There aren’t many European leaders who take a harder line on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine than his Estonian counterpart, Toomas Hendrik Ilves. His sympathy for Ukraine, however, is tempered by a belief that it didn’t do enough in advance to protect itself. His own country, he suggests, has been more responsible, which is why it will be more secure
Estonia Did Its Post-Soviet Homework
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Ilves, who grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Columbia University, speaks English with a perfect American accent. (Locals say his Estonian is worse.) If our conversation weren’t taking place in the modest Tallinn mansion that houses the presidential office, and if Ilves weren’t wearing his trademark bow tie, it would be easy to take him for a U.S. administration official — one particularly indignant about Putin’s disregard for post-World War II international rules (and, by extension, his disrespect for post-Cold War American hegemony).
But Ilves’s concerns are more easily understandable than those of Americans. His tiny country of 1.3 million lies on Russia’s borders and is home to 300,000 ethnic Russians, 130,000 of them carrying Russian passports. So when Putin has taunted the West in recent months — by having warplanes invade NATO airspace, for example — Ilves, the commander-in-chief of his country’s military, has had no choice but to worry. “We see this very aggressive attitude combined with aggressive behavior that I think makes everyone nervous,” he says. “But being Russia’s neighbor it is more immediate to us than, I think, to countries that have buffers in between. Germany has Poland in between and Kaliningrad and Italy has a whole bunch of stuff in between.”
Deprived of geographic buffers, Estonia, Ilves says, has invested time and effort in building other kinds. NATO membership is the most important. Ilves says Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which calls on member nations to help each other in case of an attack, is an effective deterrent to any Russian designs on the ex-Soviet Baltic states. “It is of such crucial existential importance to NATO that Article 5 be observed that it will be observed, because if you’re saying” — here Ilves parodies a whiny voice — “‘Well, maybe we shouldn’t go defend the Estonians’ – as soon as they don’t, as soon as Article 5 doesn’t work, every country is on its own, and the only country that can handle being on its own is the United States.”
According to Ilves, as soon as Estonia broke free of the collapsing Soviet Union, its government made membership in the military alliance a foundation of its security strategy. The project was tough, but after 15 years, the goal was achieved. Ukraine, by contrast, never bothered to take that road while Russia’s military was still weak. “I had some Ukrainians here two weeks ago, and they said, ‘You are lucky. You got independent and you just joined NATO’,” Ilves says. “We had to work at it. Constant reforms, being constantly inspected, pulled apart, looked at every which way, as it was with the European Union. I was foreign minister for five years and I aged about 10 years during that period.”
Estonia’s other barrier against Russian aggression is its relative economic well-being. In the last 20 years, the country’s per capita GDP has increased sixfold to about $18,000. (Ukraine’s has only tripled, to about $3,000.) As a result, Ilves is convinced — and my conversations with Russian speakers in Tallinn confirm — that the ethnic Russians will not serve as Putin’s fifth column if he tries to provoke an insurgency, as he did in eastern Ukraine. Citing Putin’s recent snide remark
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about the Ukrainian army losing to “yesterday’s miners and tractor drivers,” Ilves says. “The miners in the Donbass were making 150 euros ($167) a month. Miners in Estonia, in an overwhelmingly Russian area, make 1,800 to 2,000 euros a month, which they’ll never make being part of Mother Russia.”
Ilves is aware that Putin is popular with his country’s Russian minority, but he says that popularity is hardly strong enough to kindle an uprising. “The best way to understand it is that they’re a traditional diaspora, which you see all around the world,” he says. “Generally, when it comes to domestic politics in their countries of origin, they tend to be conservative, but if you ask the Poles in the U.S., or the Armenians, do you want to go back there? No, no, no, no, no, no, no! You support the really patriotic forces in your country, but you would never move there.”
Although Estonia has done its post-Soviet homework better than Ukraine, that doesn’t completely rule out a Russian invasion. “The Sudetenland model was applied in Ukraine,” he says, referring to Hitler’s conquests in the late 1930s, “but that doesn’t mean nothing else is possible, there’s also Poland, right? You could just have an armed attack.” To prevent that possibility, the Estonian president — unlike the majority of European leaders — supports arming Ukraine with modern defensive weapons so that Russian and rebel forces in eastern Ukraine have trouble moving further west. “There are many good reasons not to give them weapons,” he says. “The point is, give me an explanation of what we are going to do. Are we just simply saying it will take three years and then the border will be with Poland?”
Ilves calls Putin’s hybrid war in Ukraine “one of the dumbest military adventures that anyone has undertaken.” The aggression has deepened Ukrainians’ sense of nationhood, he argues, which will make it difficult for Russia to hold any territory by force. But while Ilves doesn’t say it in so many words — and his respect for the Ukrainians’ fighting spirit is obvious — I get the impression he was also trying to say that Ukraine is now paying for its previous mistakes, its slowness to reform and make the effort required to join Western institutions. It did not work hard enough before, so now it has to fight.
By contrast, those who made sacrifices, as Estonia did, are better insured against such dire circumstances. The country endured much hardship to erase any traces of its Soviet past. It strived to present itself as a northern European, rather than eastern European, nation, and ultimately succeeded at integrating itself. The capital, Tallinn, looks and feels Scandinavian, not post-Soviet. Neighboring Finland is now working on adopting Estonia’s superb e-government system, which will link the two countries more closely than any other two European states.
Ultimately, Ilves’s tough stance on Putin’s recent expansionism isn’t about faithfully following the U.S., as one might suspect from his background. It’s about protecting Estonia’s achievements and using them for protection.