social development who pose no threat to anybody. Unfortunately, the answer lies in a single word – Russia. The neighbourhood, the deeper essence of which was so eloquently brought out by Huntington, is our fate. Therefore security is constantly our most important priority.
History has confirmed repeatedly that Russia is the existential challenge to our security. Therefore it is especially important to know our neighbouring country and to be able to organise our policy, including our security policy, in such a way that it would enable us to exist as an independent and internationally competitive Western country in the close neighbourhood of Russia.
Estonia is understandably interested in predictable and good-neighbourly relations with Russia. Nerve-racking tension or continuous feeling of threat are not in our interests. At the same time it is extremely important to keep in mind that we can exist as an independent and internationally competitive Western country in the neighbourhood of Russia only if we take seriously our being part of the Western space of values.
It has been thought in our internal debate fairly recently that maybe it would be better for Estonia to live in the Russian sphere of influence for the purpose of self-preservation. Jaan Kaplinski is perhaps the best known advocate of the opinion that there is no difference whether we are in the grip of influence of Russia or not.
There is nothing condemnable in Kaplinski’s intellectual exercise. As far as it does not begin to seriously influence the indisputable fundamental principle of our security – the more friends and allies Estonia has, the more secure is also our future. It is unthinkable for Estonia as a free and democratic country to hope for a strengthening of security in the case of assuming political dependence on authoritarian Russia. This is where the greatest logical error of Kaplinski’s reasoning becomes apparent.
Already in the 1990s, President Lennart Meri emphasised untiringly that Estonia is a state and not an oblast. Meri sensed instinctively, also through his rich personal experience, that Estonia has little time. In his Independence Day speech in 1993, Meri said, among other things, that our “Most important lesson is simple: there is little time, and time does not wait for small nations.”.
Meri perceived correctly the time window that had opened for Estonia, and the importance of using it. Unlike Kaplinski, Meri firmly believed that only all-round integration with the core organisations of the Western world would save Estonia from slipping into the “grey area”. Estonia was lucky, because the non-recognition policy of leading Western countries created the setting that allowed us to be liberated from Russian foreign troops in 1994, and with that to start the real journey towards the European Union and NATO.
For example, Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine were not so lucky. In their journey to membership in the Western legal and values space, all three have been noticeably hindered by the freezing inertia of the Russian empire. Unfortunately this has manifested itself not only in diplomatic activity – all three countries have felt Russia’s military intervention to a greater or lesser extent. Moldova in 1992, Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 are the same links of a long chain.
The Soviet Union was nothing else than a continuation of the centuries-long Russian empire. The central reason for the cult of Stalin, that persists until now, is the fact that first he succeeded in reuniting the empire, and then in leading it to victory in World War II. Thanks to that, in the second half of the 20th century, the Russian empire achieved a global power of influence that no leader of Russia had attained before.
Therefore it is also understandable why the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant an outright catastrophe for many natives of Russia. The hurt was not that Communism could not be built, but that the Russian empire lost a large part of its territory. And the blame lied of course with the West, in particular the United States.
To be an empire is Russia’s DNA. Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin predicted the failure of the Communist project nearly half a century in advance, and stressed that “with each attempt to divide Russia and after each disintegration it restores itself again by the mysterious ancient power of its spiritual identity”.
It is in no way surprising that, immediately after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the passing of the first shock, Moscow began consistent activities toward restoration of the lost influence. To a skilled eye, it was clear already in the beginning of the 1990s that Russia is attempting to draw a clear borderline between its primary sphere of influence and the rest of the world through the “near-abroad” policy. The near-abroad essentially equalled to the territories of the lost empire.
The reasons for the failure of liberal and democratic reforms in Russia lied not in the fact that the West could not or did not want to help President Yeltsin and his first reform-minded Government led by Yegor Gaidar. No matter how much funds or advice the West would have poured into Moscow, the result would have been the same anyway. Russia in its deep traditional essence simply abandoned the Western values because they fell on unreceptive ground. The words of the Czech writer Milan Kundera written in 1984 proved prophetic: totalitarian Russian civilization is the radical negation of the modern West.
Already in 1992, a shocking warning from Moscow hit many Western diplomats. On 14 December 1992, the annual meeting of Foreign Ministers of the CSCE (Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, now OSCE) took place in Stockholm. The then 41-year-old Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev was by nature the counterpart of a through and through Western-minded Russian diplomat or politician. Yeltsin had appointed him as the Russian Foreign Minister already in October 1990 when the Soviet Union with its giant diplomatic machinery was still in place.
