Fears Unfounded: Russia and Narva

With Putin’s recent encouragement of Crimean independence and subsequent unification with the Russian mainland, some fear that the annexation of Crimea may have been just the first in a number of “territorial rectifications.” In particular, analysts point to Eastern Estonia as a future point of contention. The concern has its roots in the overwhelmingly ethnic Russian roots of the Estonian territory bordering Russia, epitomizing by the Estonian border town of Narva, whose inhabitants are nearly all of ethnic Russian. Furthermore, there’s a history of Russian autonomism in the Narva region. After the fall of the Soviet Empire, and in response to the Estonian declaration of independence, the city councils of Russian-speaking Narva and Sillamae held referenda on their “national territorial autonomy,” referenda that the Estonian government declared illegitimate. While this may indicate that Russia has fertile grounds for claiming self-determination, Estonia has little to fear from the threat of Russian annexation of Estonia.

Map of Estonia

With the revival of the Estonian state, ethnic Russians bore the brunt of the reverberations of Estonian nationalism. Under the new Estonian constitution, citizenship was only granted to those who had been citizens before the Soviet takeover or the direct descendents of those citizens. This effectively barred those who were not ethnic Estonians, i.e. the 475,000 ethnic Russians from citizenship in a new Estonian state. These ethnic Russians were left with a defunct Soviet citizenship, rendering them stateless peoples.

Estonia implemented a mechanism for gaining citizenship, but the program was largely assimilationist in nature; one of the most significant requirements was a proven competency with the difficult Ugric Estonian language. However, due to a number of factors (analyzed in a paper to be published shortly) ethnic-Russians have successfully integrated into mainstream Estonian society, both from a linguistic and identitive element. While the nominal Ukrainians in Crimea needed little urging to rejoin Russia, it is unclear (and even unlikely) that short of military coercion, the ethnic Russians living in Estonia would choose to secede from Estonia and rejoin Russia. This holds true even in the Narva region, where Russian heritage and linguistic background still remains strong. While Russia may be seen as the motherland, Estonia has been successfully portrayed as an opportunity for economic and cultural growth, and Russians in Estonia tend to be proud of their Estonian identity.

On the flip side, from the Russian perspective, a conflict with Estonia is not worth it. First, there would be only limited marginal returns—Russia has already secured its power projection in the region, and another annexation or interference with a post-Soviet country would do little to bolster the already-established credibility. On the contrary, increased Russian aggression could begin to undermine international norms of sovereignty. Russia is a strong proponent of the maintenance of strict sovereignty norms because it helps Russia maintain a disproportionate influence in the international community and within international organizations. (Russia does make exceptions, of course, for vital national interests in its former Soviet sphere of influence.) Similarly, Putin has already ignited Russian nationalism and enjoys popular support at home, and as with the external threat projection, gains little from another move that could be interpreted as aggressively expansionist.

And an incursion into Estonian affairs would be considered expansionist. While Ukraine (literally: the Borderland) falls into an immediate sphere that contains the Russian heartland, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were never really considered Russian, and even under Soviet rule, retained a certain distinctiveness. Also, Estonia is a NATO member country. Annexation of part of Estonia, even after a referendum, would not go unchallenged in the same way that Crimea has been. All parties know this, and even if Putin did want Narva, he would have everything to lose by forcing an escalated conflict between Russia and NATO.

Therefore, an annexation of Estonian land is extraordinarily unlikely. Even if Russia were to make another annexation, it would not include a Baltic country. Hypothetically, if the instability in Ukraine were to continue to deteriorate and an eastern Ukrainian province such as Kharkiv independently (read: without the presence of Russian troops) chose to secede from the Ukraine, Russia might feel obliged to protect that decision. However, in the present situation, even in such a circumstance, Russia would not go ahead and annex that region. Putin understands that the West will not give more than a symbolic rejection of Russia’s actions in Crimea, but also knows that further behavior infringing on the Ukraine beyond Crimea would force the West into more tangible reprisals. No one wants an escalation, so Estonians can rest assured that Narva will remain Estonian for the foreseeable future.

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About Brian Mund

UPenn '13; YLS '18. My research focuses on sovereignty, the United Nations and the legitimacy of secession.
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