Estonia’s security concerns and vulnerabilities

by Patrick Truffer. He graduated from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Affairs and completes a Master of Arts program in International Relations at the Freie Universität Berlin.

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves has repeatedly called for a permanent deployment of NATO troops in the Baltic country as a counter-measure against Russia’s policy towards Ukraine and verbal threats towards Russia’s neighbors emanated from Moscow. The question is what policy implications a such deployment would trigger: would it increase Estonian security? Would it be beneficial or detrimental for the Baltic Sea regionalism that was one of success stories of regional integration in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall?

US President Barack Obama and Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves review Estonian troops during an official arrival ceremony at Kadriorg Palace in Tallinn, Estonia, Sept. 3, 2014 (Photo by Pete Souza).

US President Barack Obama and Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves review Estonian troops during an official arrival ceremony at Kadriorg Palace in Tallinn, Estonia, Sept. 3, 2014 (Photo by Pete Souza).

Since the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine, the feeling of imminent danger in Eastern Europe and particularly the Baltic states has been accentuated, not least because of vague threats from Moscow. Already in April 2005, when the prospect of a potential Ukrainian entry into NATO arose, it became clear that Russia would not give up its influence in its neighbor without resistance. From Russia’s perspective, this influence is justified by shared historical, cultural and religious roots, and by the common Russian language (Patrick Truffer, “Making sense of Russia’s international politics: applied legacies“,, December 10, 2014). Furthermore, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees Russia as acting to guarantee the rights of Russian speakers outside Russia and makes this argument in a geopolitical context (Marek Menkiszak, “The Putin doctrine: The formation of a conceptual framework for Russian dominance in the post-Soviet area“, OSW, March 27, 2014). Consequentially, Estonia and Latvia, with Russian-speakers making up about one third of their populations respectively, could be considered to be within Russia’s sphere of interest. In Estonia, in particular the north-eastern region of Ida-Viru, with 72% ethnic Russians and only 19% Estonians, represents a potential target for a Russian destabilization operation.

The exploitation of the Russian-speaking population in Russia’s sphere of interest has taken the following path: In a first phase of subversion, allegations of discrimination against the Russian-speaking population are used to drive a wedge between them and the rest of the population, thus fueling discontent and destabilizing the situation. Propaganda, smuggling of leaders, arms transfer, etc. are used to stir up an armed conflict, as happened in eastern Ukraine. In a second phase, the destabilized territory can then be suddenly and more or less covertly occupied and de facto annexed under the pretext of protecting the Russian-speaking population, as was seen in Crimea (see also Martin Zapfe and Christian Nünlist, “NATO’s ‘Spearhead Force“, CSS Analyses in Security Policy, No. 174, May 2015). Effective measures to increase the security of Estonia must therefore counteract this two-step stirring up of conflict from Russia.

Estonia requires considerable action to prevent a possible Russian subversion. The 1991 declaration of independence only granted automatic Estonian citizenship to those whose ancestors were Estonian citizens before the Soviet occupation in 1944; this rendered almost the entire Russian-speaking population of the new state of Estonia stateless (Raivo Vetik and Jelena Helemäe, “The Russian second generation in Tallinn and Kohtla-Järve: the TIES study in Estonia“, Imiscoe reports, Amsterdam University Press, 2011, p. 15). The number of stateless Russian-speakers has reduced dramatically since independence, thanks to integration projects and simplified naturalization processes, but the requirement of Estonian language proficiency to obtain citizenship is seen by many Russian-speakers as discrimination. The segregation of Russian-speakers as well as their lower social and economic opportunities “has the potential to escalate, under certain conditions, into a large-scale conflict” (Vetik and Helemäe, p. 229).

The Kremlin says Moscow will strive to protect the interests of Russians and Russian speakers wherever they may be. This map by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty shows you the regions where the greatest concentrations of Russian citizens, ethnic Russians and native Russian speakers live, outside the borders of the Russian Federation.

