The modern name of Estonia’s capital is thought to come from Tallide-linn, city of stables in the country’s tongue, or Taani-linn, meaning Danish castle-town. The lovely old center, a medieval trading city, is splashed in summer with light and color, I’m told. Cafés bustle. In winter, though, Tallinn is bleak. I’m here in fog, sleet, and rain. The streets are mostly empty by early evening, as everyone seems to be hobbited away with warm fires and ice-cold vodka.
Estonia is a country of glaring contrasts. Try to size it up today and one is reminded of Boris Yeltsin’s assessment of the Russian economy in the 1990s. Asked by a journalist about the state of play, the president answered, “Good.” When pressed for more than a one-word response, Yeltsin replied, “Not good.”
For this tiny country of 1.3 million, things are, from one perspective, excellent indeed. Since independence in 1991, Estonia has welcomed democracy and a market economy, become a member of NATO and the European Union, and adopted the euro. The country exudes modernity, consumerism, and freedom. There’s wireless Internet nearly everywhere—parks, pubs, squares, beaches, forests—and nearly always free. When you walk through Tallinn Airport, you feel like you’re in a trendy version of an Ikea store, with semi-inviting cafés, book alcoves, ready-to-use iPads.
Joe Biden might say LaGuardia pales in comparison.
Freedom House gives Estonia highest marks in democratic development, for both political rights and civil liberties. The country ranks higher than the United States in economic freedom in a Heritage Foundation index.
So what’s to worry?
The country struggles mightily with the weight of history and burden of having an exceptionally difficult neighbor. “What’s the first thing that keeps you up at night?” a colleague and I asked a senior official. It turned out to be the same as the second and the third. A young journalist confirmed over drinks later with a laugh: “Of course, Russia remains foremost on everyone’s mind.” That’s for good reason.
Estonia’s ethnic Russian minority comprises nearly a quarter of its population (fellow Baltic nation Lithuania has 5.8 percent; Latvia, nearly 27 percent). As a result, Tallinn has to put up with constant Kremlin complaints—the charges nearly always unsubstantiated by international observers—that Russians in Estonia are treated poorly and subject to discrimination by the Estonian government. Russian president Vladimir Putin is believed to have a personal gripe with the country. Or so Estonian officials think, as we know from diplomatic cables, thanks to WikiLeaks. Putin’s father, who fought with the Red Army during World War II, parachuted on a mission into Estonia, where locals, still angry over the Soviet occupation in 1940—a year before Germany invaded—handed him over to Nazi forces.
What’s clear in any case is this: Moscow loves meddling, provoking, and slapping Estonia around. Three Estonian officials have been arrested as Russian spies in the last five years. Last year, the Estonian government accused Russia of intervening in mayoral elections in Tallinn. Edgar Savisaar of the pro-Russian, left-leaning Center party secured another term after the Kremlin, just two days before the election, had his rival Eerik-Niiles Kross placed on Interpol’s wanted list for trumped-up sea piracy charges. Moscow had reason to dislike Kross, to be sure: He was a Cold War anti-Soviet agitator who later worked for Paul Bremer and the Provisional Coalition Authority in Iraq and advised the Georgian government after Russia’s 2008 invasion.
Most famously, Estonia was subjected to a series of cyberattacks beginning in April 2007 that swamped the websites of banks, news outlets, government ministries, and parliament. The pro-Putin youth group in Russia, Nashy, took credit for the attacks, which coincided with a dispute between Tallinn and Moscow over the relocation of a Soviet-era grave marker known as the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn. Nashy is the Kremlin’s Hitlerjugend, says one Estonian official. Putin is not Hitler. But it’s not much fun having a little Mussolini as your neighbor.
Like the Italian fascist leader, Putin has a coherent and strategic foreign policy. Moscow failed in the 1990s to block NATO and EU accession for most of what once constituted Communist Europe (although Ukraine is still in play and leaning sharply eastward at the moment). Putin will settle now for the Finlandization of Eastern Europe. That’s Cold War-speak for how a large, powerful nation carefully erodes the sovereignty and independence of smaller states.
Part of the strategy, of course, is to use energy as a weapon. Russian energy giant Gazprom serves Kremlin foreign policy goals and can punish, or please, at any given moment. Putin employs trade, including import restrictions, to show pique and apply pressure, recently blocking milk from Lithuania and brandy and wine from Moldova. The Kremlin also knows how to work internal divisions. In Georgia, for example, this means aggravating relations between Abkhazia, Ossetia, and the central Georgian government. As a former KGB hand, Putin must adore every trick of the trade. Note the recent leak of that call between a senior State Department official and the U.S. ambassador in Kiev, designed to embarrass Americans with the EU and show Washington as a meddling force in Ukraine’s internal affairs. Rich, that.
“Tight integration with our neighbors is our absolute priority,” Putin told international Russia experts last fall at a conference in Novgorod. Russia had repeatedly warned Ukrainians to choose carefully. Russian customs began exhaustive checks of imports from Ukraine last year, creating long lines at the border. Kremlin economic adviser Sergei Glazyev said at the time this was Russia “preparing to introduce tougher customs administration in case Ukraine [made] the suicidal move of signing the EU association agreement.”
Back to plucky Estonia. Some might have thought that NATO and EU membership settles everything. Courtesy WikiLeaks, we know that at least some U.S. officials have considered Estonia paranoid about Russia. It seems instead that recent events in Ukraine and Russian policy toward this small Baltic nation well might concentrate our minds on Kremlin strategy toward Eastern Europe—and on the sad fact that we don’t seem to have one.
Jeffrey Gedmin is a senior fellow at Georgetown University and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London.