I am glad that Estonia has enough experience in foreign policy to handle itself effectively in this unpredictable and rapidly changing environment, as well as to stand up for its security and well-being in an ever more complicated international security situation.
Our experience in operating in what is now for us our natural environment of the European Union and NATO is especially valuable in current times. And what are those current times? Unfortunately, in an international context, keywords such as “interesting”, “rapidly changing” and “diverse” generally mean fast-growing problems. A sizeable number of new problems have emerged in the last few years, the number of conflicts in Europe and among its immediate neighbours has grown, and old ones have not gone away. On the other hand, there are few success stories to talk about from around the world in recent years—the kind of success stories where a conflict is actually moving towards a peace process, and where opposing parties can at least communicate with each other. Negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo, thanks largely to the EU-facilitated dialogue, and the opening-up of Burma can be said to be examples. But that is about it.
At the same time, there is a long list of conflicts that have emerged or been exacerbated, and a large proportion of these directly influence Europe and Estonia because they are taking place either in Europe or in its close vicinity. Ukraine–Russia, Syria, Iraq, ISIL, Israel–Palestine, Libya, the instability in Egypt, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan … Even this list of sources of tension is not exhaustive. All this has brought about an overall deterioration in the security situation, the rising threat of terrorism, new waves of desperate people fleeing from war, increased spending on humanitarian aid and other problems.
Estonia’s Primary Instinct
It is only realistic that, in this context, Estonia’s primary instinct must be to maintain a strong and working environment for everyday activity. So we must do all in our power to ensure that the EU, NATO and the entire international legal environment remains as strong as possible.
The number one concern for us and our region is Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and consequently its influence on our region and more distant corners of the world.
The Russia–Ukraine conflict and the world’s reaction to it have had many phases. In hindsight it can be said that even the EU was not the most organised prior to the direct conflict. For a long time before the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, the EU did not have a unanimous position about the Association Agreement that was to be signed with Ukraine. Some did not want to put in writing that Ukraine had a future in Europe, and some hid behind the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko. The real reason behind the stalling was the lack of a clear, united will to take a step forward with Ukraine and sign the agreement. When this consensus was finally reached in November last year, it was already too late. Russia’s pressure on Ukraine had grown so strong that the then President Viktor Yanukovych no longer dared to sign the agreement with the EU in Vilnius. The right moment had already passed for the EU. We all know what happened after that: the protests at Maidan began. When I visited Kiev in December last year and also went to Maidan, even the security officer who was with me told me how much he envied me because I lived in Estonia, and asked me when I thought Ukraine would get that far.
A couple of weeks later, however, Yanukovych fled and Russia began its military aggression in Ukraine to stop its growing ties with the West, i.e. its move out of Russia’s sphere of influence once and for all. Basically, Russia repeated the pattern of 2008, when it attacked Georgia and appropriated the “frozen conflict” areas in South Ossetia and Abkhazia with the aim of stopping Georgia from approaching NATO. In Russia’s view, the EU with its soft power had become just as dangerous.
Plane Crash Acknowledged War
The illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia prompted Europe and the rest of the democratic world to take a mostly new and more active stance towards the crisis. As a response to the annexation, the EU imposed its first sanctions. Nevertheless, the essence of the conflict had not yet registered with the westernmost societies in Europe. It took a horrible tragedy for this to happen and to show that the conflict in Ukraine was not merely Slavic people bickering with each other somewhere far in the East where it did not affect Western Europe. It was not until the Malaysian aircraft was shot down in July and 296 people perished—among them numerous citizens from western countries—that the war reached the consciousness of western societies. I remember how the attitude and language of quite a few western European politicians changed only after such a disaster. Only then did the things that Estonia and other more sensitive states had said seem considerably less Russophobic.
NATO also began taking action to strengthen the security of its eastern wing. Cooperation with Russia in the NATO–Russia Council was stopped. In March, additional aircraft from the U.S. came to secure Baltic airspace. In April, NATO decided to adopt immediate measures to strengthen security in the eastern wing, within the framework of which the airbase at Ämari was brought into use as the base for the Baltic Air-policing Mission. It was perhaps because of the conflict in Ukraine that NATO foreign ministers even agreed to start using Ämari. We got the decision we had been waiting a long time for, but which had been hindered up to that point due to foolish internal competition between the Baltic States. At the beginning of May, Danish fighters came to Ämari, replaced by Germans at the end of August. Since the spring, U.S. ground troops have been consistently present in Estonia. All this has happened in a very short period of time and proves NATO to be a very smooth-operating organisation.
Barack Obama visited Tallinn on 3 September. His statement that protecting Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius was just as important as protecting Berlin, Paris and London confirmed NATO’s focus on the further strengthening of collective defence. In addition, President Obama’s visit released the public tension that had been growing in Estonia due to the conflict in Ukraine.
