Changes in Estonian Defense Policy Following Episodes of Russian Aggression
IN THIS ARTICLE
After joining the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2004, Estonians felt secure and in charge of their future. However, following the 2007 Bronze Horseman incident in the Estonian capital of Tallinn which included riots incited by Russian disinformation as well as cyberattacks on the Estonian banking and government infrastructure, many in Estonia became cognizant of the need for the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF), NATO, and the EU to do more to combat the growing Russian threat. When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, any Estonian illusions of a peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship with Russia were laid to rest. Now, due to both the large Russian-speaking minority in the eastern part of Estonia and the country’s geographical proximity to Russia, acts of aggression stemming from the Kremlin are taken extremely seriously in Tallinn. Russia’s cyberattacks in 2007, the invasion of Georgia in 2008, and the invasion and subsequent occupation of Crimea in 2014 have caused Estonia to update and evolve its policies towards Russia in order to safeguard its security and to ensure a successful and independent future for Estonians. In this paper, I will analyze the steps taken by the Estonian government, NATO, and the EU to balance against the Russian threat posed to a united Europe. By looking at overall themes of the Estonian-Russian relationship, changes in the Estonian Defense Forces, and evolution of policy between Estonia, NATO, and the EU, I will examine why a Crimea-style invasion of Estonia is unlikely and why Estonia is at ease with the policy changes they have made in regard to their ability to defend themselves from a Russian attack.
Overview of Estonian Defense Society
When analyzing Estonian defense policy, it is most important to understand the influence of the country’s 1.3 million people.1 The small population impacts decision-making in types of future investments, tangible military strategy, and the setting of development goals in the Estonian Long-Term Development Plan released by the government each decade. While the small population emphasizes Estonia’s dependence on its allies for defense, it enables the government to be more responsive to its citizens and more aware of potential threats from individuals within the country.
GeographyEstonia is the northernmost country among the three Baltic states and has land borders with Latvia and Russia. The country has an area of 45,227 km2, just over twice the size of New Jersey.2 Marsh makes up most of the territory with few mountains to provide any physical barrier to an invasion force. While the marshland does make invasion a tough task, it also represents a difficult barrier to building adequate and substantive defensive measures.
A desire to maintain sovereignty drives defense policy in Estonia. Having only been independent from 1918-1940 and from 1991 to the present, Estonian government policy aims to avoid occupation in the future.3 Memories of Soviet and Nazi occupation still haunt much of the older generation, and the prosperity brought on by EU and NATO membership has helped the younger population avoid the rising populist and pro-Russian sentiments felt in other parts of Europe.
Potential Security Concerns with the Russian Minority in Estonia
While relations between Estonian citizens who are ethnically Russian and ethnically Estonian are calm, there are substantial socio-economic differences between the two groups which the Estonian government must monitor.4 Since 72.8% of the eastern-most county of Ida-Viru is ethnic Russian, the potential for Russian information and media interference in the region certainly exists.5 Many ethnic Russians in the east get their news from Russian-language news outlets controlled by the Kremlin. As a result, just 27% of Russian-speaking Estonian citizens support NATO presence in the region.6
Most ethnic Russians support the Center Party of Estonia and while the Center Party platform has not yet been swayed by this anti-NATO sentiment, Russian fake news and quasi-Russian news outlets which regurgitate the Kremlin’s talking points continue to operate at a large capacity in the Estonian news landscape. Rather than promote Russian interests and prop up the Russian government, they mostly strive to depict the Estonian government as xenophobic and intolerant thereby creating a divisive atmosphere and turning ethnic Russians who are Estonian citizens against their own government.7
Despite these security concerns, Estonia’s mandatory conscription acts as an equalizer among much of the country’s young population. Ethnic Russians often grow up in Russian-speaking schools and homes so the government provides Estonian language classes to ensure ethnic Russians are more comfortable speaking in Estonian. The conscription process has built a culture of respect and friendship between the ethnic Russian and ethnic Estonian youth since they view each other as fighting on the same side for the same cause. When ethnic Russians interact with ethnic Estonians during conscription, they obtain non-Kremlin news from Estonian and western sources and hostility between the ethnic groups dissipates.
