Estonia and EU Foreign Policy: Tallinn asserts itself


Estonian and European Union flags waving in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Postimees/Scanpix)

Estonian and European Union flags waving in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Postimees/Scanpix)

Estonia is stressing obstinately to orient the European Union’s foreign policy in the direction of the showdown against Russia. Small and peripheral, the Baltic state is putting all its efforts in trying to handle and steer Europe, in a unheard way for its political history. There are several factors that concur in shaping this strategy, but the result of this policies is less certain than ever.


The Republic of Estonia re-obtained its independence from the USSR on August 1991, following the ‘Singing Revolution’.

Unlike other post-Soviet countries, Estonia has always considered the half century of socialist government to be a Russian occupation that froze its own political and economic development; indeed, its current independence is seen as the natural resumption of the 22 years of freedom it won in 1918, and lost during World War Two.

The trauma of the Sovietization and Russification that took place during the Cold War Era has contributed to the creation of a foreign policy based on existentialism.

Existential politics carry a dual meaning: as the expression of the utmost securitization, they refer to exceptional or extraordinary politics, implicitly defined in securitization theory as the antithesis of the ‘normal’ democratic rules of the game. ‘Existential politics’ also refer to policy driven by the desire for a state to survive in a specific form, and the quest for that state to be recognized as such by the ‘significant other(s)’.[1]

The survivalism that propels Estonian foreign policy reflects the country’s internal concerns, and several concrete elements justify that preoccupation. It is not easy, and may even be impossible, to eradicate Russia’s influence, and the de-escalation of that influence represents one of the main objectives of Tallinn. It’s an operation that needs to be conducted both externally and internally: the Kremlin is capable of applying leverage using economic, energy-supply and, in particular, media tools from the outside; from the inside, the Estonian government has to deal with a Russian-speaking community that represents around 30% of the total population.

If we consider that Russia accounts for on average 9.6% of Estonia’s trade, is also its third biggest export market after Finland and Sweden, and remains one of the major importers of Estonian goods, we can understand that the ongoing freeze in relations between the two countries can’t be too rapid and complete – at least for the moment.

Secondly, at a time when the diversification of energy sources is of vital importance for Europe, Estonia is still tightly anchored to Russia, on which it relies completely for its energy requirements.[2]

But still, it is the domestic ethnic and linguistic Russian component that represents the chief challenge for Tallinn. No post-independence government has decided to integrate the Russians tout court, instead establishing complicated citizenship tests intended to exclude from the political debate the part of the population considered to be a disloyal reminder of the Soviet dictatorship. This policy has been strongly criticized by both Russia and the EU.[3]

The former president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, accused the Estonian state of ‘practising ethnic cleansing and the introduction of an Estonian variant of Apartheid’. He also warned that Russia would undertake whatever measures were necessary to protect the rights of Russian speakers. Tragically, it seems that President Vladimir Putin took Yeltsin’s legacy very seriously, given the geopolitical role of the Russian diaspora for present-day Russia.

Furthermore, from a merely military point of view, Russia is the only country on the Baltic Sea that does not belong to any liberal democratic community in Europe. It is a leading nation in a separate cooperative security arrangement – the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTO).

The Baltic States’ quest for EU and NATO membership[4] represented the politics of survival par excellence, aimed at securing Western security guarantees against historically aggressive and unstable neighbouring Russia. Survival by belonging to Europe, by becoming European, has thus dictated the foreign policy of Estonia and the other Baltic States since the end of the Cold War.

This existentialism has become a confrontational stance: ‘the policies of the Baltic States, most notably of Estonia and Latvia, toward Russia seem to have somewhat changed after the EU-membership has been obtained. Instead of continuing to normalize relations with Russia, a more confrontational policy line can arguably be identified.The EU membership, as well as the NATO membership, is apparently understood as a political base and a security assurance on which the Baltic States have increased their relative bargaining power vis-à-vis Russia.’[5]

EU membership released the Baltic people from their ancestral fears: it assured them social stability and a sort of political shield that could provide shelter from Eastern threats. But at the same time this aspiration to be part of the ‘core Europe’ coexists with a sense of inferiority in the field of European foreign affairs, mixed with a fear that the Western abandonment of Eastern Europe at the end of World War Two will be repeated; a fear discernible in an inherent dread of any betrayal of Baltic interests in the Union’s relations with Russia. This leads to a feeling among Baltic citizens of being ‘Europe but not Europe’.[6]

In response, the Baltic States developed a discourse based on the concept of ‘We are Europe’, that, when addressed to larger European partners, demands equal treatment and urges them to pay attention to Baltic national interests. But at the same time this discourse entails strong undercurrents of self-persuasion, in order to reassure Baltic citizens about the protection of their national identities and cultures, and their political role as the ‘New Europe’.

The perception that the Baltic States risk being used as a bargaining chip by the biggest EU Member States when they make common EU foreign policy towards Russia, has pushed the Baltic countries, often led by Tallinn, to have a louder voice within Brussels’ foreign relations’ circles.

Its primary objective has become the identification of Russia as a common enemy to all the European states, including those openly reluctant to agree.

The website of the Estonian ministry of foreign affairs reports that one of the ministry’s main goals is to create ‘a space of values promoting democracy, human rights, the principles of the rules of law, as well as economic freedom and development’, and also that Tallinn aims to achieve ‘development cooperation, with partners acknowledging and appreciating common values, for the promotion of foreign policy objectives’.

In other words, the liberal values that make the West superior are the foundation of European foreign policy’s ‘Grand Strategy’. None of the EU Member States can claim not to recognise these values, nor can they disagree that Russia is far from the accomplishing them. In that sense, the cooling of relations between France, Germany and Russia is certainly an important achievement. By 2005 the then Lithuanian president, Valdas Amakus, had bluntly called the pipeline agreement between Germany and Russia ‘unethical’, demanding an end to the EU’s ‘silent diplomacy’ with Russia and emphasizing the need for a proactive formulation of the EU’s Russian policy.

Another important battle won by Estonia is the increase of the economic sanctions against Russia. The economic cost of these sanctions for the three former Soviet republics has been significant, but is worth the stakes – at least in the mind of Taavi Rõivas, the Estonian prime minister. Indeed, although he was aware that the trade limitations would cause an annual decrease of 0.4% of his country’s GDP, and that if they were raised to 50% of the Estonian export, it would mean a reduction of 2% of Estonian GDP,[7] he decided to reinforce the hard line. During a meeting in Stockholm with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfen, he agreed to further increase the sanctions against Moscow.

Hence the sanctions represent the only common denominator of EU foreign policy towards Russia, and also the strongest safeguard of Estonian national interests – and apparently a demonstration of the sacredness of liberal values for Europe, too.

In this light, the remarks of Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves to a journalist in an interview for the London Times are more understandable. He said that some EU Member States were the ‘useful idiots’ of Vladimir Putin. These states – Greece, Italy, Hungary and Cyprus – were guilty of calling for the sanctions against Moscow to be lifted.[8

That sentence, which left many European eyebrows raised, was created by several factors. Firstly, the existentialist policy that distinguishes Estonia and partly explains such an openly hostile stance to some partners; secondly, the strong desire to be considered with equal dignity by the other European partners, which have to take into serious account the Baltic strategy for foreign relations; finally, Estonia considers its own position in the balance of powers to be strengthened not only against Russia, but within the EU itself, due to the special relationship that links the Baltic countries to the United States.

Estonia has put more effort into cementing collaboration with both the Americans and NATO than any other Baltic State. It took the lead in collective cyber defence: the NATO Co-operation Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence was hastily established on Estonia’s initiative on 14 May 2008 in Tallinn, following the Russian cyber attacks that paralysed the Estonian communications system in April 2007.

The Cyber Defence Centre is an independent unit that has received NATO accreditation; although it cooperates closely with NATO, the centre does not belong to its structures. Estonia remains the main promoter of collective cyber security within the EU.

