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Estonia - Russia Relations

Estonia has a long history of being dominated by Russia, and has no interest in returning to this past. In 1219, what was to become a common event for Estonia first occurred — conquest. In that year Danes captured northern Estonia. The Swedish defeat resulting in the 1721 Treaty of Nystad imposed Russian rule in what became modern Estonia. Independence remained out of reach for Estonia until the collapse of the Russian empire during World War I. Estonia declared itself an independent democratic republic on February 24, 1918. For the two decades between World Wars, Estonia enjoyed independence for the first time in seven hundred years. The Soviet Union forcibly incorporated Estonia as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. In November 1988, Estonia's Supreme Soviet passed a declaration of sovereignty. Following independence in 1991, the new Estonian state attempted to move quickly to develop military capabilities in order to preserve its reclaimed national sovereignty. Russian military personnel were only withdrawn from Estonia in 1994.

Estonia's border with Russia is not only a key transit point for goods traveling between the two countries, but also the easternmost EU border with Russia. Estonia's economic ties with Russia are modest and relatively straightforward. Bilateral trade with Russia has held steady for several years at around eight percent of Estonia's total, with imports dominated by mineral fuels. Exports are spread across all sectors. Inward direct investment from Russia is about two percent of Estonia's total, concentrated in transit and real estate. Russian businessmen characterize the relationship as basically good, as long as politics can "stay out of it." Observers from across the Government of Estonia (GOE) concur that Estonia is "saved by its small size" whereby it is easy to track investors and investments (making it hard for Russia to infiltrate the economy). The Ministry of Defense (MOD) keeps a close eye on the facets of the economic relationship that might impact on energy or cyber security, another factor limiting Estonia's vulnerability. Estonia will remain dependent on Russia for much of its oil and gas over the next decade - and will no doubt hit periodic bumps in the road on transit and trade issues - but Russian economic ties are less consequential than are Estonia's ties with other Baltic Sea neighbors, and the wider European Union.

Estonia's ties with Boris N. Yeltsin weakened since the Russian leader's show of solidarity with the Baltic states in January 1991. Issues surrounding Russian troop withdrawals from the Baltic republics and Estonia's denial of automatic citizenship to non-citizens ranked high on the list of points of contention. Immediately after independence, Estonia began pressing the Soviet Union, and later Russia, for a speedy withdrawal of Soviet troops from its territory. Estonia insisted that the process be completed by the end of the year. The Soviet government, citing a lack of available housing for its troops, said not before 1994. In January 1992, some 25,000 troops were reported left in Estonia, the smallest contingent in the Baltic states. Still, more than 80,000 hectares of land, including an inland artillery range, remained in the Russian military's hands. More than 150 battle tanks, 300 armored vehicles, and 163 battle aircraft also remained. The last troops did not leave until August 1994.

In the fall of 1991, as Estonia laid down its new citizenship policy, the Soviet Union called the move a violation of human rights. Under the citizenship policy, most of the country's large ethnic Russian minority were declared non-citizens. The Soviet government linked the further withdrawal of troops from Estonia to a satisfactory change in Estonia's citizenship stance. In response, Estonia denied the human rights charges and invited more than a dozen international fact-finding groups to visit the country for verification. As the propaganda war and negotiations dragged on, Estonia and the other two Baltic countries gained international support for their position on troop withdrawal at a July 1992 summit of the CSCE in Helsinki. The final communiqué called on Russia to act "without delay . . . for the early, orderly and complete withdrawal" of foreign troops from the Baltic states. Resolutions also were passed in the United States Senate in 1992 and 1993 linking the issue of troop withdrawals to continued United States aid to Russia.

Yet, Estonian and Russian negotiators remained deadlocked throughout 1993. At several points, President Yeltsin and other Russian officials called an official halt to the pullout, but the unofficial withdrawal of forces continued. By the end of 1992, about 16,000 troops remained. A year later, that number was down to fewer than 3,500, and more than half of the army outposts had been turned over to Estonian defense officials. The Estonian and Russian sides continued to disagree, primarily over the pace of Russia's withdrawal from the town of Paldiski, on the northern coast some thirty-five kilometers west of Tallinn. The Soviet navy had built a submarine base there that included two nuclear submarine training reactors. Russian officials maintained that dismantling the reactor facility would take time; Estonia demanded faster action along with international supervision of the process. The last Russian warship, carrying ten T-72 tanks, departed in August 1994. However, Russia was to retain control of the reactor facility in Paldiski until September 1995.

The coalition government policy agreement of April 2007 called for "concrete and practical initiatives for developing relationships between Estonia and Russia." The government was keen to have its foreign policy "move beyond Russia", as some MFA interlocutors have put it. As a result, Estonia continued to focus on concrete, cross-border cooperation in the areas of transport infrastructure, law enforcement, health, education, and culture. The agreement made no mention of trying to resuscitate and finalize the border treaty between Estonia and Russia.

Still, the new government's desire for a more tranquil and cooperative relationship with Moscow could be set back by its plans to remove a World War II era statue, the "Bronze Soldier," and by plans to increase people's awareness of crimes committed under both Communism and Nazism. Removal of the Bronze Soldier was especially likely to elicit a volatile response from Moscow. Reform continues to be the driving force behind removing the Bronze Soldier. Reform interlocutors likened their actions regarding the statue in particular, and re-addressing the crimes committed under Communism in general, to "lancing a boil" - painful but necessary for the long-term health of the country. One prominent Reform leader told us off the record, "If it wasn't (the statue) Moscow would find something else to criticize us for...that's how the Russians are."

