Skip to main content

Elvira Nyman walks each day along the ancient fortifications that mark the end of the European Union, as well as tiny Estonia's border with Russia. What she sees across the narrow Narva River is a "strong country," she says, with a "beauty" of a leader, President Vladimir Putin.

Ms. Nyman resides in Estonia, but lives in a world created for her by Kremlin-controlled television news. In the mind of the 77-year-old retired laboratory technician, and many others in this Russian-speaking corner of Estonia, it's the West that's to blame for the war in Ukraine. Crimea always belonged to Russia. Boris Nemtsov was shot dead in the centre of Moscow last week because he was involved in some shady business that had nothing to do with his political opposition to Mr. Putin.

The city of Narva became part of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) along with the rest of Estonia 11 years ago. But with 94 per cent of the city’s 60,000 residents identifying themselves as Russian-speakers, Narva also remains firmly part of what the Kremlin calls the Russkiy Mir, or the “Russian World.”

When Kremlin-owned media offered a slew of eyebrow-raising theories this week for Mr. Nemtsov’s murder, the goal was not to convince politicians or viewers in the West of their narrative. The goal was to provide a version that Mr. Putin’s supporters in the Russkiy Mir can cling to.

Through its television channels, the Kremlin has retained the hearts and minds of not only the majority of its own citizens, but also many Russian-speakers in places such as Narva that were left outside the borders of the Russian Federation when the Soviet Union fell 24 years ago. What was viewed as a political nuisance by the governments of Estonia, along with other ex-Soviet republics who inherited these pro-Moscow populations, is now seen as a major security threat, providing the Kremlin with a potential platform to destabilize its neighbours as Russia’s confrontation with the West continues to grow.

Over the past year, the Russkiy Mir has expanded to include Crimea, as well as the breakaway eastern Ukraine regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, where a furious war is being fought between the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed rebels. There are also Russia’s willing satellites in the newly born Eurasian Union – Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia – as well as regions of two other former Soviet republics, Moldova and Georgia, where pro-Russian separatists have long held sway.

Here in Estonia, as well as neighbouring Latvia, which has a similarly sized Russian-speaking population, ethnic Russians are convinced (with some justification) by the Moscow-produced news they watch that they are discriminated against in their countries. They vote en masse for pro-Russian political parties, who in turn agitate against their governments’ participation in EU-wide sanctions imposed on Russia since the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine.

Narva has been on the front line, off and on, since the 15th century, when the Teutonic Knights built up a white-walled fortress on what is now the Estonian side of the river, and Ivan The Great marked the edge of Russian territory with a brown-walled castle just an arrow’s flight away in what is now the town of Ivangorod.

Five hundred years later, Russia and the West are again growling at each other across the same narrow waterway. Last week, NATO forces held a parade in Narva – one that pointedly included armoured personnel carriers flying the American flag – to mark the 97th anniversary of Estonia’s first stab at independence (before it was absorbed into the USSR).

(Raigo Pajula/AFP/Getty Images)

In quieter years, the annual parade has been held in the Estonian capital, Tallinn. According to Russian media, the American vehicles came just 300 metres from the Russian border.

The parade was intended as a signal of NATO’s willingness to defend the Baltic States following a year that has seen an unprecedented number of snap Russian military exercises on the other side of the border. The day after the NATO parade, Russia flexed its muscles again, drilling some 2,000 paratroopers along the south of its shared frontier with Estonia.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand what [the Russian military drills] are actually about – they’re exercises [to practise war] against NATO countries,” said Grigore-Kalev Stoicescu, a research fellow at the Tallinn-based International Centre for Defence and Security. “It’s a show of force, intimidation towards neighbours, but also preparation for real operations. Because, as we saw in Crimea, they can quickly turn snap exercises into real operations.”

But military moves are only one front in the “hybrid war” the Kremlin has proven itself a master of waging. The masked gunmen seen in Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk came only after the population had been conditioned, through propaganda and other soft power tools, to see Mr. Putin’s Russia as a saviour from the government under which they’d been living.

