Strategic Europe continues its series devoted to explaining the foreign and security policy ambitions of the 28 EU member states. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of their country’s perception of security and strategy, with a ranking on a scale from 0 (the laggards) to 5 (the ambitious). This week, the spotlight is on Estonia.
At first glance, Estonia would appear to be the poster child of a determined Eastern European response to the threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Tallinn ticks all the obvious boxes and then some. Estonia raised its defense expenditure in 2012 to the NATO-required goal of 2 percent of GDP and remains one of the very few European allies (alongside the UK and Greece) to reach that target.
Together with the other two Baltic nations of Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia has sought—with some success—a long-term U.S. military presence on its soil. The country takes a hawkish line within the EU on the matter of the sanctions imposed on Russia in the wake of its March 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Tallinn has long argued for stronger EU foreign and Eastern neighborhood policies. Proceeding from a very broadly conceived notion of security policy, Estonia joined the eurozone at the first opportunity in 2011 and prides itself on being the best-integrated country in the region.
Yet Estonia’s obsession with consolidating alliances masks a series of blind spots, which, taken together, betray a tendency to see security mostly as a matter of formal benchmarks and commitments. This comes at the expense of the country’s own sense of agency and responsibility. Overall, Tallinn’s foreign policy scores an A for effort, but this effort is misguided, giving a level of ambition of 3 out of 5.
Three cardinal weaknesses beset Estonia’s foreign policy: its dogged insistence on ignoring domestic vulnerabilities; its near-complete lack of regional depth; and the resultant almost-exclusive medium- to long-term reliance on the (assumed) goodwill and commitment of the United States.
First, the issue of domestic vulnerabilities might be summed up as the problem of dying for Narva. Analyses of the stakes involved for both the United States and Russia in the current East-West standoff have focused on this Estonian town on the Russian border. Ninety-six percent of its roughly 60,000 inhabitants are Russian speakers. Estonian officials from the president down say Narva is NATO territory and insist this is all that matters.
Yet since about 2001, Narva has been home to an HIV epidemic unparalleled in the whole of Europe. Drug-related deaths (some 80 percent of users are ethnic Russians) were nearly three times higher in Estonia in 2012 than anywhere else in Europe. The unemployment rate in Narva and the surrounding areas is the highest in the country.
Successive governments in Tallinn have done very little to ease citizenship requirements for Estonia’s Russian speakers, a majority of whom are either Russian citizens or remain stateless. Most of their total number of 350,000 live in two compact enclaves: Narva and its environs, and Tallinn. All of this makes Estonia potentially fertile ground for scenarios of the sort seen in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where Russian-backed separatists have declared people’s republics—should Russia be inclined to attempt such moves in Estonia too.
#Estonia's foreign policy scores an A for effort, but this effort is misguided.Tweet This
The second weakness is that Estonia has almost no defense cooperation, let alone integration, with either Finland or Sweden. Neither is a member of NATO, but both possess independent defense capabilities—in sharp contrast to Estonia, which has fewer than 6,000 troops under arms, no tanks, and no air force.
Finland, linguistically and culturally close to Estonia, has long taken a placating line toward Russia, preferring to downplay its strength and exploit commercial opportunities. Again, this comes in sharp contrast to Estonia’s uncompromising diplomatic rhetoric. Tallinn would like to see both Finland and Sweden join NATO, but is loath to factor in the potential cost that Estonia’s tough policies on Russia and minorities would impose on the two nations, which would be required to come to Estonia’s aid should Russia attack.
More worryingly, over the past year Estonia’s leaders have taken to aggressively criticizing Finland. Tallinn has accused Helsinki of pandering to the Kremlin in its commercial and diplomatic choices and, on occasion, has gone so far as to claim that certain Finnish ministers have undermined Estonia’s security. This campaign can only weaken what solidarity exists between Estonia and the closest sizable Western military power to it—but it also exposes a very dangerous lacuna in Estonian foreign policy when it comes to understanding and respecting other countries’ strategic choices.
One upshot of the rather constrained nature of Estonia’s strategic communication with Finland and Sweden is that a pathbreaking U.S.-led air force exercise that operated out of Estonia’s Ämari airfield involved fighters from both Nordic neighbors. But in a very symbolic and restrictive gesture, the fighters did not land on Estonian territory.
The third issue remains long-term security. Granted, there is very little that a small, poor, and peripheral country like Estonia can do on its own. But Tallinn’s unreflective reliance on the letter of alliances carries with it the danger of stunting all reflexes of independent agency. This threat is already materializing in Estonia’s lackadaisical stance to its domestic vulnerability, as well as in its rather carefree approach to regional foreign and security collaboration.
There is also a growing tendency on the part of the government to discourage public debate on the mechanics involved in deciding to invoke NATO’s Article 5, which declares that an attack on one ally is an attack on all. Such a step is not as automatic and straightforward as the Estonian government appears to believe. It is hard to say how much of this myopia is real, but the country’s leaders certainly appear to underrate the contingency and indeterminacy involved in any allied debate on whether to go to war with a nuclear-armed Russia.
There is a clear threat for #Estonia of self-imposed helplessness.Tweet This
In conclusion, there is a clear medium- to long-term threat for Estonia of self-imposed helplessness. Tallinn views its security choices with something approaching apocalyptic resignation. The Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas said in a speech in February 2015 that “Narva is part of NATO no less than New York” and enjoys the same (implied U.S. nuclear) security guarantee. Meanwhile, the Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves told the Daily Telegraph that should Russia really attack, “they’re here and it’s over in four hours.”
This makes Estonia’s future far too passive a hostage to the goodwill and whims of others.
Ahto Lobjakas is a political analyst and columnist for the Estonian daily Postimees.