The border between Russia and Estonia.

Credit:

Teri Schultz

Geographically, there’s just a river, and not a very big one at that, separating Estonia and Russia. 

Militarily, tiny Estonia’s strongest defense is the NATO guarantee to defend every inch of allied territory.

So as the Estonian government watched Russian troops mass in huge numbers along the border of another Russian neighbor, Ukraine, President Toomas Ilves told NATO he wanted “boots on the ground”—  troops —to provide extra reassurance in light of Russia’s aggressive military actions. After all, Moscow annexed Estonia against its will once before, in 1941, so Tallinn has its reasons for sounding an alarm.  NATO had already boosted its regular air-policing mission over the three Baltic countries, but Ilves argued for a stronger presence on the ground.

The president explained his reasoning publicly, as he warmly welcomed the arrival of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in late April.   “American and Estonian soldiers exercising here together raise the visibility of the transatlantic alliance both for people living here and for those living elsewhere,”he said.  “It makes NATO less an abstraction and reinforces the commitment we all share in the alliance.”  

That “visibility”Ilves mentions is being achieved with just 150 U.S. troops.  In an interview with America Abroad, Ilves says that’s enough to accomplish what it needs to do. “No one thinks that 150 troops in Estonia are going to fend off a massive invasion —no one has that idea,”he said, but what their presence demonstrates is that “if you’re going to do something to one member of NATO, all of NATO is against you and with their full resources.”

Estonian Air Force Commander, Colonel Jaak Tarien, says it’s the American presence in particular that’s reassuring.  “(T)his is the greatest deterrent effect there is,”he said from his office at the Estonian Defense Forces headquarters in Tallinn.  “(A)ny potential aggressor knows they will be in direct conflict with the United States and no one in the world at this point wants it.”

This is one reason the U.S. military drawdown has long worried many countries.  And now, for Estonia, it becomes even more pertinent, as Russian President Vladimir Putin is calling the American troop deployments a “provocation”.

That’s not unexpected.  The deployments to Estonia, along 150 troops each to Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, mark the first time NATO has dispatched ground forces, beyond those participating in brief exercies, to allied territory near the Russian border.  The decision reverses longstanding policy, enshrined in the 1997 founding act creating a relationship between NATO and Russia, in which one of the understandings is that neither side would build up conventional forces near the NATO-Russia border.   But NATO says Russia’s military interventions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have already broken not just these rules but a host of other international agreements pledging transparency and respect for sovereignty of other nations.

But Estonia has long been on Putin’s radar for other reasons too.  The town of Narva, just 130 miles east of the Estonian capital, is separated from Russia geographically only by the modest Narva River.  Linguistically and culturally, there’s virtually no separation at all.

More than 95 percent of Narva’s population speaks Russian, many have Russian passports and almost everyone I spoke to said they felt more Russian than Estonia —though they prefer the superior standard of living on the Estonian side.  Local club owner and entertainer Vladimir Cherdyakov explains that the biggest problem here is that, 23 years after Estonia regained independence from the floundering Soviet Union, Cherdyakov says Estonia is still trying to make its ethnic Russian population feel bad about the Soviet takeover in World War II.

“Every day, everywhere, every newspaper, every radio, I listen [to] only this phrase: Russian people [are] occupants,”he says, adding that they’re made to feel by the Estonians that they are not “our people..our citizens.”

The danger is that Putin considers Narva’s Russians HIS people, suggesting they are being mistreated by their own government and warning he may need to step in and “protect”them.

That’s the same rationale he gave for invading and annexing Crimea and he’s raising it again with other areas in eastern Ukraine that have a high percentage of ethnic Russians.

Estonian Education Minister Jevgeni Ossinovski, himself a Russian speaker, agrees there are valid grievances, especially in integration and finding jobs, but he vigorously rejects any attempt to align him or Estonia’s other ethnic Russians with the Kremlin.   “I don’t want any representative of myself as a Russian speaker in Moscow,”he says. “I’ve never been a citizen of Russia and I really don’t have anything in common with that country, so I really don’t like and I think majority of Russian speakers don’t like statements made by Moscow saying “we are standing for the interests of Russian speakers, blah blah blah. I don’t think anyone is interested in that kind of representation.

But NATO can’t afford to dismiss the Russian narrative as just “blah blah blah” ; the consequences of misjudgment are too high. At NATO headquarters in Brussels, Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, who’s also been the U.S. ambassador to Russia, considers a “Narva invasion” scenario “highly unlikely but not impossible.”

“We don’t necessarily believe [Russia is] poised to take any direct aggression against NATO; I think they take NATO’s defences quite seriously,”Vershbow says, but “the expansive doctrine that Putin has enunciated means that we can’t completely dismiss the notion that he might create some kind of provocations, try to intimidate some members of the alliance…They have tried to fan the flames of Russian nationalism in Latvia and Estonia.”

For his assessment of the “threat”, the alliance’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, says he examines both the “capability”and the “intent”of a potential aggressor.  In this case, he says Crimea has shown what Russia’s intent could be elsewhere. 

Breedlove says NATO is looking at a different Russia than it thought it was —and looking at itself differently too.  “We have to sit back and reevaluate our force posture and our force readiness,”he says.  “Are we prepared to meet the threat that is represented by a snap exercise which generates a huge capable force right on a NATO boundary?  Are we ready to meet that threat?”

NATO officials acknowledge it’s a fine line they’re treading now, ramping up operations enough to deter Kremlin notions of threatening an ally, while not pushing it so far it could provoke a Russian military reaction.

In the nearest term, Breedlove is considering options such as changing the timing, scale or location of NATO exercises already on the books, or drawing exercises planned among several allies under the NATO mantle, to underscore that any threat will meet a 28-nation response.

This month (May) alone, thousands of NATO troops will be in Estonia for “Exercise Spring Storm”while Poland hosts “Exercise Orzel Alert”.

And Breedlove also will continue to push his case with Washington policymakers that the U.S. troop level in Europe must not be decreased at all. He says the American military presence was at its bare-bones minimum to do everything it needs to do even before Crimea.

Colonel Tarien in Tallinn also hopes Breedlove’s arguments convince American decision makers not to cut U.S. troops here in Europe.

“The trend of reducing US troops presence is very worrisome to countries like Estonia,”he explains. “We would hope that the current events in Ukraine would reverse this decision and U.S. presence will not be reduced and hopefully steadily grow not to Cold War levels but the level of 10 years ago.”

And even as his country receives ever-more-frequent threats coming from the Kremlin, Tarien remains convinced that keeping U.S.soldiers here “will prevent war from ever happening in Europe again.