Estonia: Warning the World About Russia

Explaining a small country’s disproportionate defense of Ukraine

Estonia: Warning the World About Russia
Demonstrators at a protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022 in front of the Russian Embassy in Tallinn, Estonia / Raigo Pajula / AFP via Getty Images

I have been coming to Tallinn almost as long as I’ve been coming to Kyiv and nearly as often: at least once or twice a year. There’s an eloquent symmetry in that fact, I think, given that my latest visit to Estonia was about trying to understand its outsized contribution to the ongoing defense of Ukraine. Another way to state the purpose of my trip is to say that without Tallinn, there might not be a Kyiv left to visit, or one still worth visiting at any rate.

Estonia has donated almost 40% of its annual military budget to Ukraine and more than 0.8% of its gross domestic product, higher than any other nation per capita. It is a contribution made all the more impressive when one considers that Spain, a much larger and wealthier country, hasn’t given Ukraine a single item of heavy weaponry in 2022. Estonia has provided howitzers, armored personnel carriers, mine-resistant vehicles and hundreds of Javelin anti-tank missiles. But this Baltic state’s assistance is hardly confined to physical cargo. Kaimo Kuusk, Estonia’s ambassador to Ukraine, was one of the last diplomats to leave Kyiv — after the Russian invasion, when most of his colleagues had already migrated westward to Lviv or Poland — and one of the first to return once the invaders had been routed from the region. While French and German leaders wax philosophical about their desired endgame for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of annihilation or suggest that he mustn’t be made to feel “humiliated,” Estonia’s 43-year-old prime minister, Kaja Kallas, states in unambiguous terms that Putin “cannot win” and “cannot even think he has won, or his appetite will grow.”

In the United States, one begins to sense that popular empathy for the plight of a faraway land has begun to wane and the charisma of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has ceased to capture the attention of cable news producers. The price at the pump, the near daily gun massacres, and the rollback of abortion rights matter more to most Americans than a European war grinding into the half-year mark, even if it is characterized by the gnarled remains of shopping malls in Kremenchuk and Vinnytsia or universities in Mykolaiv. Ukraine has made its point, some commentators insist in the column inches of major broadsheets; it’s time to give Putin an “off-ramp” or “face-saving” opportunity and impose a deal on Ukraine even if more than 90% of Ukrainians don’t want one. The deranged members of the QAnon caucus in Congress don’t bother to couch their rejection of security assistance to Ukraine in the hoary language of realpolitik or national self-interest: They openly want Putin to win.

These sentiments seem not to affect the Estonian political establishment, including its risible far-right party. In spite of having its coalition government collapse, Estonia retains remarkable unanimity when it comes to supporting Ukraine. Clearly one motive is the solidarity of shared trauma. No Estonian needs to be told what occupation is like or what it does to a nation. None requires a tutorial about what Josef Stalin did to their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents in 1941 and 1949, or to be reminded of those events’ gruesome parallel to what Putin is today doing to Ukrainian families. Kallas’ mother, for instance, spent a good portion of her childhood in Siberian exile, after the Soviets deported her via cattle car at only six months old with her mother and grandmother.

It is now estimated that the Russians have transferred close to 2 million Ukrainians to Russian-occupied territory since the start of this war. Of them, 307,000 are children. The 2 million represent 4.5% of Ukraine’s prewar population and are a larger number of people than reside in all of present-day Estonia. While the word “gulag” may have fallen out of the global vernacular, we’ve now become reacquainted with a grim euphemism: the “filtration camp,” not seen since the wars in Chechnya. These are the facilities in occupied Donbas where men are separated from women and interrogated, then tortured or disappeared based on the sole crime of just how Ukrainian they’ve chosen to be. Any whiff of patriotism or national pride — a tattoo or emblem will do — coupled with the demographic offense of being a military-aged man is met with the expected punishment of indefinite internment, or worse. The result is nothing short of the deracination of a people: genocide, to call it by its rightful name, as indeed scholars such as Timothy Snyder and Eugene Finkel have already done and as Estonia’s Parliament was the first among national legislatures to do.