55% and 32% of the ethnic Russian population in Estonia lives in Harju county (Tallinn) and Ida Viru County (bordering Russia), respectively. Because the ethnic Russian population in the remaining counties of Estonia represent 5% or less of the population of the county itself, the Estonian government focuses primarily on Harju and Ida Viru Counties.8 On top of the vast majority of ethnic Russians living in either of these two counties, Estonian government officials recognize that ethnic Estonians tend to have greater income, lower crime rates, and lower drug addiction rates than their ethnic Russian counterparts. However, these same government officials, including Major General Marin Herem of the Estonian Army, believe the socio-economic differences between ethnic Russians and ethnic Estonians in Harju County and Ida-Viru County are mitigated by the substantially lower living conditions across the border in Russia. Ethnic Russians in Tallinn reside in a prosperous capital of an EU member country, and ethnic Russians in the border town of Narva are easily able to cross into the neighboring Russian town of Ivangorod on a daily basis to see for themselves the wealth disparity between the two countries.9 While in the past analysts feared a Russian hybrid warfare invasion with ethnic Russians in Estonia acting as the catalyst for a Crimea-style takeover, the economic success of the EU contrasted with the substandard living conditions on the Russian side of the border keeps many ethnic Russians supportive of the Estonian government even if their hearts remain in Moscow.
Estonian Defense Forces (EDF)
The Estonian Defense Force’s primary goals are the protection of Estonian sovereignty and the communal defense of the NATO alliance. The Estonian Ground Forces currently consist of about 3200 conscripts and 6000 active duty soldiers.10 The Ground Forces are reinforced by an extensive reserve unit and have participated in NATO fighting in both Mali and Afghanistan, providing soldiers with combat and advanced weapon system skills they are unable to acquire in Estonia.
The Air Force, as the smallest of the three branches of the EDF and lacking any offensive capabilities, acts as a support structure for NATO exercises in the region. Specifically, Ämari Airbase in Harjumaa hosts Baltic Air Policing Units from allied European powers.11 Estonian Naval power is comprised of four ships, including two minesweepers. Their main objective is to pinpoint and remove the thousands of mines laid in the Baltic Sea during the two World Wars.12 While both the Navy and Air Force missions remain vitally important to Estonia’s defense against Russia, they have not evolved as significantly as the Army’s in response to Russian threats because of the immense cost to build and maintain effective weapons systems.
Deterrence and Collective Defense
Deterrence is the most important goal of the Estonian defense community. Because of the country’s small population, the Defense Forces are realistic in their objectives and understand the impracticality of launching an offensive attack on an enemy. As a result, the military poses no real offensive threat in either the cyber or conventional field. As emphasized by Lieutenant Colonel Lillenrum of the Estonian Defense League, there is absolutely zero offensive capability in any aspect of the Estonian Defense community.13
NATO acts as a communal defense force for Estonia in case of invasion. NATO and Article 5, the article that considers an attack against one NATO state an attack against the entire alliance, play an important role in Estonian military policy. Estonia has not only embraced NATO’s requirement that 2% of their GDP be devoted to defense spending but has also welcomed defense readiness exercises like “Siil,” supported Allied militaries stationed in the Baltics, and welcomed many cyber defense organizations including the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) to Tallinn to demonstrate its commitment to collective defense and to NATO.14 The 2018 Siil Exercise brought together 19 different countries and put Estonian military and Defense League forces on the battlefield with Allied partner troops to increase cooperation and combat-readiness in the event of an attack.15 CCDCOE symbolizes the importance of cyber defense to the entire NATO alliance. Its location in Tallinn, a place which has first-hand experience with an intrusive and devastating cyber-attack, demonstrates how Estonia has rebounded from the 2007 Bronze Horseman incident and cyber-attacks to become a main player in the defense against Russian media interference and cyber warfare.
Evolution of Policy
The Estonian government regularly produces documents explaining their long-term military development plans and strategy for Estonian National Security. The National Security Concept document from 2004 outlines a very different strategy than the one produced in 2010 after the Russian cyberattacks in Estonia and invasion of Georgia. In 2004, the Concept document spoke of an effort by Estonia and its western alliances to cooperate with Russia and look for options to promote democracy in Moscow. There was less emphasis placed on building up NATO and Estonian defenses and instead more on a need for defending “Europe’s border.”16
The Bronze Horseman incident and cyberattacks in 2007 forced Estonia and NATO to rethink their defense policy which resulted in an updated version of the National Security Concept document released in 2010. The rhetoric directed towards Russia changed sharply and NATO even discussed the potential for a military conflict.17 While there were still some illusions in the West of cooperation with Russia, which included President Obama calling for a reset in relations with Russia, Estonians were on the front line of Russian aggression and understood the seriousness of the Russian threat.
