Peeter Kaasik: Is society mentally prepared for war?

The protest for Ukraine drew thousands of people to Freedom Square on February 26, 2022.
The protest for Ukraine drew thousands of people to Freedom Square on February 26, 2022. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The end of the Cold War heralding the "end of history" likely contributed to the conviction that the democratic West was done with wars at home, that any new wars would be fought somewhere far away and, while bothersome, would not affect us directly, historian Peeter Kaasik writes.

"All quiet in the Gaza Sector…" is how I would describe my earliest memories of foreign news from when I was still a kid. The stalemate in question has persisted for decades, and the situation remains largely unchanged, whereas yours truly is still hazy on the finer points of the conflict, despite being much older now.

It serves as an example of a perpetual conflict, whereas most people, everyone except those involved, have long since lost the thread of when it started, who the sides are and what exactly are they looking to accomplish. However, it is intellectually stimulating to wax philosophical on the subject and pick a side from a safe distance.

It is just a far-away conflict, and I'm pretty sure no one knows how it could be solved, least of all those involved – like bad weather that one cannot do anything about but eventually gets used to.

The Ukraine war was another "hoary-headed" story until earlier this year. It got covered up years ago, with help (or pressure) from Western countries, but the sad thing about frozen conflicts is that they tend to get heated up again.

The mediators' conduct was somewhat baffling in the case of Ukraine. They conditionally sided with the aggressor and the stronger party, de facto recognizing Russia's "security interests" and "historical right" to certain territories. Because aggression was nevertheless deemed an "unsuitable" way of "restoring justice," the West wrinkled its nose, felt concerned, condemned things and ordered sanctions against a few sixth-rate warlords.

Of course, business needed doing, and it could indeed have come across as some incomprehensible tribal conflict "somewhere in Asia" from Brussels' point of view. Things looked less "rosy" as seen, for example, from Tallinn. Historical pseudo arguments from the east sounded more familiar here, and people knew that once Russian boots touch ground somewhere, removing them is pretty much mission impossible.

This sent Estonian politicians (and those of other states that felt threatened) on a pilgrimage, repeating their annoying message of "Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam!" ("Furthermore, I consider that Carthage must be destroyed!") around the world.

While ensuing negotiations were usually "constructive," a flammable combination of stupidity, greed and hypocrisy prevailed in the conditions of perpetually looming elections where the Parisian avantgarde regularly threatens to level the city over much less than a two-degree drop in indoor temperature.

From words to action

But let us leave the Parisians to their errands, as war in Ukraine is probably an abstract concept when viewed from there, and come now to Estonia that has a physical border with a warring aggressor. Militant rhetoric of Russia's "security interests" that directly concern NATO front line members thrown around before the Ukrainian conflict was resumed is cause for concern.

Perhaps there was nothing intrinsically new there but the status quo is complicated and Russia has once again gone from words to action. While the phrasing might represent an indecipherable attempt to turn back time, ultimatums of "demilitarization" and "denazification" for Ukraine were hardly more comprehensible.

On the one hand, we received confirmation that the way Russia wages war has not changed since the days of Ivan the Terrible, and trophy convoys carrying snow shovels, scooters and women's underwear confiscated from the "fascists" as manifestations of a war of plunder are still making their way to villages back home, effectively repeating the mistakes of past rulers by showing the Russian soldier Europe and showing Europe the Russian soldier. In other words, medieval ways are still very much revered in the east in the XXI century.

On the other, even those that used to be on the fence now realized that Estonia's neighbor still proceeds from Byzantian values (deceitfulness, guile, unpredictability and treachery), betting, among other things, on adversaries squabbling amongst themselves and their perceived (inner) weakness. This includes mutual economic dependency, with a rather strange economic war in a system of communicating vessels now unfolding.

Putting together all the rational arguments, there is no acute military threat for Estonia at this time. Quite the opposite, as military experts tell us that much of military equipment that still moves and hasn't rusted away or been stolen has been sent from behind our border to Ukraine. That Russia cannot even defeat Ukraine, so why would it try its luck with NATO and Article Five. However, considering Russia's recent conduct, it would be wise to prepare for the worst and ask whether the Estonian society is ready for war and what is its threat perception?

Civilian defense

Let us leave aside military preparedness (including border fortification), mobilization and evacuation plans, wartime internal security and economy etc. The author has no knowledge of these plans nor should he, while as a military historian, I presume all of these areas have been planned down to the minutest detail.

But what about civilian defense? Allow me to draw some parallels, considering what is happening in Ukraine and what could still happen should things not go our way.

On July 1, 1980, the Estonian SSR organization of the Red Cross had 606,832 members and 2,883 branches. There were also 4,717 social sanitary inspectors, preparations were in place for 2,324 "sanitary stations" (with an extra 113 "sanitary stations" for highways) and 571 sanitary squads.

The SSR civilian defense headquarters inventory included 543 special equipment shelters for over 100,00 people, 7,343 simple radiation shelters for ca 780,000 people and ca 21,000 registered cellars for an estimated 1,854,170 people in 1986.

The looming war with NATO (or USA) was believed to be a nuclear war the practical consequence of which was constant preparation. And not just in the Soviet Union. The shared fear probably yielded more social cohesion than vague "European values" or the utopia of the "world revolution."

I do not know what has been done along those lines today, while I would hint at the civilian population's rather better level of preparation for war, both mentally and practically, during the days of the Cold War.

The end of the Cold War heralding the "end of history" likely contributed to the conviction that the democratic West was done with wars at home, that any new wars would be fought somewhere far away and, while bothersome, would not affect "us" directly. This caused things to fall into such disarray that some NATO members' armed forces can today only fight in daylight, on weekends and where the weather is nice and the roads paved.

More recently, a hazy premonition that real war is looming has been created, with the question now of whether to continue burying our heads in the sand or treat it as a credible threat.

The sluggishness of bureaucracy in war and when threatened with war makes for a separate subject. Allow me to give just one example from history. The July 28, 1941 issue of the ENSV Teataja magazine published, among other things, fixed rates for chimney-sweeps in the city of Petseri that had been conquered by the Germans three weeks earlier, not to mention the ridiculousness of the topic at time battles were raging.

Threat of war and freedom of speech

While Russia's information warfare has hardly proved effective in wartime, there is plenty of fertile soil for it in Europe, with freedom of speech serving as the best weapon against the democratic order.

Despite attacks on Georgia and Ukraine, Estonia spent years arguing over whether it should ban Russian propaganda networks, who should do it and why.

Even when war broke out again, some suggested it is not dangerous at all. All this despite people like Zhirinovsky having spent the past few decades threatening neighboring countries with use of nuclear weapons on daily TV shows, not because of any perceived military threat, but simply in defense of the rights of the Russkiy Mir. This would also turn into radioactive dust those whose protection was sought (with Ukraine events serving as a good example of the true meaning of "liberating compatriots").

This allowed the unilingual and uni-minded in Estonia to continue receiving news on how things "really" were from the east for decades, with no serious effort made to bring the local "vatniks" out of their bizarre existence where their heads are in the Soviet Union, now firmly in the waste basket of history, and their bodies in the "decadent West." Allow me to give a few examples of comments by people on the street, in the context of potential war between Estonia and Russia.

Old lady no. 1: "The Russian-speaking population is not against Ukraine and Ukrainians. Naturally, we are against nationalists."

Old lady no. 2: (said "No" when asked whether Vladimir Putin is an aggressor): "He was forced, the person was forced to take this action." Asked who did the forcing or who is to blame: "Well, the West, Europe."

Old lady no. 3: "I am for Putin. Without him, there would have been war long ago. A long time ago. He is good, a strategist, he is doing good after all."

This is one group that has it straight: the West is guilty of something. That said, they are in no hurry to leave the said West (after all, they are not quite as stupid as they appear) and are happy to wait to be "denazified" on location. Still, it remains questionable whether they would like for it to take place in their backyard as it is far more convenient to sympathize with the "denazification" process from a safe distance.

What's interesting is that willing respondents who stand out with especially belligerent statements tend to me middle-aged or elderly women. Kalev Stoicescu recently referred to the phenomenon as babushka-fascism, finding in the same breath that dedushka-fascists have already drunk themselves to death.

