Ausgabe 49/2008

The Allies and Russia A Tear in the NATO Bulwark

How should NATO approach Russia? Contrary to Germany, the Baltic countries and Poland want to enlarge the alliance to include Georgia and Ukraine. With NATO foreign ministers meeting this week, the alliance has hardly ever been so at odds.


The road from "new" to "old" Europe passes through Russia. The 1,795-kilometer (1,115-mile) drive from the Estonian city of Narva through the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and on to Berlin passes through six countries and a divided political landscape that is being resurveyed since the war in Georgia. What counts today is to distance oneself from Moscow.

In Narva, they face off like warring sisters, the medieval castles on the Russian and Estonian sides of the river marking the border between the two countries. On the eastern bank is the Ivangorod fortress, established by Czar Ivan II, with its defiant walls topped by battlements. Facing it on the Estonian side, under a tin weather vane, is the Hermann Castle, purchased by the Livonian Teutonic Knights order in 1346.

For the past four years, Hermann Castle has marked where NATO territory ends and that belonging to Russia begins. Moscow sees the border as the result of a broken promise. During negotiations with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1990, Russia claims that then US Secretary of State James Baker said that NATO would not expand its territory eastward.

Since then, however, the Western military alliance has moved eastward by almost 1,200 kilometers (745 miles), from the German to the Russian borders. Today there are 4,100 Estonian soldiers under the supreme command of NATO stationed in the hinterlands behind Hermann Castle. But there is concern in Estonia. In August, Moscow mobilized three times that number of troops to defeat the army of NATO candidate Georgia. Some in Estonia are worried that they could be next.

The NATO-Russia front.

The NATO-Russia front.

When the 26 NATO foreign ministers meet this Tuesday in a large conference room in the NATO headquarters building on Boulevard Leopold III in Brussels, the Estonians will also have their say. For now, however, NATO's policy will be to sort through the shards. At the NATO summit in Bucharest eight months ago, the "old" and "new" Europe clashed loudly over the question as to whether NATO should make a binding commitment to membership for Georgia and Ukraine, and over the alliance's relationship with Russia.

Germany, among others, was harshly criticized for the role it played in Bucharest. Berlin was accused of being "naïve," and "overly trusting," when it came to Russia, and of placating the Russians by rejecting the bids of Ukraine and Georgia to become part of NATO. Germany would not have become a NATO member in 1955, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said heatedly, if the alliance had knuckled under to Moscow at the time. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski jumped to her defense with thinly veiled threats against the Germans and the French.

Now, four months later, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier speaks of a foreign policy marked by "less partisanship," as he sips grapefruit juice and munches cookies in front of a bust of former German Chancellor Willy Brandt. In Bucharest, says Steinmeier, there were some "rude objections," noting that it would be absurd to imply that he or the German government are "naïve or ignorant" in their interactions with Russia. "I am and remain firmly convinced that it would be wrong to isolate Russia," he says.

Steinmeier who, unlike his predecessor Joschka Fischer, prefers small steps over big leaps, remains steadfast in his views. He remains unswayed by recent events. And the list is long: Russia's invasion of Georgia -- though provoked by Tbilisi; Moscow's subsequent recognition of the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states; and Russia's threat to withdraw from the Baltic Sea pipeline project.

An "unnecessary domestic European conflict" was created, says Steinmeier, noting that newer NATO and European Union member states have contributed to this conflict by prematurely assigning all of the blame for the Georgia conflict to Russia. Channeling ex-US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, -- who once blasted "Old Europe's" vacillation as compared with the decisiveness of the formerly Communist countries in Eastern Europe -- Steinmeier noted sharply that "it was Old Europe that brought reason to the proceedings."

Estonia: The Russians of Narva

Russia's immediate neighbors, especially Estonia, take a decidedly different view. In the city of Narva, where Stalin had apartment buildings and factories built over the ruins of blown-up Baroque houses, 96 percent of residents are ethnic Russians. Only 40 percent have an Estonian passport. To this day, almost one in five city residents have no citizenship to this day, while the rest have opted for Russian citizenship.