Beyond the National Security Concept document, Estonia also produces a long-term development plan. Following the Georgian War in August of 2008, there was an extensive overhaul of this plan. The plan, released in 2009 and set to finish in 2018, recognized the deficiencies within the Estonian system, sought to overhaul the communication and intelligence capabilities within the Estonian military, and made system and organizational compatibility with NATO and the Baltic States a priority. These policy changes helped ensure the future success of a NATO response to an attack on a member state such as Estonia.18 The long-term development plan also contained more practical and tangible upgrades than the broad, abstract statements and lack of seriousness that made up Estonian military training policy before the Georgian war.19 Specific upgrades included Javelin system anti-tank weapons replacing the older MILAN anti-tank system and the development of high-alert readiness groups that could respond to any invasion at a moment’s notice.20
Application of Policy
The Estonian government has been successful in converting these policies into tangible results. The ground forces have expanded the capabilities of their light infantry brigades through the adoption of Howitzer guns and participation in snap exercises to increase brigade readiness.21 Estonia does not invest in extensive twenty or thirty-year development plans to acquire advanced weapons systems like tanks and fighter jets which Allied forces can provide in the event of conflict. Rather, they focus on improving the capabilities of their own army with training exercises and weapons systems that are reasonable and affordable.22 For example, the defense budget focuses primarily on increasing Defense League training, speeding up communications and transportation, increasing reaction speed and command capability, and maintaining barracks and armored personnel carriers.23 These improvements ensure NATO’s advanced weapons systems and Estonia’s well-trained defense forces will complement each other in the event of conflict.
Following Crimea in 2014, the Estonian government felt it was important to invest in the more advanced Javelin anti-tank weapon system. Because the Estonian government prefers to spend at or just above 2% of GDP on defense per NATO requirements, officers like Major General Martin Herem can only ask for so much funding and have to strategically invest the defense budget in order to get the most return on their investment. The Javelin missiles, an example of maximizing return, were funded by the U.S. Government through the European Reassurance Initiative set up by the Obama Administration to bolster NATO defense in Europe and demonstrated how Estonia uses its alliances and partnerships to the fullest potential. The Javelins are capable of attacking targets at distances of up to four kilometers and are a critical weapon system as Tallinn has no battle tanks in its armed forces.24
There has also been a significant change in mindset of the soldiers in the Estonian military. While hard to prove in peacetime, Major General Herem described an Estonian military always prepared for war with Russia whether war is likely or not. He stated, “if you leave some to be taken, Russia will take it,” and that following the conflicts in Georgia and Crimea, Estonian conscripts understand that war is a reality and are prepared to die in battle.25 Sending troops to Afghanistan and Mali helped to prepare soldiers for the reality of war at home, and with that combat experience, the military has shifted its mindset to one of preparedness and reality rather than skepticism of conflict.
Obstacles to Success
The most significant obstacle to a successful deterrence model for the Estonian military is the feeling of many Estonian citizens that state defense is not an appropriate, necessary, or viable career path.26 In turn, this feeling leads to low military participation in a professional manner amongst the population. There is a large number of Estonian citizens enlisted in the Defense League and Defense Forces, but cadets may have had bad experiences during their year of conscription. Many are not inclined to continue their service, some simply want to explore opportunities of employment in other EU countries, and others have committed a crime or offense that makes them ineligible for service.27 Because of disinterest, crime, and the effects of globalization, the EDF was unable to meet its goal of 4000 military professionals by 2018.28 The Forces are currently comprised of about 3200 professionals, up from 3000 professionals when the 2009 Long-Term Development Plan was written.29 While motivating the population to devote their careers to state defense may be difficult, investing in socio-economic programs to decrease wealth inequality and increasing awareness about Estonian military career options within the population could help increase the number of military professionals in the Defense Forces.
