Small Wars Journal

Estonia: A NATO Ally in Peril

Sat, 07/22/2017 - 10:05pm

Estonia: A NATO Ally in Peril

Jüri Toomepuu

NATO`s Eastern Bulwark

NATO member Estonia has become; along with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland; NATO`s eastern bulwark against Russian President Vladimir Putin´s increasing aggressiveness. Estonia joined NATO in 2004 in the hopes that Article 5, the casus foeder of the alliance, would prevent Putin from fulfilling his ambition of restoring the “glory” of the Soviet Empire at Estonia`s expense. Estonia is one of the five nations, of the 29 NATO members, who have met their treaty obligation to contribute two percent of its GDP to defense. It has also ungrudgingly provided soldiers for various NATO missions, including the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, in a June 1st column under the rhetorical title “To Die for Estonia?”, castigated President Trump for not mentioning Article 5 at the previous weeks’ NATO conference. He conceded that deterrence provided by Article 5 is a “barely believable bluff” but stated it is nevertheless useful if the adversary thinks there is at least a possibility of counterattack. During the 68-year existence of NATO, Article 5 has been invoked only once, by the United States after 9/11, when it was hardly needed.

Putin`s invasion of Ukraine prompted the development of the first ever NATO plan for defense of the Baltic countries - a plan that was implemented by the actual commitment of resources. This has resulted in patrolling of the air space of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by NATO fighter jets, and the stationing of small contingents of U.S. armor units. Before stationing of American troops in Estonia, risking a war in its defense was indeed a barely believable bluff, but if American soldiers die in the attack, the possibility of a counter attack can be credible enough to stop Putin in his tracks.

The Enemy Within

Estonia`s reliability as the bulwark against Russian expansion has, however, been gradually but steadily deteriorating because of the growth and influence of its Russian population. The most serious peril to NATO ally Estonia, and by extension to NATO, if Article 5 is to be taken seriously, lies within the borders of Estonia.

There are two culturally diverse populations in Estonia. The Estonians, the people who have inhabited the land since the end of ice age, who tend to be Western-oriented and American-friendly NATO supporters who oppose everything Putin has to offer. The Russians, brought to Estonia during the Soviet occupation in furtherance of Stalin`s colonization and Russification policies, tend to be virulently anti-NATO, anti-Western and pro-Putin.

The danger for Estonians, who are rapidly becoming a minority in their own country, is that the Russian population may eventually gain power. The danger to NATO is that Putin has an effective Trojan horse and a sizeable fifth column within NATO borders. To take over Estonia he does not have to use the tactics he used for Crimea and Ukraine. A coupe d’état or even a ballot box may suffice.

Soviet Occupation

When Stalin occupied Estonia in pursuance of the secret protocols of the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the deal Stalin and Hitler made was to divide Europe into spheres of influence. Stalin did not waste in eliminating those who could be expected to oppose the occupation. People not considered reliable were executed or deported en masse to Siberian Gulags.

The pre-occupation population was cut by about a third by Stalin`s genocide policies, casualties from WW II, and flight by many into exile to escape the terror of Stalin`s Red Army and the KGB.

At the same time, to carry out his Russification policies, Stalin sent to Estonia so many Russian colonists that they amounted to about half of Estonia’s pre-occupation population.

The Singing Revolution

When the Soviet dictator Gorbatchev attempted to save the crumbling Soviet empire by his perestroika and glastnost policies, Estonians, like the people of the captured nations of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, sensed an opportunity to throw off the yoke of their Communist oppressors. They used the opportunity well. They regained their independence by what has become known as the singing revolution, carried out in the tradition of the massive song festivals held every five years in Estonia since 1800s.

The Legacy of Occupation

The former Communist officials could, however, not be counted out. When the Republic of Estonia was restored they managed to promulgate a law that retained the occupation-era Soviet laws after the new constitution went into effect. This allowed them not only to avoid punishment for their occupation-era misdeeds but also to accumulate wealth during the process of privatizing industry and to regain power through newly organized political parties.

Former high-level Communist party officials have occupied the Prime Minister's chair for most of the post-occupation period and two of the four presidents were top-tier Communists. Many of the former Communists now claim that during the Soviet occupation they were only pretending. It is hard to know whether they pretended then or are pretending now. There is at least good reason to believe that they are great pretenders.

The Historic Mistake

By far the biggest mistake made by the post-occupation Estonian government was not to invoke paragraph 49 of the Geneva Conventions, which does not allow for people brought in by occupants to remain at the end of occupation.

Instead, Estonia`s post-occupation government granted them legal residency and thus future citizenship. Their number has continued to grow by natural increase as well as by both legal and illegal immigration. The official statistics claim, as does the CIA’s World Factbook, that the percentage of Russians in Estonia`s population has been stable and not more than a third. The official statistics are false. CIA should know better. Estonian law allows any adult resident to list whatever nationality they choose in the population database. Demographers who have examined the data found that many Russians are, for various reasons, listing themselves as Estonians. Former Soviet security agents were the first to do so.

The best estimates put the portion of ethnic Russians at 43 percent. One reliable measure is the number of people who have become eligible to vote in parliamentary election, because they have gained Estonian citizenship. There was a 42 percent increase from 1992 to the 2015 elections. The grave mistake of ignoring the Geneva Conventions was aggravated by Estonia`s first post-occupation President Lennart Meri, who made 22 trips to the outside world during occupation at a time when such trips were possible only for those of unquestioned loyalty to the Communist party and the KGB. On his own initiative he signed a pact with Yeltsin that allowed settlement into Estonia of about 20,000 Red Army members and 2,000 former Soviet security agents - together with their families this adds up to about 100,000 virulently anti-Estonian Russians.

