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Russian 'Paradigm Change' Puts Neighbors Between Rock And A Hard Place

Estonia's President Ilves was one of the Eastern European leaders to arrive in Tbilisi on August 12 to offer Georgia support.
Estonia's President Ilves was one of the Eastern European leaders to arrive in Tbilisi on August 12 to offer Georgia support.
"Paradigm change" is one way of describing the effects the Russian-Georgian conflict has had on the way Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania view their security situation.

Estonia's President Toomas Hendrik Ilves has been one of the most prominent figures to use the expression. At a conference in Tallinn on October 24-25 titled "90 Years of Estonian Foreign Policy," Ilves argued that Russia's attack on Georgia on August 8 has shattered the "post-1991 settlement," which had given Russia a free hand in running its domestic affairs on the understanding that Moscow would leave its neighbors alone.

"We now live in a different world," Ilves observed, adding that no one has found their bearings yet in the emerging new world order. "All we know is that 8/8/8 destroyed the old paradigm."

Estonia, together with other former Soviet republics, has entered uncharted territory, Ilves said. Their challenge now is to make their foreign policies more flexible to "achieve their desired goals" -- preeminent among them the cementing of their independence.

But, as the Tallinn conference -- attended by senior diplomats and academics from around the Baltic Sea and farther afield -- made abundantly clear, the Baltic countries face major problems in carrying out Ilves's dictum.

First, Russia appears to be forcing on its neighbors a choice between becoming vassals or enemies, to borrow a phrase from U.S. Cold War-era diplomat George Kennan. Countries whose "desired goals" do not include becoming vassals of Russia must prepare for the worst, goes the thinking in the Baltic capitals. And not only there. Sweden has quietly reversed a decision to reduce defense expenditure and Finland, while beefing up its traditionally strong defenses, is debating whether to join NATO.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, on the other hand, are no match for Russia's military might, and their exposed geographical position means they must ultimately rely on their NATO allies' resolve to defend them with all means necessary.

Second, the Balts have come to question the depth of the commitment of NATO and the European Union to their security. Both organizations have struggled to maintain a united front vis-a-vis Russia, with large member states in Western Europe openly questioning the wisdom of antagonizing Moscow over its disputes with other Soviet successor states.

Talking To Their Allies

Michel Foucher, a former senior French diplomat who now teaches geopolitics at the prestigious Paris-based Ecole Normale Superieure, argued at the Tallinn conference that the Baltic countries, among others, must take cognizance of a broader "European interest," which includes energy cooperation with Russia and cooperation on major global issues like Iran, Afghanistan, and the Middle East.

Foucher said that as members of the EU and NATO, the Balts have failed to make their concerns widely understood in the West. But he suggested Paris and Berlin would always strive to hold open channels of communication to Moscow. Talk of sanctions or other forceful measures against Russia is anathema to both capitals.

Foucher was backed by a senior Brussels-based German diplomat, who particularly deplored NATO's decision to suspend meetings of the NATO-Russia Council. "Not even listening to the Russians is stupid," he said.

Pragmatism in foreign policy is difficult to pursue, however, from a position of weakness. Having to second-guess the extent of allies' dedication to their security obviously further complicates matters for the Baltic countries.

Their hand is also constrained in important ways by their differences with Moscow over key 20th-century events. The Baltic states were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, but Moscow continues to maintain the move was voluntary on the part of the three countries and a necessary element in the struggle against Nazi Germany -- which takes pride of place in the Soviet and Russian visions of history.

That history continues to play a pivotal role was evidenced by the fact that the Tallinn conference only covered the periods 1918-40 and 1991-2008. The intervening half-century of Soviet occupation was left to appear as a "dark age," mused a Finnish professor of history, who admitted he was courting controversy with the observation that "the Estonian SSR also had a Foreign Ministry."

The intensity of the Balts' distrust of Russia occasionally leads them to question the actions of their closest vital allies. Thus a senior Estonian diplomat vehemently took issue with the views of a U.S. academic who argued Washington needs Russian cooperation to frustrate Iran's quest to build nuclear weapons. The Estonian official said Moscow is acting under false pretenses when, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it backs sanctions against Iran. Moscow's real aim, the Estonian official suggested, is not to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but to manipulate the United States.

Ahto Lobjakas is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Brussels. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL