Paul Goble

Paul Goble is an American analyst, writer and columnist with expertise on Russia, Eurasia, public diplomacy and international broadcasting. Trained at Miami University and the University of Chicago, he is the editor of four volumes on ethnic issues in the former Soviet Union and has published hundreds of articles on ethnic and nationality questions. Goble served as special adviser on Soviet nationality issues and Baltic affairs to Secretary of State James Baker. Goble also served as a visiting scholar at the University of Tartu, Estonia. In 1995, Goble received Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana from President Lennart Meri, for his role in supporting Estonia's re-independence.

Estonian-Russian border dispute resurfaces after a Moscow diplomat denounces the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty

On 18 November, Sergey Belyayev, the head of the Russian foreign ministry’s second European department, reiterated Moscow’s view that the 1920 Treaty of Tartu, in which Moscow recognised Estonia’s independence and agreed to a border, became null and void when Estonia became part of the Soviet Union in 1940. But …

Estonian-Russian border dispute resurfaces after a Moscow diplomat denounces the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty Read More »

New study: Baltic populations divided not only along ethnic lines

A new study reveals that the most fundamental divide in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is not along ethnic lines – and in fact, it has never been the case. Many assume that the most fundamental divide in the Baltic countries is along ethnic lines, that all Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians …

New study: Baltic populations divided not only along ethnic lines Read More »

Russian economist: Putin more likely to move against Belarus, not Estonia

Vladislav Inozemtsev, a Russian economist, said that even though many in the West believe Russia will in the future seek to occupy part of one of the Baltic countries as it occupied part of Ukraine, the more likely scenario is it’ll seek to absorb Belarus rather than attack Narva, Estonia.

Those who predict a Baltic scenario, Inozemtsev says, assume that Putin will try to take part of a country rather than a whole one and will seek to seize Narva because Estonia won’t be able to defend itself and “NATO will not risk coming to its help”, thus undermining the Western alliance.

This Narva notion, Inozemtsev says, “directly comes from the models of Crimea and the Donbass”. Those who predict it, point to Ukraine whenever they begin to talk about Russia; “but about eight years ago with similar insistence all of them spoke about Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Georgia which lost them.”

These analysts forget there was a fundamental difference between the Georgian and the Ukrainian case. In the first, Russia “completed the detachment from a neighbouring country of two territories which had declared their independence, were recognised by Moscow and were transformed into client states”.

Enhancing the union by annexing Belarus

In the second, “Russia intervened in a region where before it did so there were no signs of civil war, established control over it, and after an illegitimate referendum officially included it within its borders. Moreover, both ‘losing sides’, in contrast to Latvia and Estonia, were not members of NATO or the EU.”

“It seems to me,” Inozemtsev says, “that [the Russian president, Vladimir Putin,] in order to stir up patriotic passions inside Russia could do so by occupying an entire country, preferably part of ‘the Russian world’ but still not included in Western alliances. And now there is only one candidate for that – Belarus.”

There are some obvious reasons for that conclusion, he notes. Belarus is already part of a union state, and Putin could easily promote the annexation of Belarus as simply about enhancing the union. Many Russians would be enthusiastic, and NATO wouldn’t respond forcefully, Inozemtsev asserts.

There is another reason Putin will likely choose Belarus as his next target, the Russian economist says. It will simplify his remaining in power. He won’t need to change the constitution and create a new set of institutions. Instead, the Kremlin leader can remain in office because he will be head of a new “union” state.

“The latest events in ‘the Minsk direction’,” Inozemtsev continues, “appear extremely worrisome.” Putin has sent a potential pro-consul as ambassador, and he has signalled he won’t continue to fund Lukashenka unless the latter moves in his direction, something that would make absorption easier if perhaps less necessary.

The West is “clinically incapable” of calculating Moscow’s moves

In response to Moscow’s moves, “Minsk has begun a broad purge of its security organs to remove all those with any ties to Moscow, issued declarations about the inviolability of Belarusian sovereignty and accelerated the process of ‘Belarusianisation’ of all sides of local life.”

And while far from all Belarusians support Lukashenka’s regime, that doesn’t mean “they are prepared to replace his power with an occupation regime”. They would likely rally around him against Moscow but lack the power to block what Putin most likely will try to carry out.

Because Belarusian elections come in 2020, Moscow needs to begin acting somewhat sooner; and “it seems to me”, Inozemtsev says, “that there is every basis for expecting a sharp escalation around Belarus already next year”. If that happens, it is very unlikely that the West in general and Europe in particular will be ready and have made plans.

The West at present seems “clinically incapable of calculating Moscow’s possible moves and thus will only be surprised by what happens”. That will remain the case if analysts stay trapped in the notion that Putin will move on Narva when he is far more likely to move on Minsk and seek to absorb all of Belarus.


