This past June, the Obama administration announced it will deploy heavy weaponry–M1 Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and howitzers–in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and the three Baltic States. This is the first time the U.S. and NATO have considered placing weapons of this kind in the eastern part of Europe, and only underscores the extent to which the Ukraine crisis has altered the European security status quo.
But, there are a myriad of factors contributing to change in northeastern Europe and they encompass far more than mere troop numbers and tanks.
History, language, and culture have played a crucial role in fostering a desire of people in that region to free themselves of Russian domination.
In the West, Eastern Europe has often been thought of as extremely remote, exotic, and even backward. Today, the Baltic states–Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania–are simply European and all have quite consciously turned westward.
Back in the summer and fall of 1980, British writer Colin Thubron traveled across the western portion of the Soviet Union on a ten thousand mile journey from Estonia in the north to Georgia in the south. In Among the Russians (1981), Thubron described Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as being situated in a corner of Europe which historically “shuffled the Baltic states between German merchants, Swedish kings and the rising might of Russia.” That was Estonia’s past. In 1991, all three Baltic states gained independence from the Soviet Union.
In 2004, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the European Union and NATO (along with Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia).
Estonia in particular is one of Europe’s hottest IT centers, and is home to Skype (yes, invented in Estonia). Estonia’s future is firmly rooted in the West. And yet, Estonia’s past still lingers.
At first glance, western culture is so ubiquitous in the vibrant Estonian university town of Tartu, it is almost banal: one is not even aware of it.
On the Saturday I arrived (mid-May), I entered the Ristiisa Pubi for a cold beverage. I sat in this pub, adorned with pictures of Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, and Lucky Luciano, drinking Belgian beer, watching English Premier League football (soccer), and listening to Eric Clapton’s “Promises” drifting in the background.
All of the staff spoke English, and the younger staff spoke English perfectly. If one walks down to the main square, the Raekoja Plats, all of the signs are listed in Estonian and then underneath in English.
So, the sign to Jaani Kirik, underneath says St. John’s Church; Eesti Spordmuuseum (Estonian Sports Museum); Botaanikaaed (Botanical Gardens). Retro FM is an Estonian radio station which all day plays U2, the Police, Roxy Music, XTC, and Duran Duran. And yet, while watching English football, drinking Belgian beer, and listening to Dire Straits, it is easy to forget that the Russian border is only 40 miles away. This is a point of geography the Estonians never forget.
Much like Poland, Estonia grew up in a tough neighborhood, essentially sandwiched between Germany and Russia. Prior to the end World War I, Estonia was part of Russia, but Estonia declared independence in February 1918, which Britain only officially recognised in January 1921.
In 1940, the Soviets invaded Estonia. In 1941, the Germans invaded and took Estonia from the Soviets. After World War II turned on the eastern front, in 1944 the Soviets invaded and re-occupied Estonia (and Latvia and Lithuania for that matter). Stalin rounded up tens of thousands Estonians and sent them to Siberia. Stalin then forcibly moved tens of thousands of Russians into postwar Estonia and implemented a rapid forced industrialization.
The decedents of those Russian immigrants still live in Estonia, and therein lies the tension.
On the corner of Riia Street and Küüni Boulevard sits the Tartu Kaubamaja, a glistening new three-story shopping mall with clothing stores like Baltmen, and a department store with Lancome of Paris perfume placards picturing Penelope Cruz and Kate Winslet. It is just like any shopping mall in the West.
Behind the Kaubamaja is an old brown-stone columned building, the Tartu Turg. Standing on the corner waiting for the light to change, I said to the older woman next to me, “Tere” (hello in Estonian). She looked down at me impassively and said nothing. “Privet,” I said, which is “hi” in Russian.
She peered down at me and softly said, “Privet.” I then asked what is that, pointing at the old brown building. She replied, “Is market, bazaar.”
When I crossed the street and entered the Turg, my senses were assaulted with aromas the likes of which I had never encountered. One can buy half a pig’s head, pigs ears, stomachs, and things I have never seen.
This is the Tartu meat and fish market, and it is extremely traditional, and largely Russian. If one does not walk into the Turg, one might not even notice there are ethnic Russians in Tartu.
When I left the Turg, I went back across the street and entered the Kaubamaja shopping mall on the basement floor. On the right was a grocery store, the Toidumaailm Food Store. Underneath this it read; ПРОДУҚТОВЫЙ МАГЗИН.
Other than in the Turg, this was the only Russian sign I noticed in the city, which has a population of around 100,000.
Ethnic Russians make up approximately twenty-five percent of Estonia’s population. However, the influence of the Russian language in Estonia has declined precipitously since 1991. No one under forty wants to learn or speak Russian, they only want to learn English.
According to John Freivalds in the 22 April 2014 edition of the Baltic Times, the number of people speaking Russian world-wide has declined dramatically, and along with it Russia’s influence. In 1990, over 300 million people spoke Russian in the world. In 2025, only 150 million will speak it, and by 2035 only 100 million will speak it.
With the demise of the Soviet Union, learning Russian is no longer compulsory for Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians, and as a result of the end of the Cold War, people in Cuba and Nicaragua no longer learn Russian as a second language either. English predominates as the second language the world over.
Even in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, flight announcements are made in Russian and then in English.
Additionally, when Estonia gained independence in 1991, Estonia placed a language requirement on citizenship. Only those who can speak Estonian can be full citizens, meaning ethnic Russians who only speak Russian (conservatively reported as six percent of the overall population although I’ve seen it in some articles as high as sixteen percent) have no right to a passport or to vote in national elections (but they can vote in local elections).
