August 4, 2015

Neither Chess Master Nor Drunken Bear: Russian Soft Power and its Use in Estonia

Painted Matryoshka dolls, or Russian nesting dolls, bearing the faces of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gobachev and former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin are offered in a souvenir shop in Krasnaya Polyana, a hub for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, near Sochi, February 21, 2014.
Painted Matryoshka dolls, or Russian nesting dolls, bearing the faces of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gobachev and former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin are offered in a souvenir shop in Krasnaya Polyana, a hub for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, near Sochi, February 21, 2014.

In discussing Russia and its role in the region, we have to be really careful to avoid two rhetorical traps, two lazy characterizations that journalists and even analysts are too often guilty of using even though we–especially those of us so close to Russia geographically–should really know better.

The first is talking about Russia as if it were an inscrutably shrewd master of geopolitical strategy, always thinking one step ahead of the naive, constantly and nonsensically smiling Americans–and two steps above the hopelessly divided Europeans. I am not exaggerating when I say that this metaphor was overused. To pick only one out of a whole host of examples, in the aftermath of Crimea New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin editorialized that compared to Vladimir Putin, who is “acting like a grandmaster of chess,” Barack Obama was “stumbling at checkers.”

The image somewhat understandably resonates in the West—given that the русский мир (in the sense of the cultural space, not the compatriots’ organization!) has given the world so many great chess players, after all–and so, in our imagination, grand strategy is deeply nested inside elaborate matryoshka dolls, wrapped up inside Churchill’s famous mystery and riddle and enigma, etc, all the lenses through which Westerners have tended to view the country.

Yet, while there absolutely have been strategic missteps by the West, its response to the use of Russian soft-power tactics against Ukraine has been fairly swift. EU sanctions have held—and been extended, and been joined by Australia and Japan. NATO has increased its actual (not just rhetorical) capability, etc. So the narrative that outsiders are mere children playing against a superhuman grandmaster is not only unhelpful but also simply untrue.

But this first shades into a second, opposite trap: that of Russia as a drunk and dying bear, a fading authoritarian petro-state lurching from one foreign-policy disaster to another. This one is most famously embodied by Guardian columnist Nick Cohen, who in 2014 summed up Russia as Nigeria with nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia without the sunshine.” In this view, it’s the country that can do no right, alienating an America happy to have kept pressing the reset button, getting cheated by China on energy deals, etc, as it gets bogged down in its own “secret war” in Eastern Ukraine that it can’t possibly win.
And of course, this isn’t true either–Russia has succeeded in implementing some of its objectives, notably Crimea and its assertion of influence in the South Caucasus, especially Armenia, while blocking for the time being any serious progress towards implementing the association agreements in either Ukraine or Moldova.

In either of these conceptions, the role of Russian soft power is even more distorted. One view holds that thanks to soft power, Russia has new and subtle methods that can undermine neighboring countries and somehow slip under the radar of a NATO concerned only with the use of military force; while the second portrays soft power as the last gasp of an empire on its deathbed, unable to wield its hard power effectively.

Neither is true in reality, of course. Russia is a large and nuclear-armed country, sure, and one that does indeed view international relations in more classically realist, strategic terms than a European Union whose national leaders are used to engaging in consensus and horse-trading rather than Bismarckian statecraft, but Russia’s resources of power–and the national interests in pursuit of which such resources are applied–are still neither terrifyingly unlimited nor pitifully constrained.

With this important corrective in mind, let’s briefly review some aspects of how this soft power applies to the Estonian case.

Although we have some differences of opinion, in his chapter for a recent volume published by the Latvian Institute for International Affairs, analyst Ahto Lobjakas correctly concludes that Russia’s hard power is constrained due to Estonia’s NATO membership, and its soft power circumscribed by its failure to appeal to anyone in society beyond a significant but shrinking number of соотчественники, that is, compatriots.

Let’s briefly describe the breakdown in Estonia. The current percentage of non-ethnic Estonians who are registered as residents of the country is 29%. Most but by no means all of these speak Russian as their mother tongue.