Narva has a history that echoes that of Donetsk and Lugansk. Once an ethnically Estonian city, and built in Scandinavian baroque style, it was almost completely demolished in 1944, when the Red Army spent six months driving out Nazi troops. It was rebuilt as a Soviet industrial hub, and repopulated with ethnic Russians to work in its textile factories.

A Nazi propaganda picture shows Infantrymen of the Waffen-SS march through the ruins of the destroyed city of Narva in this 1944 Nazi propaganda photo. (Berliner Verlag/pa/picture-alliance/Newscom)

When the USSR fell, residents of Narva continued to define themselves as Russians. The textile industry collapsed, leading to nostalgia for the “good old days” of the Soviet Union. Narva residents continued to watch Russian television, which Mr. Putin gathered under Kremlin control early in his reign, and learned from it that only Mr. Putin was standing up for Russians abroad.

“Look at the way people in Russia think, about Nemtsov, about anything. It’s almost exactly the same here. They get it from Russian state television,” said Roman Vikulov, a reporter for a Narva-based Russian-language newspaper. “They trust the authorities in Moscow more than they trust the authorities in Tallinn.”

Twenty-four years after Estonia gained independence, only an estimated 40 per cent of Narva residents have taken up Estonian citizenship. The rest are either Russian citizens, or they have no citizenship at all. Thousands carry grey “Alien’s Passport” documents that are not valid for travel in the rest of the EU. Some do so because they don’t want to take the Estonian-language citizenship test. Others keep the grey passports because Mr. Putin – in another favour to the Russkiy Mir – allows grey-passport holders to enter Russia visa-free.

“One element of hybrid warfare is they have already gained political support for Russia in another country,” said Martin Hurt, a Tallinn-based defence analyst.

Mr. Hurt and others argue that the Kremlin has already launched a hybrid war against both Estonia and neighbouring Latvia (the southeastern Daugavpils region of Latvia could also be viewed as part of the Russkiy Mir), though few believe a Crimea or Donetsk repeat is likely in the immediate future.

“Their main goal is to keep the conflict under the threshold of Article 5 [the clause triggering NATO military defence of a member state], to blame the Estonian government, the Latvian government for using too much force, and to convince the EU and NATO that Russia is not involved,” Mr. Hurt said.

Andrey Piontkovsky, a Russian political scientist who has warned Mr. Putin is intent on rebuilding the USSR, has written about what he calls the “Narva Dilemma.” It boils down to a simple set of questions that don’t have simple answers: Would NATO members really go to war for a place called Narva? Or are the alliance’s mutual defence clauses more malleable than that?

The beginnings of a hybrid war

Merle Maigre, the national security adviser to Estonia’s President, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, says Russia’s hybrid war on Estonia began in 2007. In April of that year, the Estonian government made a controversial decision to move a bronze statue of a Soviet soldier – originally dedicated in 1947 “to the liberators of Tallinn” – from its location in the centre of the capital to a less obvious location in a cemetery.

The statue shown in the background, after it was moved to a military cemetery. (Stoyan Nenov/Reuters)

To many Russian-speakers, the statue was a memorial to a cause their parents and grandparents fought and died for, the war against Nazi Germany. To most Estonian-speakers, the statue was an affront, celebrating what they saw as the beginning of the Soviet Union’s long occupation of their country.

Protests erupted in the centre of Tallinn ahead of the move, and several thousand pro-Russian demonstrators clashed with both police and Estonian-speaking demonstrators who came out to support the statue’s relocation. One pro-Russian demonstrator was stabbed to death in the chaos.

Ms. Maigre says Moscow, via its embassy in Tallinn, was directly involved in organizing the protests, as well as a massive cyberattack on Estonian government websites that occurred at the same time. That, she said, was the moment Estonia and its Baltic neighbours Latvia and Lithuania became convinced of the threat they were facing from the Kremlin.

A year later, Russia went to war on its southern flank with Georgia, moving in to “defend” the breakaway republic of South Ossetia after an exchange of artillery fire there.

“The Georgia war was a wake-up call, but we [NATO and the West] pushed the snooze button and forgot about it,” Ms. Maigre said, sitting in her office in the Presidential Administration building under a giant map of Ukraine. “This whole hybrid war scenario … is nothing new to Estonia.”