The Estonian military, in addition to those of the other Baltic nations of Latvia and Lithuania, participates with the United States annually in the Sabre Strike exercise, a multinational air and land forces training event.

Furthermore, since 2014, the Estonian president Toomas H. Ilves has stressed the establishment of permanent NATO bases in the Baltics, in order to ‘send the right signal to potential aggressors’. But this military expansion towards the Russian border met with reticence from some of the allies, fearful that a ‘flexing of muscles’ could be interpreted by Moscow as a threat and, consequently, lead to a deterioration of the already weakened relations between the West and Russia.

Recently a new NATO base was inaugurated in Estonia, and will open in June next year in the framework of a military expansion in Eastern Europe. Estonia provides resources, facilities and staff. At the Tallinn headquarters, Estonian soldiers will work with personnel from the United States, the Netherlands, Canada, Norway, Poland, France, Germany, Great Britain and Hungary.

To better understand the importance of close relations with America to Baltic citizens’ perception of their own security, it’s useful to keep in mind a speech by the then US president, George W. Bush. Visiting Lithuania in 2002, he said ‘anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America.’ The Lithuanians took him so seriously that today there is a plaque hanging on the wall of Vilnius City Hall bearing that promise.

Two main structural factors shaped the way the Baltic States positioned themselves in the transatlantic security environment. Firstly, there are the reconfigurations in the transatlantic security relationship and strategic balance, as made evident by the US redeployment of its military assets to the Asia-Pacific region as it decreased its presence in Europe; and secondly, drastic reductions in the defence expenditures of some core European states. These constraints on Baltic security predicament have raised concerns about crumbling solidarity in Europe.[9]

Estonia’s push for a better coordination of EU foreign policy necessarily results in a major effort to steer the European External Action Service (EEAS). At the end of Catherine Ashton’s term as High Representative/Vice President, the Estonian, Lithuanian, Latvian and Polish governments formed a lobby to support the election of a candidate they considered to show sufficient concern about the risks posed by the Kremlin. The efforts of the lobby were focused on two figures in particular: Polish politician and journalist Radosław Tomasz Sikorski and the former prime minister of Sweden, Nils Daniel Carl Bildt.

Sikorski is a former chairman of the lower house of the Polish parliament. He was granted political asylum in Britain in 1982, and in 1987 he was awarded British citizenship, which he renounced in 2006 on becoming Polish minister of defence.

From 2002 to 2005, Sikorski was a resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C., and executive director of the New Atlantic Initiative, an organization created to reinforce the relationship between Americans and Europeans after the end of the Cold War. He is a member of the Board of Advisors of the American Committees on Foreign Relations.

He joined Donald Tusk’s political party Civic Platform and became minister of foreign affairs.

On 20 August 2008, Sikorski signed a missile defence agreement with the then US Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, despite the objections of Russia. The agreement came less than two weeks after the outbreak of the South Ossetia War in Georgia. However, the Obama administration later cancelled plans for a larger missile defence shield.

Sikorski was involved at international level in the winter 2014 events surrounding the Ukrainian Euromaidan protests. He signed, along with Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich and opposition leaders, the foreign ministers of Russia, France and Germany, a memorandum of understanding to promote peaceful early elections in Ukraine. The next day Yanukovich fled Kiev.

Sikorski has been an outspoken critic of the Kremlin and has strongly criticized Russian actions in neighbouring Ukraine. He has always been a strong supporter of the United States, although

he has become more critical of Washington in recent years, especially after President Barack Obama’s attempt to ‘reset’ ties with Russia in 2009. Amid violence in Ukraine, Sikorski has been calling for a substantial US troop presence on Polish soil.

He also doubted the resolution of the Ukrainian soldiers, and he is a strong promoter of a military intervention against Russia.[10]

He is one of the main architects of the EU initiative of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), together with Carl Bildt.