From April to May 2007, international cyber attacks targeted government and private sector websites in Estonia, causing significant service disruptions to websites, servers, and routers linked to government, banking, media, and other resources. These highly coordinated attacks captured widespread international media attention. Estonia has taken a leadership role on cyber security within NATO, the European Union, and other organizations, becoming an important player in international cooperation on cyber defense. Estonia hosts a NATO Center of Excellence for Cyber Security in Tallinn.

High profile cyber attacks against Estonia and Georgia have brought the subject of cyber security from the realm of internet magazines to main stream media outlets. The cyber attacks advanced the perceptions of animosity between the Russian Federation and former Soviet satellites. The cyber attacks that have occurred in the last few years have shown the vulnerabilities of using the internet and the weaknesses of cyber defenses. There is little concrete proof of involvement of the Russian Federation government in any cyber attacks. The circumstantial evidence does lead to the perception that the Russian government was behind or supported recent cyber attacks. When countries or organizations stand in opposition to Russia they are likely to receive a cyber attack in order to influence their position.

In late 2007 several Russian attempts to provoke Estonia with Soviet-style propaganda fell flat. A Duma resolution on the Soviet soldiers' memorial in downtown Tallinn (the so-called "Bronze Soldier"), a well-timed declassification of documents "proving" U.S. and British complicity in the Soviet occupation of the Baltics, and GOR complaints about draft legislation that would ban public displays of both Nazi and Communist symbols in Estonia have merited little reaction from Government of Estonia officials or the Estonian media.

By late 2007 Russia-Estonia relations were slowly returning to normal, despite lingering Russian ill will and unhelpful political rhetoric in both countries. On November 15, the Russian Duma adopted a statement protesting the Estonian Parliament's discussion of legislation which, if approved, would allow the Government of Estonia to relocate war monuments away from the center of Tallinn. The Duma statement accused the Estonian Parliament of "glorifying fascism" by considering this legislation, which has passed the first of three readings in the Parliament. In a November 16 BNS story, Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said Estonia should not justify Russian accusations by reacting to them. He pointed to the lack of reaction by Italy and Spain after a recent EU-Russia summit during which Russia equated those countries with mafia and corruption.

On 23 November, Estonian media outlets published excerpts from a Russian foreign intelligence service (SVR) press release on the declassification of 400-pages of documents from World War II. The SVR, which released the documents just subsequent to Queen Elizabeth II's Baltic tour and only days before President Bush's visit to Tallinn and the Riga NATO summit, claims the documents prove Britain and the United States tacitly approved of the Soviet occupation of the Baltics after the War. Official Estonian reaction to SVR comments and the release of the documents was extremely muted. In conversations with us, MFA officials dismissed the information as a "non- issue." Foreign Minister Urmas Paet publicly stated that the Government of Estonia has no plans to look into Russian claims. Prominent parliamentarians Mart Laar and Marko Mihkelson noted in Postimees that the release of the documents and the corresponding Russian media campaign was perfectly timed to coincide with President Bush's travel to the region. Laar also said that Estonians will not be tricked by "new revelations" and concluded that he believes Russia hopes to spread fear and dissension among the Baltic States and give the impression that the United States and United Kingdom betrayed them.

Subsequently, on December 1, BNS published an article on the Russian reaction to draft Estonian legislation banning public displays of Nazi and Communist symbols. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the bill "immoral" and complained that it equates Nazi crimes with Soviet achievements and detracts attention from "real problems" including those faced by Russian speaking minorities in Estonia and Latvia. Again, Estonian media largely ignored the Russian reaction to the bill.

Even a few years ago, these types of provocative actions and remarks by the Russians would have elicited a much stronger response from Estonia, but these days neither the Government of Estonia nor the press is taking the bait. However, it is likely that nationalist parties in Estonia will try to mobilize their base by inciting anti-Russian sentiment in the run up to spring Parliamentary elections. This will certainly put the Government of Estonia's pragmatic approach to the test.

On 11 February 2010, FM Urmas Paet presented an overview of Estonia's foreign policy to the Estonian parliament. In his speech Paet emphasized the positive in relations with Russia, specifically that 2010 marks 90 years of diplomatic relations, that a record number of Russian tourists visited Estonia in the past year, and that Russia is Estonia's fourth-largest trading partner and its largest trade partner outside the EU. In his answers to questions from MPs, however, he was less positive. Paet said Russia uses economic relations for political ends, which increases trade risk. He would like to see Russia join the WTO to counter this tendency. Further, NATO has been trying to improve relations with Russia, but that Russia responded with military exercises on NATO's border and by calling NATO the "enemy." Still, he said threats to Russia will come from the south, and that Estonia is willing to help Russia face these threats. Paet is open to the EU lifting visa requirements for Russians, provided Russia follows the readmission agreement and reciprocates.

Paet indirectly rejected Russia's call for a new security infrastructure for Europe and said existing institutions must be used more effectively to deal with conventional and emerging threats. NATO must not forget about conventional threats, as Russia showed with its 2009 Ladoga and Zapad exercises (which simulated repelling a Lithuanian invasion) and 2008 invasion of Georgia. In this vein, Estonia would also like to see the EU strengthen its Common Security and Defense Policy.

In order to advance bilateral relations, in recent years Estonia-Russia co-operation was focused on resolving practical issues. In this vein, one should highlight the progress that had been made in developing the treaty base between the two countries. With the exchange of ratification letters for the Estonia-Russia pension agreement on 2 March 2012, an agreement that was important for residents of both countries came into effect. On 28 November 2011 the implementation protocol for the readmission agreement between the countries came into effect. In addition, consultations and negotiations wre held for many other bilateral agreements.

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Page last modified: 21-10-2015 18:34:57 ZULU