I would like to hope that the "fifth column" is made up of somewhat less dangerous babushka-fascists and would refrain from any further speculation as to what would really happen should war come.

Let us admit, however, that for reasons of citizenship (or lack thereof) over 100,000 Estonians cannot be expected to be loyal to the Republic of Estonia nor can we really blame them for said failure.

But that is just one problem, as there are many other forms of wordy warfare that has gotten out of hand and sides to which are expected to participate in the defense of the country. Allow me to give two headlines from a time when the war was already well underway and suggesting that people are woe to give up their personal crusades despite what would undoubtedly be difficult circumstances:

  • "Time to give back the Kremlin puppets knitted by Varro (Vooglaid – ed.)" – "Yes, we guessed long ago that Estonia's far-right are Kremlin puppets tasked with sowing social discord."
  • "The perpetrators of the coronavirus apartheid must be held responsible!" – "The coronavirus apartheid of more than half a year (though not all restrictions) is over for the time being. Now, it is time to talk about responsibility."

The first yields little in the way of conclusions, while the cauldron seems to be calling the pot black by accusing the other side of what it is in the middle of doing itself.

The other is aimed primarily at clubbing the government but, while hardly newsworthy, is made interesting through the suggestion that keeping someone from eating at a café without a vaccination certificate amounts to apartheid. Provided the concept hasn't changed without my knowing, the punishment sought for this "imprescriptible crime against humanity" must be severe indeed.

But we have a clear picture again: on the one hand, Putin's puppets are the enemy, while the other is still deciding which enemy is worse – Vladimir Putin or Kaja Kallas (seems to be little in it now).

My question is whether these bitter enemies, the progressives and conservatives, are even capable of joining forces in the face of a common foreign enemy or whether they would spend their time in trenches hitting each other over the head with sapper's shovels, billycans, helmets and other nearby military inventory.

The now less relevant "coronavirus war" is also associated with those according to whom "things are not at all as they appear." Let us simply refer to them as conspiracy theorists.

It is a little unfair to accuse the ordinary Russian person of having lost all semblance of sense as a result of propaganda in a situation where there is an incomprehensible number of people in our own midst who believe in the healing properties of strong detergents, that vaccines are used to plant microchips, not to mention all manner of ghosts and specters floating around. War-themed daily horoscopes can even be seen on the pages of publications claiming to represent the quality side of journalism.

A more severe case of conspiracy theorist means the "mainstream" is lying anyway. For example, when ERR reports that Russian soldiers are raping, killing and looting, it is deemed a lie (or at the least highly dubious) simply because it is ERR or the "mainstream" doing the reporting. It is hard to find one's way in this inexplicable world.

At worst, such a person is bound to see their mobilization call as yet another attempt by the "forces of evil" to try and plant a chip in their brain. Even though they often share Putinist propaganda, it doesn't necessarily mean they support the war. Rather, they do not believe there is a war, at least not as presented by the "mainstream."

This brings us to the will to defend the nation. We have looked at three groups here: the "vatniks," the perpetual opposites and conspiracy theorists. There are others with whom one would rather not go on patrol with because it is unclear what or who they consider to be their enemy.

Let us take the worst-case scenario of Russia attacking a NATO member, Estonia, for example, with Article Five hopefully triggered. Let us consider for a moment people's willingness to voluntarily dial back their precious freedom of speech in the social media era.

Nothing personal. It's simply that a country at war should not give the enemy too much information, while it can no more afford squabbles in the rear (worse still, on the front lines) or domestic efforts to undermine its constitutional institutions and military leadership.

Total unwillingness to compromise on freedom of speech is undesirable as the latter's noble principles are quickly rendered third-rate and things more black and white in a state of war, with those slower to catch on handed orders on paper with reference to wartime law.

Allow me to close with a practical realization from the east. Even though the war is not taking place in Russia, publicly condemning it in the country takes great courage as the criminal code prohibits even referring to the conflict as such. In a situation where one is looking at 15 years in a reeducation camp for a simple statement, many likely prefer to keep quiet, with believing in the sociological jugglery of wartime left to those of more adamant faith.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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