By Neil Siviter
Despite its relatively small population and size, Estonia – the northernmost Baltic state bordering Russia and Latvia – has been increasingly viewed by experts as a zone of possible confrontation between Russia and the West. In light of heightened tensions in this region, how can history help us understand contemporary Estonia-Russia relations?
Conjoined by geography, separated by strategy
The hazardous nature of Estonia’s geography – ensconced between a multiplicity of larger and stronger neighbours in Northeastern Europe – is reflected in its storied history as a battleground for great powers in Northeastern Europe. Through a period of national awakening (1850-1914) and a War of Independence in the aftermath of World War I (1918-1920) against primarily Bolshevik Russian forces, contemporary Estonia was formed. Shortly thereafter, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Estonia during World War II. The Soviet Union occupied Estonia from 1945 until the dissolution of the USSR allowed Estonia to reassert its independence in 1991. To mitigate its inherent geographic insecurity, Estonia subsequently sought safety under the umbrella of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), both of which provide(d) a bulwark against Russian influence through political, economic, and military integration with the West.
During the period of Soviet hegemony, the USSR exerted maximum influence in Eastern Europe through the Kremlin-installed regimes of the Warsaw Pact. The collapse of the Soviet Union assailed both the security and international standing of Russia, as swaths of previously Soviet-dominated states reoriented to the West. Modern-day Russia continues to view the EU and NATO as barriers to the projection of its power. Accordingly, Russia has sought to frustrate or prevent the expansion and influence of these regional orders through various means – including exploiting the dependence of Europe and smaller peripheral states on Russian energy, and coercive threats or actions. Stymying the advance of the EU and NATO has been the raison d’etre of Russian support for frozen conflicts in its near abroad. This strategy has been evident in Russian actions towards Moldova’s Transnistria, Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and most recently Ukraine through the seizure of Crimea and the destabilization of its Russian-bordering Eastern region.
Implications for contemporary Estonia-Russia relations
The Council of the European Union’s rotational Presidency is currently held by Estonia. This has positioned Estonia to reduce its dependence on Russian natural gas – an aspect that resonates with the broader EU agenda while threatening Moscow’s leverage over Europe. The deployment of NATO battle groups across the Baltics indicate a significant commitment among NATO allies to live up to the Alliance’s collective defence obligations. However, they do not entirely remedy Russia’s escalation dominance in this region. In the wake of Russian power projection in Ukraine, and the devastating cyber attack on Estonian networks perpetrated by Russian hackers in 2007, Estonia’s security continues to be buttressed by support from NATO and the EU. However, its vulnerable geography and historically tense relationship with Russia continue to make for relative insecurity.
Ultimately Russia’s strategy relies on the weakness and disunity of Western-led regional orders, whereas Estonia relies on their strength. These two diametrically opposed positions are a consequence of their geography and history.
Neil Siviter is the Editor of the Journal of Political Risk. In addition to this role, he is currently pursuing his Master of Arts in War Studies at King’s College London on a Global Grant Scholarship from Rotary International. Neil has previously worked as a Junior Professional Fellow at the NATO Association of Canada where he wrote articles in the Arc of Crisis program – a segment of the publication focused on eastern and southern security of the NATO Alliance. Neil has also held various internship positions with the Canadian Government, U.S. Consulate General Toronto, and the United Nations in New York City.
This article is part of a series curated by MA student Ashley Pratt on the intricate historical relationships between nations and people that shape current events. Each piece of this four-part series contextualizes and provides a primer to better analyze developments around these relationships.