On Feb. 24, 2018, the Republic of Estonia will celebrate its 100th anniversary of independence from the Russian Empire. Yet for more than half that time, this tiny Baltic nation about twice the size of New Jersey wasn’t independent at all.
Occupied by Soviet troops in 1940, it was captured by Nazi Germany a year later, retaken by the U.S.S.R. in 1944 — and promptly turned, against its will, into a Soviet republic ruled by Moscow. It was only in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, that Estonia regained its independence and began the long path to prosperity.
By all accounts, Estonia has succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination. A member of both the European Union and NATO since 2004 (and the eurozone since 2011), its 1.3 million people today enjoy one of Europe’s fast-growing economies, almost zero public debt and near-universal internet access. Estonia, the birthplace of Skype, ranks sixth on the Heritage Foundation’s 2017 Index of Economic Freedom (after Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland and Australia). And now Estonia, for the first time ever, occupies the rotating six-month presidency of the EU until Dec. 31.
But the Russian threat has never gone away — as Estonia’s new ambassador to the United States, Lauri Lepik, made clear in a recent interview.
He said that threat was laid bare by the massive Zapad exercises that Russia staged along with Belarus in mid-September — one of the biggest such drills since the end of the Cold War. The ambassador called the drills aggressive and noted that they took place only 70 miles from Russia’s border with Estonia. Russia claimed the exercises were standard practice and only involved roughly 13,000 troops, but military observers believe the number was far higher (initial estimates put the figure at 100,000, though it appears about 70,000 troops participated).
The war games envisioned a fictitious region of Belarus being overtaken by insurgents trying to topple the pro-Moscow regime. Russia stressed that the games were defensive in nature and designed to help the country’s counterterrorism operations. U.S. officials counter that the true intention of Zapad might have been to covertly leave behind a Russian military presence in Belarus and simulate an attack on NATO countries (a view bolstered by the fact that “Zapad” is Russian for “west”).
“While we admit that every nation has the right to exercise on its own territory, they haven’t been transparent. The size of Zapad and the lack of transparency is what really concerns us,” Lepik told us. “It’s very obvious if the country next to yours organizes large-scale military exercises with a scenario that it’s a counterterrorism operation — then deploys more than 100,000 air, naval and land forces plus a nuclear triad — it doesn’t seem very credible. You don’t find terrorists with 100,000 troops.”
Russia further threatens Estonia, he said, with an array of non-military tactics ranging from cyber warfare to disinformation campaigns. In fact, long before accusations swirled of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections, Estonians were well acquainted with fake news and the dangers posed by Russian hackers.
e-Stonia Girds for Cyber Warfare
In 2007, Estonia was hit by a massive, weeks-long cyber attack that crippled banks, media outlets and government offices following riots over the relocation of a controversial Russian World War II monument. The unprecedented cyber attack on one of the world’s most wired nations ominously became known as “Web War One.” Distributed denial of service attacks flooded the internet with traffic, crashing websites and sending officials on a hunt to find the culprits and get the country back online. “This was the first time that a botnet threatened the national security of an entire nation,” Jaak Aaviksoo, Estonia’s defense minister at the time, told Wired’s Joshua Davis for an Aug. 21, 2007, article.
While no one could prove that the Kremlin was behind the attacks, they did originate from Russian IP addresses and online instructions were given in the Russian language. But one thing is clear: After that, Estonia quickly transformed itself into e-Stonia. The country was already a tech trailblazer, allowing citizens to vote and file taxes online. But such digital reliance also made it vulnerable, so after the 2007 attack, its people became experts in the burgeoning field of cyber security. Top IT consultants now receive training from the Ministry of Defense, practicing what to do in the event hackers target Estonia again, and the government has set up a Cyber Defense Unit. Likewise, NATO set up its own cyber defense center — based in the Estonian capital of Tallinn — a year after the attack.
Estonia is so prepared for a cyber shutdown that it claims to have become the first country able to function without physical land by setting up “digital embassies” around the world to back up all of its critical data. Estonia recently created the first such “data embassy” in Luxembourg — a heavily guarded server room that will contain vital e-government data that can be accessed even if systems are down at home.
Deterrence and Defense
Having served in various defense-related postings throughout his diplomatic career, Lepik argues that his country has to take strong measures to protect itself against Russia, both in the digital and physical realm.