This article is a lightly edited version of the article originally published by Paul Goble on his Window on Eurasia blog. Cover: Regional map (Google).

Paul Goble: Five lessons for today from the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

The 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact entails five lessons for the world today, Paul Goble, the American analyst, writer and columnist with expertise on Russia, writes.

Some anniversaries are marked because they are so important historically that one cannot understand the present without returning to them. Others are commemorated because they contain lessons that remain important for today. Marking the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 23 August 1939 is about both. The world would not be in the shape in which it is were it not for that horrific deal by two dictators 79 years ago: without that now long-ago accord, there would not have been the war in Europe at least in the shape that it took, the Baltic countries would not have been occupied for so long, and the Soviet Union wouldn’t have lasted and then fallen apart as it did.

Those consequences are so obvious that it seems to me that I can make a bigger contribution to our discussions here by focusing instead on the lessons of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact for the world today. I want to offer five, not because there are not others but rather in the hopes that no one will ignore these lessons and thus act in ways that will have some equally or even more negative consequences to that agreement between Hitler and Stalin, a possibility many dismiss because they believe that since we no longer live in “the age of dictators” and therefore cannot possibly act in ways resemble what they did.

Breakthroughs via secret diplomacy

The first lesson is that open covenants must be openly arrived it. The pernicious quality of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was its secret protocols that divided Europe between Hitler and Stalin. In fact, Germany and the USSR already had a friendship accord and the formal part of Molotov-Ribbentrop did nothing to add to its provisions. It was the secret protocols that are the centre of what the two dictators did, and they agreed to those precisely because they were secret, the basis for action but not for discussion.

It is often observed that democracies do not go to war against each other. That isn’t strictly true. But it is the case that democracies require a public process that generally but not always precludes the kind of secret deals dictators can and as in 1939 do make. Had there not been any secret protocols to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, one of two things would have happened: either there would have been extreme difficulties in both Germany and the Soviet Union in accepting the pact or there would have been a wave of Western revulsion that would have led to action before Hitler and Stalin could begin the war by carving up Poland.

Unfortunately, today, there are both dictators and democrats who think that the only way to achieve breakthroughs is via secret diplomacy; and consequently, there is a great danger of new secret agreements that will have negative consequences. Those who remember Molotov-Ribbentrop should be on the front lines in opposing that kind of negotiation, that kind of agreement, and that kind of risk.

Big powers make decisions about others without the participation of the latter

The second lesson of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is one that has long been enshrined in Baltic thinking: nothing about us without us. Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians insisted in their drive to the recovery of their independence that no deals should be made about them without their participation. Molotov-Ribbentrop would have been impossible if the countries most affected by it had been present during the talks. But they weren’t: they were cast as pawns and victims rather than participants. And the consequences were disastrous.

Unfortunately, again, there are many in the world today who think the proper way to get agreement about difficult cases is for the big powers to meet and make decisions about others without the participation of the latter – be it about Ukraine, Syria or anywhere else. It is, of course, the case that the great powers have a responsibility to take decisions but they have an equal responsibility to ensure that they do not try to do so over the heads of those about whom they are making such decisions. That is something Vladimir Putin wants everyone to forget, and tragically, there are all too many ambitious or fearful leaders in the West who are willing to go along.

The third lesson of the pact is that no border changes are permissible without the agreement of all parties concerned. Hitler and Stalin assumed they could change borders with impunity. History at great cost showed them to be wrong: Hitler lost his war, and Stalin’s heirs lost much of their empire and will in time lose the rest as well. The age of empires is over. But unfortunately, the age of imperialism and the imperial temptation is not.

In the last decade, we have seen Moscow change the borders in Georgia and change the borders in Ukraine unilaterally and by military force alone. Many people are now saying that the West simply has to accept this because Moscow will never back down. But again, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact contains a lesson: it sparked American non-recognition policy, a policy that remained in place for 50 years, giving hope to the citizens of the three occupied Baltic countries and ultimately helping them recover their independence de facto and establish a post-occupation future de jure.

Today, citizenship is the paramount value over ethnicity

The US non-recognition policy, which had its roots in the Stimson Doctrine of 1930, remains the right way to go even if it isn’t going to lead to quick results. As Loy Henderson pointed out in his classic memorandum, the US can’t recognise aggression by anyone regardless of their status with regard to Washington on any other issues.

The fourth lesson of the pact is that in the world today, citizenship, not ethnicity, is the paramount value. Underlying the policies of both Hitler and Stalin was a view that nationality – German or Russian – was more important than the citizenship of others. That led to the 1939 accord and that led to war. In many ways, the founding principle of the United Nations was that citizenship always takes precedence over ethnicity: otherwise, the world will remain in conflict forever.

