Lying between Lake Peipus and the Baltic Sea, the city of Narva appears very different than the tourist-heavy Crimea. But what it lacks in climate, it makes up for in a unique mix of history and demographics that may well make it Putin’s next target.
Now located within Estonia, Narva has historical significance to Russia. It was here that Peter the Great was defeated by the better trained and equipped Swedish forces of King Charles XII in the opening phases of the Great Northern War. Peter, however, learned from his mistake. He changed tactics, avoided open battle, and slowly wore down the Swedes over the next two decades, eventually winning the war and with it, Narva.
The legacy of Peter’s victory lives on in Narva today. More than 80 percent of Narvans are ethnic Russians, while only 46 percent hold Estonian citizenship, compared to the 36 percent who hold Russian passports. A further 16 percent, mostly ethnic Russians, hold “undefined” status, lacking citizenship within Russia, but denied Estonian citizenship through vigorous linguistic requirements. Estonian is considered one of the most complicated languages in the world to learn, and fluency is required not just for citizenship, but also to work as a teacher or bureaucrat, requirements enforced by the Language Inspectorate. No wonder Russia announced last month that it found the “mistreatment” of Russians within Estonia unacceptable.
In the aftermath of the Russian seizure of the Crimea, any Kremlin ultimatums should probably elicit some degree of concern, but this one especially so. Estonia is a member of both NATO and the EU, and under NATO’s Article Five, asserting that an attack on one member is an attack on all, the required Western response would likely be clear enough in the event of a Russian invasion, even if the exact text of article provides a degree of ambiguity.
Putin however is likely as familiar with the lessons of Peter’s victory over Sweden as with the course of Tom Clancy novels, understanding that victory in battle is only one way to seize territory. NATO’s obligations might be obvious if Russian tanks were to roll into Narva, but what if protestors began to take over schools and courthouses, demanding official status for the Russian language and citizenship? NATO could hardly use force against non-violent protestors, and even if agents of the Russian government were caught red-handed helping to organize the unrest, it’s unclear what the proper response would be. Bombing targets within Russia? Imposing energy sanctions?
Furthermore, any NATO response aimed at Russia would do little to solve the underlying problem, namely the alienation of the Russian minorities. Despite discrimination, few currently favor outright union with Russia, given that their current nation is wealthier, and EU membership offers prospects for individual advancement unheard of within Russia, provided they were given the legal right to take advantage of them. Repression, whether in the form of current Estonian policies, or an aggressive NATO response to Russian troublemaking on the model of Eastern Ukraine, would likely serve only to alienate them further, convincing many that they can never find a home in Estonia.
It is precisely for these reasons that Putin has every incentive to stir up trouble in Estonia, because it is the point of maximum contradiction between the geopolitical idealism of NATO expansion, and the realpolitik factors by which world affairs are actually driven. As such, it is the point of maximum weakness for the alliance. NATO is obligated to fight for Narva or admit that Article Five is a lie, but NATO has no strategic or moral justification for doing so, and would be intervening to prevent a genuinely oppressed local population from exercising self-determination. In effect, then, NATO would become complicit in that oppression through its actions. Putin could ask for no better battlefield.
Nor could Putin ask for a greater potential prize for victory. Narva itself is worthless, but it was also worthless when Peter the Great seized it. The importance of that seizure lay less in the territory involved than in the geopolitical consequences following Russia’s victory over Sweden, which established Russia as a great power on the continent. The same is true now. The transfer of Narva to Russia, even if it occurs after months of agitation and by a democratic vote, would in a moment shatter the moral power of NATO’s Article Five. It may make no sense for the West to defend Narva, absent Article Five, but it’s precisely due to the irrational nature of Article Five that NATO expansion has been so dangerous to Russia.
The inclusion of small states like the Baltic Republics within the alliance has served to greatly weaken Russian influence in countries that would be incapable of resisting its pressure otherwise. Its elimination would not bring Russian troops into Warsaw – Poland can likely defend itself given the limitations logistics impose on modern warfare. But Poland could likely defend itself absent Article Five as well. Its neutralization would be felt in the Baltics, Finland, and in the Caucuses, where local governments would have to come to terms with Moscow. As such, moving against an Article Five NATO member is the natural progression of the policy Putin began in Georgia in 2008.
Yet if the West can’t stop Putin from trying, it can make it far more difficult for him to succeed by pressuring Estonia and the other Baltic States to remove the causes of discontent that will otherwise provide Putin with a ready supply of local recruits. That can be done by extending the benefits of EU citizenship to the currently stateless residents of Narva, and providing money for economic development. NATO tanks cannot prevent Putin’s agents from infiltrating Narva, but local Russians can oppose them if they are invested in being on the Western side of Putin’s new Iron Curtain. Otherwise, NATO may find itself, like Charles XII, in a war of attrition it has no chance of winning.
Daniel Berman is a doctorate candidate at the London School of Economics. He has previously written for FiveThirtyEight and Chatham House. He blogs at The Restless Realist and can be found on Twitter @DanielBerman2.