Napoleon said that “to know a nation’s geography is to know its foreign policy” and this holds true for the Baltic nation of Estonia. Its strategically vital place on the map explains both why aggressive neighbours inflicted misery on it in the 20thcentury and why it is now a keen Nato and EU member.
Sitting at the hinge of Scandinavia, Russia, and Europe, Estonia escaped from the Russian Empire and first declared its independence in 1918. It was seized by the Soviet Union in 1940, occupied by the Nazis in 1941, and retaken by the Soviets in 1944 until its second independence in 1991.
The Vabamu museum of occupations in its capital, Tallinn powerfully focuses on people’s experiences. Many thousands were sent to Siberia from 1944 – including its Prime Minister’s six month old grandmother, who only narrowly survived the cattle truck thanks to the kindness of strangers. Thousands from the USSR settled in Estonia over several decades and reduced the percentage of Estonians to about two-thirds.
Relations with the UK are historically close. RAF and German jets are now helping patrol Estonian airspace and British soldiers are learning to operate in forests that cover half the country. There’s a mine of news and views at the Baltic Geopolitics Network, jointly led by former Home Secretary, Charles Clarke.
I visited Estonia in 1990 for a European Nuclear Disarmament (END) conference which was also hosted in Helsinki. I recall Tallin’s positive vibe in its last few months in the USSR but also bribing a waiter for dinner at an indifferent restaurant. It is now a buzzing city of bars and restaurants.
I returned last week with an Anglo/German delegation comprising MPs Wayne David and Catherine McKinnell plus writer and Labour activist Paul Mason all for the Labour International Group. We were joined by a representative of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a social democratic think tank close to the SPD with activities in many countries.
We met the Estonian Social Democrats, a minority party in the coalition, their TUC, a respected security think tank, the National Defence Committee and GB Friendship group in the Parliament, and the popular British Ambassador, as well as being briefed at the Nato Centre of Cyber Defence about Estonia’s pioneering digital services.
This small country (slightly larger than Denmark) with 1.3 million people has tried to maximise its hard-won independence. Its once state-dominated economy now mostly comprises small businesses plus ten tech unicorns such as Skype and Bolt. Its education and childcare systems are seen as gold standard.
Its digital portal for public services cuts delivery costs, saving 3 million working hours a year and about 2% of the national budget. This is the same size as the defence budget, one third of which goes on supplying Ukraine whose flag flutters across Tallinn and whose fate is intimately linked with Estonia.
As for its large Russian minority, some don’t speak Estonian, (only 5% in one major border town do), and passively live separate lives with lower electoral turnout. Younger Russian speakers are more content and there are moves to advance integrated education.
Frontline Estonian expertise on the former occupier and aggressive neighbour is highly regarded. The Deputy Chair of the Defence Committee was a Soviet “tanker,” as he put it. Their intelligence service beat the CIA and MI6 in predicting the invasion of Ukrain and their politicians are neither afraid nor fond of false bravado.
They are not cowed by Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling, knowing that for Russia the main function of such ‘fly-over’ states as theirs is as buffers. They don’t accept being victims of great power haggling that they endured through the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and the Yalta Summit in 1945 in Crimea.
Inside Nato, with its indivisible commitment to its members they know this can’t happen again and there is enthusiasm for the alliance, including a path to Ukrainian membership at its summit in Lithuania in July. Of course things are never simple and Estonians understand what a Trumpian populist revival in the 2024 American elections could mean.
The following views from our discussions with both the politicians and security experts form what I call the Tallinn Theses and represent an up-close analysis of the war and Russia from a people with a lot riding on having the correct analysis.
All the above is ‘Tallinn it as it is’, as Paul Mason smartly says. But then there’s the question of what to do about it.
A Pentagon officer told me in 2002 that “wimps do strategy, real men do logistics.” Women too. And one of the most influential women in European Security is the tough Estonian Prime Minister, Kaja Kallas. She along with other Baltic leaders are committed to supporting a Ukrainian military success that will help win the best terms available. But what exactly that might mean is simply unknowable for now.
This long-term struggle requires deeper understanding of the stakes for places such as Estonia. A Labour Leader once opined that “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Corbyn, as it happens.
Corbyn’s supporters in Parliament retreated from idiocies that Nato was equally culpable for the Russian invasion. The delusional Stop the War Coalition and others peddle Putinesque myths that disregard Estonia and others. They say that Nato was extended to the Russian border despite promises to the contrary. No such promises were agreed and Estonia and its neighbor Latvia have been Nato members for nearly 20 years, and peaceful neighbours to Russia.
Countries such as Estonia were clear-headed about escaping the Soviet orbit and joining the West. The question of why so many of Russia’s neighbours are so keen to either join Nato fully, or simply align more closely to the West (as was the case for Ukraine) is never asked or answered by the hard left. Their advocacy of neutrality, a form of neo-imperialism in the Russian column, needs to be defeated in the labour movement for the sake of freedom and also for ordinary Russians.
At the final END conference in Moscow in 1991, mothers of Soviet soldiers passionately outlined to us how their sons had been brutalised, raped with brooms, and worse in the Red Army. Russian conscripts remain cannon fodder for a monstrous regime that wishes harm to its neighbours and us. The harrowing experience and deep expertise of allies such as Estonia should help guide social democrats and others in these tough years of war on our continent.
The FES paid for Gary Kent’s travel and accommodation.
This is the sixth in a series of columns covering Labour’s foreign policy challenges. The author, Gary Kent, studied International Relations, has been a Labour member since 1976 and has worked in Parliament since 1987 where he has focused on Anglo/Irish and Anglo/Kurdish relations. He writes in a personal capacity.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out Gary’s previous piece, Local to Global: Facing the Threats of Tomorrow.