Estonian Defense League
The Estonian Defense League (EDL) is a voluntary wing of the Estonian Defense Forces which focuses on local defense and a civilian response in the event of an invasion or security threat. The EDL was founded after Estonia’s initial independence in 1918. Today, it is a local force which tactically supports the Estonian Defense Forces with light infantry units. The EDL’s light infantry units compliment the Defense Force’s heavier equipment as well as NATO tanks and jets which would operate on Estonian soil in the event of an invasion. The EDL’s purpose is to enhance Estonian military defenses throughout the country while relying solely on the initiative of Estonian citizens. The EDL is a strictly deterrent force and consists zero offensive propaganda efforts in the heavily Russian eastern region of Estonia.30
Policy Changes in Wake of Russian Aggression
Following the cyberattacks in 2007, the EDL established the Estonian Defense League Cyber Unit (EDLCU). The EDLCU works with the private sector to allow cyber companies to be called upon in the wake of a cyberattack.31 The command provides education and training and is a direct result of the findings that primarily private companies, not the government, were able to counter the 2007 cyberattacks.32
The EDL has always provided citizens with the training and weapons necessary to fight a guerrilla war during a Russian invasion. These weapons are kept on private property in weapon safes, and safety training is provided by the EDL.33 This direct form of defense drastically shortens the time it would take to mobilize a unit to under 24 hours.34 Since Russia used hybrid warfare to conquer Crimea in 2014, having a strong and prepared force that can blend in with the local population while simultaneously fighting a guerilla war to defend their homes is a significant deterrent to any invading force. To prepare against a Russian hybrid warfare invasion, the Defense League has provided significantly more weapons training to its members and has increased the number as well as the lethality of weapons provided to the volunteer citizens.35 Arms include 90mm anti-tank guns, Carl Gustav grenade launchers, MG-3 machine guns, and Swedish AK 4 rifles.36 These weapons provide the Estonian Defense Forces with supporting battle groups and a force which complements NATO and Estonian forces fighting a Russian invasion.
Obstacles to Success
Similar to the Estonian Defense Forces as a whole, the Defense League faces some issues with ethnic Russians potentially fighting against their Russian brothers in the event of an invasion. However, Defense League LTC Lillenrum is confident that Russians who fight on the side of the Defense League understand the poverty on the Russian side of the border.37 There have been instances where local Estonian police have needed backup to quell pro-Russian riots in the east of Estonia. In these instances, entire ethnically Russian Defense League units came to the aid of the local ethnically Estonian police force and suppress the uprisings.38 Therefore, despite speculation, there is very little conflict between ethnic Russians and ethnic Estonians within the Defense League and the voluntary force remains a strong deterrence to Russian aggression.
Estonia and NATO
Nature of the Relationship
Despite Estonia’s small size and limited resources, the relationship between Estonia and NATO is very much a two-way street. In many aspects, Estonia has been the first to innovate its defense capabilities with respect to the rest of the alliance. Immediately after joining NATO in 2004, Estonia set up the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE). The CCDCOE was originally rejected by the alliance as an unnecessary security asset. Despite this, Estonia proceeded with help from the United States to set up the CCDCOE on its own accord.39 Only after the 2007-2008 cyberattacks in Estonia and Georgia did the rest of the alliance begin to understand the importance of the CCDCOE. Beyond the CCDCOE, Estonia hosts the Cyber Coalition exercises on cyber security and, as mentioned in the previous section, set up the EDLCU.40 Estonia has become the front line against Russian cyber propaganda and has provided the entire NATO alliance with advanced and up-to-date cybersecurity policy to mitigate potential future threats.
Cyber warfare happens at immense speeds. While in conventional warfare strategy can be planned and prepared for, many decisions in the cyber realm must be made immediately, with little time to react to an opponent’s move. Estonia dealt directly with the attacks in 2007 and as a result understands the speed with which decisions in a cyber conflict must take place in order for them to be effective.41 Furthermore, Estonia led by example when it called out Russia for the 2007 Bronze Horseman cyberattacks rather than keeping the information classified. Declassifying the attacks and calling out the aggressor helps explain to citizens what has happened, why it has happened, and what the government is doing to fix the problem. This transparency helps retain trust between the government and its citizens more so than the government remaining vague and leaving citizens in doubt, which could potentially lead to more damaging consequences such as a bank run.