Tragically, many in the world today have forgotten that. Putin has elevated Russian ethnicity over the citizenship of people in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere, and other countries focus on co-ethnics or co-religionists abroad as if they had special rights with regard to them. The settlement of 1945 held that this was wrong. And Molotov-Ribbentrop is again a useful reminder that citizenship and the countries on which it is based must be respected rather than ignored. If it isn’t, then the world will again enter a very dark time.

And the fifth lesson of the 1939 pact is that might does not make right. For most of human history, those who had the power made the rules and ignored the rules when it suited them.  But beginning in 1648 and in fits and starts since then, the world has moved toward one based on rules and laws. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was an effort to turn back the clock, to go back to a world where the strong imposed their will on the less strong. Ultimately, that sparked a revulsion which led to the destruction of the systems of the two leaders who signed that agreement.

But today, there are many who say that in an increasingly chaotic world, realism requires deferring to the strong rather than following the rules. That attitude affects not only dictators like Putin but authoritarians like Donald Trump. They, too, want to turn back the clock, to go back to a world in which their countries did what they wanted because they could not because they had any right to do so.


This is a lightly edited version of the article originally published in the website of the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory. Cover: Stalin supervising the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, 23 Aug 1939. From left to right: Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Minister of Foreign Affairs; Vyacheslav Molotov, Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs (sitting); Joseph Stalin, Soviet dictator; Vladimir Pavlov, First Secretary of the Soviet embassy in Germany (Image courtesy of TASS). The opinions in this article are those of the author.

Russians dismiss the Estonian claim that a Russian attack would fail in Tallinn

Estonian colonel Riho Ühtegi recently told a Western outlet that Russian invaders may get to the Estonian capital in two days, but “they will die in Tallinn”; however, Russian analysts have dismissed Ühtegi’s claims.

Colonel Riho Ühtegi, the commander of Estonia’s special forces, told a Western outlet that any Russian invasion of Estonia might reach Tallinn in two days, but that it would “die” in the Tallinn, because Estonian special forces and the united Estonian people would cut its supply lines and make a further advance impossible.

He told Politico’s Molly K. McKew that Estonians are constantly talking about what a Russian invasion would be like. People say, “yeah, the Russians can get to Tallinn in two days … Maybe” as it is only 125 miles from the Russian border. “But they can’t get all of Estonia in two days.”

Russian invaders “will die in Tallinn”

Russian invaders may get to the Estonian capital in two days, he acknowledges. “But they will die in Tallinn. And they know this” because the entire Estonian people will rise against them, destroying their lines of communication and supply and forcing the Russian forces first to stop and then retreat.

Ühtegi sees the Georgian case in 2008 as instructive. “You know why the Russians didn’t take Tbilisi in 2008? They were just up the road, 50 kilometres of so, and nothing was stopping them.” But they stopped because the “Georgians are crazy and they would fight. The idea of this unwinnable asymmetric fight in Tbilisi was not so appealing to the Russians.”

Estonia’s defensive doctrine rests on General Order number 1 that Aleksandr Einseln, the Estonian-American who served in the US military before returning to his homeland in the 1990s to take command of the Estonian Defence Forces. That order specifies that in the event of an invasion, the country’s military is to resist the invader without waiting for orders.

More than that, Estonian citizens, both those organised in the Kaitseliit as well as ordinary Estonians, are to fight as well. They will focus on defending their local communities against both hybrid and direct threats. Such defence, Ühtegi says, “is very local … This village. This town. This bridge. This river. This piece of land. It’s theirs to defend.”

But in defending these parts, they defend the whole and would make it impossible for Russia to sustain any invasion – by raising the price for Moscow to a point that Russian leaders would find unsustainable. “I don’t know what it would be like if the Russians really start to fight … Just that every Estonian will fight” back.

Russian experts: Tallinn “would be seized not in two days but in one”

Not surprisingly, Russian officials are having none of this. Vladimir Shamanov, the head of the Duma defence committee, for example, calls Ühtegi’s remarks “the words of a mad man” and says his place should not be “in the armed forces or some other structure but in a mental hospital”.

Konstantin Sivkov, the vice president of the Russian Academy of Rocket and Artillery Science, says that “the very idea of ‘the seizure of Estonia by Russia’ is a fantasy”. Any military conflict with NATO would “instantly” escalate into a nuclear war “in the course of which Estonia would simply disappear”.

