While everybody's attention is focused on the recent military attack on Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait, important strategic interventions are happening elsewhere. Russia is firmly expanding its influence in the Western Hemisphere by leading a hybrid war that the West is failing to counter.
In hybrid warfare, a military clash is merely the latest operation performed on an already occupied territory. With no official declaration of war, this war creates a timeless and slow state of mental confusion despite its speedy character. It is the most artful form of war, where the place of uniformed soldiers is taken by manipulated media, hackers, psychologists, and civilians.
The successful mix of tools must be unique, highly innovative and flexible each time. Furthermore, hybrid warfare is not regulated by international law. The limiting of the conceptualisation of war to the "use of armed forces" by the UN Charter hinders the legal adjustment of "war" to the 21st century realities. This is how Crimea was separated from Ukraine without a single shot fired, and the "rule of war over the rule of law" was launched and continues in international politics.
Current Russian war strategy dates back to Soviet times, and the "creation of societal division" represents its primary part in maintaining a timeless influence in the post-Soviet space. Under the slogan "Divide et impera," Russia stopped Moldova from joining the motherland, Romania, in 1991 — and so Transnistria was created. In the initial stage of the Transnistria War, Russian propaganda spread the false rumour that Romanian spies were on Moldovan territory and planned on killing the entire Russian-speaking population. As a result, a societal rift was created between ethnic Russians and local Moldovans. Everybody has since been brainwashed that the Transnistria War had no political background and was purely an ethnic conflict. The same societal division, "Russians vs Ukrainians," was employed by the Kremlin to establish the autonomous region of Crimea in 2014.
Ukraine, Moldova and Estonia — united by the same war?
Hybrid war is an international, borderless phenomenon which crested in Ukraine in 2014, in Moldova in January 2016 and in Estonia this autumn. Ukraine was lost to Russian influence when Crimea was annexed. In Moldova, the West decided to withdraw in January 2016, which remains a controversial decision but which succeeded in avoiding a useless military confrontation and rerun of the Ukrainian story. Estonia is different, but also the same. Unfortunately, one's NATO status does not play enough of a role in a war that has no borders or laws.
What matters now are scandals and loss of reputation. Both Moldova and Estonia were dragged into money laundering scandals involving Russia. Moldova's 2015 case, in which $1 billion vanished from national banks, was dubbed the "robbery of the century." This autumn, Danske Bank's Estonian branch was accused of laundering hundreds of times more. In Moldova, it took almost a year after the scandal for large-scale protests to escalate, but were quickly squashed by the US and the EU. And so the country's fate was peacefully sealed in 2016: Moldova will remain quasi-independent, with the Russian Army in Transnistria and no chance of thinking anytime soon about joining the EU or NATO. Moreover, relations between Moldova and the West have worsened already. A great deal of funding was cut and visas may be reintroduced for Moldovans who want to travel within the EU. Thus, at this point, it may safely be concluded that Russia has won the war in Moldova and Uraine.
If a hybrid war scheme were drafted for Estonia, this October's news of the money laundering would then represent the official peak of the hybrid war, which will continue with other surprising disturbances, chaos and potentially military interventions. Currently, the Russia vs the West hybrid war has expanded to its main battleground — Estonia. This will force the West to firmly react, as the country's destiny is to be decided right now. Even the slightest Russian military presence in Estonian air or on Estonian land or sea must immediately be counterattacked by NATO. Russia may initially launch some minor military challenges just to test NATO's disposition. It is worth noting that only 65.5% of Russian military personnel can be qualified as "satisfactory."
There is a reason why US President Barack Obama visited Estonia in the symbolic year of 2014, while President Donald Trump went to Helsinki this year to meet Putin. Western powers may have changed their attitude regarding Russia as none of the economic sanctions worked, and the situation in Ukraine is only getting worse. But in this power game, the West can't afford to lose Estonia in particular, as it has a crucial strategic and symbolic value for both the West and Russia. When Russia reinforces its dominance in Ukraine and Moldova, the end result is less detrimental, as these countries decided to remain neutral following their separation from the Soviet Union, and so they were already half-occupied by Russia all along. By not joining NATO, they missed their unique opportunity for rebirth under a Western democracy, and are now facing societies divided between the East and the West as a result.
NATO can't afford to back down
Estonia is a different story — a NATO and EU member and a symbol of flourishing Western democracy on post-Soviet soil accompanied by economic and IT booms. Therefore, ideologically, Estonia was always a priority target for Russia as a small door for expansion to the West.
Regardless of its political determination and success, Estonia is too vulnerable in this context of hybrid war. Estonia has a large percentage of Russians who live detached from the Estonians — but this isn't even the entire problem. These fissures can be deepened along any kind of line — rich vs poor, city vs village, or even rumours brought back from the past. This part of hybrid war strategy is the most creative and psychologically sophisticated, and has been applied in Estonian society since Soviet times. Estonia is also a small country with almost no border with Russia, which represents a huge military disadvantage from a psychological point of view as well. Even Estonia's IT success can be exploited as a vulnerability in hybrid war, as many tactics are employed in the frontierless cyberspace and Estonia has much if its citizens' data available online. So it would be almost impossible for Estonia to win alone, should Russia decide to move further West.
But Russia will not continue advancing unless it sees that NATO is retreating. Should the West make that mistake, and Estonia is lost in this international hybrid war, a serious push will take place in the decline of Western civilisation, as American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington predicted. By allowing Russia to expand into a NATO and EU member state, a Pandora's box will be opened after which anything can happen, including a full-scale military war between values and civilisations at the heart of Europe.
Marina Berzedean is a graduate of Tallinn University and the Estonian School of Diplomacy in the area of International Relations, European Integration and Diplomacy. She is from Moldova and came to Tallinn in 2013.
Editor: Aili Vahtla, Andrew Whyte