Outside of the cyber realm, Estonia provides NATO with an advanced and self-sustaining force that is ready to fight a Russian invasion. Estonia has evolved their internal policy to significantly bolster their own defense forces. Therefore, the potential for the Baltics to be a liability to NATO is partially mitigated in Estonia as Tallinn makes cooperation and communal defense easier for the entire alliance. When Estonia builds up its own military, it prolongs a Russian invasion long enough to maintain some sovereignty before help arrives. This effort therefore provides stability in the NATO alliance and ensures the hypothetical NATO mission to remove Russian soldiers from Estonian territory will have a place to anchor itself rather than being forced with the task of invading and dislodging a Russian occupying force in the whole of Estonia proper. Estonia has also sent troops to both Mali and Afghanistan to support NATO efforts and to provide its soldiers with invaluable experience in direct conflict. This direct involvement of Estonian troops allows Estonia to prove to NATO their commitment to collective defense as well as defeating any threats to the Alliance.
Estonia provides NATO with cyber defense organizations, extensive cyber experience, and stability on the Russian border; NATO returns the favor with Article 5 assurances and collective defense. This policy, including the nuclear deterrent provided by NATO, curbs Estonian fears of Russian invasion and provides stability. The NATO Advanced Force stationed in the Baltics has kept Estonian media calm in regard to Russia and NATO’s Article 5 gives Estonia the stability and confidence to continue developing its cyber capabilities. Overall, the relationship between NATO and Estonia is symbiotic with each providing an integral and significant part of the other’s defense capabilities.
Evolution of NATO Policy in the Baltics
Following the invasion of Crimea, NATO convened for a summit in Wales in September 2014. The goal of the summit was to reassure NATO allies, especially border states like Estonia, of NATO’s commitment to their defense. President Obama even visited Tallinn days before the summit to meet with all three Baltic leaders and give them his personal reassurance of the Alliance’s support.42 The Wales summit produced a joint declaration denouncing Russian advances into Ukraine as well as a communiqué reassuring the Baltic states that Article 5 would be invoked if any Russian troops entered a NATO member state’s territory. While much of the 2014 summit was talk rather than action, it provided NATO states the support and reassurance they needed to avoid any potential internal crisis.
Two years later in Warsaw, NATO produced a more comprehensive response to Russian actions in Crimea with three affirmations that directly affected Estonia:
The 2016 Warsaw summit declaration not only turned talk into action, but showed Russia that NATO was serious about defending its members’ borders. While it took the annexation of Crimea for NATO to understand the gravity of the Russian threat, Estonia is in a much safer position now than it was before the Warsaw Summit Communiqué. Estonia depends on NATO for protection and is projected to be one of only eight-member countries in 2018 which will meet NATO’s requirement to spend 2% of GDP on defense.46 Estonians are proud they do their part; the NATO alliance and its strong, determined response during the Warsaw summit reassured the Estonian government of its security.
Estonia and the European Union
Nature of the Relationship
Estonia joined the EU in 2004. While the EU is less direct in its defense policy requirements for member states, it can recommend actions to member states to ensure their protection. Similar to NATO, Estonia has been a front runner in promoting EU policy against Russia as well as using the resources of the EU to combat disinformation campaigns.
East StratCom Task Force
The East StratCom Task Force was founded in 2015 with the objectives of promoting EU policies in the Eastern Partnership Countries, strengthening the media environment in the East, and improving the capacity to respond to, address, and forecast disinformation campaigns.47 Estonia has also reinforced the goals of the Task Force when it comes to the Estonian media environment by launching the Russian-language Estonian television channel ETV+ in 2015 as a way to challenge traditional Russian-language media from Moscow.48 The Task Force produces a weekly disinformation review which analyzes news coming from Moscow and acts as a fact-checker to ensure the credibility and the accuracy of the information.
While the Task Force focuses on the Eastern Partnership countries, it requires cooperation from the rest of the EU that can be hard to come by. Many EU states have not felt the effect of disinformation campaigns and because the EU has limited defense requirements for membership, the EU can only suggest and not mandate that member states act against Russian fake news. Countries like Estonia have called for the Task Force to receive permanent funding, but other member states have not been as supportive.49 Furthermore, the Task Force, comprised of only 14 staff members, is tasked with countering the Russian media propaganda campaign which gave the government-backed company “RT” a $19 million boost in funding between 2016 and 2018.50
Estonia is a top EU fighter of Russian disinformation, but similar European Union efforts in North Africa and the West Balkans have resulted in no substantial opponent to disinformation campaigns.51 Estonia stands by its commitment to deterrence and has zero counteroffensive propaganda campaigns on Russian soil.52 Overall, the EU as a whole must do more to understand, predict, and thwart Russian disinformation campaigns. Yet Estonia, as one of the smaller member states in population, GDP, and area, proudly holds its own when combating disinformation.
