Estonia’s defence capability still remains largely in our own hands.
The defence of Estonia and other NATO allies bordering the Baltic Sea depends largely on the state of the Western world’s relationship with Russia, which has now clearly become confrontational for what is likely to be a long period. Twenty-five years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the “empire of evil”, during which time the people of Estonia have still been able to feel—perhaps more strongly than anyone else—the fire of animosity still burning beneath the ashes of the Cold War. Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, Russia has ceased to be a “problematic strategic partner” and once again turned against the West, if not becoming its enemy. Russian propaganda has proved sufficiently effective even in other parts of the world, which is why many opinion leaders argue that the confrontation could have and should have been avoided, or even blame Western allies for excessively provoking Russia. In this article, I shall discuss (using chronological analysis) why confrontation is unavoidable and—even though this is difficult to predict—what could be the most likely future outcome for the security of Estonia and its allied neighbours.
The Morning After the Yeltsin Era
In August 1999, oligarchs and “bodies” appointed the relatively unknown ex-spy Vladimir Putin to succeed the feeble president, Boris Yeltsin. Only four weeks later, the Russian air force started bombing Grozny and residential buildings were blown up—probably by the Federal Security Service, FSB—in the outskirts of Moscow and other parts of Russia, to serve as a pretext for starting the Second Chechen War. Most Western politicians and observers did not see this as a threat, as Yeltsin had also “tackled” the Chechnya question during his term. The number of cooperation projects involving Russia began to increase (for instance, the foundation of the NATO–Russia Council in 1997 and Russia joining the G7 in 1998), and soon nobody wished even to criticise Russia, let alone oppose it.
The Russia Putin inherited from Yeltsin was in political, economic and moral ruins and the Kremlin’s later political technologists have (hardly coincidentally) drawn parallels with the Weimar Republic. The Russian treasury was billions of dollars in debt, oligarchs had “privatised” the few remaining profitable industries and raw material export channels, the “establishment” was completely corrupt and ineffective, well-off regions drifted away from the centre of power and rallied for more freedom, and so on. The blow dealt by the Northern Fleet’s first large-scale mobilisation exercise since the Cold War in August 2000, which saw the demise of the nuclear submarine Kursk, was no easier for Putin to bear, as it clearly demonstrated Russia’s disorderly state and military weakness.At the very dawn of the new millennium, when the Yeltsin era became the target of accusations of being “a failed liberal democratic experiment”, Putin set himself a number of extremely ambitious goals, which are still shaping Russian politics:
· Strengthen and centralise state authority—the so-called “power vertical”—and keep it to himself for an unlimited period of time by any means necessary
· Select loyal oligarchs—forming the inner circle of Putin’s elite—and assert the state’s power over the economy
· Quickly fill the Kremlin’s treasury with revenue from oil and natural gas exports and use the gas taps as a political tool if necessary
· Bring all power structures fully under the Kremlin’s rule, modernise weaponry and breathe new life into the activities of the FSB and other “bodies”
· Marginalise or even eliminate internal political opposition and control mainstream media
· Shape the Russian patriotic identity and morals on a state level based on the “historical truth” approved by the Kremlin, Stalin’s victory (in the so-called Great Patriotic War) and “traditional values”
· Establish political and economic dominance over those countries that emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union, which, according to the Kremlin, would not be joining the EU and/or NATO
· Transform Russia into a regional powerhouse with global significance, the “vital interests” of which must be taken into account by the Western world in the framework of a new multipolar world order pursued by the Kremlin.
In October 2000, Putin decided to restore the Soviet anthem, which duly replaced “The Patriotic Song” by Mikhail Glinka used in the Yeltsin era. The West did not understand the meaning and significance of the symbols in the Russian context. Putin’s regime began to promote itself with the accomplishments of both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, which turned out to be successful enough when it came to internal politics.
At the same time, it appeared that the Kremlin gradually began shaping Putin’s image after the fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who was the first to realise and exploit the power of propaganda over the general public and defined—in the context of 20th-century totalitarian regimes—international relations as the balance of power between (great) nations, which is strictly based on their political and military strength. Moreover, Mussolini, who was also the object of Hitler’s sincere admiration, dreamt of restoring the once great Roman Empire and had himself photographed exposing his athletic chest or petting lion cubs. The list of political and depictive similarities between Putin and Mussolini is very long and the unfaltering friendship between the Russian president and the convicted criminal Silvio Berlusconi, who also bears a slight resemblance to Il Duce, has a certain symbolic meaning, which goes deeper than selling natural gas and undermining Western unity.