If by some miracle the conflict didn’t go nuclear, Sivkov continues, Russian forces are sufficient to achieve its primary goal: creating a land corridor to the exclave of Kaliningrad. If these forces were directed to take Tallinn as part of that, the Estonian capital “would be seized not in two days but in one. Estonia doesn’t have any army to speak of.”

The Estonian military numbers 6,400 effectives in the regular forces, he says. In addition, there are 15,800 members of the regional defence forces or Kaitseliit. Ühtegi’s suggestion that they and the population could cut Russian supply lines in the event of an invasion is simply “unserious”.

The only real obstacle to a potential Russian advance, the Moscow analyst says, is the presence of NATO forces. Without them, a single Russian division would be sufficient to occupy Estonia; with them, a far larger force would be required. And it would need “two weeks or more” to complete the job.

The hints about Russian response

Yury Melkonov of Latvia’s military historical journal, Baltfort, agrees, arguing that Russia could use its superiority in the air and on the sea to ensure that it could continue any advance its forces were ordered to make. Tallinn could be taken but it is not the primary target for Russia which would be concerned about security ports and coastline.

Ühtegi’s declaration, he argues, is “the ordinary rhetoric of military personnel”, adding that any Estonian officer who makes such claims does himself and his country no honour. Russia isn’t planning to invade Estonia, and Estonians and their friends should know that. Russians will come as visitors, not invaders, he says.

As for the timing of Ühtegi’s remarks, Konstantin Zatulin of the Duma’s CIS committee suggests this is all about sending a message to the Trump-Putin summit that took place in Helsinki, 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the Estonian capital, and that nothing more should be read into the declaration.

Three things are interesting about the Russian response. First, it verges on the hysterical. Second, it shows that Moscow has enormous confidence that NATO will defend Estonia and other member states. And third, it shows that despite that confidence, the Russian military has developed plans for seizing Estonia if so ordered.


This article is a lightly edited version of the article originally published by Paul Goble on his Window on Eurasia blog. Cover: A military parade at the Moscow’s Red Square (the image is illustrative/Wikimedia Commons).

Novelist: Estonians don’t like Russians because the Soviet occupation denied them choices

Andrey Ivanov, an ethnic Russian Estonian novelist, says in a new and well-regarded novel, “A Handful of Dust,” that the reason for Estonians not liking Russians is that Russians, as part of the Soviet occupation, denied Estonians their right to make choices.

In the novel, the Russian protagonist returns to Tallinn after seven years in the Scandinavian countries and finds the centre of the city has become a handsome tourist centre. Everyone he meets tells him how everything has changed, but he finds the “survivals of the Soviet-era reflexes” he knew so well.

“I understand why Estonians do not like Russians at all and want to tear down monuments” from Soviet times. “Don’t tell me stories … this isn’t about politics! Everything is simpler: occupation, communist repression, rail cars to Siberia are all secondary because a man lives on his stomach and feels miracles.”

Further, he says, the source of Estonian dislike has little to do with the fact that “they were forced to join the Komsomol and the party. Instead, it was because they were forced to drink [Russian beer] rather than Carlsberg. That’s why! Because there was no choice! Because the Bolsheviks kept them from looking West, from being themselves and loving their country.”

What the Estonians don’t realise, the protagonist says, is that “they are trying to achieve the same ideals that almost everyone else is.” In short, they do not realise they live in a world where wanting to be oneself and free to make choices is not unique to them but something they have in common with others.

Andrey Ivanov.

Ivanov, 46, is an ethnic Russian who writes in Russian but identifies with Estonia and takes it as his point of departure. He has been a member of the Estonian Writers’ Union since 2013. Not surprisingly, his novels, including this his most recent, have sparked widespread debate in Estonia.

But like the protagonist in his novel, he makes a point which extends to far more countries than just Estonia, a reminder that ethnic Russians in these countries who write in Russian nonetheless may provide important insights into how the members of the titular nationality think and feel and the role of Russia and Russians in defining those attitudes.


This article is a lightly edited version of the article originally published by Paul Goble on his Window on Eurasia blog. Cover: The best there was – a newly built “supermarket” in Tallinn in the 1980s, selling potatoes, jams and juices (courtesy of Boriss Gorsky).

Ethnic Russians who have become Estonian citizens form an increasing share of the Defence League

Not only are ever more ethnic Russians choosing to become Estonian citizens, but they are joining the ranks of the Kaitseliit, the Estonian Defence League that until recently many Russian speakers viewed as an Estonian nationalist organisation that was profoundly anti-Russian.

This development, chronicled by the Russian journalist, Yevgeniya Volokhonskaya, for the Moscow outlet Spektr, is important. On the one hand, it shows ethnic Russians who have chosen to become Estonian citizens are not acting for pragmatic reasons alone such as having access to the EU, as some Moscow writers suggest, but are identifying with Estonia and its values.

