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  • Writer's pictureThe Red Line

Episode 98. The Geopolitics of Estonia

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Estonia has one of the most impressive economic transformations anywhere on the planet, gaining independence from the USSR and completely overhauling its entire institutional base. While most of the post-Soviet states experienced slow growth and economic stagnation, Estonia instead grew rapidly and became the 'Startup Capital of Europe'.

However, while Estonia celebrated its economic successes, cultural issues began bubbling just under the surface, setting the stage for a series of tough decisions to be made by Tallinn today. Will Estonia be able to maintain this level of growth? Will the language laws backfire? And will Sweden and Finland's entry into NATO completely change the defence dynamic within the Baltic states? We ask our panel of experts.


Episode Overview:

Part 1: $6000, 10 Years, and 130 metres (4:21)

  • Elisabeth Braw begins our conversation with context about Estonia's existence during and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, noting a complete embrace of the free market economy in the 90s.

  • We discuss the somewhat precarious situation of Tallinn being in geopolitical competition with a neighbour that has strong ties to a significant portion of its population.

  • We identify the issue of language, with many Russian speakers learning English for economic opportunities instead of Estonian, and the need to promote the native language to preserve the culture.

  • We conclude by noting Estonia's strong support for Ukraine during the military conflict with Russia, with the largest per capita contribution of any European country.

Part 2: The One That Got Away (19:32)

  • Marko Mihkelson discusses the history of Estonia's relationship with Russia, both pre-absorption by the Soviet Union, and its trajectory after 1991.

  • We unpack how important NATO is to Estonia's defence position and its secuirty relations with Russia, as well as the creation and build up of the national defence force post-independence. This conversation carries into how Estonia would defend itself in the event of Russian aggression, including deterrence and early detection systems.

  • We discuss the possibility of forward deploying NATO tactical nuclear weapons on Estonian soil and the practical considerations behind that calculus.

  • We identify the key trading and investment partners Estonia must further develop to prevent an economic reliance upon Russia.

Part 3: The Trip Wire (36:06)

  • Steven Pifer commences our final chapter by discussing the role of NATO over the past 20 years in Estonia's security policy and the Baltics, including in light of the threat posed by Russia to European nations over the last decade.

  • Previous to 2022, the assumption was that the Baltics were considered the 'trip wire' for Europe, with no feasible plan to defend those nations from a Russian invasion.

  • With Finland and Sweden poised to join NATO, we discuss the potential changes to that strategy, including through having ports on each side of the Baltic Sea, and the potential for the militarisation of the Finnish eastern border.

  • We discuss a hypothetical conflict in border-city Narva between ethnic Russians and Estonians and if Russian forces were to cross the border to restore order.

  • Estonia's cyber defence is among the world's elite, with its highly digital society and the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence based in Tallinn. We discuss Estonia's hybrid warfare preparedness.

  • We unpack the social issues grey passport holders, Russians in Estonia, face in Estonia, and the potential for this perceived underclass to be leveraged by Russian propagandists across other former Soviet republics.


Episode Guests:

Elisabeth Braw

  • Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she focuses on defence against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats

  • Columnist with Foreign Policy, where she writes on national security and the globalised economy

  • Member of the National Preparedness Commission (UK)

Marko Mihkelson

  • Chair of National Foreign Affairs Committee

  • Member of the Parliamnet of Estonia

  • Former Chair of EU Affairs Committee and Chair of National Defence Committee

  • Prior to election, Mihkelson served as a journalist and war correspondent, covering the first Chechen War.

Steven Pifer

  • Non-resident Senior Fellow in the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, and the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.

  • Affiliate of the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University.

  • Former US Ambassador to Ukraine, former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia on the National Security Council


The Red Line's Estonian Reading List:

We’ve compiled a list of further reading to better understand the geopolitics of Estonia and the Baltics.


Understanding the Batlic States Charles Clark

The Full Digital Nation

Violaines Champetier de Ribes

The Baltic Revolution

Anatol Lieven


For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to our Patreon member Erik Rudolph and Pie.


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