Estonia, too, has long been alert to the threat posed by a resurgent and revanchist Russia. Kingsley Amis once invented an all-too-believable story that when his friend Robert Conquest was asked if he might like to retitle “The Great Terror,” his seminal 1968 history of the Stalinist purges, for an updated reedition, Conquest suggested: “I Told You So, You Fucking Fools.”

Estonia has been telling us so for years.

It has been telling us that for the Chekist in the Kremlin, whose soul presidents are said to have glimpsed and whose payrolls former chancellors have entered into, the Cold War never ended. It has been telling us even before the invasion of Georgia in 2008 or the annexation of Crimea in 2014 that Putin has been gunning for a major confrontation with the West. It has been telling us that the Russian special services and their proxies were tirelessly working to undermine Europe’s postwar security architecture, sow division in our societies with disinformation, influence operations and subvert democratic elections.

Estonia has been telling us that perhaps building Russian pipelines or letting Russian oligarchs gobble up sports clubs, castles and media companies in our backyard was not such a hot idea. It has been telling us that “resets” and rapprochement never buy genuine goodwill with the Kremlin, however much the well-meaning architects in the West may hope that to be the case; at best, they only buy time.

Estonia has been telling us.

And yet, for too long, the response from Western Europe and North America has been one of placation or condescension. That scruffy little Baltic state fixated nostalgically on 20th-century state conflict in a 21st-century era of nonstate actors and sacred terror. Why won’t it move on and get with the program already?

Except now nostalgia defines the present and may yet define the future. Estonia’s fixation, born of existential necessity, has proved more than useful; it has made it the keenest observer of how Putin’s war in Ukraine would go. Which is to say sideways.

I was in Kyiv in January, a few weeks before the bombs fell on that capital, and met with Kuusk after a series of interviews with mid- and high-ranking Ukrainian officials. I had come to find out why they weren’t panicking when everyone else was. All thought the imminence of a major invasion aimed at regime change was unlikely in spite of the steady trickle of leaked intelligence in the Anglo-American press that it was all but certain. At worst, there’d be some mucking about in the Donbas, but a blitzkrieg in Kyiv? Putin wasn’t that crazy, the Ukrainians assured me.

Kuusk believed he was that crazy, but that much of the apocalyptic scenarios anticipated by other countries — including mine — about the inevitable fall of the Zelenskyy government within 72 hours and the destruction of its air defenses within minutes was badly misinformed.

Ukraine in 2022 was not Ukraine in 2014, he said. The army, which was in disarray eight years ago, was now battle-hardened and more experienced than any NATO army in knowing exactly how the Russians fight. Or try to. Even with Stingers and other man-portable air defenses, Kuusk added, Ukrainians would still be shooting Russian Sukhois and MiGs out of the sky. Why? Because they’d be flying at low altitudes owing to lousy winter weather conditions and the imprecision of their dumb bombs.

Kuusk was right, and I have a groaning database of videos showing flaming Russian warplanes crashing to the ground to prove it. A half-hour with him in a Kyiv restaurant (the Estonian Embassy that day had to be evacuated because of a series of bomb threats made by parties we can only guess at) was worth all the expert commentary I’d consumed in the prior weeks. This included cynical essays in American foreign policy journals suggesting it was useless to arm Ukraine at all because the country was toast. A corollary of that thesis was that it was necessary to give Putin his off-ramp even before he had found his on-ramp. Had we considered foreclosing the possibility of Ukraine’s ever joining NATO or the European Union?

Estonia hadn’t because it understood the dividends that derive from membership in both institutions: not having Russian rockets rain down on universities and maternity wards seemed to its electorate more an inalienable right than a privilege. And the good news is Ukraine is now fast becoming a NATO-standardized military; and it has already done single-handedly what the alliance was founded to do collectively. It has gained EU candidate status, something no doubt facilitated by diplomacy of another Estonian, Matti Maasikas, the EU ambassador to Ukraine and another early and eager returnee to Kyiv.

“There are decades when nothing happens,” one troublesome Russian politician purportedly noted, “and there are weeks when decades happen.” In weeks, Ukraine has through fire and steel dismantled a series of self-destructive myths built up over decades, myths that have been dressed up as items of conventional wisdom in many Western governments, even though they now seem little more than the yield of assimilated Russian propaganda.

