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Kalev Stoicescu  19 listopada 2019

Estonian-Russian relations remain frosty

Kalev Stoicescu  19 listopada 2019
przeczytanie zajmie 6 min

Estonia has inevitably fallen into the Kremlin’s category of Russophobe countries since it antagonises Russia by playing according to rules that the Kremlin dislikes. Russia’s relations with Estonia have not improved because Estonia has managed to strengthen continuously its statehood, economy, security and defence that contradicts Russia’s interests. Moscow has tried to prevent Estonia from anchoring itself in European and transatlantic institutions, but it failed. 

Inter-state relations between Estonian and (then) Soviet Russia were established by the Tartu Peace Treaty signed on February 2, 1920, which ended Estonia’s successful War of Independence. Soviet Russia was the first country to recognise Estonia’s independence and – by coincidence – Estonia became the first country to recognise Soviet Russia. Nevertheless, Leninist and Stalinist Russia regarded Estonia’s independence as a historic anomaly and temporary occurrence, and the peace treaty and unconditional recognition of Estonia’s independence „for all times” was unduly „forgotten” by Stalin when the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed in August 1939.

The restoration of the independence of the Baltic states in August 1991 was followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union a few months later. Boris Yeltsin’s Russia and (the then still existing) Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union both recognized rather quickly the independence (but not the previous occupation) of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. However, already in the early 1990s Moscow – once again – resented the Baltic quest for real sovereignty and turning Western. Estonia, too, had a window of opportunity in the 1990s to get rid of the former occupation troops, rebuild democracy, the rule of law and a free-market economy, and successfully bid for EU and NATO membership.

It would be fair to assume that Estonia would probably not have made it to the West and remained in limbo or the Kremlin’s web, in spite of all its efforts and Western support, if the former KGB agencies – impersonated by the „collective Putin” – would have risen to full power a few years earlies, e.g. after the presidential elections of 1996. Twenty years of Vladimir Putin’s autocratic rule in a militaristic and resurgent Russia support this assumption. 

Russia’s relations with Estonia have not improved because Estonia has managed to strengthen continuously its statehood, economy, security and defence that contradicts Russia’s interests. Moscow has tried to prevent Estonia from anchoring itself in European and transatlantic institutions, but it failed. For example, Russia obstructed (simulated) bilateral border negotiations and averted the conclusion of a border agreement with Estonia for many years hoping that this would effectively deny Estonia’s right to join Western organisations.

The border agreements (land border and maritime boundary) between Estonia and Russia have been signed twice, the second time in February 2014 with a slight amendment of the preamble. However, the agreements are not ratified and not enforced to this day even though they should be the starting point of unfreezing and beginning to build stable and durable relations between the two neighbours. High-level contacts between Estonia and Russia are quite uncommon, differently from the Finnish-Russian routine (presidents meet once or twice a year). President Mrs Kersti Kaljulaid paid a visit to Moscow on April 18, 2019, where she met with President Vladimir Putin. This was a rare opportunity to discuss and agree (or disagree) on how bilateral relations should develop. The logic and future of bilateral relations, including the border treaties, were nevertheless barely touched upon by the two leaders. 

The expectations were very low on both sides before the meeting between Kaljulaid and Putin because of the awareness of Estonia (and all its Allies and partners) of Moscow’s general (long-term) and immediate interests. Russia would like Western economic and political/diplomatic sanctions to be lifted as soon as possible. It is also determined to achieve a solution to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine (the Donbas region) on its terms to keep Kyiv in Moscow’s orbit and keep Ukraine away from NATO and EU. The same goes for Georgia or any other former Soviet country, for that matter. Crimea is not an issue that could be discussed, according to the Kremlin. Russia would also like to agree with NATO’s leading powers on restoring the status quo ante in the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea regions, as the situation was until 2014 (no presence of Allied forces in NATO’s eastern flank, except for the Baltic Air Policing peacetime mission). The US ballistic missile interceptor sites in Poland and Romania should also be removed. All these Russian wishes are, of course, not possible to be met, even considering that Russia itself would not agree by any means to also abide by a status quo ante formula (give back Crimea to Ukraine, pull out of the Donbas, but also out of Syria and Venezuela, re-deploy Iskander-M missile systems and other offensive weapons from Kaliningrad Oblast to continental Russia etc.). 

Estonia could not have done or promised anything to Russia concerning Kremlin’s impressive list of wishes. Moscow and Tallinn are both well aware that Estonia’s strength in dealing with Russia stems from its membership and influence in the European Union and NATO, and from the spirit of solidarity and willingness to speak with one voice to Russia. That is precisely what the Kremlin wants to avoid while it seeks through bilateral relationships (particularly with sympathetic governments and leaders) to crack Western unity and determination.

