Last week Russian security forces abducted an Estonian security officer along the country’s border with Russia. The incident is a serious development, but is also merely one of several that have analysts looking at Estonia as the possible next theatre for Russian ambitions.
Russia and Estonia have never enjoyed a particularly smooth relationship, thanks in part to different interpretations of Soviet and Russian actions and Estonian independence. Estonia declared independence in 1918 and enjoyed recognized independence until the outbreak of World War II when Germany and the Soviet Union made a deal that granted the Soviets control over the Baltic states, including Estonia. Faced with overwhelming slaughter following a complete military blockade by Soviet forces, the Estonian government capitulated to Soviet rule, only to then be taken over by Germany. Soviet forces again occupied Estonia after defeating German forces in 1944, an event celebrated in Russian history. Russia continues to see this annexation as a liberation, while Estonia views it as an occupation. This fundamental divide explains why Estonia was so quick to reassert their independence as the Soviet Union faced increasing internal turmoil, but also why Russia does not understand Estonia’s reticence towards them. It has also left complicated legal consequences regarding citizenship and rights for the country’s ethnic Russian minority.
Since Estonia reasserted its independence in 1991, most of its ethnic Russian minority has been left in limbo. Since most ethnic Russians are the consequence of the Soviet occupation, Estonia did not recognize them as native citizens in 1991 despite the fact they compromised roughly a third of the country’s population. Naturalization rules required non-citizens to have a basic knowledge of the Estonian language, something that many ethnic Russians did not have. As a result, many ethnic Russians were left stateless. Outreach programs have reduced Estonia’s stateless population from 32% in 1992 to 6.5% in 2014, but at the same time nearly 7% of Estonian residents have now acquired Russian citizenship according to the Estonia’s Ministry of the Interior. Even though Estonia is one of the least populated EU states, it also holds one of the highest percentages of non-nationals as permanent residents. As the Estonian government continues to advance Estonian language, culture and historical narrative, many ethnic Russians feel neglected by the country they have called home for three generations.
This feeling of neglect extends beyond nationality and language. While Estonia has prospered economically since reasserting its independence in 1991 – joining both the EU and NATO – many ethnic Russians remain economically marginalized and face limited opportunities without knowing the Estonian language. More than 20 years after the country broke away from the Soviet Union, ethnic Russians are increasingly looking towards Moscow for political direction, a role that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been more than happy to fill as part of his program of rehabilitating Soviet history and symbols to invoke the grandeur of Russian empire.
Despite all this so far things have been relatively calm in Estonia. But an incident in 2007 regarding the removal of a statute commemorating World War II Soviet war dead in the Estonian capital of Tallinn created a major diplomatic incident that highlights the political instability possible due to these divisions. Ultimately ethnic Russians rioted for several days in Tallinn while pro-Kremlin youth placed the Estonian embassy in Moscow under siege, all with the tacit approval of the Russian government, until international pressure forced officials to reign in the youths. The entire incident only lasted about a week but underscores the very real fissures that lay under the surface and the possible powder keg that may be there. It also demonstrates the very real influence Moscow can have in causing unrest if it chooses.
That influence is already on full display in Eastern Ukraine, and already played out in numerous breakaway regions in Georgia and Moldova. Following the Russian annexation of Crimea in March, comments by Russian diplomats regarding the treatment of ethnic Russians in the Baltic states – and in Estonia in particular – have placed relations at an even further low than before. All three Baltic states are members of NATO and the EU, leading many to believe that Russia may increase its rhetoric but will stop short of actual engagement as seen in Ukraine. But the forcible abduction of an Estonian official, just days after President Obama gave a speech in Tallinn confirming that NATO would defend the Baltic states in the face of any Russian aggression, puts that analysis in doubt.
Now analysts are having to contend with a real possibility that the Baltic states will be the next of Putin’s foreign adventures. If so, despite their small size, it will have far wider consequences than the current conflict in Ukraine. With their NATO membership, any attack on Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania will inevitably lead to a much wider conflict between the West and Russia, the type that can reshape Eastern Europe as we know it today.