Russian ‘Provocation’ Risk Irks Estonia Amid U.S. Transition

  • Baltic nation’s foreign minister speaks in interview
  • Russia may deem U.S. less ready to act until Trump takes power

Estonia is braced for “provocations” from neighboring Russia, which it says could seek to undermine Western solidarity during Donald Trump’s transition to the U.S. presidency.

Instability in the Baltic region has risen because of “the growing aggressiveness of Russia’s regime over several years,” according to Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser. While the threat of provocations would have increased irrespective of who won the U.S. election, Hillary Clinton’s experience on security issues could have shortened the risk period “somewhat,” said Mikser, who was appointed in this month’s change of government.

Russia’s leaders “have tried to break the solidarity of Western countries, sow insecurity and exploit windows when readiness to react to their provocative steps is lower,” Mikser, 43, said Tuesday in an interview in Tallinn, the capital. “It’s inevitably a moment when we must be ready ourselves to react very quickly to these changing threat assessments and keep the attention of our allies.”

The Baltic region, home to a large Russian-speaking minority, has been at the center of concern over expansionist rhetoric from President Vladimir Putin following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for the separatist war in Ukraine. The Western response has included U.S. and European Union sanctions and an increased NATO presence in the continent’s east. Putin has repeatedly denied having any intention designs on the Baltics.

Full Backing?

Trump’s suggestion during the campaign that the U.S. should only defend allies that have “fulfilled their obligations” alarmed some in the Baltic region, where Latvia and Lithuania don’t at present meet NATO guidelines for military spending. While Estonia does comply, Trump supporter Newt Gingrich said of Estonia this year that he’s not sure the U.S. should “risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg.”

Trump, who takes office in January, has also said he’d like to warm frosty ties with Russia, speaking by phone to Putin since winning the election last month. Mikser, a former defense minister, said the two countries would try to ease relations, though their effort won’t bring about a significant improvement.

“It’s very hard to see any re-engagement” between Russia and the U.S. in the longer term because of differing interests and beliefs, he said.

Estonia’s own foreign policy continuity has become an issue in domestic politics after Center Party, in opposition since 2007 and supported by most ethnic Russians that make up about a quarter of the country’s population, re-entered the government last month. Center’s 2004 cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia “automatically turns Estonia into a pariah state,” former Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas told Postimees daily on Nov. 23.

The agreement with United Russia doesn’t pose risks to Estonia’s reputation but may be “a liability domestically to Center’s efforts to renew itself,” Mikser said. He reiterated pledges that the current government, which takes over the European Union’s rotating six-month presidency next July, won’t change the country’s foreign and security policies.

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