Opinion: Estonian Foreign Policy after Borrell’s Moscow Visit: Between Deterrence and EU Consensus

By Stefano Braghiroli and Andrey Makarychev (Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu)

Image: Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs,
by Estonian Foreign Ministry – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12263761

Josep Borrell’s recent visit to Moscow and its controversial echoes have spurred an avalanche of comments. At the center of attention was a humiliating treatment that the head of EU diplomacy received in Russia, including the well synchronized expulsion of three European diplomats from Moscow. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s subsequent declaration of Russia’s readiness to completely break relations with the EU has signaled the fall of the Moscow-Brussels relations to the lowest point in the post-Cold War history. Noteworthy is that this confrontation develops against the background of an almost year-long border lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has drastically decreased the people-to-people contacts between Russia and European countries.

In the pretty heated debate that unfolded around this situation there are several points that might bring new complications for Estonia’s foreign policy. First, in the first public explanation of the critical state of Russia-EU relations after Borrell’s visit, Lavrov has particularly underscored the malign, in his view, role of the Baltic states in making EU foreign policy ‘Russophobic’. This is another reiteration of the decades-long Russian disdain for Estonia’s, Latvia’s and Lithuania’s membership in the EU and NATO. The fact that the three countries were referred to in an explicitly confrontational speech might mean that it is this Baltic trio that will remain an object of new political and information attacks from Russia. Moscow did not fully and unconditionally accept their integration with the trans-Atlantic West, and instead keeps trying to portray them as troublemakers within the EU. This is part of a long-term strategy by Moscow to stir divisions within the bloc in order to reduce its resilience and responsiveness.

Secondly, only a couple of days after the Borrell’s fiasco another top-level European diplomat visited Moscow – this time the Finnish foreign minister. This visit not only exemplifies a certain gap between the EU and its members when it comes to foreign policy. It also exposed the dis-unity of the member states and, more specifically, a clear difference between Finnish and Estonian policies towards Russia. The Estonian government and parliament made clear that the Navalny affair demonstrates the oppressive nature of Putin’s regime, while Finland has sent to Russia its chief diplomat to leave open the well-established communicative track with the Kremlin. It is true that in St, Petersburg Pekka Haavisto did mention Finnish disagreements with Russia’s policy towards Ukraine and Putin regime’s maltreatment of domestic opponents, as well as reiterated Helsinki’s engagement with EU’s policies. In the meantime, the Finnish diplomacy seems to be ready to adapt to Moscow’s intentions to give priority to bi-lateral and selective relations with individual member states at the expense of Brussels’ role.

The visit of Foreign Minister Haavisto might prove, indeed, more problematic than useful not for its narrative, but for its nature and for its timing. Despite his praise for European unity, Haavisto’s visit is eminently national, rather than European. The timing of the reparatory visit, not casually following Borrell’s disastrous Moscow trip, well epitomizes the idea that national diplomacies, acting unilaterally, are the only ones capable to put together the pieces of the vase broken by an incapable EU foreign policy. This echoes almost perfectly Lavorv’s words who, during Haavisto’s visit, maintained that Russia wants closer ties with friendly EU states, but that relations with EU institutions were a dead “carcass”. Very much in lines with the rationale of divide and rule, he added that “the European Union is not the same as Europe. We are not going away from Europe. We have a lot of friends, a lot of like-minded people in Europe. We will continue to develop mutually beneficial relations with them”.

Thirdly, these developments unfold against the background of Moscow’s intensified health diplomacy, dating back to Russian cargos to Italy in the middle of the Spring 2020 wave and well exemplified by Moscow’s promotion of Russian anti-Covid vaccine all across the globe, including within the EU. Hungary – another Estonia’s partner in the Finno-Ugric “world” – was the first EU country to accept Sputnik V.

Historically, the two protagonists of our story – Finland and Estonia – have been perceived and understood fairly differently by Russia: the former as an equal ‘grown up’ partner who gained its respect in the field; the latter, along with the other two Baltic state, as an immature, radical, and sometimes capricious antagonist. In the light of this rationale and, reflecting the different historical trajectories of the two countries, Moscow’s diplomacy has treated Tallinn and Helsinki accordingly. The recent mutual expulsion of diplomats by Moscow and Tallinn seems to add a new element to this distinction.