There are undeniably historical reasons for the Estonian response to language issues. In the 1880s, Russia enacted a russification policy, trying to eradicate local languages like Estonian, Latvian, and even Ukrainian.
In the late 1890s these russification policies were implemented in Finland as well. Not surprisingly, Estonians view their language as a national treasure and place great emphasis in its preservation. Unfortunately, Russia sees the Estonian link between language and citizenship as an attack on the ethnic Russian minority in Estonia.
In Ukraine, one of the key components of that crisis was/is language. In February 2014, Viktor Yanukovych’s troops opened fire on the pro-western demonstrators in Maidan Square in Kiev killing over fifty people. A few days later Viktor Yanukovych fled to Rostov on Don in Russia.
The day after Yanukovych fled, and most of his Party of the Regions with him, the shrunken Ukrainian Parliament voted to abolished the On State Language Policy law which had been passed in 2012.
The law allowed any region in Ukraine in which over ten percent of the local population spoke a language other than Ukrainian to adopt that language as the second official language.
Regions in the east gratefully adopted Russian as the official language of their region. Two western Ukrainian regions adopted Romanian and Hungarian as official languages. Although this policy reversal never took effect because the Ukrainian President refused to sign the law which would have rescinded the On State Language Policy law, the symbolic damage had been done.
When Yanukovych fled to Rostov on Don, in the West we saw the massive house he abandoned, the hundreds of antique cars, the boat, the exotic animals, the obvious corruption. These images flashed all over western media.
In Russia, many came to believe that the language law protecting ethnic Russian language rights had been abolished (even though it never took effect).
At that time, the western media never mentioned this point. Much of the justification for the Russian separatists uprising in eastern Ukraine is to protect the ethnic Russian minority there. As a result of the crisis in Ukraine, Estonians are terrified about the prospect of a Russian invasion to “protect” the Russian minority in Estonia.
In 2007, Estonia experienced a Russian invasion of sorts: a cyber attack. It began with a statue. In late April 2007, the Estonian government decided to move the Bronze Soldier from the center of Tallinn, the Estonian capital, to a war cemetery outside of town.
The Bronze Soldier was a monument erected by the Soviets following World War II, and in Soviet terms was a fairly modest monument, simply a six-foot tall bronze soldier standing in front of a granite wall.
Since Estonian independence in 1991, tensions arose regarding the statue because of its prime location in the center of town and the inscription: “To The Liberators of Tallinn.” In Vanished Kingdoms (2011), British historian of eastern Europe Norman Davies noted that; “[i]t needs to be borne in mind that while the Soviet authorities expended considerable money and energy restoring [or erecting] monuments with Soviet or Russian connections... they forcibly suppressed all memory sites associated with Estonia’s own independent history. As a result, the Soviet memorials, which were viewed by Russians as symbols of pride, were viewed by Estonians as symbols of oppression.”
When the Bronze Soldier was removed, thousands of ethnic Russians marched to the center of Tallinn waving Russian flags and screaming anti-Estonian slogans.
The protests quickly turned to two days of rioting with shops being smashed and looted, and 300 demonstrators detained. On May 9th at the annual Red Square parade in Moscow, Vladimir Putin remarked to thousands of veterans and soldiers that, “[t]hose who are trying today to desecrate memorials to war heroes are insulting their own people and sowing enmity and new distrust.”
As a result of the removal of the Bronze Soldier monument, Estonia experienced three separate cyber attacks.
The first occurred on April 27th only days after the statue’s removal, the second came on May 9th just after Putin’s speech and the third came a week later.
The websites of government ministries, newspapers, political parties, banks and financial institutions, and businesses were overwhelmed by tens of thousands of simultaneous hits. The servers of these websites were thus frozen and essentially disabled. Hits on that scale could only be achieved by employing millions of computers in a coordinated fashion. Many contend this coordinated action could only have come from Russian sources.
And then, on September 5, 2014, at an Estonian/Russian border crossing, the Russians detained Eston Kohver (the Estonians might say grabbed), an Estonian Internal Security Service officer, who the Russians claimed was on the Russian side of the border carrying weapons and a large sum of money.
The Estonian government insisted that Kohver had been illegally kidnapped from the Estonian side of the border.
On September 26, 2015, he was released by the Russians in exchange for Alexei Dressen, a former officer in the Estonian security police who had been convicted of spying for Russia and imprisoned since 2012.
Kohver’s detainment only served as yet another source of tension and trepidation in relations between Estonia and Russia.
Given the number of times their airspace has been violated by Russian fighter jets in recent months, Estonians are rightly concerned about what might happen.
When I asked three staff members working at the bed and breakfast at which I stayed what they thought of Vladimir Putin, they all rolled their eyes, tossed their hands out, and exhaled “pfffff.” Kaisa at the front desk said this is the classic Estonian response to that question. Ask anyone, she asserted, and this will be the response. “We don’t know what they [Russia] will do next,” she said.
Traveling in Estonia, one is immediately struck by the regional differences in Europe. In southern and central Europe one of the most significant issues is immigration, and rightfully so.
Those nations are faced with a humanitarian crisis in the form of north African and Middle Eastern immigrants being crammed into boats and cast adrift in the Mediterranean, or migrating through the Balkans by the thousands.
In Estonia, one of their primary concerns is whether the West will stand-up on their behalf if Russia invades, yet again.
In anticipation of the proposed weapons deployments in the Baltic states, the European editor of the Guardian, Ian Traynor wrote in June 2015 that the “three Baltic states–Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia... have been clamouring for such signals of US commitment to their security.”
Perhaps these latest administration announcements will signal a new commitment to Baltic security on the part of the West.