Before taking up his current posting, Lepik — who presented his credentials to President Trump on Sept. 8 — spent the previous five years in Brussels as his nation’s permanent representative to NATO. Prior to that, he was Estonia’s envoy to Ukraine and Moldova, and from 1996 to 2000, he was deputy chief of mission at Estonia’s embassy in Washington (the first ambassador under whom Lepik served, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, went on to become president of Estonia from 2006 until 2016).
Interestingly, Lepik’s wife is also a diplomat. During the four years she served as Estonia’s ambassador to Germany, he took a leave of absence — earning a master’s degree in political science from Berlin’s Humboldt University and writing his dissertation on Nordic-Baltic defense cooperation.
By coincidence, Lepik presented his credentials the same day as 10 other new arrivals including Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s new ambassador to the United States.
“I’ve been here for two months, and it has been extremely busy, so physically I haven’t had time to pay a courtesy call to my Russian colleague,” Lepik, 57, told The Diplomat. “But we were both together at the credentialing ceremony, and I had a quick chat with him in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. I would describe it as professional.”
In the meantime, Lepik is becoming reacquainted with Washington, where he served in the late ’90s. “I’m glad to be back in Washington, since my first posting was here,” the ambassador said. “There’s always work to be done on security, deterrence and defense. Our relationship with the United States is strong and productive, and I’m glad there’s very strong bipartisan support in Washington for that.”
Lepik declined to comment on Trump’s ambiguous warning last year that once he became president, the United States might not automatically defend NATO allies under attack. That kind of rhetoric was music to the ears of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but it put countries like Estonia — already nervous over Trump’s dismissal of NATO as “obsolete” — on edge.
Nevertheless, during a July 2017 speech in Warsaw, the president offered explicit support for Article 5, the collective defense component of NATO’s charter.
“I don’t want to go back onto the campaign trail. That’s far behind us,” the ambassador said. “A campaign is a campaign, and after the inauguration, the administration sets its policies. In that sense, NATO plays a very important role for the administration, and of course for the president. Also, Vice President [Mike] Pence was in Tallinn this summer and gave a very strong speech. The budget Congress has adopted shows very clearly what the priorities are. Trump is clearly committed to Article 5, as his latest statements show.”
Pence isn’t the only high-profile American to visit Estonia lately. As Politico reporter Andrew Hanna pointed out in late July, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) led a congressional delegation there in December, as did Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) in June. In March, the Pentagon’s top NATO general stopped in, followed the next month by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Ill.). President Obama came to Tallinn in September 2014 to speak directly to Estonians.
The reason: Military strategists worry that Estonia may be the next Georgia or Ukraine — both former Soviet republics that know what it’s like to fight Russian forces. After all, an October 2016 study by the Rand Corp. found that a surprise Russian offensive could reach Tallinn within 36 to 60 hours. “As presently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members,” the think tank concluded, warning that the alliance’s military assets in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were so mismatched with Russia as to be “inviting a devastating war, rather than deterring it.”
While most experts doubt Russia would directly invade the Baltics, knowing it would invite a NATO counterattack, Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine clearly rattled the transatlantic security bloc. In 2016, NATO agreed to deploy four major battle groups to Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The plan involves a rotating contingent of several thousand multinational troops in each country, backed by armored infantry, drones and an additional 40,000-soldier rapid reaction force to protect Europe’s eastern flank.
The Baltics cheered the move, and despite initial doubts over whether Trump would commit to the plan, the U.S. military has been steadily shifting resources and manpower to reassure nervous Eastern European allies. “[T]he United States and its NATO allies recently completed positioning about 4,500 soldiers in the three Baltic States and Poland, and are preparing to keep several thousand armored troops on the Continent as a deterrent to Russian aggression,” Eric Schmitt of The New York Times wrote in an Aug. 6 article. “These tensions are part of an expanding rivalry and military buildup, with echoes of the Cold War, between Washington and Moscow.”
But not everyone is thrilled about a Cold War revival, and Trump is not alone in his skepticism of NATO. Foreign policy realists such as Harvard University’s Stephen Walt point out that NATO has steadily encroached on Moscow’s doorstep and provoked a predictable backlash by courting nations such as Ukraine, where Moscow — not Washington or Brussels — has deep ties and vital strategic interests. Some also argue that NATO went too far by accepting (and thereby agreeing to defend) a wave of former Soviet states, questioning the wisdom of the U.S. ever going to war with Russia over a nation like Estonia.