The Kremlin says Moscow will strive to protect the interests of Russians and Russian speakers wherever they may be. This map by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty shows you the regions where the greatest concentrations of Russian citizens, ethnic Russians and native Russian speakers live, outside the borders of the Russian Federation.

Estonia should make efforts to consider nationality separately from language, so that Russian-speakers without knowledge of the Estonian language can gain citizenship and identify themselves as Estonian. Despite the potential vulnerability to conflict, Russian-speakers in Estonia do not currently offer a particularly fertile ground for Russian efforts at subversion because even the non-Estonian, Russian-speaking population is benefiting from higher living standards in comparison to Russia, as well as local voting rights for people with no fixed nationality and the availability of state social benefits to people legally residing in Estonia, but without full citizenship (Gordon F. Sander, “Could Estonia be the next target of Russian annexation?“, Christian Science Monitor, April 3, 2014). In addition, Russia and Estonia have almost none historical, cultural, and religious commonalities that qualify Estonia as a potential area of interest for Russia. As opposed to Ukraine, Estonia is neither Slavic nor Orthodox (Vadim Nikitin, “The long read: why Russia is unlikely to pull a Crimea on the Baltics“, The National, August 13, 2015. Russia’s interests are primarily concentrated on Ukraine and Belarus (Marek Menkiszak). Therefore, Estonia’s security can be increased considerably by focusing on domestic political policies, which are not dependent on any permanent stationing of NATO soldiers.

The 5,750 soldiers in the Estonian Defence Forces would not be prepared for an internal armed conflict or a coup-like occupation of any part of the country’s territory by Russian forces operating either openly or covertly. The use of NATO forces to manage conflict must therefore be a part of any contingency planning. However, the permanent stationing of NATO troops demanded by the Estonian president could prove to be counterproductive. A permanent stationing would contradict the agreements of the “1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act”, would play into Russia’s hands, and would urge Putin to take compensatory measures, for example, deploying tactical ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad, thus unnecessarily escalating the situation.

NATO reiterates that in the current and foreseeable security environment, the Alliance will carry out its collective defence and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces. Accordingly, it will have to rely on adequate infrastructure commensurate with the above tasks. In this context, reinforcement may take place, when necessary, in the event of defence against a threat of aggression and missions in support of peace consistent with the United Nations Charter and the OSCE governing principles, as well as for exercises consistent with the adapted CFE Treaty, the provisions of the Vienna Document 1994 and mutually agreed transparency measures. Russia will exercise similar restraint in its conventional force deployments in Europe. — “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation“, May 27, 1997.

The measures for addressing the growing Russian threat as adopted at the September 2014 NATO summit in Wales are derived from the experiences of the Cold War and consist of temporary stationing, performing manoeuvres, and the provision of readily deployable intervention forces. During the Cold War, NATO met the threat of substantial Soviet border incursions along the inner-German border by stationing of NATO troops close to the border, which left no doubt that an act of Soviet aggression would lead to nuclear escalation. NATO forces in West Germany functioned as a “trip wire”, and were primarily understood as symbolic of the common defence guaranteed by Article 5 of the NATO treaty.

The NATO Readiness Action Plan has a similar objective: by expanding the manoeuvres (see video below) and the rotation of task forces stationed in the region, a Russian aggression in Eastern Europe would lead to a triggering of collective defence under Article 5. This would significantly increase the risk and cost of Russian destabilizing manoeuvres in Estonia and should therefore increase security through deterrence. By rotating the task forces, a permanent presence without permanent stationing can be achieved. At the same time, the command-and-control capabilities in the Eastern European NATO member states are undergoing constant improvement. In the event of a conflict situation, the deployment of NATO troops will be gradually: national forces, as well as on-site NATO forces will be ready for immediate deployment. From 2016, a 5,000-solider Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) will be ready to be deployed as the vanguard of the NATO Response Force (NRF) within 2 to 5 days. After 5 days, some 30,000 men consisting of the NRF and the VTJF would be available for deployment (Zapfe and Nünlist).

