In 2021, the Kremlin laid out a strategy to increase its influence in the Baltic states. Documents leaked to the international media reveal a focus on economic and political levers. Above all, Russia wanted to avoid increasing NATO's influence in the region. However, the leaked documents do not contain evidence of any plans to take military action against Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania.
Strengthening Russia-friendly NGOs, tightening economic relations and influencing public opinion against NATO's presence in the region play a key role for Russia's policy-makers as they aim to gain more influence in Estonia and the other Baltic states.
An international research network led by German media outlets NDR, WDR and Süddeutsche Zeitung cites confidential papers written by Russian government affiliated think tank the Presidential Directorate for Cross-Border Cooperation from summer 2021. From the Estonian side, media outlet Delfi was involved in the research .
The Presidential Directorate for Cross-Border Cooperation reports to the deputy head of the Russian presidential administration, Dmitry Kozak, who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2021, the think tank developed a strategy to enable the Russian Federation to expand and maintain its influence in the Baltic states in order to avoid increasing NATO influence in the region. Tagesschau.de quotes German security experts, who consider the documents to be authentic.
According to the information in the papers, the Kremlin wanted to support Russian-friendly parties and media outlets to shape public opinion and grant access for Estonian companies to the Russian market on the premise that Estonian policy makers shift away from increasing NATO's presence in the Baltic states.
The Kremlin also aimed to preserve the Russian-language education system in the Baltic countries and prevent the removal of Soviet era monuments. Estonian links to Russian energy supplies were also slated as ways to boost Russian influence. But unlike Russia's recently revealed strategies regarding Belarus or Moldova there is no indication in any of the leaked documents of plans for action against Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania.
Estonia's government however, does not seem to be surprised by the results. "We know our neighbor", Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) is quoted as saying by German outlet Tagesschau.de . "Estonia, our allies and partners have long been aware of Russia's interest to use hybrid tactics to pursue their goals and try to assert their influence in other countries," told Yahoo News. "It's Russia's classic playbook — many of their tactics are taken straight from the KGB." Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė and Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš commented in a similar vain.
Aleksander Toots, deputy director of the Estonian Internal Security Service, also known as KAPO, said that serious attention must be paid to such Russian plans. However, at the same time we must not forget from when they originated. Toots said that the authors of the documents probably had no idea that life would soon take a completely different turn. Especially after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
"For example, they aim to increase exports to Estonia by 2022, but last summer Russia itself decided to close the bridge between Narva and Ivangorod (on the Russian side of the border) to trucks. How can you increase exports if you close this main channel?" Toots is quoted as saying by Delfi. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have also recently advanced their plans to exit the Russian energy grid .
Süddeutsche.de additionally listed a number of Russia's more detailed goals towards Estonia as revealed in the leaked documents.
Goals by 2022
- Formation of pro-Russian sentiments among the political and military elites and population of the Republic of Estonia
- Resistance to NATO's militarization of Estonia
- Creation of a network of pro-Kremlin NGOs in the humanitarian field and promoting Russian culture
- Expansion of the Russian cultural presence, work with children and young people
Trade and economy
- Be attractive for Estonian technology in areas of interest to Russia, such as oil shale and green energy
- Influencing public opinion in Estonia to make NATO's presence undesirable
- Build strong pro-Russian interest groups within Estonia's political, military and business elites
- Targeted work with representatives from culture and civil society who want to improve relations with Russia
Trade and economy
- Increase the share of Russian exports
- Attract Estonian investments in the Russian economy
- Support and increase the effectiveness of pro-Russian interest groups within Estonia's political, military and business elites
- Restore constructive relations between Estonia and Russia
- Strengthen the position of the Russian media and increase media influence
- Preserve monuments, common approaches to interpreting the historical past
- Organizational, financial and legal support for pro-Russian NGOs and non-profit organizations
Trade and economy
- Expand economic cooperation in the interests of Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union
- Attract Estonian investments in Russian regions
- Extensive trade and economic cooperation
Editor: Michael Cole
Source: Tagesschau, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Eesti Päevaleht