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Ilmar Raag: Estonia needs a border state doctrine

Ilmar Raag.
Ilmar Raag. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

While the doctrine of a border state is nothing new in Estonia, we have failed to populate it with enough relevant meaning. It took the war in Ukraine to realize that our civil defense had no funding despite the concept being there. We have not done everything in our power to manage the danger posed by Russia, Ilmar Raag writes.

The message Yevgeny Prigozhin's rebellion attempt sent to Russia's neighbors hardly differed from recent Kremlin rhetoric. Vladimir Putin also used the word smuta in his first speech on the mutiny. It stands for confusion and chaos. While a coup or Putin dying of natural causes both remain more likely than a civil war in Russia, a "special civil war operation" cannot be ruled out.

One of the most universal traits of civil wars is that they tend to spill over national borders. We have seen it in Mali where the civil war that started a decade ago is impacting Niger and Burkina Faso, down to the latter experiencing a coup.

For Europe, the Syrian civil war likely serves as the most significant example. History tells us that we are not talking just about refugees but various other simultaneous problems. That is why Turkey has been carrying out military operations in those Kurdish territories that were recently part of Syria.

Estonia has seen the effects of one Russian civil war that witnessed the controversial episode involving the Russian Northwestern Army and indeed Estonia's War of Independence against Soviet Russia. Today, we have the advantage of belonging to NATO and having allied troops permanently in Estonia. This lends us a lot of confidence in the face of the Russian empire's policy of expansion and revenge. It also requires us to continually demonstrate our will to be independent.

Why are we a border state?

Located next to Russia, Estonia wants to be a border state of Europe. We realize that there are crucial topics where we will never see eye-to-eye with the Russian empire. For instance, annexing one's neighbors or grouping them into spheres of influence. In this, we consciously choose an anti-imperial position.

We are already locked in a conflict with Russia both de facto and de jure. And the conflict will not end when the guns fall silent in Ukraine. The real condition is the end of the Russian empire and credible reason to believe that Russia will not launch another war against one of its neighbors in the near future.

Defining our political goals and security risks as such means being in a state of constant national defense readiness. Therein lies the core of the border state doctrine. We are more similar to Israel than, for example, Belgium or Ireland in that sense, as the latter would be hard-pressed to imagine any real existential threat to their statehood.

Israel is a better example than one might think. Despite many walks of life being subjected to national defense needs, the country has a highly developed economy and functional democracy with a very capable opposition. I can add from personal experience that Israeli cinema is multifaceted and far bolder in self-criticism than Estonian movies. And yet, Israel fully adheres to the social contract of the entire country mobilizing when needed.

While the doctrine of a border state is nothing new in Estonia, we have failed to populate it with enough relevant meaning. It took the war in Ukraine to realize that our civil defense had no funding despite the concept being there. We have also not solved the problem of vacant positions at the police and the EDF in the conditions of population ageing, whereas this structural problem is only bound to get worse.

Border state means resisting an empire in chaos

Prigozhin's attempted rebellion also revealed that we have not populated the doctrine with plans concerning Russia relations in the conditions of potential chaos. A civil war would differ from the Kremlin's usual spheres of influence policy mainly in the weakening of the power center and chaotic behavior of the masses.

Minister of the Interior Lauri Läänemets (Social Democrats) recently expressed a position shared by nearly all political parties. "We will close our border. Russia is big and refugees can seek shelter elsewhere," he said. "I can only imagine the pain of EKRE leaders when they heard the statement as it is one they would have loved to have made themselves. Now, it was uttered by a bloody social democrat...

But the facts remain unchanged. If just 5-10 percent of the five million residents of Saint Petersburg would seek to escape human violence or a technogenic disaster, it would spell a social catastrophe also for Estonia.

It would also be a very difficult decision to make ethically as a part of such refugees might be in very real danger. And even that part would be considerable. The only way to manage it is to be ready to react to events on the other side of the border. We will, of course, not be making fundamental compromises with sides whose values are incompatible with ours, but because the central power is weakened in the conditions of civil war, we must have regional capacity to alleviate certain problems. It will be necessary to talk to someone in the Leningrad and Pskov oblasts.

The agreement between Denmark and Rwanda for a refugee camp in the latter serves as a kind of example. As does the realization that one way to alleviate the problem of Libyan refugees is to construct asylum camps in that country. Neither solution ignores the possibility of the migrants including people who really need protection, while unchecked migration would simply constitute the civil war spilling over to neighboring countries. This would also cost Estonia its ability to offer aid of any kind.

Security crisis no longer prominent in budget formation

The doctrine of a European Union border state means preparedness to handle refugees from Russia. It requires will and resources. Today, we are forced to admit that we do not yet take the situation seriously.

One example is the effort to develop border infrastructure. Poland finished a considerably longer border in just six months because the crisis did not afford it more time. We believed things would hopefully not deteriorate to that point in Russia, at least until Prigozhin's mutiny. Now, the likelihood of smuta has grown by leaps and bounds. Border state readiness must stand for more than just "keeping a close eye on events in Russia."

Saying that Estonia needs a border state doctrine first and foremost stands for a realization that the security crisis is not over yet. Even though hiking defense spending is clearly on the agenda, recent fiscal rhetoric suggests we are firmly back to business as usual.

The Reform Party is busy abolishing the tax hump (Estonia's gradual basic exemption reduction scheme – ed.), which in itself is the right thing to do and was the party's election promise. The general aim of fiscal policy is to restore some measure of balance. At the same time, remembering the security crisis has been left to the pre-elections period, which makes it possible to suggest that we have forgotten about the border state doctrine. And that is a mistake.

I agree that the state budget should try and keep fixed costs from growing as a whole, while peacetime political priorities could wait for peaceful times. We have not done everything we can to manage dangers from Russia. A few more or fewer HIMARS cannot mitigate chaos in Russia.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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