Kozyrev was one of the first speakers in Stockholm. He asked for the attention of those present, because he had been entrusted to deliver an important message from Moscow. “I have the duty to present the changes in the main line of Russia’s foreign policy,” Kozyrev began, and brought out three major issues.
First, Kozyrev stressed that Russia would continue the Europe-oriented policy, but its traditions lied in Asia, and that set limits to approaching the Western Europe. Kozyrev admonished NATO because the Alliance was strengthening its military presence in the Baltic countries and in other territories of the former Soviet Union. Kozyrev also warned the West not to use too much power against Serbia.
Second, Kozyrev informed everybody that not all CSCE norms applied in the territory of former Soviet Union. “Actually, it is the territory of a former empire where Russia must defend its interests, using all means, including military and economic, for that,” Kozyrev frightened the listeners with his straightforwardness, and went on to say that the republics of the former Soviet Union should immediately form a federation or confederation.
Third, Kozyrev wagged his finger at all those who doubt Russia’s ability to stand for its own and its friends’ interests. “We are of course ready to play a constructive part in the work of the CSCE Council but we are very cautious with regard to ideas that will lead to interference with our internal affairs,” Kozyrev concluded, and the hall fell dead silent.
Only after a brief while did it become clear that Kozyrev meant none of it seriously. It was a diplomatic electric shock for those present, a reference to a possible development in Russia if the Western-minded forces should fall from power. Paradoxically, exactly on the same day, 14 December 1992, Yegor Gaidar lost his seat as the Prime Minister. A day later Viktor Chernomyrdin, who had the hardening experience of Gazprom, became the head of the Government of Russia. In the elections of the Duma a year later, the ultra-nationalist Liberal-Democratic party led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, that had been established by the KGB to break up the Democratic wing, took a surprise victory. This gave a clear indication of the fading of the Liberal project in Russia.
Kozyrev’s words proved more than prophetic. Before too long, Russia began to move step by step towards the change of foreign policy course that Kozyrev had warned his colleagues about in Stockholm. Kozyrev held his office until 1996, when Yevgeny Primakov, who had belonged to the Soviet top nomenclature and led the foreign intelligence service in the beginning of the 1990s, was appointed to replace him.
It was Primakov who laid the foundation for the change in the foreign policy line of Russia in roughly the same key that Kozyrev had warned about only a few years earlier. Opposition to the hegemony of the United States and strengthening of Russia’s positions in the emerging multipolar world became Primakov’s leading idea.
Domestic economic difficulties and the war in Chechnya did not allow Russia to set up a major confrontation with the expansion of the influence of the West on the eastern edge of Europe, including in the territories of the former Russian empire. Russia made repeated attempts to stop the expansion of NATO, but with no success. At the US-Russia summit in Helsinki in March 1997, for example, President Yeltsin made a proposal that, instead of NATO’s expansion to the Baltic states, Russia could ensure their security. President Clinton quickly rejected the proposal to divide the spheres of influence, and already a few months later the founding treaty of Russia-NATO relations was concluded.
It can be said that this time, the spring and summer of 1997, was the culmination of a brighter time in the relations between Russia and the West. It was accompanied by a hope that the end of the war with many victims in Chechnya, and bringing reform-minded politicians such as Boris Nemtsov to the Government, indicated President Yeltsin’s desire to give the country a new impetus towards democratic and market economy developments. Yet the hopeful time remained very short.
Everything changed on 24 March 1999. Yevgeny Primakov, who had become Prime Minister in the previous year, was on his way to an official visit to Washington when he got the news that NATO countries had begun air strikes against Yugoslavian targets. Above the Atlantic, Primakov made the decision to cancel the visit and turn back the plane.
This symbolic U-turn came to mark the end of the hopeful period that had been going on in Russia-West relations. Barely a few months later the whole world learned the name of Yeltsin’s successor. The former KGB officer Vladimir Putin embraced the methods of his home organisation as well as Primakov’s doctrine. After having attained control of internal affairs, Putin steered Russia to the course of expansion and an aggressive foreign policy. Rising from the knees had begun. The Russian President described his intentions most expressively at the Munich security conference in February 2007.
At present, Russia’s attitudes or activity are in no way different from what Kozyrev warned against 24 years ago. Russia aims to shatter down to the foundation the European security architecture that developed after the fall of the Berlin wall. The Kremlin would be pleased to lead the European Union and NATO to dissolution, to keep the United States over the ocean and to “finlandise” the whole Europe.
