Russia’s ongoing political offensive against Estonia — and implicit challenge to the European Union — constitutes the first serious attempt to reverse the post-1991 status quo in Europe. Moscow seems to be targeting Estonia as a first test case of such a process.
Further Russian challenges to the existing European order are likely to ensue if European governments and institutions tolerate, as seems mostly to be the case thus far, the assault on Estonia.
Ostensibly reacting to the relocation of the Red Army monument (Bronze Soldier) from downtown Tallinn, the Kremlin is actually targeting Estonia’s state sovereignty, its internal political stability, and its links with the EU. This campaign can only make headway if the EU or at least some major member governments act as passive onlookers. Such seems almost to be the case at the moment, nearly two weeks into the crisis.
Moscow’s first goal is to dilute or negate Estonia’s sovereignty. Russian high-level authorities pressured Estonia to revoke the sovereign decision of its democratically elected parliament (to relocate the Bronze Soldier) and are now denouncing Estonia for noncompliance with that demand. They have also called openly for a change of government in Estonia. The Kremlin’s IT units have hacked the Estonian government’s computer systems — an unprecedented act in international relations. Russian state television channels seek to inflame inter-ethnic relations in Estonia while lionizing local Russian rioters as “political” protesters. Kremlin-created rowdy organizations besieged Estonia’s Moscow embassy in yet another negation of that country’s sovereignty.
Apart from the inflammatory TV broadcasts, all the other methods are being implemented for the first time since 1991. Their sudden combined deployment against Estonia suggests that the Kremlin may be testing here a strategy of political entry into the sovereign spaces of other states, so as to erode their sovereignty.
A full-fledged strategy in this regard will use control over energy supplies as a tool. For now, Russia has imposed temporary restrictions on railroad transport as well as petroleum products and coal deliveries to Estonia (BNS, May 3).
The second prong of Russia’s campaign aims to fragment the European Union by neutralizing EU support for a threatened member country in the East. Moscow hopes to demonstrate that Estonia (or some other new member country next time around) will receive only limited support from EU authorities and major West European governments, if Russia initiates a confrontation with such an insubordinate country.
The Kremlin seeks to create a perception of the EU divided into first-class (old) and second-class (new) member countries in terms of the EU’s security and economic priorities. Such a perception could, if created, lead to tacit acceptance of special Russian interests with regard to the EU’s new member countries.
Related to this goal is Moscow’s systematic use of the term “fascism” to mislabel democratic Estonia. Such usage is part of classical Soviet political-warfare techniques (undoubtedly studied by the KGB alumni who are now in charge of Russia) to singularize a designated opponent while attacking it, so as to inhibit general solidarity with that targeted opponent.
The third aspect of Moscow’s offensive aims to mobilize Russian “compatriots” in Estonia on the basis of residual Soviet values — in this case the Soviet “liberation” of the Baltic states from “fascism.” Furthermore, Moscow now seeks for the first time since 1991 to justify that “liberation” and stigmatize the opposite viewpoint at the international level.
The Bronze Soldier’s relocation from downtown Tallinn is not only a pretext for assailing Estonia. By defending this Soviet symbol and the whole legacy associated with it, the Kremlin rejects coming to terms with Russia’s recent history of communist crimes against its own and neighboring nations.
To resist such coming to terms at home, Russian authorities apparently feel that they must resist that process in neighboring countries as well. By stirring up enmity within Russia against Estonia over the Bronze Soldier, the Kremlin seeks to immunize the public against any Russian form of Vergangenheits-Bewaeltigung (Germany’s post-Nazi comprehension of its history) so as to avoid internal challenges to the Soviet-successor ruling elite.
The European Union collectively and its current German presidency in particular, do not seem to have thought through the implications of Moscow’s strategy in this crisis thus far. Instead of dealing with Russia’s assault on Estonia as an EU problem, most member governments and most authorities in Brussels treat the crisis as a bilateral Russia-Estonia problem.
The EU has chosen to concentrate its efforts on a derivative aspect of the crisis — namely, the siege of Estonia’s embassy in Moscow with multiple breaches of the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations. However, the EU has thus far avoided involvement with the core issues at stake in this crisis: Russian bullying of an EU member country, Estonia’s right to sovereign immunity, and EU political solidarity. The EU’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security policy, Javier Solana, did address these issues in a supportive telephone call to Tallinn early in the crisis, but this turned out to be a rare exception (BNS, April 29). Other Brussels authorities have declined to speak up on those issues, as have most of the EU’s member governments other than those in the Baltic Sea region.
Germany, current holder of the EU presidency, has positioned itself equidistantly between Tallinn and Moscow on the core political issues. In a spirit of moral and political relativism, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank Walter Steinmeier have urged “both sides” in equal measure to show “moderation.”
Meanwhile, Berlin brokered a “compromise” solution to the siege of the Estonian embassy in Moscow. There the situation came to a head on May 2 when activists of the Kremlin-sponsored organization Nashi tried to jostle Estonia’s Ambassador Marina Kaljurand, who was rescued by her bodyguards. On May 3, Steinmeier and Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov agreed among themselves that Kaljurand would return to Tallinn “on leave” while Russian authorities would lift the siege at the Embassy (DPA, May 4). Rowdy demonstrators followed Kaljurand all the way to the airport where they staged another “unauthorized” demonstration against Estonia.
(Interfax, BNS, April 30-May 5, 8)