Bildt is a former Swedish minister for foreign affairs and a board member of several think tanks. As one of the main promoters of EaP, he has been criticized in the Swedish media for ignoring and downplaying issues with right-wing extremists in the Ukrainian crisis. He publicly denigrated Yanukovich and harshly criticized the illegal annexation of Crimea. He has been a target of information warfare by the Russian media. He became considered unwelcome in Russia after comparing its handling of the South Ossetia War to Nazi Germany.

Bildt’s wife Anna Maria Corazza, whom he met while he was serving as UN Secretary-General Special Envoy for the Balkans, was included in the Russian blacklist of prominent people from the EU who are not allowed to enter the country.

Both of these former candidates to the position of HR/VP of the EEAS have a deep knowledge of the Ukrainian conflict, and they were already involved in the Eastern foreign policy of the EU. Both of them are strongly linked to Washington, and they are harsh critics of the Kremlin’s behaviour, considering a hard line to be the best solution for the whole of Europe.

Unfortunately for the “hawks” of EU foreign policy, the former Italian foreign minister Federica Mogherini was elected as HR/VP. Mogherini is indeed a promoter of a more ‘diplomatic’ way to achieve a solution with Moscow, and of course she reflects the perception of a country whose sovereignty has never been threatened by Russia. But in order to guarantee the balance of interests among the 28 Member States, the same day Mogherini began the job, Donald Tusk, leader of the Polish party that promoted Radosław Sikorski to foreign minister, was elected president of the European Council.

Tusk has supported the US plan of hosting a missile base in Poland, but he has also advocated a more realistic relationship with Moscow. The president of the Commission calmed things down after statements made by Baltic governments during the EaP’s summit in Riga in May. Some EU Member States made public their belief that membership of the Eastern Partnership was a prelude to EU membership, intending in that way to direct a message to Russia rather than to the Eastern countries themselves. Donald Tusk clarified the step-by-step nature of every partnership with the EU during a press conference at the summit, and he ruled out for the moment the risk of EU candidacy for the remaining former Soviet republics.[11]

The structure of the EEAS was designed to balance the interests of the EU, and the decision-making process, as well as the collection of information, has to be done in coordination with the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC), led by Mogherini, and the European Council General Secretariat, which was chaired by Uwe Corsepius of Germany, who was one of the possible candidates to become HR/VP and who has been included in the Russian blacklist.

There is an obligation for the EEAS to support the HR/VP in her capacity as President of the FAC ‘without prejudice to the normal tasks of the General Secretariat of the Council’. Conversely, the HR and the EEAS are to be assisted ‘where necessary by the General Secretariat of the Council’.[12]

Corsepius ended his service, and was replaced by Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen, the former Danish Permanent Representative to the EU, backed and proposed by Donald Tusk. He will took up office on 1 July 2015, and he will likely maintain a wary posture towards the Kremlin.

Estonia’s sharp political turn to the West is rooted in its own history. The fall of the Soviet Union marked the beginning of Estonia’s long-awaited freedom; its participation in the EU is used as an instrument with which affirm its requests, that it couldn’t otherwise obtain, due to its small proportions and economic weight. NATO membership made Tallinn feel invulnerable to any military threat,[13] while a close relationship with the United States created a certainty among Estonians that they had a strong and reliable friend whom they could call on in times of need. The special relationship with Washington is a very important element: in this historical context, Western Europe is currently indecisive about its external actions, but the United States can reap the rewards of its anti-communist crusade and reach consensus on their Eurasian policy with the states that were once behind the Iron Curtain. In the same way, the countries that suffered under the weight of Russia and the Soviet Union for a long time, find in the United States an interlocutor that is serious and ready to act, that seems to be the only country to really understand their preoccupations.

Taking its place at the forefront of ‘New Europe’, Tallinn is strengthened by these beliefs, and impelled by an atavistic sense of self-preservation that sets it in opposition to Russia; all of which leads it to speak out with a louder voice within the European Common Foreign Policy.