When reading Russian classical literature, the opinion that the West is morally decadent can be found in the works of almost all authors. This way of thinking can be found from Pushkin to the Slavophiles. Herzen and Dostoyevsky emphasised that Russia should become the saviour of the fallen West. Among other things, Dostoyevsky thought that it is the holy mission of our great Russia to build a Christian empire that covers the whole continent.
A craving for the restoration of the empire remains alive for at least the lifetime of the last person who remembers the Soviet empire. Only recently, Vladimir Solovyov, a well-known propagandist of the Russian television channel RTR, exclaimed that Russia could restore its borders of 1913. This is unfortunately by far not merely a journalistic emotion of the moment, but this idea is spread time and again among fervent proponents of the empire. They are not few. Already in August 1999, Putin’s close circle said a toast to such an aim, to celebrate Putin’s rise to power.
Estonia should bear in mind that Russians regarded our settlement area as theirs long before the conquests of Peter the Great. Already in truce negotiations during the Livonian War in 1757, representatives of Ivan the Terrible claimed the right over Tallinn because, in their opinion, no one other than the predecessors of the Russian ruler had established it 600 years earlier.
It is significant to add as a quick parenthesis that, in autumn 2016, the first memorial in history to Ivan the Terrible was opened in Oryol, Russia. A journalist of publication “Politico” who studied the opinions of local people on the equestrian monument caught, amongst others, the following line of thought: “Ivan the Terrible was the wall on the way of Western totalitarianism. If he had not crushed his enemies in the Livonian War, we would have been subjected to a genocide and the Western values”.
The myth of the Baltic region as indigenous Russian territories was used to confuse millions of people through Soviet textbooks even several hundreds of years later. Therefore there is no surprise in the opinion of the resident of Oryol, or my own experience from 1995 when, working as a journalist of “Postimees” in Moscow, I was a witness to a sincere expression of thought by a professor of history at Moscow university. He was convinced that either his children or his grandchildren would fight for the Baltic countries because the ports there belonged to Russia. Period.
It is not difficult for Russian leaders to reproduce this kind of way of thinking among the people today. The occupation and annexation of Crimea evoked great euphoria and support as a matter of course.
There is no doubt that, to further its aims, Russia is ready to raise its stakes in its relations with the West to a dangerous limit. It should not be forgotten that, even before attacking Ukraine, Putin’s speechwriters reflected on the international situation in a manner that found the greatest similarities with the 1930s before the great world war. The Kremlin perceived already years ago that a confrontation would develop in international relations that could lead to a limited military conflict between Russia and the West.
All this refers to nothing else than the fact that we must be ready for a long period of complicated relations between Russia and the West. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in his first bigger press conference of 2016, at the end of January, that the time of good relations with the West was over, and they would never again return to the ‘business as usual’.
No matter how we describe the current state of affairs, whether it is an aftermath of the Cold War or a new hybrid form of the Cold War, the fact is that the situation will calm down only if the parties can agree on common rules of the game or, even better, Russia returns to the space of international law and the principles laid down in the UN Charter.
There is no point in creating an illusion that a fundamental change of course would take place in Russia in any foreseeable future. President Putin has stressed that the funeral of Russia (read: the Russian civilisation) cannot be a precondition for bringing down the geopolitical tensions. Therefore Estonia, together with its allies, has to focus on how to ensure a modus vivendi with its eastern neighbour who lays stress on its civilisational particularity.
In order to achieve this strategic aim, it is extraordinarily important to maintain the unity of the West and to stand for the values founded on the freedom of individual. The latter is undermined by, among other things, not only Russia but also for example the continuing spread of radical Islamic jihadist ideology.
The NATO Summit in Warsaw in July 2016 was exactly what the Alliance needed. There was a strong common line both in the perception of threats and in deciding on deterrence measures. Despite Brexit, the role of Great Britain in ensuring long-term security of Estonia will be strengthened with the arrival of their combat-ready battalion here in 2017. It is, among other things, a convincing assurance that Estonia’s contribution in meeting the allied commitments together with Brits in Afghanistan in the past decade is now being reflected in the strengthening of our security.
In the coming years, the risk-riddled security environment requires of the Estonian political parties a consistent political effort in strengthening the diplomacy, independent defence capability, internal security and the resistance capability of the society. It is particularly important to direct additional resources also to diplomacy and internal security, besides defence spending.
Estonia’s security on the border of the free world is like constant creation that requires alertness, fortitude and boldness. From everybody and all the time. Estonia never has too much time.