2013: A Clear Turn to the Opposition Begins
After gaining the presidency, Putin found himself in political and economic conditions essentially unchanged since Yeltsin’s ascent to the office ten years earlier. At the beginning of the 1990s, Yeltsin played the role of a convinced democrat supported by the West, which is why he could not refuse to acknowledge the sovereignty of the Baltic States, despite the formal existence of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin’s attitude towards the Baltic States became increasingly negative, however, when they strongly demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from their territory and openly steered towards the West. The Kremlin was forced to reluctantly accept everything but, on the other hand, it began to accuse the Baltic States of violating human rights and so on. In the early days, Putin also presented himself as a democrat who did not even feel the need to censor the media (incidentally, this was also the case with Mussolini), offering the United States a hand in the fight against terrorism after 9/11 and somehow swallowing the bitter pill of the imminent accession to the EU and NATO of the Baltic countries and other former Russian satellite states. At the time, Putin simply did not have the kind of plenipotentiary power he has now and the Kremlin was not able to accumulate funds sufficient to allow Russia to taunt the West or display military aggression towards its neighbours.
Russia did not see any reason to liken itself to the Western world politically, culturally or economically, and instead it admired the reformed communist regime in China. This is also the reason that the West did not see any opportunities to closely integrate its great eastern neighbour while looking for the perfect modus vivendi. The situation took a clear turn in 2003–4, when critical circumstances added fuel to the embers smouldering beneath the ashes. First, despite considerations such as the Charter of the United Nations and founding documents of the OSCE, Putin’s Russia seemed to believe that the 2004 enlargement of the EU and NATO defined the final borders of the Western world in Central and Eastern Europe, whereas Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the Caucasus remained exclusively and naturally under the Kremlin’s influence, forming the so-called “near abroad”. The Rose Revolution in Georgia and Orange Revolution in Ukraine, as well as the EU’s and NATO’s policy of continuous open access and Eastern Partnership—which are based on the right of each country to decide its political orientation and allies independently—proved that democratic countries cannot agree with the red line dictated by the Kremlin.
Second, the Kremlin received some serious criticism when the results of elections for the State Duma in December 2003 were obviously falsified and Yabloko, as well as other opposition parties, were completely marginalised. Some weeks later, Putin replaced the liberal prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, with the openly reactionary Mikhail Fradkov. Moreover, even though Putin seemed to support the involvement of the US and NATO in overthrowing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the fight against Al-Qaeda, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by a US-led coalition proved to be very unpleasant for Moscow—especially because the Kremlin’s opinion was not taken into account and Saddam Hussein’s extensive Russian-trained and equipped forces were annihilated in just a few weeks.
The Confrontation Deepens
As time passed, it became clear that the interests and values of Russia and the Western world were largely incompatible, even irreconcilable. The US saw Iran as a profound nuclear threat to itself and, importantly, its European allies, which Russia ignored by being resolutely against the establishment of a US missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic. It must be noted that this was not established after all, and the US now concentrates mainly on its integrated naval weapons system, Aegis.
Moscow’s rhetoric became increasingly hostile and aggressive towards the West, as perfectly illustrated by Putin’s annual state-of-the-nation speech in 2006 and his address at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, in which he threatened an arms race, with special emphasis on nuclear weapons, and heavily criticised the leadership of the US and Western governments. The situation grew more heated when the question of Kosovo’s independence arose at the beginning of 2008, as Russia had not forgotten how NATO bombed and “humiliated” its ally Serbia in 1999. Incidentally, Russia is also very apt at using the “humiliation” argument in relation to itself, by “reminding” the West of all the “promises” it has made since Mikhail Gorbachev’s time (for instance, that the Alliance would not expand following Germany’s reunification. The reason naturally lies in mud-slinging against the West and making it feel undeservedly guilty.
