The northernmost Baltic state of Estonia is warning its citizens a Russian war in Ukraine could bring a flood of refugees and increased cyberattacks on infrastructure as it tries to prepare for the turbulence a conflict would fuel across Europe.
Estonian Foreign Affairs Minister Eva-Maria Liimets said the government in Tallinn has held weekly security situation discussions since last October when concerns around Russian military activity at its border with Ukraine began to rise.
“If there are war refugees coming from Ukraine then, like we have seen in previous crises, our government institutions have to be prepared for it,” Ms. Liimets said in an interview in Tallinn.
What Estonia is doing mirrors similar assessments and preparations being undertaken across Europe.
In a recent public statement, the Estonian government said while it sees no direct military threat for the Baltic country of 1.3 million people, “every person and organization” should nevertheless anticipate an impact from military action in Ukraine.
“As a society, we must be prepared for a surge of war refugees, a deepening energy crisis, cyberattacks, as well as a wider economic and social impact,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said recently.
U.S. lawmakers were warned last week a full invasion of Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin could result in one million to five million Ukrainian refugees, The New York Times reported Saturday. It said senior members of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration also briefed Congress that Russia had assembled 70 per cent of the forces it would need for a full invasion.
Russia has previously used cyberattacks in conflicts.
Estonia was hit in 2007 by a massive cyberattack that targeted the Estonian parliament, banks, government departments, newspapers and broadcasters. Tallinn initially blamed Moscow but the Kremlin denied involvement. The disruptions occurred during public controversy over a decision to relocate a Soviet war memorial from downtown Tallinn – a move that was condemned by the Russian government.
That year “was when we really saw the first time that political pressure was accompanied by cyberattacks,” Ms. Liimets said.
Last month, Ukraine government websites were attacked with a warning posted on web pages that said “Be Afraid and Expect the Worst.” Kyiv has blamed the hacking on Russia, which has denied it.
Ms. Liimets said Estonia has greatly increased its computer security since 2007. She noted that NATO’s cybersecurity think tank is now based in Tallinn and Canada has applied to join the organization.
Russia has massed an estimated 130,000 soldiers near the Ukrainian border, fuelling fear of an invasion, and the White House warns an attack could come “any day.” Baltic state leaders such as Latvia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Artis Pabriks, fear their countries may be next if NATO cannot stop Mr. Putin from moving on Ukraine. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania only broke free of Moscow 30 years ago, when the Soviet Union collapsed. All three countries joined NATO in 2004.
“If Ukraine falls to Russia … then we are next in line. That is very clear,” Mr. Pabriks told The Globe and Mail last month.
Ms. Liimets says Estonia feels safe today, pointing to NATO’s increased presence in the Baltics after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. The NATO response includes a greater presence in the Black Sea and four multinational battle groups across the three Baltic states and Poland, with Canada leading one in Latvia where about 600 Canadian soldiers are deployed.
She said it’s necessary for NATO to further strengthen its eastern flank so that Estonia and other countries continue to feel secure “in spite of the developments further south.” Britain, which leads the NATO battle group in Estonia that includes 900 British soldiers, is considering options to double troop numbers and send defensive weapons to Tallinn. The United States is sending 3,000 additional troops to Poland, Germany and Romania.
Ms. Liimets, the Estonian Foreign Affairs Minister said she is also worried about a Russian troop buildup in Belarus, a close ally of Moscow that borders Latvia and Lithuania. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has described the massing of soldiers in Belarus – estimated to be 30,000 – as “the biggest Russian mobilization there since the Cold War.”
Russia recently said its soldiers in Belarus are merely taking part in military exercises slated to end Feb. 20. Ms. Liimets said this development “changes the security environment of our region” and said Estonia “very much hopes” the troops leave Belarus after the exercises end. “Otherwise the security situation is more worrisome for us.”
Mantas Adomenas, Lithuania’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, told The Globe last week if the Russians do not draw down their forces in Minsk after Feb. 20, he fears a “de facto Anschluss occupation of Belarus may take place,” using a term that refers to the 1938 political union between Austria and Germany.
Andres Kasekamp, a professor of history at the University of Toronto who specializes in the Baltic Sea region, said Lithuania and Latvia had already been forced to address increased irregular migration as a result of actions by Belarus. European countries have accused Belarus of weaponizing migration by flying in migrants from the Middle East and pushing them to attempt to illegally cross its borders into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
He said the assumption in European capitals including Tallinn is that during a Russian-Ukraine conflict Moscow would disrupt its supply of natural gas to Western customers. “What levers does Russia have? Not so many. The only big leverage is energy,” Prof. Kasekamp said.
In the same message to Estonians earlier this month, the country’s Minister of Rural Affairs, Urmas Kruuse, cautioned against hoarding supplies but recommended “each person should have a reasonable supply of commodities at home.” He said it would be useful for “unprecedented situations, which do not necessarily have to be crises brought on by war.”
Ms. Liimets said she welcomed negotiations with Russia on Ukraine but said any resolution cannot come at the expense of Western security. Mr. Putin has asked the West to guarantee Ukraine will never be allowed to join the NATO military alliance. “We are very firm that Russia’s demands which are supported by its military presence have to be clearly pushed back,” she said.
With files from Reuters
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