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Friday, March 31, 2023

“Never underestimate the Russians”: Lessons from the NATO border

For decades, Estonian border guards have looked suspiciously across the narrow Narva River that separates them from Russia. Flanked on either side by imposing medieval fortresses, the crossing also serves as NATO’s border with its historic enemy and as one of the likely invasion routes for Russian armored columns in the event of a full-blown war.

Estonia’s precarious position and long history of imperial subjugation – and more recently constant cross-border mischief – by successive Russian empires has meant Tallinn has little faith in Moscow. No wonder, then, that Estonia has been among Ukraine’s staunchest supporters since it too gained independence from the collapsing Soviet Union.

On the eve of the full-scale invasion of Russia, and when leaders and pundits were reassuring themselves that President Vladimir Putin was not embarrassed enough to plunge Europe into war, Estonia was a NATO minnow with a population of just 1.3 million and about 1,000 times smaller Defense budget the US – was one of the first countries to supply Javelin anti-tank weapons that would prove so crucial to the defense of Kiev.

Since then, the country has given Ukraine its entire arsenal of 155mm howitzers, among other things, and has been the most generous of any Western nation in terms of aid-to-GDP ratio. Estonia has also taken in more than 62,000 Ukrainian refugees, which is the highest in the European Union in terms of national population.

Estonia and its Baltic neighbors – dismissed by the Kremlin as “extremist-leaning” – together with Poland form a new moral center of gravity in Europe, even if the political, military and economic weight still rests with the West.

For years, Western allies paid little heed to Baltic warnings that Russia was up to no good. Now Estonian politicians, officials and experts say so news week the West needs to listen and learn.

“We see other nations saying that they need to listen to us a little bit more,” said Marko Mihkelson, a member of the Estonian Parliament and its Foreign Affairs Committee news week.

Listen to? “Yes and no,” Mihkelson said. “The world is complicated. The interests of larger nations, especially nuclear ones, and smaller nations like Estonia could be different even if we are in the same camps as NATO or the EU.”

Even in Estonia, few thought the Kremlin so ruthless.

“I was kind of incredulous up until the moment of the invasion,” said Kristi Raik, deputy director of the Estonian International Center for Defense and Security’s think tank news week.

“I knew it could happen, but it seemed so irrational. And military experts said that Russia is not really ready or able to conquer Kiev, let alone all of Ukraine.”

“The most shocking thing is that Russia conducted this invasion based on such a terrible miscalculation and poor preparation,” Raik said.

Given Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, years of hate speech in Donbass, a dehumanizing propaganda campaign, and repeated military posturing on Ukraine’s borders, Mihkelson had little doubt about some form of Russian aggression.

“It was the logical step,” he said, recalling a visit to the Russian capital three weeks before the start of the major attack. “Not many, if any, in Moscow understood that Putin would immediately go so far as to attack Kiev,” he recalled. “Everyone talked about Donbass.”

Still, he got away with a clear understanding of the danger. “The focus – as you can see – was not only on Ukraine, but on confronting the entire Western security architecture,” he said. “By early February, it was pretty clear to us that the invasion would begin immediately after the Beijing Olympics.”

The horrors of foreign imperialism are burned into Estonia’s collective memory. Occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, the country was conquered in 1941 by Nazi German troops advancing east. Soviet troops returned in 1944 and only left in 1991.

An estimated one quarter of all Estonians were killed during World War II, one of the highest rates in all of Europe. Decades of later Soviet occupation brought mass deportations and enforced disappearances.

The current prime minister, Kaja Kallas, has a story similar to that of many Estonians. Her mother, Kristi, then only six months old, was deported to Siberia with her mother and grandmother during the post-war Soviet purges. Kallas was a teenager when Estonia regained its independence.

At this year’s Munich Security Conference, Kallas said “sustainable peace in the future” depends on “shattering the imperialist dreams of the Russians. And I’m not talking about Putin or not Putin…

Mihkelson agreed. “Your desire for empire restoration is so ingrained in their mindset, not just for the leaders but for the general public, and even if you recall some statements from the liberal camp of the Russian political landscape,” he explained.

Referring to his own experience as a journalist covering the First Chechen War in the mid-1990s, Mihkelson said he had “developed a clear understanding that Russia would be a very dangerous neighbor, not just for Estonia but for all of Europe “.

“The same goes for Kaja Kallas and everyone else in Estonia who has an understanding of Russia and Russian reality through their family history.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also left a historic record in Estonia, where authorities are now tearing down Soviet-era war memorials dedicated to the country’s former imperial lords.

The campaign has heated opinions among the 322,000 Estonians who identify as ethnic Russians, complicating long-standing issues of integration and cross-border Russian influence.

NATO and the EU have shown determination in 12 months of fighting, showing few signs of the fractures Moscow hoped would undermine the pro-Ukraine coalition.

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