Even though it was clear that Ukraine’s and Georgia’s path to NATO was going to be very long, full of obstacles and probably futile (because, at the 2008 Bucharest summit, Germany and France strongly disagreed even with a road map that made no promises), Putin decided to settle the score with Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, whom he disliked. By that time, Russian armed forces had been through a certain transformation (insufficient, however, as the six-day war against Georgia showed) and the Kremlin’s treasury was bulging with unprecedented riches. Russian aggression towards Georgia and the military occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia briefly woke the Western world from its slumber, but French president Nicolas Sarkozy and many other leaders decided to turn a blind eye and hit the snooze button, as if the situation was a bad dream rather than a new and unpleasant reality. Russia had to remain the West’s strategic—albeit problematic—partner, whereas countries like Estonia that rang the alarm bell were simply seen as Russophobic and paranoid by some, especially Moscow.
The Arab Spring erupted in 2010 and led to the ousting of the long-standing Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi (to which Moscow accidentally agreed, and later regretted), and even threatened Russia’s most loyal ally in the Middle East, Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. The uprising only strengthened the Kremlin’s conviction that the Western countries had entered into a large-scale conspiracy in order to destabilise Russia ideologically and overthrow Putin’s regime. Putin’s paranoia grew and he saw an existential threat in everything, even the protests that followed another State Duma election fraud and the “re-election” of the president, even though the number of police officers at the protests exceeded that of the protesters.
Ukraine’s ethnic composition and language, history, religion and traditions place it between East and West. However, this is only how the West sees it, because Russia has never considered Ukraine a fully-fledged country or Ukrainians an independent nation of people. Pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was right to believe that the key to Ukraine’s political and economic stability lies in good relations with both Russia and the European Union. Brussels offered Kiev an association agreement that made no promise of EU membership, and Russia did not have many problems with Kiev’s dual and balanced approach until the autumn of 2013. Unfortunately, Kiev’s EU-oriented policy became unacceptable, if not “dangerous”, for Moscow when Putin’s closest political technologists declared that the so-called Eurasian Union, which was set to be founded on 1 January 2015, was not feasible without the “full integration” of Ukraine. Putin forced Yanukovych (and later also the Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan) to turn down the association agreement offered by the EU, which triggered a chain of events starting with the protests in Maidan. In the margins of the G20 summit in Brisbane, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is said to have asked Putin repeatedly to explain why Russia did this, but did not receive a clear and adequate answer. Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea—a brutal violation of international law and the political rules governing European security—could not go without political and economic retaliation from the West.
Open-ended Confrontation Continues
By now, even the Kremlin analysts and authorities have probably realised that the pattern in which the confrontation escalates—for instance, in the form of another Russian military venture in the “near abroad”—is no longer linear and its outcome is unpredictable; instead, it has become geometric, and could even trigger a military conflict, with the West. Estonia and its neighbouring allies are still learning to live with this harsh reality, where Putin swings the nuclear sword and shows no sign of changing the Kremlin’s current conflict-oriented political course. After turning away from the West in anger, Russia has decided to cosy up to China, in which Putin’s regime sees its economic and foreign political saviour. Discovering the real danger in this situation will probably be quite painful for the Russians in the future.
As long as Putin reigns over Russia, there is no reason to hope that the climate will change for the positive or to believe the Kremlin’s promises. China may support Putin’s regime—on its own terms, of course, and while trying to maintain its relationship with the West—but this will only prolong the agony for the Russian economy. Thus, the future of Putin’s regime will depend heavily on Beijing’s benevolence, and the question of whether China finds a strong Russia compatible with its own interests will become significant. The Western world’s experience has shown that a totalitarian Russia that possesses political and military strength and a bursting treasury will become unavoidably arrogant and aggressive towards its neighbours and in general.
In a few years, during which time Estonia and its allied neighbours are bound to maximise their security in every sense, we may face a new and considerably murkier situation—a Russian economy on the verge of collapse, a Kremlin that has still not gained control over Kiev while trying to destabilise Ukraine, and Putin’s inner circle demanding a change of course in the form of improving relations with the West. The results of Moscow succumbing to political chaos or a cataclysm may not be completely, or even mostly, negative. Let us think back to the collapse of the Soviet Union, naturally avoiding the Putin perspective.
Estonia and its allied neighbours, if not all European countries, must minimise the negative economic consequences of Russian policy and military threat. Estonian independence and security depend first and foremost on us ourselves, not NATO and the EU. Efficient collective defence and Estonian military readiness are necessary in any case, but they are not enough to avoid hidden provocations on the part of Russia. The construction of a state-funded concert hall and sports arena in Narva, and more visits from members of the government, would show that the region is rightfully a part of Estonia and help the country to maintain its safety and stability.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.