While private contractors and private investment have become a more integral part of Estonia’s military-industrial complex, there was no specific Russian attack that caused the drastic change in private investment in Estonian defense companies. Instead, there has been a slow and steady increase in the amount of private contracting with the Estonian military, which has enabled the country to be better prepared in the private and government sectors in the event of a Russian attack. By increasing the domestic production of military hardware, the EDF can become less reliant on their NATO allies for weapon systems support and can focus on the personal and professional development of their soldiers. Specifically, the Estonian government has focused on developing market-ready military hardware and software. The government has also supported amendments which would provide the legal framework necessary for Estonian defense industry businesses to manufacture, handle, and sell heavy military equipment and the profits from these sales would then be reinvested back into the Estonian military.535455 While the Estonian government is not in the market for heavy military systems, passing these amendments would open up the Estonian defense industry to more business with allied nations and profits which would provide opportunities for foreign direct investment, jobs for Estonian citizens, and growth in the economy.56 Through an increase in private investment, the Estonian government can better itself as much as possible without relying on NATO or the EU for support.
The Estonian Defense Forces have drastically changed their military policy from one considering potential cooperation with Russia to a contrasting stance of defending Estonia from Russian cyber and conventional attacks through the NATO alliance. Since the Georgian War in 2008, the Estonian Defense Forces have toughened both their talk and policy. The international community mostly followed suit after the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea which today, has evolved into a unified and strong anti-Russia sentiment amongst NATO member states. The placement of the battalion size battlegroups as well as the establishment of multiple cyber-defense organizations in Estonia have strengthened both the Estonia defense community and the NATO alliance as a whole. Furthermore, the strategic spending of defense funds and the continuation and expansion of Estonian anti-disinformation efforts have all been important successes of the Estonian defense community. More so, Estonia encouraging domestic growth of its military capabilities helps the NATO alliance be more secure and confident in the Article V commitment in a time when traditional conventional deterrence methods can be complex and never-ending.
The lack of growth within the Estonian military defense community is the biggest outright failure of Estonian military policy. The number of military professionals grew only from 3000 to 3200 between 2009 and 2018 and did not meet the goal of 4000 set by the 2009 Long-Term Development Plan. The culprit behind this minimal growth – the lack of desire in Estonians to defend their state and the opportunity to find other career paths in other EU member states – has hampered the ability of the military to expand in numbers. There is also a lack of participation in the Defense League by the ethnic Russian minority, caused by the disproportionate wealth disparity between ethnic Russians and ethnic Estonians in Estonia. While many Estonian officials believe the poverty on the Russian side of the border mitigates this conflict, the Kremlin has proven through the Bronze Horseman attacks that they are capable of taking advantage of the discontent amongst the minority.
Within NATO and the EU more specifically, there is hesitation on the part of other European powers to acknowledge the extent of the Russian disinformation and hybrid warfare threat. Estonia remains one of the few NATO countries which spends the full 2% of GDP on defense and within the EU, the main combatant to disinformation campaigns is the East StratCom Task Force. While there has been more commitment by EU countries to fight against Russian disinformation campaigns following Crimea in 2014, there is still not enough funding for the Task Force whose funding is continually dwarfed by the €1.2 billion spent by Russia on information warfare.
Evaluation of Net Change
Due to the lack of real world testing of defense capabilities, it can be difficult to determine the exact net change in the effectiveness of the evolution of Estonian, NATO, EU, and private defense policy. However, it cannot be denied that Estonia has taken significant steps in all facets of their government to improve the military’s preparedness, strength, and cooperation with allies to combat the Russian invasion threat. The Estonian military has evolved to be leaps and bounds ahead of where it was in 2007 before the Bronze Horseman incident and subsequent cyber-attacks. Before 2007, conscripts trained with little motivation or seriousness, due to the honeymoon phase following Estonia’s admission to NATO and EU contentment with the status quo. The 2007 incidents forced the government to evolve and adapt to the changing times. The Defense Forces have created comprehensive development plans which adequately fund vital systems to create a deterrent force in Estonia. The Defense League now has significantly more weapons training than it did in 2007 for the purposes of fighting off a hybrid warfare attack by Russia. Moreover, the private investment of the Estonian military has had a slow yet steady climb, enabling private industry to adequately complement the Defense Forces.