Similarly, at the EU level, a number (especially) Western European member states have not been completely immune from this narrative, sometimes portraying the Baltics as overly obsessed about Russia and hawkish in their perspective on relations with Moscow. This convergence of misperceptions and misconceptions has often undermined Tallinn’s capacity to successfully affect Brussels’ Russia policy and contributed to widen the gap between ‘old’ and ‘new Europe’. Certain hyperbolic tones of some members of the previous governing coalition, coupled with their manifest and unhidden distrust for Brussels and key regional partners did not help.

Paradoxically, the unanimously perceived disaster of Borrell’s visit and Moscow’s blunt disrespect might have determined a more fertile ground for Estonia’s concerns to be taken more seriously. The conditio sine qua non for the ground to produce tangible fruits being to rebuild Estonia’s credibility among partners and to run away from unnecessary misconceptions. The first actions of the new Kallas government seem to positively address this crucial condition, thereby contributing to connote Estonia’s position towards Moscow, not only as a privileged perspective, but also as mature and balanced.

Kallas’ efforts to de-ideologize the debate on Sputnik V, by conditioning its use in Estonia not to a political decision of the government, but to the assessment of the European Medicine Agency (EMA) is just one of these signs. The remarks of Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets to work proactively to eventually finalize and ratify a border agreement with Russia, demonstrates Estonia’s goodwill and pragmatism by shifting the ball on Moscow’s field. Such steps, while contributing to strengthen Tallinn’s credibility in the eyes of the EU and transatlantic partners and depriving Moscow from useful scapegoating arguments, magnify Estonia’s capacity to advance crucial concerns at the European level, to be head, and – most of all – to be taken seriously. The debate on new sanctions towards Moscow following Navalny’s arrest and Borrell’s debacle could be the first testing ground for Estonia’s renewed pragmatism.  Evidently, this debate will be burdened by a combination of moral and political issues, such as whether Navalny is a nationalist, and whether his imprisonment deservers a harsher reaction than the loss of thousands lives in East Ukraine. What seems to be strategically important is to find a proper balance between using sanctions as a deterrence tool and safeguarding unity of EU diplomacy. The former should not come at the cost of the latter.

Under these circumstances, a major challenge for Estonian foreign policy seems to come from the necessity to find a delicate balance between the justifiable criticism of Brussels’ approach to Russia and search for a common language with neighboring countries that might be looking for their own communication tracks with the Kremlin.

While the recent visit of Haavisto to Russia might have created declared or undeclared uncomfortability in Tallinn, Finland’s move cannot be attributed to naivety towards Russia or lack of geo-political understanding of Moscow’s behaviour as in the case of Borrell’s inadequacy or Western chancelleries’ appeasement language. Finland knows Russia very well and, in its century long experience to deal with Moscow, it has developed an effective way to coexist and deal with its large neighbour in a way that works for her. It is also hard to overly blame Finland for not showing enough European commitment, given the fact that Helsinki has traditionally been the most committed capital to European integration, among the Nordic capitals. Finland has also been very supportive of Estonia and the Baltics’ bid to join the EU in the early 2000, countering Russia’s ‘immaturity’ narrative towards the Baltic states. It has also been one of the key actors to champion the deepening the EU’s Security and Defence component, given its condition of neutrality.

The Finnish strategy to deal with Russia by combining diplomatic pragmatism and a solid European perspective is only to a certain extent function of the cold-war finlandization era. Primarily it works because of Moscow’s non-contemptuous attitude towards its Finnish counterparts. Such sense of bilateral respect prevents also misperceptions and misconceptions from the side of Western and Southern European partners.

Could this approach also work for Estonia in the future? Without ignoring the obvious historical differences and Estonia’s solid commitment to the transatlantic alliance, it could. Paradoxically, while in words, this is what Lavrov seems to be wishing for the future when referring to the immaturity of the Baltic states’‘Russophobic’ foreign policy, it is exactly Moscow’s paternalistic approach and post-colonial diplomatic contempt towards Tallinn that prevents a change in these dynamics and a reduction of the geo-political gap between the two sides of the Gulf of Finland.

Kallas’ attempt to deprive Moscow from useful scapegoating arguments from Sputnik V to the border treaty, while functionally focussing on what really matters and can be achieved at the European level in terms of Russia policy and seems to move in the right direction. Her recent visit to Finland and meeting with Prime Minister Sanna Marin, focussed also on issues related to regional security, with the bilateral commitment to launch a yearlong study aimed at further deepening relations between the two countries appears a backbone of such strategy.

This article was first published in Estonian daily Eesti Päevaleht on 25 February 2021.