September 17, 2014

What to Expect When You’re Expecting

First, let’s take a brief look at Ukraine, where Russia still has unfinished business. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko has agreed on a ceasefire with the “separatists” during talks in Minsk, and then started to implement the deal without any real guarantees from Moscow concerning the withdrawal of Russian troops from the conflict area. The Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have now been given, by law, special rights for three years. In fact, the “separatists” have been legitimized and will go unpunished, whereas Ukraine is already implementing the “peace plan” that the Russian president announced two weeks ago in Mongolia.

First, let’s take a brief look at Ukraine, where Russia still has unfinished business. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko has agreed on a ceasefire with the “separatists” during talks in Minsk, and then started to implement the deal without any real guarantees from Moscow concerning the withdrawal of Russian troops from the conflict area. The Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have now been given, by law, special rights for three years. In fact, the “separatists” have been legitimized and will go unpunished, whereas Ukraine is already implementing the “peace plan” that the Russian president announced two weeks ago in Mongolia.

On one hand, a new bizarre type of frozen conflict area has emerged, that seems to be different from, let’s say, Transnistria or Abkhazia. One that is de facto occupied and controlled by Russia, but remains de jure part of Ukraine even from Moscow’s official point of view—at least for the time being, as Putin prefers to keep it this way. On the other hand, Poroshenko, who began his presidency promising (somehow) to take Crimea back, is now seemingly giving away more parts of his country’s territory. No Russians, no problem, one may think. But it’s not so easy – at this point in time, Putin and his cronies are cleverly refusing to annex Donetsk and Luhansk; not only would this further escalate the confrontation with the West, but it would also require assuming the responsibility of rebuilding the ruined cities and factories of the Donbas. Indeed, Crimea has already proven to be a huge financial burden for the Kremlin.
What has triggered this Russian aggression? President Putin has exploited to the maximum the hasty and not so wise decision by the Ukrainian parliament in late February 2014, just after Yanukovych fled Kyiv, to repeal the 2013 law permitting the use of Russian as an official language in certain Ukrainian regions. This move was reversed within two days, but Putin didn’t care, as he had the pretext he needed to invade and annex Crimea, and afterwards to foment instability and war in the Donbas, all with the ultimate aim of reversing the Maidan and bringing Ukraine on its knees.
So, what do we have? A target—a post-Maidan Ukraine with new leaders and a new agenda that profoundly displeased and angered Putin—and a pretext—the abolition of the language law. This combination delivered immediate results for Russia: de jure (from Russia’s point of view) control of Crimea and de facto control of the Donbas, but also severely damaged relations with the Western world. What to expect in the near future? So far, Putin seems to be getting almost everything he planned to achieve in Ukraine. He may feel now somewhat more relaxed and confident at home – no more war with Russia’s “brother nation” and no more military coffins coming from Donbas. It may be also a good opportunity to look elsewhere—such as to the Baltics? Moreover, he may conclude, the EU will have to reconsider the sanctions it imposed on Russia thanks to the seeming arrival of peace and emergence of an ongoing political process, etc. This process is, of course, not at all simple, transparent, or straightforward, but we have to take into account that Putin exports his parallel reality rather effectively to the rest of the world, so quite a few important people in the West may be tempted to believe—or pretend to believe—that things are already going back to normal.
Secondly, let’s take a look in the other direction. Is Estonia a next potential target for Putin’s Russia? I think that the time for asking such questions has long since passed. We have clearly entered the next phase, in which it is evident that Russia would readily exploit any viable possibility of taking revenge on the EU’s sanctions and NATO’s plans to beef up the defence of its Eastern allies, while at the same time grossly undermining both organizations. Some consider Latvia to be an easier and more vulnerable target, but Estonia may be even more attractive, because it is a textbook “success story” of Eastern Europe overcoming its communist past and Soviet occupation, one emphasized during US president Barack Obama’s recent visit to Tallinn. Estonia is the most successful escapee from the former Soviet empire, the demise of which Putin deplores. Therefore, it is also a symbolic target—and he is obsessed by symbols.
Russia has long complained about the “infringement” of the rights of ethnic Russians (and also other “Russian-speakers”) in Estonia and Latvia. There is no way for Estonia, its allies and friends, or the Council of Europe to convince the Kremlin that Estonia’s Russians are not discriminated against and that they are doing actually much better than the absolute majority of those in Russia, who now cross the border daily to Narva by the thousands, to buy Western food products. Most recently, on the 13th of September, Konstantin Dolgov – the Russian Foreign Ministry’s special representative for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law (all of which barely exist in that country) – made a very significant speech in Riga to an audience of “compatriots.,” In a not so carefully veiled warning to the Baltic states’ governments, Dolgov said “Unfortunately, it is necessary to state that an enormous number of our compatriots abroad, entire segments of the Russian World, continue to encounter serious problems in the context of securing their rights and legal interests.” Russia ought to be demanded official explanations – the Russian minority in Estonia, the majority of which consists of Estonian citizens, is therefore a “segment of the Russian World”? Such a statement is clearly inflammatory, just days after another serious provocation – the abduction on Estonian territory of Eston Kohver, an officer of the Internal Security Service (Kaitsepolitsei).
Nonetheless, such provocations and warnings will most likely continue, whereas depending on future moves by the EU and US, Russia may look for a suitable pretext for the FSB to organize something even more spectacular and outrageous. Perhaps an event that may relatively easily transform into a “black swan”, to destabilize Estonia and discredit the country in front of its allies. Radicalized Baltic Russians, who have fought alongside the separatists in the Donbas, are potential future insurgents in the Baltic states, just as radical Muslim fighters returning from Syria to Western countries could pose a serious serious security threat upon their return. . The Estonian government must remain vigilant as ever, while calmly refraining from reacting to any provocations in a way that gives Russia a pretext for further action and escalation. We have the experience and the lessons learned from the events in April 2007. The Estonian Government acted then swiftly and decisively, and the whole people – Estonians, Russians and all others, besides the marauders – stayed calm. It takes a lot to provoke Estonians, and moreover most non-Estonians proved that they share the same attitude.

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