And on the other, it indicates that Estonian institutions, even those most closely identified with Estonian nationalism, are quite prepared to accept Russian-speaking Estonian citizens as equals, thus undercutting Moscow’s constant refrain that Estonia’s citizenship law and much else are driven by narrow ethno-nationalism.

These two factors in turn mean that Estonia is a far more integrated society than Moscow insists and many in the West accept, and that the Russian government cannot count on Russian speakers in Estonia to listen to the siren song of the Kremlin propaganda even if they continue to watch Russian television.

Volokhonskaya says that “a decade ago … the Kaitseliit was considered in the local Russian-language milieu as a purely national phenomenon. Now, however, along with ethnic Estonians ever more Russian speaking residents are joining its ranks.”

Its commanders say, the Moscow journalist continues, that there are no “official statistics” about how many ethnic Russians and how many ethnic Estonians there are: “All of them are citizens of Estonia and it is inappropriate to divide them on an ethnic basis.”

Ethnic backgrounds are irrelevant

More than almost any other institution, the Estonian Defence League is closely connected with the history of Estonia. It was formed in 1918 and existed until the Soviet occupation began in 1940. Then it was restored in 1990 and has existed since that time. It currently has more than 25,000 in its ranks.

They “actively cooperate with local governments, the police, border guards, rescue organisations and fire departments,” she says. “Russians and Estonians … act together to put out fires and clean up spills as well as taking part in search and rescue operations.”  Everyone works together: their ethnic backgrounds are irrelevant. Personal skills are what matter.

Those ethnic Russians who take part in its work say they are doing so to serve their country, although some in the broader Russian-speaking community of Estonia still believe that the Kaitseliit includes many Estonians with ethno-nationalist views. However, as experience with that organisation increases, such views are being dispelled.

One ethnic Russian Estonian citizen with whom Volokhonskaya spoke put it best: people vary in many qualities but the variances among people of the same ethnic group are greater than the variances between such groups.


This article is a lightly edited version of the article originally published by Paul Goble on his Window on Eurasia blog. Cover: Members of the Estonian Defence League on an exercise (courtesy of the Defence League).

Experts: Estonia has successfully integrated nearly 90% of its ethnic Russians

According to experts, Estonia has successfully integrated – either as citizens or loyal permanent residents – seven out of eight its ethnic Russians.

Many in the West, especially in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have expressed concern that Moscow might use the 27 per cent of the Estonian population that consists of ethnic Russians as a fifth column against that NATO country and even create a northern “Donbass” at some point in the future.

But today, as Estonia marks its centenary as an independent state, Tallinn has successfully integrated either as citizens or loyal permanent residents seven out of eight of these ethnic Russians, dramatically reducing the possibility that they could ever serve as the basis for any Russian advance.

The 340,000 ethnic Russians in Estonia are an extremely diverse group. Many have learned Estonian and become Estonian citizens, tying their future to that country. Approximately 90,000 have the so-called “grey passports” of non-citizens who have permanent residence and who are overwhelmingly interested in being part of Estonia and Europe.

Indeed, according to Dmitry Tseperik, the head of the International Centre for Defence and Security, only 90,000 have acquired passports of the Russian Federation, and most of these want to remain in Estonia and within the EU. Estonia thus faces a far smaller “ethnic Russian” problem than many assume.

According to research his centre has conducted, Tseperik says that only “about 12 per cent” of all Russians – approximately 40,000 people – might constitute a potential threat in the event of a Russian hybrid war. That is about three per cent of Estonia’s population and, while not unimportant, it is far smaller than the 27 per cent often cited.

The social ladder is the key criterion of loyalty to Estonia

In reporting these findings for Belsat, journalist Yakub Bernat says that ethnic Russians in Estonia, who do not yet identify with Estonia even now, are undergoing “an identity crisis” as the last generation which remembers the Soviet Union dies off and thus they lose “that basis which at one time united Russians”.

According to Estonian sociologist Ito Kiiseli, it is “utopian” to imagine that a homogenous Estonian society will ever be created. It will always consist of Estonians and Russians, but “language is not the key criterion of loyalty to Estonia. Much more important is one’s position on the social ladder.”

“Many Russians who are loyal to the [Estonian] state do not speak Estonian,” Kiiselli says. “Language, citizenship and loyalty are not necessarily interconnected. Many residents of Estonia want to have grey passports in order to travel to Russia. They don’t need citizenship because the only thing they lose by not having it is voting in national elections.”

Under the Estonian law, they can vote in local ones, and “this for them,” the sociologist says, “is more important.”