Cyber defense in Estonia has also evolved to be significantly more effective than it was prior to 2007. The establishment of the CCDCOE in Tallinn as well as the Defense League training private citizens on cyber security in the EDLCU, how to avoid phishing techniques, and how to fight back against disinformation campaigns are all representative of significant policy changes. The Estonian government as a whole has also changed their rhetoric towards Russia, shifting from one of a desire to cooperate and improve relations in the 2004 National Security Concept to an adversarial one in the 2010 National Security Concept, which takes a hardline stance against Russian rhetoric, policy, and military advancements.
EU and NATO policy have also shifted since 2007 on issues that pertain to Estonian military defense. Prior to 2007, NATO and EU policy included working with Russia to cooperate on common interests and to promote a secure Russo-Europe relationship. Beginning with Georgia in 2008 and more significantly following Crimea in 2014, the EU and NATO rhetoric has changed to talk of balancing against Russia rather than accommodating it.
Overall, Estonia is in a significantly stronger and more robust position to combat a direct Russian threat now in 2018 than it was in 2007 or even 2014 following Crimea. War plans have been drawn up and rehearsed with other Allied nations and Estonia has built up its weapons systems that when partnered with NATO heavy weaponry, will be effective in fighting back a Russian invasion. The economy has grown substantially enough that many Estonian leaders feel confident that ethnic Russians living in Estonia would not want to return to the poverty on the other side of the border. While there is no way to test Estonia’s military evolution over the past decade, it is clear that any Russian incursion into Narva, the largest city in Ida-Viru county, will be met with stiff resistance from the Estonian Defense League, robust support from the Estonian Defense Forces, and finally a NATO response including advanced fighter jets, tanks, and heavy weaponry.
Without the continued defense of the Eastern edge of the alliance by Estonia, Russia will have the opportunity to gain a geo-political foothold in the Baltics which will accelerate the Kremlin’s plan to create distrust within NATO. My interviews made it clear that both the defense and foreign ministries are educated and understanding of the threat that Russia poses. Even a representative from the Ministry of Education was conscious of how Russian-language elementary schools can influence the youth when students are only receiving information from one side of the story. Russia has and continues to carry out cyber-attacks, election meddling, and disinformation campaigns not just in former Soviet states but around the world. Estonia must continue to develop their weapons systems and cyber education as well as their partnerships with other NATO members to ensure Russia does not attempt to force an expansion of its sphere of influence that would trigger Article V. Developing these systems and focusing on their own capabilities will help mitigate the potential liability that Estonia presents to the NATO alliance and will also better compliment an arriving NATO advanced force in the event of conflict.
In the past decade, Estonia has been the NATO member country with continual unfailing support when fighting Russia. While there has been talk of wavering support for the NATO and EU alliances in the domestic politics of countries like United Kingdom, United States, and France, Estonia has remained committed to the continuity of the alliance for the purposes of defending their homeland. While other European countries may feel Russia is a distant threat, Estonia is on the front lines of both a conventional and cyber conflict with Russia. The potential for conflict is real, and conflict has arisen as seen in 2007. While members of the Estonian government and military are confident the NATO alliance is key to peace in Tallinn, that is no excuse to become complacent. Russia has strategically evolved their military for modern conflict as seen in the hybrid-warfare invasion of Ukraine and they have continued to show the West their disregard for human rights and their desire to reclaim their lost sphere of influence.
Estonia is a unique case in the NATO alliance as they have a prominent Russian minority living side by side with the ethnically Estonian population. Continuing to invest in programs to peacefully integrate the ethnically Russian population into Estonian society will not only help reduce the potential for future conflict with Russia, but also present a more united enemy to a Kremlin force which would gladly reclaim their lost territory. Furthermore, encouraging allied countries to invest in fighting disinformation campaigns and in education to help others learn and understand the capabilities of the Russian cyber and conventional threat will help Estonia become an even more confident and stable NATO member state. Estonia has and will continue to fight Russia on all fronts and after each event of Russian aggression in the past decade, Estonia has improved, innovated, and expanded its military capability in order to be a convincing and effective force against the Kremlin.
This research was supported by the Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts University. I would like to thank my colleagues from Tufts University, the United States Military Academy, and United States Naval Academy – in particular Heather Barry, Commander David Ostwind, and Captain Ben Sylvester – who provided insight and expertise while conducting research in Estonia and after we returned home.
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