Why Narva is probably not next on Russia’s list

Estonian city might look like low hanging fruit for Russia but there are four very good reasons why Russia won’t invade.

Narva fortress, 13th century, with the statue of Vladimir Lenin in the foreground, Narva, Estonia [Getty]
Narva fortress from the 13th century, with the statue of Vladimir Lenin in the foreground [Getty]

Located in northeastern Europe the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are thought to be prime targets for Russia’s next military move in the region. All three share land borders with Russia. All have sizable Russian-speaking minorities (although Lithuania’s Russian minority is small compared to Estonia and Latvia). And all have a history of suffering under decades of Russian domination. 

Specifically, the Estonian city of Narva is often mentioned as being next on Vladimir Putin’s to-do list.

At first glance, the idea that Narva could be next for a Russian military intervention is not completely unreasonable. Narva is Estonia’s third largest city and is home to a sizable ethnic Russian population. Almost 84 percent of its citizens are Russian speaking. Ethnic Russians are more likely to be unemployed and be less well off financially than their ethnic Estonian counterparts.

Estonia criticises NATO for provoking Russia through military expansion

The courtyard of Narva Castle – the dominant building in the city – is home to a statue of Lenin, one of the few remaining in the Baltic states. Only a narrow river separates Narva from Russia. During Russian imperial times Narva was part of the Saint Petersburg Governorate.

All the boxes seem to be checked.

A likely target?

While Narva might look like low hanging fruit for Russia, there are four very good reasons why it will probably not be the next place for a Russian invasion.

Out of the three so-called “Baltic Tigers”, Estonia is the economic leader. The country bucked the trend of economic decline in the eurozone during the recent financial crisis. Estonia ranked eighth in the world for economic freedom in the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal’s 2015 Index of Economic Freedom. The country oozes with enterprise and creativity – it is, after all, the birthplace of Skype. It is true that ethnic Russians living in Estonia do not do as well economically as their ethnic Estonian counterparts, but the gap is slowing closing.

More importantly, Ethnic Russians living in Estonia are far better than their counterparts across the border in Russia. The proof is in the pudding: Over the last two-year period for which statistics are available, only 37 ethnic Russians moved from Estonia to the Motherland. Ethnic Russians in Estonia do not want to live in Russia.

When commentators say that the ‘Baltics are next’ for Russian aggression, what this really means is that NATO is next.


Cheered US troops

When Estonia held its annual military parade in Narva this year (the third time it has been held in Narva) to mark its Independence Day, the Estonian military was joined by more than 100 soldiers from other NATO countries – including soldiers and armoured vehicles from the US army’s Second Cavalry Regiment.

How did the Russian speaking population respond?

Instead of throwing tomatoes at US soldiers, Estonians were taking selfies with them. Instead of waving Russian flags, the Estonian flag flew proudly. The crowd cheered. Sure, there were some locals who did not like the parade, but this would also be the case for a military parade held anywhere in the US too.

In January, the Russian backed separatists occupying the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk sent a letter to the 13 twin and 10 partner cities of Donetsk – Narva is one of them. The letter asked Narva to provide support to the separatists’ government, and even implicitly suggested that Narvians should rise up against the West out of solidarity.

This was firmly rejected by Narva. City officials said that the partnership agreement was signed with the Donetsk city of Ukraine, and not the Russian backed so-called Peoples Republic of Donetsk. There was no appetite among Narvians to support the rogue regime that is today occupying the city of Donetsk.

Estonian troops parade in Narva to mark Estonia's Independence Day [AP]    
Estonian troops parade in Narva to mark Estonia’s Independence Day [AP]    

The NATO guarantee

Perhaps the main reason why Narva is unlikely to be invaded by Russia is NATO’s mutual security guarantee: An attack on one is an attack on all. When commentators say that the “Baltics are next” for Russian aggression, what this really means is that NATO is next.

In the eyes of NATO, the defence of Narva is as important as the defence of New York City. 

So far it appears that Russia understands this. So instead of traditional warfare, or an invasion of the Baltic states, Moscow will test NATO using non-traditional military and security operations – such has cyber-attacks, propaganda, abductions, funding of political parties and pro-Russia NGOs in NATO countries. These acts have become the norm for Russia in Eastern Europe because Moscow knows that NATO is ill-prepared to deal with these sorts of threats.

Russian speakers know they have it better in Estonia than they would in Russia – and they want to keep it that way.

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, nothing can be ruled out. For now, the Baltics should expect more of Moscow’s non-traditional methods of warfare, but as things currently stand, not an outright Russian invasion. 

Vladimir Putin will do what he knows he can get away with and nothing more.

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States army.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.