Minister of Defence Jüri Luik (Isamaa) was Estonia's foreign minister when presidents Lennart Meri and Boris Yeltsin signed the accords in 1994 that prompted the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Estonian soil. Looking back, he is convinced that had even a small number of Russian troops remained on Estonian soil, Estonia couldn't have joined the European Union and NATO—not only at the time, but likely not at all.
In an interview earlier this week, Luik told ERR that the fact that Yeltsin invited Meri to Moscow was in no way a guarantee that things would move. At the point the two heads of state met, Estonia and Russia had been negotiating for almost three years, with Russia most recently having attempted to stall the withdrawal of its troops for at least another three years.
According to Luik, the meeting came to pass mainly because of pressure from the West. Both German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and U.S. President Bill Clinton exercised pressure on the Russian president, who at the same time was faced with internal demands that Russian forces remain in Estonia.
The remaining Russian forces, at the time some 7,600 personnel and associated individuals as well as hundreds of trucks and armored vehicles, dozens of tanks, and even missiles, were eventually withdrawn because Russia was economically weak, less than stable politically, and facing mounting international pressure.
Although that number was already small compared to the more than 40,000 personnel back in 1991, the core of the occupying force, the 144th Guards Motor Rifle Division, was still there, Luik explained. "But at the same time, anything Russia needed for its own defense, anti-air weaponry for instance, was moved out."
The 144th Guards Motor Rifle Division at the time was under the command of Gen. Valeri Gerasimov, today the Russian Army's chief of staff and deputy defense minister of the Russian Federation, Luik pointed out. Gerasimov is seen as the architect of Russia's intervention in Syria as well.
Russia would likely have been ready to drag out negotiations for a long time, Luik said. "I don't agree with those analysts who claim that these foreign forces would have left anyway. We were in a difficult position strategically, Russian forces had withdrawn from Lithuania, and Latvia had made substantial concessions and signed its own agreement," Luik said.
A central point in Latvia's concessions was to leave a radar base in Skrunda in full control of the Russian Army for another five years. There again the Western powers were involved, as the assumption at the time would have been that had Russia been deprived of this part of its missile system, its resulting "blindness" towards the West might have led to rash actions and posed an additional danger, Luik suggested.
An important marker at the time, according to Luik, was Germany's agreement with Russia that the latter would withdraw its forces by August 31, 1994. Once that deadline passed, Estonia would have remained as the only formerly occupied and now independent country with Russian troops on its soil.
Events began to unfold in July 1994, when President Lennart Meri first received an unofficial, and eventually an official invitation to meet with President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow. "We went with the sure knowledge that anything could happen," Luik said. "We didn't know what was going on in Moscow. The most recent negotiations had led to a dead end." A meeting of Estonian and Russian officials almost escalated, with the head of the Russian delegation on the verge of screaming at his counterpart, Luik added.
At that point, Estonia's negotiators had stopped paying much attention to Russian suggestions about deadlines. The understanding was clearly that there would have to be a political agreement, and that pro-forma negotiations would lead nowhere. This, among other great differences between the two countries' positions, also left Meri and his delegation in the dark about how they would be received in terms of protocol.
"But when we saw that the Russian deputy prime minister and an official delegation was waiting to welcome us on the airfield, we understood that the meeting was going to be official," Luik said.
The situation in Moscow was difficult to assess. They were aware of several different factions in the Kremlin, as well as divisions among ideological and practical fault lines between Russia's strongmen at the time.
Asked if Russia might have sought to limit Estonia's foreign policy options by leaving forces stationed there, Luik said that this was likely the case. "To which extent this was a tactical and well-considered plan is hard to say, because they were withdrawing troops elsewhere. But there certainly was an imperialist instinct that if they were forced to give up territory, they would do so only by the millimeter, and only if forced to," he added.
Looking back with today's realities in mind, this would have meant that had Russia known that the Baltic states would soon become NATO and EU members, it would likely have dragged out the withdrawal of its troops a good deal longer. "This was their strongest card to play in their attempts to influence the Baltic states," Luik said.
"The process of opening up the EU and NATO started immediately after the Russian withdrawal," Luik added. "This means that from where we stand, the foreign forces left at the last minute. Had we been left behind, becoming part of whatever was to follow would have been more difficult."
The current difficulties of the EU with North Macedonia and Albania are an example of what could have happened. "It's clear that right at the beginning, when EU and NATO began to open themselves up, there was a first wave of enthusiasm, when they looked at the situation through rose-colored glasses and believed that integration would solve all problems," the minister added. "Skepticism towards the extension [of the EU and NATO] has since increased in the EU's old member states, and today is rather substantial, as we've seen."
Estonia's accession to NATO was possible mainly because of the United States' point of view that Europe should be reestablished along prewar political borders, and that the Baltic states would naturally be part of this as well. Had there been just a minimal Russian presence here, joining NATO would have been impossible.
Editor: Dario Cavegn