That kind of talk has the small but politically savvy Baltics playing offense. Estonia’s clout in Washington, for example, is partly the result of a “sustained influence campaign,” according to Politico’s Hanna.
“The country’s defense minister visited lawmakers on Capitol Hill in June, while its foreign minister scored face time with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in March,” he wrote. “Current and former Estonian government officials are some of Europe’s most visible at think tank events, skillfully schmoozing Washington politicians and journalists.”
And despite Trump’s oft-repeated complaint that Europeans aren’t paying their fair share of defense expenditures, Estonia is quick to remind Americans that it is one of only five NATO member states to have achieved the 2 percent of GDP threshold the alliance set at its 2014 summit in Warsaw.
Lepik said Estonia’s commitment to NATO is driven by very real security concerns, with its territorial integrity and sovereignty constantly being threatened by Russia.
“In 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea and started to wage war against Ukraine, NATO immediately reacted. The U.S. deployed its troops to Estonian soil as a first step of deterrence,” he told us. “We had this kind of arrangement until the NATO summit in Warsaw, when it was decided to deploy the Enhanced Forward Presence — which is a fully manned and equipped battle group — to the Baltic states and Poland.
“More importantly, and this speaks for the credibility of all 29 allies — is that this mission has been very successful,” Lepik added. “We have a British battle group in Estonia supported by French troops, and then Danish troops will rotate the French out. That is clearly the sort of symbolic message to everyone, including the Russians, that Estonia doesn’t stand alone — and that any possible threat or aggression will be met by all NATO allies.”
He noted that the Kremlin’s anger over roughly 1,000 troops under NATO control in Estonia is “really laughable.”
“Our Russian colleagues really don’t understand the nature of NATO,” Lepik said. “There are 29 ambassadors sitting around the table at the North Atlantic Council, taking decisions based on consensus. Everyone has to agree to take an action. That kind of unity and symbolism is much more powerful than a battle group on the ground. This signal is extremely important — not only to the Russians but also to our own public — that NATO is the organization that defends everyone.”
Baltic expert Agnia Grigas, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said, “Estonia matters tremendously, precisely because of Russia’s resurgence and because Estonia is perceived as a potential Russian target of destabilization. And for the U.S., it matters because Estonia is a NATO member country, and an ally.”
Grigas, author of “Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire,” said that “if you look at the ambassador’s background, it’s very telling that he was former ambassador to NATO. It signals that this is the security agenda he’s coming with.”
“Since the U.S. is also a NATO member, if Russia were to do something, NATO and the U.S. would have to respond. This would potentially, at least in theory, mean there could be a conflict between Russia and NATO. So this is why since 2014 all eyes have been on the three Baltic states.”
The Lithuanian-born Grigas emphasized that none of the three like being called ex-Soviet republics.
“They were never regarded as regular Soviet republics because they were occupied during World War II, and Washington never recognized their occupation,” she said. “All throughout the Cold War, Estonian diplomats in Washington and New York were running their missions in exile.”
And even though Trump has reassured Estonians that the United States has its back, “I think they’re still nervous,” Grigas said.
“Certainly, verbal reassurances are nice, but they live on the border, on the frontlines, and see a hostile Russia,” she told us. “At the end of the day, they will have to rely on NATO for support to defend themselves.”
Identity and Information Wars
Donald Jensen, who closely follows the Baltics as an adjunct senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), says Estonia “has built a multi-ethnic country which the Russians are trying to undermine,” even though they haven’t been very successful at it.
“Estonia has a high-tech economy, it has integrated itself into the EU and NATO, it has so far successfully resisted Russian aggression, and has made the transition from being part of the U.S.S.R. to becoming a very vital, positive contributor to European and Western society. They deserve immense credit for creating a Western society despite all the problems,” said Jensen, a former U.S. diplomat posted to Moscow. “Like Poland, Estonia is a model for aspiring countries that want to make that same transition, especially Georgia, Ukraine and parts of the former Yugoslavia.”
