Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 20 May 2024


We must learn the lessons of 1939 to halt march of Putin, Baltic states warn

Estonia’s prime minister urges Nato allies to commit to spend a percentage of GDP on military aid for Ukraine for the next three years
Kaja Kallas, Estonia’s prime minister, urged Nato allies to heed “the lesson from 1938 and 1939”
Kaja Kallas, Estonia’s prime minister, urged Nato allies to heed “the lesson from 1938 and 1939” REX

Estonia’s prime minister has urged Nato allies to follow her government’s lead and send more help to Ukraine, defying gloom over battlefield setbacks.

Speaking at a security conference in the capital, Tallinn, Kaja Kallas said that her country had committed to spend 0.25 per cent of GDP on military aid for the next three years to help counter Russia’s invasion.

While Nato members pledge to meet defence spending benchmarks in terms of percentage of GDP, only Estonia is suggesting aid for Ukraine be calculated similarly. Based on Estonia’s output this would equal a pledge of more than $100 million each year. “If all countries would do the same, it would lead to Ukrainian victory … Ukraine is fighting, losing lives — the only thing they ask of us is reallocation of resources,” she said.

The mood at the annual gathering of security experts, politicians, diplomats and spy chiefs was notably grimmer than last year, when hopes were still high of a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive. For the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, a Russian victory in Ukraine heightens risks to their security. “The lesson from 1938 and 1939 is that if aggression pays off somewhere, it will be taken up elsewhere,” Kallas told journalists.

Estonia, like the other Baltic states, Poland and Finland, fears that victory in Ukraine could prompt Russia to turn its attention westwards. They are urgently trying to convince other European countries of the need to support Ukraine financially and militarily and to boost defence preparations at home.


Kallas, 46, was in the running to be Nato’s next secretary-general, and is now a contender to be the European Union’s top diplomat in the carve-up after next month’s European elections. She lambasted other (unnamed) countries for failing to make good on their pledges to Ukraine, saying “promises don’t save lives. Air defence does”.

Her remarks come amid growing worries about Russia’s grinding advance. Speaking by video link at the same conference, Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, praised Estonia as a “paragon” but said, “we are suffering from delayed and insufficient supplies of military assistance, which we are forced to compensate [for] with the heroism and sacrifice of our soldiers.” Another Ukrainian delegate said that Russia’s aim was to make Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv, with a population the size of Prague or Munich, “unlivable” by destroying its heating and power systems.

The Baltic states are already drawing lessons from the war. Ukraine has found its air defences swamped by the combination of drone, glide bomb, missile and artillery attacks. However, American restrictions mean it cannot use its long-range weapons to strike the launch sites and airfields inside Russia.

Nato’s frontline states do not want to be in the same plight. Poland and Finland both have the American JASSM, a long-range stealth air-launched missile that can hit targets deep inside Russia: a powerful deterrent. Estonia, with a population of one million, cannot afford such high-tech weapons.

Its military is asking politicians to find an extra €1.5 billion (£1.3 billion) for long-range and smart munitions to be able to strike Russian forces up to 200km away. This would be on top on the country’s present defence budget, at 3.2 per cent of GDP one of the highest in Nato as a share of national income.


Frontline states such as Estonia are treading a fine line between highlighting the disastrous consequences for their region of a Ukrainian defeat, while still maintaining an optimistic tone that victory there is possible. They also must brace their own population for more sacrifices — higher taxes and cuts in public services—by citing an existential threat, while trying not to chill the business climate.

Estonia’s parliament has just passed a law allowing it to seize frozen Russian state assets. It is now awaiting signature from the country’s president, whose staff are checking to make sure it does not infringe the strict protection on property rights in Estonia’s constitution. The sums involved are small, but the hope is that the move will encourage other countries to do the same.

Kallas was present for a Nato joint exercise in Estonia last week
Kallas was present for a Nato joint exercise in Estonia last week

On paper, the Baltic states’ position has become much less precarious since neighbouring Finland and Sweden joined Nato. One conference session asked jauntily: “Can we turn the Baltic Sea into a Nato lake?” (German and Swedish government representatives hastened to answer in the negative). But in practice both defence and deterrence are shaky. Nato has agreed new plans for the Baltic region but still lacks the muscle to implement them. For now it relies on tripwire forces from outside countries.

Britain’s army deployment in Estonia took part in a high-profile exercise last week. But its 1,000 strong troops and their armoured vehicles sit in a base with no air defences: “sitting ducks” for a Russian missile strike, in the words of a military observer. Even though European countries are scrambling to repair the consequences of decades of neglect, for now the reliance on the United States is almost total.

Yet Russia’s nuclear sabre-rattling has unnerved American decision-makers. Disappointment with the Biden administration’s equivocal stance over Ukraine was palpable; so too is alarm about the prospect of Donald Trump’s return to the White House. Intelligence estimates are that Russia would take between two and four years to reconstitute its forces after a ceasefire or stalemate in Ukraine. It would take Europe more than a decade to plug the gap left by an American withdrawal.


Estonians and others argue that the real nuclear danger is proliferation. Among the Tallinn conference participants was Timothy Snyder, a Yale University historian who is treated as a national hero in many east European countries for his caustic demolition of Kremlin historical mythmaking. He argued that Russian victory in Ukraine would send US allies (and other countries) scrambling to get their own nuclear weapons.

Fears are also growing of Russian “sub-threshold” attacks. Russian jamming of the satellite GPS navigation system, for example, is causing increasing disruption in the Baltic Sea region. It recently led to the Finnish national carrier temporarily suspending service to Estonia’s second city, Tartu. Kallas also highlighted Russia’s “weaponisation of migration and human rights.” Russia has in the past dumped asylum seekers and economic migrants on the Finnish, Norwegian, Baltic and Polish borders. Millions more Ukrainians could head west as a result of damage to power and heating networks that will be hard if not impossible to repair before next winter.

More immediately serious is a wave of arson and explosions directed at military and infrastructure targets across Europe, and the beatings, abductions and murder of exiled critics and dissidents, some of which have not been publicised. Leonid Volkov, a close ally of the late Russian anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, was attacked in March with a hammer in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. “They are sending the message, ‘You are not safe, we can get to you’,” Kallas told journalists.

Intelligence sources say that a crackdown on Russian spy networks means that Moscow agencies are now paying petty criminals to carry out these attacks, rather than sending trained intelligence officers. Two Polish football hooligans were arrested for the attack on Volkov, which left him with head injuries and a broken arm: a “gangster greeting” from Putin, in his words. A similar attack in Estonia damaged the interior minister’s car.

Baltic eyes may be on Ukraine. But nerves are jangling at home too.

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