On either side of the Narva River, two castles stand sentry, silent symbols of two societies that have faced off for centuries.
They now face their highest tension in a generation.
On one bank, a 16th-century castle flies the Russian flag and protects the city of Ivanograd, named after Ivan the Terrible. On the other, a castle built in the Middle Ages flies the flag of Estonia, one of NATO’s smallest but most resolute members.
The border here has been called NATO’s most sensitive, vulnerable to the kind of hybrid war that Russia has waged in eastern Ukraine since 2014. For Estonia, which has been occupied by Russia for 250 of the last 300 years, the castle that defends Narva sends a clear message: “Never again.”
“We never want to see that happen again,” says Estonian air force commander Jaak Tarien. “We never want to see our freedoms go away.”
Tarien, 42, has identified as European since Estonia gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, after a half-century occupation. But Tarien is old enough to remember growing up Soviet, and the impact the Soviet Union had on his family.
“My grandfather was [an] officer in the Estonian army before [the] war and he was deported to Siberia, never to come back,” he said at Amari air base, where Estonian officers regularly mingle with their American and British counterparts. “When I was 5 years old in kindergarten, I remember discussing with other 5 year olds, ‘Will we ever see the year 2000’? We came to a conclusion that, ‘No, because America is building a neutron bomb.’ So Soviet propaganda was so thorough that 5-year-olds were discussing such existential matters.”
Estonia’s worry is both historic and current. In 2014, they watched Russia annex Crimea and destabilize eastern Ukraine. They feared they were next. That sense only increased as Russia launched military exercises across the border with as many as 80,000 soldiers, while Sweden hunted for Russian submarines operating off of its coast and Russian jets buzzed US warships in the Baltic Sea.
“We have heard the rhetoric of Vladimir Putin,” Tarien says. “We feel he has the intention to re-divide Europe. … I am not looking for a war or battle. I hope that we can deter Russia from ever making a big mistake again.”
Deterring the so-called Russian Bear requires a lot of backup. Tarien’s air force has no jets. And while Estonia has mandatory conscription, the army has only 5,000 active-duty soldiers.
“Deterrence worked all throughout the Cold War,” Tarien says, “so we are confident, if the allies take it seriously — as seriously as Estonia does — deterrence works this time as well.”
NATO is answering Estonia’s call, because Russia’s annexation of Crimea didn’t only concern former Soviet states; it revitalized NATO. At last weekend’s Warsaw summit, NATO announced plans to deploy battalions of up to 1,000 soldiers to Poland and each of the Baltic states, including Estonia. In addition, the United States plans to quadruple military spending in Europe, and for the first time will deploy an armored brigade of soldiers there at the highest level of readiness.
The 1997 “Founding Act on Mutual Relations” between Russia and NATO forbids the Atlantic bloc from permanently stationing troops in NATO countries that were once behind the Iron Curtain. Some US officials believe Russia’s actions in Ukraine negate the act, but US policy is to follow its guidelines in order to invite Russia to “re-comply,” in the words of one senior official. Stationing troops in eastern Europe is meant to send Russia a strong message.
The deployments are “meant for Kremlin decision makers to make them realize … that they cannot get away with a bilateral conflict with one of the nations of their choosing,” Tarien says, “that they’re immediately at war with the entire NATO.”
Fears over Brexit and Trump
But after Britain voted to leave the European Union, Estonians doubt European fortitude. And they fear the impact of presumed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
In April in Wisconsin, Trump said, “Many countries are not paying their fair share. That means we are protecting them and they are getting all sorts of military protection and other things, and they’re ripping off the United States. And they’re ripping you off. Either they pay up, including for past deficiencies, or they have to get out. And if it breaks up NATO, it breaks up NATO.”
Trump’s criticism is economic. In the early 1980s, the United States accounted for half of all of NATO members’ military spending. Today, it accounts for three-quarters.
Estonia argues it is one of only four countries that meets NATO’s military spending requirement of 2 percent of GDP, and points out that it deployed soldiers to Afghanistan after 9/11. But more than anything, Estonia believes NATO and the EU represent shared values that stand in contrast to Russia.
“It’s about the American values,” Tarien says. “It is important for the better world in the future that Estonia stays free and democratic country and democracy spreads east from here, instead of vice versa — the tyranny spreading west from here.”
What Russian-speaking Estonians want
In Crimea, Russia claimed authority to intervene on behalf of ethnic Russians. More than 90 percent of Narva is native Russian speakers.
Fourteen-year-old Igor Shirai is one of them. He is the son of a Russian mother and Estonian father. In the castle overlooking the Narva River, he describes how he feels at peace in Estonia — and wants this border city to feel that way, too.
“I would like to have the West … be at our side,” he says. But “all of this flying around in planes and really making Russia angry, this is pretty much a bad idea.”
Narva does feel calm. And Estonians have it pretty good: their living standards exceed those in the Russian town across the river. Children of Estonians have total access to the European Union. Every day 8,000 people cross the border from Russia to Estonia and vice versa, mostly to visit family or to shop. Unlike in Crimea, that opportunity and prosperity mean even most residents who identify linguistically and culturally with Russia are pro-Estonian and pro-European.
Perhaps nobody embodies that more than 62-year-old Vladimir Petrov, the chairman of the Union of Russian Citizens in Estonia. Judging by his office, you might think he’s a Russian nationalist. Magnets of Russian President Vladimir Putin compete with postcards of former Soviet Russian leader Joseph Stalin. But even he wants his love of Russia to stay a long-distance relationship.
Asked whether residents of Narva want Russia to intervene, he says, “The daily life that’s continuing here is nothing like military intervention, and no one is hoping for that.”
Reporting in Estonia was made possible by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Click here to see the full PBS NewsHour report from Narva, Estonia.