Is Narva home to Moscow's "frozen and hungry fifth column," as Mart Helme, the former Estonian ambassador to Russia, recently warned? Is it full of Kremlin spies waiting "to creep out into the streets and provoke clashes," as Helme puts it, "because Estonia troops are incapable of staving off the Russian army as it marches into Narva?"

"Complete nonsense," says Mikhail Stalnukhin who, as head of the city council for the past six years, manages the affairs of Narva. Stalnukhin is a stern-looking, bearded man who offers a verbose account of discrimination against Russian-speaking Estonian citizens: of their exclusion from politics and administration, Estonian nationalism in schools and the recurring agitation against all things Russian during election campaigns.

But Stalnukhin becomes taciturn as soon as the conversation turns to his ties to Moscow, or to the question of whether a "Georgian scenario" -- an invasion by Russian troops, supposedly for the protection of Russian citizens in a neighboring country -- could happen in Estonia. "Such a scenario can only become reality," he says, "if people in Estonia interested in seeing it happen make the preparations. In other words, if a genocide takes place first."

Moscow already used the accusation of genocide against Russian citizens as an excuse for its invasion of Georgia in early August. At the time, the trade union at the Narva electricity plant proclaimed its solidarity with the brothers and sisters in faraway South Ossetia -- an alarming signal that prompted Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet to make a trip to Narva.

"For two hours, speaking in Russian, I attempted to explain to the angry workers why the Estonian government supported the Georgians, not the South Ossetians," says Paet in his office in the Estonian capital Tallinn. "We have a communication problem with the ethnic Russians in our country, and that must change."

Estonia's foreign minister, a man with a typically Nordic mix of a gloomy and placid temperament, does not come across as someone who would choose to stir up trouble under the safe umbrella of the NATO alliance. He has enough problems already. There is still no border treaty with Russia, because Moscow refuses to accept a preamble that characterizes the years of Soviet control over Estonia as an occupation.

In addition, there are hardly any direct relations between Estonia and its neighbor to the East anymore. The Schengen Treaty has made crossing the border more difficult since late 2007. In fact, Estonians can now travel without a visa to the Canary Islands or Florida, but not across the bridge to the Russian city of Ivangorod. Trade and the flow of money between Russia and Estonia have already suffered greatly since the riots in April 2007.

Those riots were sparked by a controversy over a memorial to Soviet soldiers who died in World War II, which the Estonian government wanted to move from downtown Tallinn to a location on the city's outskirts. But there was more to it than that. The real dispute revolved around the interpretation of Estonia's more recent history, most of it spent under Soviet control. The country, in which ethnic Russians make up a quarter of the population, experienced scenes reminiscent of civil war.

One fatality, hundreds of injured, more than 1,000 arrests and considerable looting marked the end of a violent conflict that woke many Estonians up to the realization that, even under the protective umbrella of NATO, it is not easy to live side-by-side with a Russian parallel society, one that speaks its own language and cultivates its own historical myths.

With a grumbling minority, a rapidly plunging economy and the recent revelations about a spy working in Estonia for Russian intelligence, it would seem that Estonian President Toomas Ilves had enough on his hands at home. Nevertheless, he appears to relish handing out advice to other Western partners in his capacity of leader of a country of 1.3 million people.

The EU, or at least "the old EU," Ilves complains, has turned itself into an "accomplice to Moscow's policy of zones of influence." And NATO, he adds, made a "serious mistake" when it vacillated on the question of expansion at the Bucharest summit. For this reason, says Ilves, it is high time to clarify how much Article 5 of the NATO Treaty would be worth for Estonia in an emergency. Article 5 describes the obligation of alliance partners to protect a fellow NATO country in the event of an "armed attack."

But, as even Ilves knows, NATO is not responsible for domestic conflicts within Estonia.


© DER SPIEGEL 49/2008
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