He added: “The lessons for those countries looking at Estonia are still there. They had great individual leadership. The whole package was there. In 1991, Poland and Ukraine had about the same income levels. Since then, Estonia and Poland have gone forward, and Ukraine has regressed because of corruption and a lack of national identity.”
Yet Russia has seized on the issue of identity to infiltrate nations with sizable Russian minorities, such as Estonia. Western experts say Moscow is increasingly targeting such states with a campaign of “hybrid warfare,” using a combination of cyber attacks, propaganda and proxy forces. Baltic airspace, for instance, has been repeatedly breached by Russian aircraft, cyber shutdowns recently affected Latvia and Finland has seen a wave of fake news stories about how the country mistreats its ethnic Russians.
Lepik said the Kremlin targets his country with disinformation aimed at convincing Estonia’s sizeable Russian ethnic minority that the country is a fascist, neo-Nazi state that would not survive on its own without massive help from the EU and the United States.
Ethnic Russians make up about a quarter of Estonia’s population, with Russian-speaking minorities concentrated in the city of Tallinn. Many ethnic Russians are not well integrated into Estonian society, watching only Russian TV, for example, and complaining that they are discriminated against by a government that makes it difficult for them to be full-fledged citizens. In fact, as many as 90,000 of these ethnic Russians are essentially stateless citizens.
According to a recent article in Slate, “while a good number of ethnic Russians have successfully become Estonian citizens or acquired Russian citizenship, many have not. While the advantages of citizenship in an EU member state might seem obvious, the naturalization process is long and difficult, and it requires fluency in Estonian, a complex language with 14 cases, which many people living along the Russian border do not speak at all.”
As a result, many of these people end up with “alien’s passports,” which allow them to vote in local elections but not in national ones; nor can they join a political party or work in public offices. But Lepik denies that his government treats ethnic Russians as second-class citizens.
“The aim of Russian propaganda is to divide the Baltics and the West, and to spread the idea that NATO is not politically united,” he said. “But we are the West. We are a very liberal, well-established democracy. Quite frankly, this campaign hasn’t had any traction because people know better.”
Nevertheless, in 2015, the Estonian government launched a Russian-language public broadcasting channel to counter propaganda by pro-Moscow outlets.
One striking example of this disinformation campaign was a recent Kremlin attempt to portray Estonians as Nazi sympathizers, even though, as Lepik said, “fascist and Nazi symbols of the Third Reich, and also communist symbols, are prohibited by law. We regard them as more or less equal evils.”
For now, said Lepik, Estonia has been “on the backburner” because Kremlin disinformation efforts have been focused on much larger targets: elections in France and Germany, and more recently the Catalonia independence referendum in Spain.
Century of Change
To mark Estonia’s 100th anniversary of independence, the embassy is helping coordinate a whole series of events throughout 2018. These include an exhibition of Estonian medieval painter Michel Sittow at the National Gallery of Art from Jan. 28 to May 13; seven U.S. performances of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra (in Florida, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina and California) from Jan. 25 to Feb. 7; three April performances of the Heinavanker vocal ensemble; and a June 1-3 conference of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies at Stanford University.
Asked if countries trying to make the transition to democracy and a free-market economy can learn anything from Estonia’s experiences, Lepik said “there is nothing to take away from the legacy of the Soviet system — absolutely nothing worth saving. Everything had to be built from scratch. This is a very important lesson.”
Secondly, he said, countries must make necessary but painful structural reforms, no matter what.
“I’m saying this because these reforms, by their nature, are unpopular with voters — like land ownership, institutional reforms, health care, agriculture and privatization,” he said. “People initially hate the changes. They resist them and vote politicians who are reformers out of government. But in our case, although the governments changed quite rapidly, the course was the same. We didn’t change our policies.”
After enjoying double-digit economic growth in the late 1990s, the economy tanked following the 2008 global financial crisis and has only recently begun bouncing back. It’s now at a healthy 4.7 percent a year, while unemployment hovers around 4 percent. Annual per-capita GDP, meanwhile, is around $17,600 — about on par with Greece or Slovakia, slightly less than Portugal and considerably higher than its two Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania.
But how does Estonia stack up against the rest of the ex-U.S.S.R.?
“I don’t care,” Lepik replied. “I don’t compare us with the other former Soviet republics. That was 25 years ago, so I don’t see any need to make that kind of comparison. We are in a different world now.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.