In one sign of the level of concern in the Baltic States, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite announced last month that her country would reintroduce military conscription – which it had ended in 2008 – for men aged 19 to 26.

Latvia, which abandoned the draft in 2006, is also debating the question, while Estonia has had conscription since it gained independence in 1991.

But Estonia’s Russians say it’s their own government, rather than the one in Moscow, that’s causing the friction in society. Oleg Belov, who was among the crowd who protested against moving the Bronze Soldier, has lived in Estonia all his life, but still carries only a grey “Alien’s Passport.”

“It’s an occupier’s passport. That’s how they see us, as occupiers,” he says bitterly. Like Ms. Nyman, the 50-year-old gets his news from Kremlin-owned TV channels.

Asked if he feels Russian or Estonian, Mr. Belov – a police officer in the last years of the USSR who is now a taxi driver in Tallinn – doesn’t hesitate.

“I’m Russian. Not Estonian. I’m pro-Russian, I’m pro-Putin,” he says

And Mr. Nemtsov? Mr. Belov believes he was killed by one of the other Russian “democrats” who oppose the Kremlin. “Nobody needs these kind of politicians.”

‘I think the government is happy to see non-Estonians leave’

There will likely be no invasion; It’s probable that the Kremlin already has what it wants in Estonia and Latvia. The land around Narva is arguably far less valuable to Moscow than a population, and politicians who are both inside the EU and vocally supportive of the Kremlin.

In a parliamentary election held last Sunday, the incumbent (and pro-NATO) Reform Party won the right to form Estonia’s next government, despite a small drop in its share of the vote, to 27.7 per cent. Coming a close second, with its vote share rising slightly to 24.8 per cent of the national tally, was the Centre Party, an organization that is not only pro-Russian in its political orientation, but directly linked to the United Russia party founded by Mr. Putin. In the county of Ida-Viru that includes Narva, the Centre Party won 58 per cent of the vote. The share would almost certainly have been higher had Estonia’s tens of thousands of “aliens” and Russian passport-holders been allowed to vote.

Vyacheslav Konovalov, who handles foreign affairs for Narva’s Centre Party-dominated municipal government, said it’s too simple to blame Kremlin propaganda for the fact so many in his city feel alienated from the Estonian state. Narva residents, he said, have been alienated by the national government in Tallinn. They wonder why the street signs in their city are only in Estonian when just 4 per cent of residents call it their first language. And they hate the sanctions that are destroying business ties with the Russian Federation across the river.

Mr. Konovalov attacked the recent NATO parade in Narva as an irritant to good relations with Russia, and suggested President Ilves was a “double agent” because he was raised in the United States. Mr. Konovalov said Mr. Ilves, whose parents fled the arrival of Soviet troops in Estonia, was hostile to Russian-speakers because of his background.

“Rather than building up this conflict on our border, I’d like to see the government do more to integrate this region into the economy and also into the country,” Mr. Konovalov said.

“Unfortunately, what comes into play here is geopolitics. This is a non-Estonian populated area of the country. I think the government is happy to see non-Estonians leave and go somewhere else.”

But Katri Raik, an Estonian-speaker who heads the PhD program at the Narva College of the University of Tartu, said that while Narva residents might feel disconnected from the Estonian state, they have also travelled to Russia often enough to know their lives are better as residents of the EU. “Narva is not Estonia, but Narva is not Russia,” she said. “You can find all sorts of parallels to Donetsk and Crimea … but Narva is located inside the gates of the EU.”

Even the most fervent supporters of Mr. Putin seem perplexed when asked if they’d like to join the Russia that the Kremlin boss rules.

“Maybe it was possible 17 years ago [right after the fall of the Soviet Union],” said Nikolai, a 36-year-old man walking with his young daughter along the bank of the Narva River, pointing out the sites on the Russian side to her. He said he couldn’t give his family name because he worked for “state security” and wasn’t allowed to discuss politics.

“Maybe we could have had [an independent] Northern State of Narva,” he continued. “But some ideas are only good for certain times. That time is over. But – as the movie is called – never say never again.”