Baltic Sea regionalism plays only a subordinate role as part of the defence capacity of the Baltic states today. While the defence ministers of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden announced in April 2015 that they hoped to extend their cooperation with the Baltic states, such cooperation currently exists only in a non-binding form. The cooperation with the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO), in place since 2011, was always considered secondary by the Baltic countries, who had placed NATO and the United States at the core of their defence planning. Since a stronger commitment of NATO to Eastern Europe also demands more resources from the Baltic states, fewer resources are available for cooperation with NORDEFCO. In addition, Sweden and Finland, as non-members of NATO, prevent cooperation on sensitive areas right from the outset (Christian Opitz, “Potential for Nordic Baltic Security Cooperation“, SWP Comments, No.40, August 2015). Although it is still too early for a final judgment, it seems an increasing involvement of NATO in the Baltic States would actually lead to a weakening of Baltic Sea regionalism as far as defence cooperation is concerned.

Despite vague threats by Moscow and the increased perception of threats by the states of Eastern Europe, a destabilizing operation by Russia in the Baltic States currently seems unlikely. Based on the experiences from the annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of eastern Ukraine, the Russian strategy consists of a first subversion phase and a second coup-like occupation phase, designed to take advantage of the split loyalties of the local Russian-speaking populations. Since this is the central threat to the Baltic States – and not a direct military invasion by Russia – it is primarily domestic policies that should provide for better integration of the Russian-speaking population into the social fabric of these Baltic states. This would lead to increased security in Estonia and Latvia without the need for the permanent stationing of NATO troops.

In response to the heightened perception of threat in the Eastern European Member States and as a contingency plan in the event of Russian aggression, NATO falls back on a concept which already found its application during the Cold War. The permanent presence of NATO troops within the scope of manoeuvres and a rotation of forces form a “trip wire”, which in the event of Russian aggression, would lead to the triggering of collective defence according to NATO Article 5. This is primarily seen as a sign of the willingness for collective defence, but with the improvement of the Command-and-Control capabilities, the NRF and the VJTF increase the risk and the cost of Russian destabilization operation, thus increasing the security of Estonia. Therefore no permanent deployment of NATO troops is required, which would be contrary to the agreements of the “1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act” and would be counterproductive. In the framework of the defence capabilities, high expectations for the Baltic Sea Regionalism will hardly be met. The stronger involvement of NATO in Eastern Europe and the resources of the Baltic states bound to this are most likely to adversely affect the cooperation with NORDEFCO.

This entry was posted in English, International, Patrick Truffer, Security Policy.

3 Responses to Estonia’s security concerns and vulnerabilities

  1. Fred Baube (Facebook) says:

    Narva, a border town, is nearly entirely Russian-speaking but all signage is in Estonian only, even in food shops.

  2. Harry says:

    The author makes one fundamental flaw: the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act is null and void – having been torn to shreds by Russia with its invasion of Ukraine, annexation of Crimea and prepositioning of heavy weaponry in large formations throughout territories bordering NATO, including the Crimea. In so doing Russia has also torn up several other international treaties relating to the independence of Ukraine made with both the US and UN. And it is currently suspected of breaking non-proliferation treaties related to the apparent testing of intermediate range land-based nuclear capable cruise missiles. Conclusion Russia does not abide by treaties and should be punished economically whilst confronted with force and will of NATO through the permanent basing of large-scale NATO forces throughout Eastern Europe.

  3. JuliettFoxtrott says:

    Undertaking an excursion and analzing the past of Russias “abroad” military engagements, the russian defence minister has to deny his assigned powers and strenghten their integrity and not guarantee their abuse as pawns and bargaining counters in the domestic political struggle of Russia. But: this will never happen, moreover, they (Russia) will find the next weak state in the vicintiy….

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