“I think,” she says, “that our community always will be separate but not from fear or hostility but on the basis of whom you go drinking with or whom you understand better. We organise joint measures, but sometimes we prefer to be among our own.” That is true for both groups, but for most this doesn’t undercut loyalty to the country.


This article is a lightly edited version of the article originally published by Paul Goble on his Window on Eurasia blog. Cover: Estonian-Russians celebrating Estonia’s centennial at a concert in Narva on 24 Feb 2018 (image by Tarik Labrighli/courtesy of Tallinn Music Week).

CIA documents: the West backed forest brothers in the Baltics

Some newly declassified CIA documents show that the US government provided limited covert assistance to the underground armed resistance groups that operated in the Baltic countries after the Soviet Union had occupied them during the Second World War.

Many in the Baltic countries and elsewhere still celebrate the US non-recognition policy which specified that Washington would never recognise Joseph Stalin’s “forcible incorporation” of the three Baltic states into the Soviet Union, a policy that sent a clear message to Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians that they were not alone in their fight for freedom.

But at the same time, some of them have asked over the years why the US did not do more to support the Baltic peoples and their aspirations – even though US policy did not ever promise to take any actions to liberate the three occupied countries, a point Washington was consistent about from 1940 to 1991.

However, as some newly declassified CIA documents show, the US government not only carefully kept track of “the forest brothers,” as the underground armed resistance to Soviet power there in the late 1940s and early 1950s was known, but provided some limited covert assistance to these groups.

Portions of these documents are being published in Russian translation by the Russian staff of the unified news portal of Latvian Radio and Latvian television.

Like the NATO film released about the forest brothers a month ago, these documents have attracted Moscow’s attention. One commentary by Sergey Orlov of Svobodnaya Pressa directly states that with these documents, “the US has acknowledged its role in the support of ‘the [Baltic] forest brothers’”.


Read some of the newly declassified CIA documents here and here. This article is an amended version of the article originally published by Paul Goble on his Window on Eurasia blog. Cover: Screenshot from the CIA document, entitled “Communist activity and resistance in Estonia.” Please consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

When Putin couldn’t take the truth spoken by Lennart Meri

The late Estonian president, Lennart Meri, once delivered a remarkable address in Hamburg, Germany, that caused the then-deputy mayor of St Petersburg, Vladimir Putin, to stomp out of the hall.

Even Western leaders, who are distinguished by the boldness of their statements on other issues, appear reluctant to speak directly to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, about his lies and crimes, apparently fearful that he will turn the tables on them, use their words to reinforce his power at home, and attack them for undermining the possibility of reasonable relations.

But there have been some happy exceptions when Western leaders have not been afraid to speak the truth to Putin directly even though the Russian’s bad behaviour only underscores how right they are to do so. One such event is now attracting a great deal of attention in both Russia and Germany. It deserves to be known even more widely.

Unprecedented behaviour

Because the G-20 summit took place in Hamburg this year and because it featured a meeting between Putin and Donald Trump, German and Russian commentators have recalled an earlier meeting in Hamburg, in 1994, when the Estonian president, Lennart Meri, delivered a remarkable address that caused Vladimir Putin to stomp out of the hall.

That action, as German officials have pointed out, was unprecedented in the centuries during which this dinner has been held and raises questions to this day about Putin and more generally about Russia and its relationship to Europe.

That event occurred on 25 February 1994 at the Matthiae-Supper of Hansa cities and their representatives. Among the honoured guests that day were Meri and a relatively junior Russian official, the deputy mayor of St Petersburg, Vladimir Putin, who shocked those in attendance by his boorish behaviour.

Russian outlets have published excerpts from Lennart Meri’s speech, which are remarkable not only in their description of what was taking place in Europe and Eurasia in the mid-1990s but also in their predictions about the ways in which Moscow even then was threatening the West.

Below is the full text of Meri’s remarks from the portal of the Office of the Estonian President. They merit the closest attention both for their analysis of the situation and for the guidance they should be providing other leaders who have to interact with Putin now and in the future.

Address by H.E. Lennart Meri, President of the Republic of Estonia, at the Matthiae-Supper in Hamburg on 25 February 1994:

Dear Mayor, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen!

I am the President of the Republic of Estonia. When I see before me the pointed steeples of the Free and Hanseatic city of Hamburg, I might as well think I am at home, in the old Hanseatic city of Reval/Tallinn on the Gulf of Finland. However, I have an honourable duty to fulfil here today – a duty which I consider particularly important: I have to give you a message from my country which is situated quite near to Hamburg.

The Hanseatic spirit, with which even today, a number of towns in Estonia, besides Tallinn, still feel a rapport, has always been an open-minded spirit. Yet it has also been an enterprising spirit, even a combative one, when freedom and its protection has been at stake.

