The drunk Russian had me in a neck-lock. ‘Rossia, davai Rossia!!’ he was shouting. Go, Russia. And please get off me.
It’s this image of an aggressive, out of control Russian nationalism that is being pushed by western leaders as being so dangerous at the moment: a nationalism which they say is being stoked by President Vladimir Putin, used to reconquer Crimea without a fight, to partition Ukraine, and soon perhaps to destabilise one of the Baltic states too.
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Back to the drunk Russian: he had me in a neck-lock because we were trying to film the Russian border from the Estonian town of Narva. He didn’t like outsiders, and thought we were American. And his suspicions of us play directly into an argument increasingly used in the west as to why Putin can’t be trusted in the Baltic states.
Narva sits on the Estonian side of the border, yet the population is almost entirely Russian. The NATO argument goes that the Russians might make up a reason to invade Estonia – like, say, protecting the Russians in Narva – just to see if NATO has the courage of its convictions.
So Estonia, a tiny little country which could fit nearly 400 times into Russia, has accepted a NATO ‘fast-response’ force it can shelter behind.
On February 24, Estonia’s national day, a whole load of NATO troops will parade around in the main square in Narva to celebrate the country’s independence. They will do so no more than 300 metres from the Russian territory. But what NATO calls defiance, Russia says is a direct provocation.
And that’s because the most cursory investigation of NATO’s claims of Russian intent in Estonia doesn’t seem to stand up to much scrutiny. While 98 per cent of Narva is Russian speaking, they all have European passports.
The deputy mayor says that they look to Brussels to sort out their problems – which, he says, are entirely non-military and much more social. He wants the European Union to fund Russian language classes for children in the town because (in his opinion) the Estonian government in Tallinn doesn’t want to.
He doesn’t look to Moscow to sort anything out. When I ask him if he sees NATO’s actions as being provocative he’d rather not answer. But it doesn’t take much working out that if you want a Russian minority in a European country to feel loved by Europe then perhaps cultural funding might be a better way of doing it than a NATO expeditionary force.
Back in London I meet Rein Mullerson, who was an aide to President Gorbachev, and who drafted the paperwork which gave Estonia its independence. Which seems to me to make him fairly important in Estonia’s modern history, as he naturally values Estonia’s freedom and also understands how Moscow works.
And he couldn’t be more scathing about NATO and its arguments. Estonia, he says, isn’t the same as Ukraine or Georgia, simply because it’s already in NATO, and there’s no way on earth that Russia will attack a NATO member – and he agrees with the deputy mayor of Narva that the Russians there don’t look to Moscow to solve their problems.
And yes, it’s provocative to Russia – but he hopes, not provocative enough to prompt Moscow to retaliate. But the point is that he believes that rather than reacting to a problem, NATO is helping create one.