One year of a three-day war: Reflections from Estonia

Rein Raud
Rein Raud Source: ERR/ Erle Loonurm

Next Friday, February 24, is Independence Day and marks 105 years since the foundation of the Republic of Estonia. While this is normally a happy occasion, last year's day was marred by Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which began early that morning. Academic Rein Raud reflects on the events of a year ago.

For years, it has been a pleasure for me to wake up on February 24, Estonian Independence Day, which has usually been a serene winter morning. I have looked out the window in happiness, that I live in a free country, then opened social media to browse through the nearly identical photos posted by my friends: A patch of clear sky, a dash of dark forest on the horizon, and a field of snow, together forming the image of our blue, black, and white flag.

But not last year. February 24, 2022, was one of those days in history, after which nothing could ever be as it was before. Russia launched a major attack on Ukraine, claiming that its neighbor has no right to exist as a sovereign nation. The buildup of its army along Ukraine's borders had continued for quite some time, we knew that – and yet, I did not believe that something like this would happen. How things then unfolded was, of course, also very far from what the Kremlin predicted. A few days later, an article on the Russia Information Agency website, published inadvertently due to a technical glitch, claimed that the war had been brief and was already won. This evidently reflected the planned course of events.

According to the author Pyotr Akopov, "there will be no more Ukraine", as "Russia is restoring its historical integrity, gathering the entirety of the Russian people," of whom Ukrainians are supposedly a part. A few weeks later, when it was already clear that the Russian invasion had not succeeded as planned, the Russian Institute of International Strategies still published a brief in which it stated that it would take two to three days to conquer the Baltic countries, after Russia is done with Ukraine. "Russia is an Empire. And the Empire, in order to maintain its status as an Empire, must fight," the authors wrote. In their opinion, NATO would come to realize this and therefore not interfere.

So, if Ukraine were to fall, then we would be next in line. That much is clear. Then probably Poland, or perhaps Finland, which wasn't even considering joining NATO at that time. In any case, the war would continue.

By the time the brief was published, a Ukrainian refugee was already living with our family – the daughter of a colleague, who was planning to finish high school that spring. Soon after, her mother followed suit, and we felt the presence of the tragedy with even greater immediacy. They were not the only ones, of course. Estonian society as a whole quickly mobilized to provide assistance at all possible levels, and I can now state with pride that our country ranks first in the world in terms of aid provided to Ukraine, per capita.

One evening, I had the opportunity to participate in a drive around Tallinn, to distribute food to newly arrived refugees and hear their devastating stories. All of them were, by the way, Russian-speakers from Mariupol, Kherson and other cities in East Ukraine, yet none had any sympathy for Russia or feelings of cultural identity tied to the country in any way, nor resentment towards the politics of Kyiv. All of them hoped to return to their homes as soon as possible. As we now know, not one of them would find their homes standing.

Soon enough, the war became a topic of discussion in the broader international arena, and two attitudes became sharply distinguished. I immediately noticed a double standard. Although Russia was clearly the aggressor and voiced its denial of Ukraine's right to self-determination in no uncertain terms, some Westerners picked up its narrative of "legitimate spheres of influence" and started to talk about Russia's fears in face of a "NATO expansion". But NATO has never expanded. It took East European countries immense – truly incredible – diplomatic persuasion to be accepted as members. It is the Russian view to think of the world as a playground of superpowers, where no one else has a will.

Indeed, while Russia's absurd imperialism was discussed in those circles as having some rational foundation, Ukrainians as a nation were depicted by such people as pawns in a global game of chess between Moscow and Washington, without any agency of their own – just as the Kremlin saw them. They did not matter. From cynical political scientists to hypocritically pacifist intellectuals, there suddenly surfaced many people for whom any price, so long as it wasn't theirs to pay, seemed fair for a return to normality as they knew it.

The blurred vision of those Westerners certainly seems to be caused not only by the efficiency of Kremlin troll farms, fake news factories, and the international far right's financial ties to Moscow. It is, rather, an unwillingness to accept that a major disruption of world order has occurred. It appears that many Western decision-makers would prefer this problem to be resolved by the ostrich strategy: Go to bed, pull the covers over your head, and wait till the issue has gone away. Something that's of no use in this case.

While German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been continuously slowing the provision of adequate weapons to liberate Ukraine's territories and stop the torture, rape, and deportation of its citizens, Russian state TV is depicting him with Hitler's moustache and telling its audiences that the Führer is his political lodestar. On a daily basis, leading propagandists call for nuclear strikes on Berlin as well as Paris, London, and Washington. It is quite clear that this war will not stop until Russia is defeated – the question is only how many people must die on both sides before it happens. Efforts to stop Russia do not entail escalation. Escalation will occur if Russia is not stopped.

Of course, negotiations will have to begin eventually, but not before Russia is willing to accept and honor a peace based on the principles of international law and its own prior commitments. Judging by what we hear from Russia, this can only happen after it is defeated militarily and forced out of Ukraine.

Indeed, at the risk of sounding dramatic, I believe it isn't an exaggeration to say that the war in Ukraine is not just a bloody local conflict, but a crucial battle to determine what the future of the world order will look like. Regardless of the outcome, there will be no return to what was. And there is no neutral position, at least not until the outcome is decided.

If this battle is lost, it would provide legitimacy for any regional power to claim and seize neighboring lands, to be exonerated from violent war crimes, and to conduct genocide by denying a sovereign nation its cultural identity, deporting children, and rewriting history according to the whim of a dictator totally out of touch with reality. Would any small country such as Estonia be able to feel secure in a world like this? No, of course not. Not only will Russia feel confident to attack other neighbors and continue its genocidal war, the same strategy will surely be alluring to other dictators around the world as well. The future world's design would be decided by strongmen who emerge victorious from such conflicts.

Yet if this battle is won, then there exists hope that a new system of rule-based order will eventually re-emerge. We need a system grounded in equality before international law and rational procedures of collective decision-making, with mutual respect of legitimate concerns – a world where the role of a nation is not determined on the basis of historical greatness, but of its contribution to common causes. How else can humanity solve the immense problems it faces, from the environmental crisis to the spread of successive pandemics? Most importantly, however, we will again have reason to believe that justice matters, crime does not pay, and human life and dignity are values that count more than violent saber rattling and blind nationalist fanaticism.

Rein Raud is an Estonian author and scholar of cultural theory. Three of his ten novels have been translated into English, including "The Death of the Perfect Sentence" (2017), a reflective spy novel set during the fall of the Soviet regime in Estonia.


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