Fear God, tell the truth, do justice, and be afraid of nobody

Back home, on the Tallinn Town Hall there is a sentence in German which illustrates this Hanseatic spirit: “Fürchte Gott, rede die Wahrheit, tue Recht und scheue niemand” /Fear God, tell the truth, do justice, and be afraid of nobody/ – I would like to abide by this centuries-old command and openly tell you the truth as it currently appears to my people and myself.

The freedom of every individual, the freedom of the economy and trade, as well as the freedom of the mind, of culture and science are inseparably interconnected. They form the prerequisite of a viable democracy.

The Estonian people never abandoned their faith in this freedom during the decades of totalitarian oppression. This freedom, the notion of freedom has developed in our country over many centuries, from the relations that we have had and cultivated with the rest of Europe. Without being immodest, I dare say there is hardly any other nation in the eastern part of Central Europe that was, and is, more closely connected with Europe than the Estonian people. Today one can still behold it in the lifestyle of even the most unpretentious of my fellow countrymen.

Because we are a people belonging to Western European society and since, unfortunately, we live in a land which is geostrategically very vulnerable, we have developed a stronger instinct than many a European for discerning the problems and threats that loom in our vicinity. This discernment has been largely lost in our modern world. To illustrate it graphically, it is much like with epidemic germs: they know man all right, whereas the ordinary man cannot recognise them, he is just afraid of them.

Who was it, but the small Baltic nations whom the world had already forgotten, that actually caused the big and mighty Soviet State to collapse – and peacefully, mind you, without a single shot fired or a single drop of blood shed. We acted according to our sound common sense – indeed oftentimes in defiance of not quite selfless, conformist warnings.

I would like to tell you quite openly, as the old maxim on our Town Hall requires me to do, that my people and I watch with a certain concern how little the West realises what is currently brewing in the expanses of Russia.

A risk of wishful thinking

From a subjective point of view, it is understandable that the breakdown of the Soviet Union caused the West to feel a kind of triumph; it is also understandable, subjectively, that the West concentrated all its hopes and empathies on the true or ostensible forces of reform in Russia. This attitude, however, has brought the West to a risk of wishful thinking.

All of us, including the Estonian people and other peoples of Central and Eastern Europe, wish as much as the West economically and socially stable Russia. Yet when we track the achievements of the latter years, we should be overtaken by an uneasy feeling that we have been moving farther away from our goal.

What is it that worries Estonians, and not only them, in the present development of Europe? We were astounded to see that the West invited Russian troops and tanks to Sarajevo. Ever since Bismarck and the 1878 Berlin Congress, it has been the West’s policy, for the sake of peace, to keep Russians as far away from the Balkans as possible. Since World War II the United States and the West have invested over $80 billion to keep Titoism alive and the Soviets away from the Adriatic.

Let us ask ourselves: Is it possible, that a state, which itself is grappling with the hardest unsettled ethnic and ethical problems should be trusted to act as an arbitrator and peacemaker in other states that also have ethnic problems? The unease will be growing when one examines one of the recent documents issued by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It states there that the problem of ethnic Russian groups in the neighbouring countries cannot be solved by Russia by diplomatic means alone. Those ethnic Russian groups, however, have oftentimes settled down in the wake of occupants and mass deportations of the native population.

One can only conclude from this Moscow memorandum that, if necessary, other measures may also be taken. As to what these measures could be, we Estonians – along with other smaller nations – have had bitter experiences in our recent history.

Russia’s irrationalism

So, I am worried that once again irrationalism is getting out of hand in Russian foreign policy and Russian political philosophy. Years ago, Solzhenitsyn called on Russians to bid farewell to the empire and instead concentrate on themselves. He used the word “self-restriction” and demanded that the Russians should solve their own economic, social, and also intellectual problems.

Neglecting this imperative of their great compatriot’s, responsible Russian politicians have suddenly, once again, begun to speak openly about the purported “special role” of Russia, about a “peacekeeper” function that the new Russia has to fulfil throughout the whole territory of the former USSR. Mr Karaganov, one of President Yeltsin’s closest advisors, recently expressed this in seemingly unobtrusive form but, in fact quite harshly, when he said that Russia was to play the role of “primus inter pares” – the first among equals – in the entire area of the former Soviet empire. This reminds me of a phrase once coined by George Orwell about Soviet communism: “All are equal, but some are more equal than others!”