The NATO summit in Wales was successful for Estonia because the newly increasing presence of the Alliance in our region was defined as the “new normal”. We set ourselves a goal in Wales to make the presence of allied forces in Estonia permanent, to continuously strengthen it, to improve the reaction time of NATO forces, to enhance planning and training within NATO, and to increase the defence budget of the Alliance. All of this is coming true.
The shooting down of the Malaysian plane on 17 July and the completely undisguised invasion of eastern Ukraine by Russian troops at the end of August also forced the EU to take more material action. First and foremost, this was accomplished through stricter sanctions against Russia. It is, of course, clear that sanctions are not a magic solution that will discipline the aggressor in a flash. But talking does not help; political and diplomatic efforts have failed. Still, one must react and influence to restore peace. Thus far, nobody has come up with a better idea for leverage than sanctions. It is clear that peace and security have a price, and in this case the price is sanctions.
Of course, political solutions must be sought but this will remain very complicated while Russia pursues its goal of not letting Ukraine or any other ex-Soviet state approach the EU and NATO, but rather tries to bring them back or keep them under its control. Thus, the sanctions cannot be lifted before the reasons for their imposition have been dealt with. And this does not seem to be happening any time soon. On the contrary—fighting continues in eastern Ukraine, human rights violations have been reported with regard to Crimea, and hundreds of thousands of people are trying to survive the winter as refugees.
Extremities of Europe, and Russia
It is embarrassing to hear the leaders of some EU countries asking to end sanctions and revert to business as usual. The EU surely cannot afford to be internally divided right now, but the risk of this remains. A warning sign is the close cooperation between Europe’s extremist left- and right-wing parties with Russia’s political establishment, including financial dependence on Russia.
Today, there are a considerable number of members of the European Parliament whose attitude Russia can clearly influence. One might ask how many members of the Russian State Duma the EU can influence as effectively.
The prerequisite of a political solution in Ukraine is to exclude the possibility that these new “frozen” conflict zones can persist. This is also complicated because both Crimea and Donbas are in this situation as a result of Russia’s conscious actions. Thus, five of the six EU Eastern Partnership countries have one or more “frozen conflicts”: South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and now Crimea and Donbas in Ukraine. The main goal of creating and empowering these regions is to influence the choices of the aforementioned countries.
Consequences for Estonia
What are the most important implications of the Russia–Ukraine conflict for Estonia?
The conflict in Ukraine has helped to unify the transatlantic community’s understanding of Russia. The communiqué of the NATO summit in Wales begins with the understanding that Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine pose a fundamental challenge to our vision of Europe, which is unified, free and peaceful. A year ago, this kind of collective message would have been unthinkable. There have been efforts to treat Russia as a partner, but these have not borne fruit. If military force and altering borders with violence are being used as the means of solving differences, we are clearly in a new situation. The security standpoint of Estonia and other similarly-minded countries has now become part of mainstream political thought in the field of European security.
In the light of the war between Russia and Ukraine, as well as changing borders with violence, we might ask whether this crisis has led to the collapse of the current security architecture of Europe. For the last 20 years we have built a system based on cooperative security, the principles of which are to refrain from using force or intimidation by the use of force, to honour the sovereignty and territorial integrity of any country, to respect the inviolability of borders and the right to freely choose allies and associations, and to defend human rights in general. These principles are included in the Charter of the United Nations but especially in the founding acts of European security, primarily in the CSCE Helsinki Final Act and the Paris Charter, but also in the Founding Act on Mutual Relations between NATO and Russia.
Russia has violated these principles in attacking Ukraine. But their breach by one country does not mean the end of the current security architecture in Europe. It should not be that simple. Violation of agreed principles by one party does not mean that the principles themselves have become invalid. The crisis has unified Europe, and thereby made it stronger.
Despite the fact that the founding principles of the European security architecture are very much valid, the security environment has clearly changed. Force has been used to change borders, and the predictability of international relations has clearly decreased significantly.
At this moment of tension, it is also important for Estonia to understand that our international position gives us an opportunity to make choices without influence by outside pressure. Estonia is an open economic environment, and our image as an innovative state is still attractive to foreign investors. Being a part of the EU and NATO, being integrated into Europe and the world, has created a sense of security that we have not had before. Whilst the countries of our region have had to experience the effects of the unwelcome steps Russia has been taking in recent months—be it the repeated breach of airspace in Finland and Sweden, Russian bombers making dangerous flights into European airspace, reopening 20-year-old cases about Lithuanian citizens who refused to join the Soviet army, or the kidnapping of Eston Kohver from Estonian territory and his illegal captivity in Russia—we have taken specific and important steps with our allies to strengthen our security today.
