Mart Nutt: Ethnic Russians in the Baltics are not persecuted – is Putin preparing for aggression against NATO?

Along with the incredible amount of propaganda and demagogy with which Russia justifies aggression against Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea, all the more frequently you will hear of attacks on other countries as well, which have large Russian communities due to historic reasons. It is possible to influence the public opinion by distorting reality and Putin’s ideologists are professionals in this field. But the question is why does this need to be done? Is it just a propaganda technique to divert attention from the attack on Ukraine or is Russia preparing in earnest for larger scale aggression, including against NATO countries, which inevitably means attacking NATO as a whole.

US journalist of Russian ancestry Julia Ioffe recently wrote the article, “Ethnic Russians in the Baltics Are Actually Persecuted. So Why Isn’t Putin Stepping In?” Even for a reader who is not familiar with the situation in Estonia, the mere title is indicative of a call for Russia to act in the same manner as in Crimea belonging to Ukraine. I do not think this is what Julia Ioffe wants, and it seems that she does not have an objective understanding of the reality of Estonia either, since she is basing it solely on Moscow’s propaganda and the non-independent information source, Russia Today.

By now, it should be clear to everyone that the protection of the rights of Russians is not grounds for Moscow, but only a pretext to occupy Crimea – part of the sovereign state of Ukraine – and to try to restore its control over the whole of Ukraine. Russian political scientist Sergei Karaganov stressed in his 1992 doctrine that Russia’s goal is to regain control over the entire territory of the former Soviet Union and this is a sign of danger for the security of all countries which have experienced the tragedy of belonging to the Soviet Union. The rights of Russians in Ukraine have not been violated, and certainly not the rights of those living in Crimea, which is known to everyone who has visited this country.

Russians’ rights are not being violated in Estonia. This is not just a rhetorical statement, but has been confirmed by dozens of international organisations such as the United Nations, the Council of Europe and OSCE experts, who have thoroughly monitored Estonia. The accusations of the infringement of the rights of Russians hail only from Moscow and this bears resemblance to bitterness that Estonia has decided in favour of democracy, the West, NATO and the European Union, and not to remain a Russian satellite state. The suspicion of infringement of the rights of Russians is in fact a throwing down of the gauntlet to NATO and the European Union, since neither organisation will accept states if they are not democratic and if human rights are being violated.

A so-called grey passport (for persons with undetermined citizenship) is granted to a person who has not applied for Estonian citizenship, but who also does not have any other citizenship. This problem was not created by Estonia, but by Russia, when it decided to leave former citizens of the Soviet Union living abroad without Russian citizenship by way of its Citizenship Act of 1992. For various reasons, there are currently about 80 000 people in this situation. The majority of Russians living in Estonia have either Estonian or Russian citizenship. People with undetermined citizenship have travel documents, residence permits, the right to equal treatment and access to social services, as well as the right to vote in local elections, just as all long-term legal residents of Estonia.

Estonia’s undeniable wish is for people using grey passports to apply for Estonian citizenship. Language proficiency is not a serious obstacle since using the Estonian language at an elementary level is as easy as using basic English in everyday communication. Some users of grey passports are not motivated to apply for citizenship since they can travel visa-free within the EU and to Russia with their grey passports, while Estonian citizens have to apply for a visa to travel to Russia. Criticism of the requirement for teachers to speak Estonian is beyond comprehension. Is it possible to be able to teach in the United States without speaking English or in Russia with no knowledge of the Russian language?

Ominous parallels are emerging between Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine and the actions of Nazi Germany in Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938-39. This became possible due to the indifference of the great powers. Estonia is a democratic state based on the rule of law, where the human rights of all people are guaranteed, and Russia can only threaten rather than protect the rights of people living in Estonia if it tries to use those people to its advantage. The democratic world, especially the United States, must decisively stand against aggression and protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of democratic states.


The article was first published by the Estonian Embassy in Washington.

The opinions in this article are those of the author.

Cover photo: Narva castle overlooking Estonia-Russia border.

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About the author: Mart Nutt

Mart Nutt is a Member of the Estonian Parliament and a Member of the Council of the Estonian Institute of Human Rights.