About 1/2 are Estonian citizens, about hold Russian citizenship or passports from other states, while the remainder is made up of a share (in decline) of stateless persons advantageous status to have, but ultimately one limited in its future prospects., in part b/c Estonia’s liberalization of citizenship laws.

ICDS research has broken down non-ethnic-Estonians into five different groups depending on their level of integration. More than 20% are quite well integrated, speak fluent Estonian, and both consider themselves, and are considered to be, part of Estonian society. But, and this is a nuance that should be stressed, loyalty to Estonia is not necessarily dependent on Estonian language proficiency; nearly a fifth of the total–what our colleague Juhan Kivirähk calls “Russian-speaking Estonian patriots”–do not speak Estonian well or at all, but identify exclusively with the Estonian state.

It is true that the latter two groups–the “relatively unintegrated” and the “unintegrated,” just about half the total– may be, as our director Martin Hurt recently noted, “receptive” to outreach by the Kremlin. But a) these numbers are shrinking over time due to natural attrition (most of the unintegrated group are in fact retirees), and b) integration programs are having an effect.

Of course, even the most successful integration programs may not solve the problem; often only the most minimal level of discontent is enough to serve as a pretext for turning artificial divisions into real ones. Take Crimea, for instance, where current Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov was a fringe figure whose pro-Russian party received a mere 4 percent of the vote in the previous election; or the Donbas, where Denys Pushylin, first leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, scrounged up less than 1 percent of the vote in 2013.

Given the clear risk, then, what is Estonia doing?

First, it is indeed focusing on the security sphere. Its measures towards greater preparedness, yes; not just in terms of securing as great a NATO presence as possible (as Lobjakas points out), but as much domestic capability as possible (huge exercises demonstrate the ability to field fairly large forces—like Siil-2015 (Hedgehog), which featured reservists cooperating with Estonian active-duty troops, with the British Baltic air policing mission, and with and Americans on rotation.

Perhaps the most famous sound bite on this topic was EDF commander Lt. Gen. Riho Terras’ declaration at the Lennart Meri Conference that if Russian agents or special forces, or indeed somebody without any military insignia enters Estonian territory to commit terrorist attacks, “you should shoot the first one to appear, and the next one, and the one after that.””

While that might seem unsubtle at best, to me this does not represents powerlessness on the Estonian side. Lobjakas contends that Estonian politicians are “overreacting, turning on the one thing they feel they can control–the Russian-speaking minority.”

But quite the contrary: instead of overreacting, Estonian politicians have been treating the crisis in Ukraine as a wake-up call to intensify efforts that were already going on. Some examples include moves towards greater cohesion such as a revision of citizenship laws to the effect that children of stateless persons automatically become Estonian citizens. While it is true, as Lobjakas has argued elsewhere, that this move by itself is not enough to increase the citizen share of the population, it is a welcome first step. Others include the translation of key legislation into Russian, greater political integration (all of the mainstream political parties at the recent parliamentary election campaigned in the Russian language and included ethnic Russian politicians in prominent positions on their electoral lists).

In short, these moves represent the growth of a genuine civic identity in Estonia. In a speech made 300m from the Russian border in Narva on Estonia’s independence day this year, that same General Terras also said: “Estonia is large enough to be rich in regional peculiarities, customs and heritage. And it’s too small to be divided by fossilized patterns of thought.” He praised ethnic Russian soldiers by name (dating back to the War of Independence and continuing to the recent campaign in Afghanistan), and he chose to quote the Russian poet Igor Severyanin—in the original Russian—about the city.

Just like Russia, Estonia too is a country that gets described in lazy tropes, from the Skype-creating, WiFi-loving, 2%-of-GDP-spending poster child for the former Soviet bloc, on the one hand, to the paranoid nation of oppressive fascists that we see in Russian media depictions on the other.

Clearly the last chapter in this story has yet to be written, but as things continue, one ought to keep in mind the overwhelming importance of the fact that things are rarely so simple. When seeking to resist outside propaganda, perhaps the first step to take should be avoiding the temptation to create your own.

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