The first is that Russia’s military is an unstoppable juggernaut, the second-most powerful in the world, and so resistance is futile. Unless this designation is to be measured in stolen dishwashers, desertions and dead geriatric generals, I think the claim can be safely retired.

The second is that staring down Putin would lead to “World War III,” nuclear holocaust or some other form of boundless escalation. It led to Russia’s withdrawal from Kyiv and Kharkiv. And it is now leading to Ukraine’s destruction of Russian ammunition stocks in the Donbas, command centers in Kherson and a Russian “pause” in military operations, thanks to the arrival of American HIMARS, long-range artillery systems.

The third myth is that NATO enlargement was a provocative and dangerous act that invited rather than deterred Russian belligerence — something former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev rubbished in these pages at the start of the war. Some would have you believe that the gang rapes and summary executions of Ukrainian civilians in Irpin and Bucha are less the fault of Russian sadists than they are of policy planners in Washington and Brussels, not to mention democratic parliaments in a host of former Warsaw Pact nations that voted to opt in for a different species of “fraternal assistance.” Leave aside the moral squalor of this argument; it is now a tested proposition. Sweden and Finland are set to join the alliance, giving Russia an 830-mile border with NATO, an unimaginable contingency as of the start of the year. Meanwhile, Stockholm and Helsinki have professed their shock that Putin’s response to this development has been to shrug.

The fourth myth is that powerful states in the West can afford to underestimate or discount struggling or vulnerable ones in need of help. More harm can be wrought by low expectations than by idealism. What does a country emerging from years of Russian occupation have to teach the world?

Last week I drove the length of Estonia with its former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves. As we were leaving his ancestral farm Ärma in the southern region of Mulgimaa, we spotted a truck with a siren blaring. Was it an ambulance? No, it belonged to some road maintenance agency. “They probably found a pothole somewhere in the country,” I said to Ilves. Such are the state of Estonia’s thoroughfares in 2022, many of them built or refurbished with EU subsidies and contracts executed with little to no fanfare. In the U.S. infrastructure bills are heralded as major legislative accomplishments, but here, in borderland between Europe and Eurasia, upkeep is a matter of course and national pride. (Even Estonia’s moose traverse sturdier bridges — built solely for them across expansive highways — than quite a lot of New York City commuters can claim to drive over daily.)

It wasn’t always so.

After regaining independence in 1991, Estonia was awash with organized crime, corruption and a compromised military-security apparatus. By the lights of contemporary punditry, not much of a fixer-upper; maybe even a liability for bringing into the transatlantic community. Thirty-one years later, Estonia leads the world in cybersecurity and tech startups: more unicorns than a Greek myth. It ranks among the least corrupt nations in the world and among the most law-abiding. It has a robust law enforcement and counterintelligence culture, which annually catches Russian or Chinese spies who have burrowed deep into its military, police or intelligence sectors, and unlike other European countries, which prefer to hush up or downplay such breaches, it names and shames and prosecutes them. Estonia is a proud member of the EU and NATO and spends 2.3% of its GDP on defense, above the alliance’s benchmark. After the annexation of Crimea, a lot of international reporters descended on the city of Narva, home to Estonia’s largest ethnic Russian minority population, and wondered if this would be the next beachhead of “little green men” from Russia. It turned out that Russians in Narva are quite happy to remain outside of Russia; yet the spate of articles suggesting this could prove the next flashpoint of a major showdown with the West promoted intellectuals who now question helping Ukraine to doubt the the purview of Article V. “Who would die for Narva?” they said.

What they didn’t say was that Estonians had already died for America — nine soldiers in Afghanistan, and many more wounded, among the highest per capita casualty rate in NATO. Nor did they register that al Qaeda’s destruction of the Twin Towers or assault on the Pentagon seemed very “far away” to the average Estonian soldier, who nevertheless turned up for the fight.

So the scruffy little Baltic state, you might say, has proved an excellent return on investment. In other words, it is a success story emblematic of everything Ukrainians now aspire to achieve in the not-too-distant future and are indeed fighting for their lives to do.

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