Imagining a Russian Invasion of Estonia

Ed Lucas proposes a not-completely-implausible scenario of Russia and Estonia going to war as an illustration of Europe’s many misconceptions of security relations with Moscow.

Consider this scenario. Imagine that Estonian extremists start intimidating local Russians (who amount to around a third of the Estonian population). Russia can easily stoke this covertly, while demanding publicly that Estonia crack down. Then imagine that Russian activists (again, backed, discreetly, by Moscow) set up “self-defence units” which start patrols, and set up checkpoints. When the Estonian authorities try to stop this, the Kremlin complains; Russian military “volunteers” start mustering across the border, proclaiming their intention to defend compatriots from “fascism”. The Russian media report this with wild enthusiasm; the Russian authorities say they cannot indefinitely restrain the spontaneous patriotic sentiments of their citizens. Suppose Estonia requests support under Article IV of the Nato charter. At this point, Russia’s cultivation of assets in the West pays off. Germany, Italy and other big European countries tell Estonia to sort out its problems with Russia bilaterally.

The result is a worse split in the Alliance even worse than the one over Iraq. Faced with the West’s weakness, the Kremlin ups the odds. Estonia tries to restore order; Russia terms that an intolerable provocation and demands a change of government, immediate changes in the language and citizenship laws, and the establishment of what it calls a “Swiss solution”: cantons in which Russians will be allowed “to run their own affairs”. To back this up, Russian forces start military manoeuvres.So what does Estonia do then? America may offer moral support, but is it going to risk a Third World War with Russia to protect Estonia? Such a course of events is not inevitable, or even likely. But it is not as preposterous as it should be. Too many of the ingredients are in place and the Kremlin is perfectly capable of cooking them into a dangerous dish. The big question for Estonia and its friends is what can be done to make sure that never happens.