Why does the new, post-communist Russia, which claims to have broken with the evil traditions of the USSR, stubbornly refuse to admit that the Baltic nations – Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians – were occupied and annexed against their will and contrary to international law, in 1940, and once again in 1944, and subsequently brought to the limit of their national existence through five decades of sovietisation and russification? Even today a deputy Moscow foreign minister, Mr Krylov, officially declared in his reply to the Baltic states that, in 1940, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had joined the Soviet Union “voluntarily”. This is little short of the statement that tens of thousands of Estonians, including my family and myself, had “voluntarily” let themselves be deported to Siberia by the Soviets.

Ladies and gentlemen, how do we fathom all of this calmly and earnestly? Naturally, it is the more or less familiar kind of irrationalism that is born in Russia and that makes Russian politics look unpredictable. However, there is also another equally alarming tendency, which out of convenience is passed off as Realpolitik in the democratic West. That is a proclivity for an approach that can be labelled as “appeasement”. With this approach, one unwittingly becomes an accomplice of imperialist forces in Russia who believe that they can solve their country’s immense problems by outward expansion and by threatening their neighbours.

All of the free West is outraged and appalled at the well-known statements made by Zhirinovski. But, astonishingly, hardly anyone has taken note of, and no one has protested against, what the Russian foreign minister Kozyrev declared the other day: the government in Moscow regards the continued presence of Russian troops in the former Soviet republics as desirable.

Our consistent approach to the issue of the actual political situation in Europe proceeds from our historical experience and our sense of responsibility: behind our back there is no barren fallow land, there are other free European states.

The social-political or economic processes in Russia, which even today is still more like a supercontinent than a state, cannot be controlled from the outside, as much as one would like to do so. This has been clearly demonstrated by the experience of the recent years: the wide-spread inclination of the free West to regard any leader who happens to be in office in Moscow – be it Khrushchov, Brezhnev, Gorbachov or Yeltsin – as irreplaceable has led to tremendously bad investments and misjudgements. Whoever really wants to help Russia and the Russian people today must make it emphatically clear to the Russian leadership that another imperialist expansion will not stand a chance. Whoever fails to do so will actually help the enemies of democracy in Russia and other post-communist states.

Warning to the West

As I said, ladies and gentlemen: Estonia is situated very near to Germany and Hamburg. Western, and above all German policy, has to make a fateful choice. Either the neo-imperialist policy of a great eastern power will be tolerated, financed, and in the short term, possibly even profited from; that, dear listeners, would be a policy unable to see an inch further than one’s nose. Or the notions of democracy, freedom, responsibility and peace will be helped on the road to success across the whole gigantic area between the Baltic Sea and the Pacific Ocean; if one wants to do that, the democratic West should resolutely contribute to the stability and security of the medium and smaller-sized states to the east of the German border. Here I mean the whole area of Central Europe, which in my view reaches from the Estonian border town of Narva, on the Baltic Sea, to the Adriatic, also including Ukraine.

If we manage to integrate this zone of states into the democratic world, then the model effect of these countries will be felt in the Russian area. We want to, I should say we have to, be safely anchored in the West. From such a safe position, rather than from some kind of twilight zone, we will be able to assume our function of as a bridge between East and West and, at the same time, assist the democratic forces of Russia. Then it will be possible, progressing from west to east, to help democracy, free enterprise, private property, and not least of all the rule of law, on the road to success.

If, however, those states, including Estonia, are left to their own devices and exposed to the potential neo-imperialist appetites of Moscow, the price for it would be too high, even for all Europe, to pay.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have told you about some of the gravest concerns from which it follows that the Baltic states have in fact become the touchstone of the European idea. But if we unite our wills to do away with the reasons for these concerns, we shall have a promising vision of a peaceful future before us. This is based on convincing facts.

We can see common interests between Estonia, Northwestern Russia and the entire Baltic and North Sea area. We shall then be able to speak of a natural gas pipeline which will convey Norwegian gas through the Kola Peninsula and the free Baltic states up to Hamburg. We can see a motorway running all the way from St. Petersburg through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to Berlin and further – the “Via Baltica”. We can see quite a few free trade zones and development areas for new initiatives. Much like in the past, Reval/Tallinn would then act as an agent between Hamburg and other Hansa cities in the West on the one hand, and Novgorod, that is the Russian area, on the other. Hansa-like cooperation is a natural outlook for the future for all the states lying on the Baltic and the neighbouring North Sea.

The Republic of Estonia, which for its domestic, economic and social policies is among the most stable states of the region, could offer you, ladies and gentlemen, good services, solidarity and friendship.

We try hard to understand your situation. My request is: please try to understand our situation too. It is in the interests of all of Europe and hence, in your interests here in Germany and in Hamburg, that Estonia should remain democratic and free.


Cover: Lennart Meri with a copy of Estonian institution (the image is illustrative.) The article was originally published by Paul Goble on his Window on Eurasia blog. Subheadings to the Meri’s speech added by Estonian World.

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