Estonians never believed in a diplomatic solution for the dispute with Moscow, and perceived a drastic reduction of the Kremlin’s power as the only way to tame the Russians and keep Estonians feeling comfortable within their own borders. In order to obtain this, the Baltic state has always supported the most daring moves taken to confront Russia. Tallinn has actively invoked and supported a major presence of US and NATO troops in Eastern Europe, and it fostered a more anti-Russia drift in EU foreign policy. Together with other former Soviet republics, it promoted an strengthening of the economic sanctions and tried to throw greater weight behind the EU Eastern Partnership’s policies. Furthermore, Estonia is involved in organized lobbies that are attempting to influence the EEAS with the aim of creating more consensus within the EU Member States on the hard line towards Russia.

Estonia has been for some years Europe’s fastest developing country and one of the greatest enthusiasts for the transatlantic relationship. Due to the aggressive political vitality of Putin’s Russia, which represents a far greater threat to Eastern Europe than to Western, Tallinn has decided to assert the positions of the states that don’t see Russia as a partner in the geopolitical future of Europe. In these times, when the Western Europe in stressed by mixed sentiments, the Estonian government seems to be sure of the way to walk, and it is willing to drag the political partners and the military allies in that direction.

Will Europe continue on its Eurasian path, or will it turn instead completely to the other side of the Atlantic? The answer will come only when it is clear if the ‘New Europe’ will have a leading role in the Union.




[1] Malksoo, Maria. 2006. ‘From Existential Politics Toward Normal Politics? The Baltic States in the Enlarged Europe’ Security Dialogue, vol. 37 no. 3, 275-297.

[2] The Estonian Ambassador in Belgium and Luxembourg declared that a liquid gas pipeline connecting Tallinn and Finland was about to be built.

[3]The citizenship law considered Estonian citizens to be firstly those who possessed a knowledge of the Estonian language; secondly, those who had resided in Estonia for a minimum of two years before applying for the citizenship; and finally, persons (or their descendants) who had been in the country before the Soviet occupation on 17 June 1940. This 1992 law effectively disenfranchised the majority of the non-Estonian population. In addition, the state forbade the teaching of the Russian language in its secondary schools from 2000, and later in its primary schools too. Tartu and Tallinn city councils repealed all the residence regulations of retired Russian Army soldiers, treating them as non-citizens, ensuring that these retired soldiers and their families were denied citizenship rights. An equally controversial law was introduced on 21 June 1993, which defined aliens as being those ‘stateless persons and citizens of a foreign state regardless of the residence period in Estonia’. C. Williams and T. Sfikas. 1999. Ethnicity and nationalism in Russia, the CIS and the Baltic States. Ashgate: Farnham.

[4]In 2002, the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuanian applied to become members of NATO and the EU. Membership of NATO was duly achieved on 29 March 2004, and accession to the EU took place on 1 May 2004. The Baltic States were the only former Soviet states to join either NATO or the EU at that time.

[5] Kværnø, Ole and Marie Rasmussen. 2005. ‘EU Enlargement and the Baltic Region: A Greater Security Community?’ The Estonian Foreign Policy Yearbook.

[6] Malksoo, Maria. 2006. ‘From Existential Politics Toward Normal Politics? The Baltic States in the Enlarged Europe’.

[7] Havlik, Peter. 2014. ‘Economic Consequences of the Ukrainian Conflict’. Policy Notes and Reports, 14, November. The Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies.

[8] The online magazine reported that Ilves didn’t specify any countries, but the reporter added them to the interview.

[9]Malksoo, Maria and M. Seselgyte. 2013. ‘Reinventing “new” Europe: Baltic perspectives on transatlantic security reconfigurations’. Communist and Post-Communist Studies, vol. 46, 3, 397-406.

[10] According to Spiegel Online: ‘[Sikorski] hopes that NATO and the EU will finally take off the kid gloves in their dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He wants to see the West stand up to Moscow and, if necessary, threaten the Russians militarily.’


[12] Art. 4 EEAS Decision.

[13] After the cyberattacks of 2007, Estonia’s requests to apply Art. 5 of NATO have been rejected by the other allies.

Lascia un commento

Il tuo indirizzo email non sarà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *

Questo sito usa Akismet per ridurre lo spam. Scopri come i tuoi dati vengono elaborati.