If Russia succeeds in overrunning Ukraine, could the Baltics be next?
This fear has loomed over the nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania since the invasion began nearly a year ago. The former Soviet-bloc states have been the target of Moscow’s meddling for years. Now the war in Ukraine has given these small countries an opportunity to punch back.
Relative to its size, no nation has been more aggressive in helping Ukraine than Estonia. The small Baltic state has provided Ukraine with nearly $396 million in aid—about half of its defense budget and more than 1% of its gross domestic product. The donations place Estonia, which has just 7,000 active-duty soldiers in its military, among the world leaders. While European giants like Germany had to be coaxed into delivering modern battle tanks to Kyiv, Estonia has handed over whatever it could: anti-tank missiles, howitzers, grenade-launchers, mortars, ammunition, vehicles, communication devices, helmets, body armor, and military food rations. The nation of 1.3 million has taken in more than 60,000 refugees from Ukraine, a higher percentage than any other nation in the European Union.
The outsized support is intended to send a clear message to the Kremlin. “Don’t play with us,” said Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pekvur during a joint-press conference in Tallinn Thursday with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Estonia’s approach stems from its shared border with Russia, and a painful history of Soviet occupation that began in 1944 and lasted until 1991. The arsenal and equipment it is providing to Ukraine aims “to expel the Russian forces, and its proxies from Ukraine and restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” Pekvur told reporters at the defense ministry located in the Estonian capital. He called on other nations to join the U.S. and Estonia to speed the delivery of weapons to Ukraine ahead of a mounting new Russian offensive in the east. “It’s never too late,” he said.
Austin told Estonia and fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies this week in Brussels that there’s a narrowing window of time to push weapons and materiel into Ukraine ahead of the Russian push. Western intelligence officials calculate that tanks, armored vehicles, and other heavy weapons could prove decisive on the eastern battlefield of open flat plains with few places that provide protective cover. Estonia has pledged thousands of 155-millimeter artillery rounds, which are badly needed by Ukrainian forces, and more than 100 Carl-Gustaf anti-tank recoilless rifles. Much of the arsenal will be drawn down from Estonia’s modest stocks.
“You’ve shown tremendous leadership in supporting Ukraine today,” Austin said to his Estonian counterpart. “As a share of your economic size, Estonia has provided more military aid to Ukraine than any other country in the world. You’ve made hard decisions to get Ukrainians the assistance that they need to defend themselves.”
Kristjan Mäe, a senior Estonian Defense official, said his nation doesn’t want a repeat of the Minsk ceasefire agreement signed after Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in southern Ukraine in 2014. In subsequent years, Putin furtively supported pro-Russia separatist militias in several eastern Ukrainian cities to sow disorder in the country and attempt to gain political control in Kyiv.
“If the war in Ukraine is not resolved on our terms that meet our objectives, then it will provide—in the long-run—a fast track to another escalation,” Mäe said. “This is our concern.”
The language Putin used to justify his invasion of Ukraine last February spooked many Estonians. At that time, Putin has said he was acting on behalf of ethnic Russians in Ukraine who were abandoned and helpless outside the borders of the motherland. Officials in the Baltics fear that if Putin is successful in holding territory in Ukraine, he could one day use the same rationale for military action in places like Estonia or elsewhere in Eastern Europe, where roughly 10 million ethnic Russians live. “Putin does not recognize the border of the Baltic States as an internationally recognized border,” Mäe said.
In the past, Putin has attempted to undermine the democratic governments of former communist countries like Estonia using propaganda, agents provocateurs, and overt military threats. In spring of 2007, after the Estonian government removed a Soviet military statue, Russian hackers bombarded government websites and servers with so much online traffic that those servers couldn’t respond to legitimate users and were forced offline, a cybertactic known as a denial-of-service attack. In September 2014, a group of Russian troops allegedly stormed across the Estonian border with the help of smoke grenades and radio-jammers, kidnapped an Estonian security officer, and took him back to Moscow to stand trial for espionage.
Such provocations are part of a disturbing history. Reports that Russian forces have moved more than 6,000 Ukrainian children to camps across Russia call up painful memories in Tallinn; thousands of Estonians were deported and imprisoned during the Soviet occupation. “These were stories from our grandparents, and now they are being relived again,” Mäe said. “So in that sense, it’s just not an Estonian official. It’s me as an Estonian citizen really wanting Ukraine to win this war, knowing the cost if Ukraine will not.”
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