Russia Names Air Force Regiment after Estonian Capital
Russian President Vladimir Putin has by decree named a regiment of the Russian air force after the Estonian capital Tallinn. In the former Soviet republic this has been regarded as a provocation with good reason.
The presidential order, dated 29 January 2018, states that the new name of the 23rd air force regiment should "strengthen the spirit of military obligation" and "preserve holy military traditions." But this is more likely to be a part of Russia's strategy of destabilization, which should fuel tensions within the Baltic states, but also within the EU and NATO.
Relations between Estonia and Russia
After Estonia’s occupation during the Second World War, the Estonians lived under Soviet rule for almost 50 years. In 1991 Estonia gained its independence, but Russian troops did not leave the country until 1994. The Declaration of Independence granted Estonian citizenship to anyone who was a citizen of Estonia before the Soviet occupation in 1939. Those who had come to Estonia after the war had to take language and citizenship tests. Many of them have decided to apply for a Russian passport or to have no citizenship at all.
This results in problems to this day. The tensions between Estonia, which joined NATO and the European Union in 2004, and Russia are high. Russian seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in early 2014 exacerbated the already existing tensions. The Kremlin is accused of wanting to destabilize the region.
Estonians fear Russian influence
The annexation of the Crimea and the support of pro-Russian separatist rebels in Ukraine have also made the Estonians increasingly suspicious. Both the government and the majority of the Estonian population fear that Moscow's attempts to undermine the authority of the Ukrainian government will not stop there. Putin's strategy could soon also affect other countries where a significant minority is ethnically or linguistically Russian.
Today, roughly 1,3 million people live in Estonia and about 25.2% of them are ethnic Russians. Russian is the common language in regions dominated by the Russian-speaking population, especially in northeastern Estonia. Many people in this region have Russian passports or no citizenship. Some security experts believe that disgruntled Russians, who sometimes felt like second-class citizens, might give Kremlin an excuse to launch an attack.
Russian propaganda campaigns in the Baltic countries
Andis Kudors, director of the Centre for East European Policy Studies (CEEPS) in Riga, believes Moscow seeks to set one group of people in each Baltic country against the other. In the long term, people want to create a mood shift against Europe in the Baltic States. "In Latvia, Russians are put in opposition to Latvians, and conservative values to liberal ones. In Lithuania ‘the Polish card’ is used and in Estonia, the strategy is similar to the one used in Latvia”, said Kudors in an interview for stopfake.org .
The Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia and Latvia are often the target group for Russia's intensive and costly propaganda campaigns. Pro-Russian media aim to undermine democratic institutions and deepen their polarization by working in favor of Moscow’s interest.
Provocations on the border with NATO countries
After the annexation of the Crimea, the EU also expressed worry that Russia could launch an attack on the Baltic countries. Following the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, the NATO reinforced its eastern flank, while Russian intelligence services increasingly tested Estonia's defenses, according to the Estonian Security Police (KAPO).
Last year, for example, Russia called 2,500 troops to an airborne military drill in the Pskov region on the bordering NATO allies Latvia and Estonia, which increased the fear of potential conflicts in the region.
Russia has officially denied that it would ever attack a NATO member. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have benefited the most from the NATO Strategy for the Eastern Flank as four groups of combat battalions are stationed on a rotating basis in Poland, as in the Baltic countries.
The designation of the Russian Air Force Regiment after the Estonian capital is therefore not necessarily to be understood as a direct threat and attempt to reintegrate the small country back to Russia. However, the move can certainly be interpreted as a gesture of intimidation as the Baltic states are strategically oriented towards the West, which is a thorn in the eye of the interests of the semi-authoritarian Putin regime.
Security risks in the Baltic states
The situation in the Baltic region is militarily speaking "quite stable," says Andis Kudors. "Reinforcing the NATO defense is not the only reason. Vladimir Putin is primarily interested in maintaining the status quo in Russia, which would otherwise be threatened by an attack on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. At the same time, Putin is heavily engaged in an information war against the three, a war that they have not yet found a way to respond to effectively.”
In early February, the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service published its annual report entitled "International Security and Estonia 2018". As expected, most of the report is about Russia. As a result, the only existential threat to the sovereignty of Estonia and the Baltic states potentially derives from Russia. However, the risk of a direct Russian military attack on the NATO member states in 2018 is low.
"As long as Russia is ruled by an authoritarian regime whose top priority is to exercise political dominance over its neighbors, Russia will continue using military pressure against Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania", the report said.
The report points out that the Russian military planners do not perceive Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as separate countries but approach Europe and NATO as a whole. "In Russia’s latest major military exercise Zapad-2017, Russian armed forces practiced a full-scale war with NATO in Europe," the report said.
Western-oriented politicians in Estonia, such as former Prime Minister of Estonia Taavi Rõivas, therefore demand steadfastness from NATO allies in protecting the interests of the Baltic states in relation to Russia. He said that NATO has proven itself as a shield in the region and also wishes a clear commitment of Germany, which must strengthen its military capacities.
As a result of deteriorating relations between Russia and Estonia, recently a number of espionage cases have been registered. The latest case caught the public eye two weeks ago, when on the border between two countries, in a scene reminiscent of the Cold-War era, Raivo Susi, an Estonian accused of espionage and sentenced to 12 years in a high security prison in Russia, was exchanged for Artern Zintsenko, who had been sentenced by Estonia to five years in prison for spying for Russia in May. The Estonian businessman and the Russian spy were released home after receiving presidential pardons.
Toni Skorić is Project Manager for Central Europe and the Baltic countries in the FNF Office in Prague.