Estonia is not a country that would be promising to Russia in this regard, as it stands very strongly for the prolongations of EU sanctions and the strengthening of NATO’s deterrence and defence against Russia, including by augmenting the Allied presence (troops, equipment, enablers etc.) in Estonia. 

The negative background in the relation between Estonia and Russia is heavily influenced by the general atmosphere of confrontation between Russia and the West. However, the bilateral relations between the two neighbours would hardly improve even if the charm offensive launched primarily by President Trump and President Macron (with obvious support from e.g. Italy and Hungary) would succeed in relieving tensions, which is nevertheless doubtful. Russia aims at establishing a huge buffer zone on its western periphery, from the Arctic to the Caucasus, by blocking the perspectives of Ukraine and Georgia to escape Moscow’s influence, persuading Finland and Sweden with threats and charm not to join the Alliance and reverting the de facto status of NATO’s eastern flank nations to virtually undefended Allies. 

Besides, Russia re-writes history and does not accept Estonia’s claim that it was illegally occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. This is a very important political aspect because it shows Russia’s attitude concerning the statehood of its neighbours and their right to chose their political system and international affiliation or alliances. President Putin has very high regard of Josef Stalin and he probably also considers that Estonia’s statehood will not last very long, and its sovereignty must be limited. A practical example of this mindset is the repeated violation of Estonia’s air space by Russian military aircraft (even by President Putin’s airplane, when it flew to Helsinki in 2018 for the meeting with President Trump). These blatant acts (which Russia would certainly not tolerate if NATO aircraft would breach its air space) are meant to demonstrate that Estonia’s sovereignty doesn’t mean much to Russia and Moscow can violate it whenever it pleases. 

Russia has struggled since the early 1990s to ruin Estonia’s reputation of the „small country that could”. Estonia is certainly a „bad” example for the former Soviet countries that wish to turn Western or might wish to relive themselves from the Kremlin’s diktat and therefore Russia incessantly blames Estonia of infringing the rights of ethnic non-Estonian inhabitants of the country, glorifying Nazism, denying the „liberation” by the Red Army in 1944 etc. Estonia cannot be destabilised and compromised to the extent that its European and American Allies would be ready to repudiate the Baltic nation for Russia’s rejoice (that doesn’t work even in the case of the non-EU and non-NATO Ukraine), but Moscow will certainly continue its propaganda attacks and (dis)information operations. 

Political and economic relations between Estonia and Russia will remain frosty for many years to come. The regime created by the „collective Putin” will continue – at least due to inertia – also after the Russian head of state would leave the political stage in Moscow, perhaps in the mid-2020s. It would be naïve to expect any substantial changes before the present Russian political, economic and military elite will be replaced by a new and – most importantly – different generation.

The relations between Estonia and Russia are nevertheless not entirely frozen. Cultural exchanges continue on both sides, and the interest in developing tourism is growing. Cultural and human contacts are particularly important since Russia alienates from the West not only politically but also at the grassroots level of its population. 

Estonia has inevitably fallen into the Kremlin’s category of Russophobe countries (together with the other Baltic and Nordic countries, Poland, UK etc.) since it antagonises Russia by playing according to rules that the Kremlin dislikes. The open disclosure of Russian subversive activities and espionage (by GRU or FSB agents) in Estonia is a god example, in contrast to the approach of some other EU and/or NATO allies who would prefer to exchange quietly spies with Russia. Likewise, cybersecurity and defence have become Estonia’s brand after the 2007 cyber-attacks by Russia (connected to the replacement of the „Bronze soldier” from the city centre to the military cemetery of Tallinn). Estonia has done much to raise the awareness of its Allies about Russia’s aggressive conduct in the cyberspace, including in social networks and the (online) media. All these features combined create the general perception of Russian threat (and aim to undermine the West) that the Kremlin vehemently denies.

Last but not least, neither Estonia nor Russia seem to have illusions about the state of their relations and the difficulties that lay ahead. Their aims are however contradictory in many ways. Estonia seeks clearly to consolidate its security, primarily through NATO’s collective defence and the soft power of the European Union, and to avoid military conflict with Russia (considering that the Kremlin conducts full-scale hybrid warfare against the West that is short of the use of force or aggression). There are no threats to Russia’s sovereignty or territorial integrity stemming from Estonia’s (NATO’s and EU’s) efforts. Moscow feels menaced only because it counts that Russia’s sovereign rights go well beyond its borders. These approaches that have longstanding historical roots (especially in the case of Russia) are practically irreconcilable. A mutually acceptable and lasting modus vivendi (in general, and in the Baltic region in particular) could nevertheless be found. Russia has accommodated itself with the NATO membership of the Baltic states, and it will certainly live also with the idea that the Allied forces in NATO’s eastern flank will not leave any time soon. 

Polish version is available here.

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The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2019" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2019”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.