Europe’s future behaviour is a separate issue. We have got used to thinking of the EU as a positive soft power. The perspective of the EU has made old enemies accept and respect each other in many corners of Europe. Europe has not encountered any external opposition during earlier or more recent enlargements—not to mention the association agreements. How could anyone hold anything against the positive values of Europe and the well-being it offers? Still, the current situation has clearly shown that Europe’s soft power has collided with Russian weaponry in Ukraine. This is an entirely new situation for Europe that we have to consider.
More Brutality in the Future
If Russia and Ukraine are the number one security topic for Estonia, for many of our partner states in Europe that position belongs to ISIL, Iraq and Syria. Even that region does not leave us indifferent.
Values important to Estonian society are the sanctity of human life, the freedom of individuals, including freedom of speech and thought, the protection of human rights, democracy, and honouring agreements. But nearby, to the east and south, there are forces that put these values in doubt. Collective beliefs are said to be more important than the freedom of the individual, traditional truths are claimed to be more important than the protection of human rights. Freedom of speech, including freedom of the Internet, is being limited in every way possible and free media is being replaced with propaganda. Fulfilling the interests of the states’ leadership at any cost is deemed more important than the protection of private property. We have entered a new phase of ideological opposition, with the democratic values forming the basis of our well-being today on one side, and the secular religion of a large state, in which tradition and the interests of the authorities are put first, on the other. It is important that we stand on the right side of this imaginary line.
Close to Europe’s southernmost countries, a movement that opposes democratic values in the most direct way and uses the most brutal and inhuman methods to broadcast its message is gaining strength. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or ISIL for short) has taken violence as its motto, executing prisoners and civilians, and using terror indiscriminately against those who do not agree with them. This must be confronted decisively. The UN should hand responsibility for dealing with crimes committed by ISIL to the International Criminal Court, and the movement of money, weapons and fighters to ISIL should be restricted by the international community.
Even that conflict is not that far away from us. Kyiv is almost halfway between Tallinn and Baghdad. But the pace at which these extremist ideas are spreading and the increasing ability of individual terrorists to commit crimes is more important than geographical distances. Thousands, if not tens of thousands of fighters from Europe, including our neighbouring countries, have joined the ranks of ISIL. One can easily imagine how at least some of these people will return to Europe with the sort of experience and connections that nobody here wishes to see. Radicalisation does not depend directly on the degree of well-being. It does not necessarily happen only in the poor suburbs of the Middle East, but also in European countries with high living standards. In a Europe with open internal borders, we have to be twice as attentive to eliminate these kinds of risks before they occur, whilst at the same time maintaining all the rights and freedoms for law-abiding Europeans.
Developments south of Europe leave no doubt that the security risks originating from there are still increasing. The Arab Spring, which brought positive changes, has left a sad legacy in several neighbouring states to the south, especially Libya and Syria, in the form of internal conflicts. The frequency of the waves of refugees arriving in Southern Europe does not seem to be decreasing. While European countries are dealing with an ageing and declining population, the Middle East and Africa show the opposite demographic trends. According to the UN, if it continues at current rates, the population of Africa may more than double by 2050. This means a battle over resources, including water, the creation of new megacities in Africa and growing problems in the southern vicinity of Europe. The European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders (Frontex) must be reinforced quickly and the countries most affected by the problems relating to the mass of refugees should be helped first. At the same time, it is critical that Europe can influence African countries to make changes necessary to prevent future difficulties.
Allies Should be Better Understood
The foregoing are only a few examples of crises that do not seem to be ending any time soon but which influence Estonia and the whole of Europe. So it is very important for the sake of these and other crises that our main and daily environment of activity in the EU and NATO be as unitary as possible. Every day Estonia must contribute to this by its behaviour and sometimes by example. If we complain from time to time that we are not understood in some respects, that southern or western European countries do not share all of our views or do not take our troubles seriously, we must always ask how much we understand or are interested in the worries of, for example, Italy or Greece about the waves of refugees and the crises in North Africa that they are dealing with, or Spain’s worry about what is going on in Venezuela, or the concern of many European countries over the situation of Christians in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
Our first interest and basic practice must be to make the foreign policy of the EU as unified as possible—and not only with regard to Russia. We would probably not like it at all if a group of EU member states to which we did not belong and some Balkan countries who are not members of the EU were to hold regular and traditional meetings with Russia in their “own format”. However, we are using the same kind of format in the regular cooperation of Eastern European EU countries and non-EU Balkan countries with China. One might again think how that looks to other EU member states and what kind of message it sends about the unity of the EU’s foreign policy.
In practice, all-round help should be the preference when it comes to the unity of EU foreign policy. In today’s world, the only way we can get through difficult times and situations is with our allies and friends.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.