The best available estimates indicate that there are in Estonia, per capita, more Russia`s Federal Security Service agents than in any other country. This has serious consequences not only for Estonia but also for NATO. About a dozen ex-KGB agents managed to obtain employment with the Estonian Security Police, some with Teabeamet - the Estonian Intelligence Service. A number have by now been exposed as double agents. Some have been incarcerated, at least one managed to escape to Russia.

Thanks to NATO counterintelligence efforts it was discovered that the former Chief of the Estonian Defense Ministry's Security Department, former Soviet internal security services Colonel Herman Simm, provided not only sensitive NATO intelligence data but also the names of NATO operatives to Putin`s intelligence services. A classified analysis conducted by NATO calls Simm one of the "most damaging" spies in the history of the NATO alliance. The border between Estonia and Russia, thus the border of NATO, is non-existent for long stretches.

A Coupe d’état Attempt and a Massive Cyber-attack

An unsuccessful coupe d’état was attempted by Estonia`s pro-Russian population in April, 2007. Waving red Soviet-era flags, the putchists started with protesting the removal of a large bronze statue, known as the bronze soldier, that the occupation forces had erected in the center of Tallinn to glorify the Red Army. The protests quickly turned into riots, looting and torching. At the same time, a massive cyber-attack was launched against government web sites, news media and banks. The cyber-attack took several days to neutralize.

One of the organizers, Dmitri Linter, announced on Russian TV that Estonia stands at the threshold of civil war, and hinted that in a few days the world would see a quite different Estonia, with new rulers. The riots were stopped, the putsch failed.

The cyber-attack was an eye-opener for the United States and other Western countries - and has resulted in major improvements in cyber security, as well as cyber warfare capabilities. The NATO Cybersecurity Center is now located in Estonia.


Putin`s fortunes have improved. He has effectively challenged the dominance of the United States in the Middle-East and undermined NATO`s credibility by unchallenged annexation of Crimea and the occupation of Ukraine. The recent election of pro-Kremlin presidents in Bulgaria and Moldova and political changes in Estonia has added icing to his cake.

Despite Putin`s efforts to improve the quality of Russia`s military power, his military is far from a match for NATO forces. That is one reason he keeps rattling his somewhat rusty nuclear sword.

He is more effective in using the dezinformatsia tactics he learned in the course of his KGB career and the more modern-day internet hacking learned to a large extent from the West. In countries with sizeable Russian populations he also employs a large force of paid, as well as volunteer, internet trolls to propagate his policies and sow dissent.

His most effective means by far is the use of the so-called Russian compatriot policy, which demands that Russians in neighboring countries, despite their citizenship, be loyal to Putin`s Russia rather than to their home countries. This was the key to his success for the Ukrainian invasion and the annexation of Crimea.

It is bringing results in Estonia. The left-wing Center Party, which has an alliance with Putin`s United Russia Party, came to power last year. This became possible because their longtime leader, the notoriously corrupt Edgar Savisaar, an ethnic Russian despite his Estonian name, was replaced by Jüri Ratas, an Estonia supported by the party`s Estonian wing.

With a less toxic leader the Center Party persuaded two other parties in joining to replace the unpopular former Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas of the Reform Party, which had been in power since 2002, to form a coalition government with Jüri Ratas as the prime minister.

This swing to the left is aggravated by the fact that one of the three coalition partners, the Social Democrats, gained strength by uniting with the former Russian Party of Estonia - now led by an ethnic Russian, Jevgeni Ossinovski, who has publicly expressed his contempt for Estonian patriots.

Even though the pro-Putin segment of the population is gaining power in Estonia, this NATO member may not be quite ripe for a take-over. A substantial portion of Estonian-Russians realize that life under Putin`s rule may not be as pleasant as their life might be in an independent Estonia. Some Estonian-Russians have also become loyal citizens of the Republic of Estonia. The situation is not likely to become critical during the next few years, particularly if oil prices remain low and Russia`s economy continuous to deteriorate.

A set of sanctions against Putin`s Russia, including targeting Russia's cyber espionage capabilities, the energy sector, its financial interests, and the flow of Russian weaponry to war zones like Syria, was passed overwhelmingly by the Senate on 15 June. The House is likely to follow suite. These sanctions can be expected to curb some of Putin`s ambitions and buy time for Estonia.

In the longer perspective, the day looms when an Estonian government dominated by Putin`s supporters decides to leave NATO and the bulwark against Putin`s aggression, formed by Estonia, will crumble.

For anti-Putin optimists, the longer perspective fortunately also includes a scenario that Putin`s empire will crumble, because of economic collapse, an internal coupe staged by the increasingly restive oligarchs, or perhaps even by a popular revolt by the long-suffering Russian people.

Categories: Russia - NATO - Estonia

About the Author(s)

Jüri Toomepuu is former U.S. Army officer, a seafarer, a flight engineer and flight instructor, a systems analyst, a research organization manager, and the Deputy Secretary of the Republic of Estonia in exile. He is also a former Member of Parliament, Republic of Estonia, and author of Eesti Lähiajaloo Kolm Põhiprobleemi, Kolmkümmend Kolm Lahendust (Three fundamental problems of Estonia's recent past, thirty-three solutions), Grenader Publishers, Tallinn, 2014, and numerous articles on Estonia's political and security issues. His U.S. Military awards include the Distinguished Service Cross and several dozen combat and non-combat decorations.