Diplomatic Row between Russia and Estonia: Putin’s Provocations towards the Baltics Continue

Our future with NATO - May 28, 2024

In recent years, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has taken a series of provocative actions towards the Baltic states, raising growing concerns about security and stability in the region. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, three countries that joined NATO and the European Union after the end of the Soviet Union, are in a delicate geopolitical position, bordering an increasingly assertive Russia. This essay examines the main Russian provocations and their implications for regional security.
One of Russia’s most common tactics has been to invade the air and sea space of the Baltic states. Russian military aircraft have frequently violated the airspace of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, often without warning or communication with local authorities. These incidents not only test the readiness of the Baltic militaries and NATO, but also serve to send a clear message of Russian power and presence in the region.

Russia has stepped up its military exercises near the Baltic borders, involving tens of thousands of troops and sophisticated military equipment. Operations such as ‘Zapad’, a series of joint exercises with Belarus, have simulated conflict scenarios, including attacks on the Baltic states. These exercises not only increase tensions, but also raise questions about Russia’s real intentions.

Russia has conducted disinformation campaigns aimed at destabilising the Baltic countries, using state-controlled media and social media to spread fake news and divisive narratives. These campaigns are designed to undermine confidence in democratic institutions and fuel ethnic and social tensions. For example, Russian-speaking populations in Latvia and Estonia are often targeted by propaganda highlighting alleged human rights abuses by the Baltic governments.
Moscow has used economic leverage to pressure the Baltic states, including trade boycotts and sanctions. Energy dependence on Russia has been a critical issue, with Moscow occasionally threatening to cut off gas supplies as a means of political coercion. However, the Baltic states have made significant progress towards energy independence by diversifying their supply sources and investing in alternative energy infrastructure.

Russian espionage activities in the Baltic countries have increased, with numerous cases of arrests of suspected Russian agents and dismantled espionage networks. These incidents underline Moscow’s efforts to gather sensitive information and influence political decisions in the region. The Baltic authorities, with NATO support, have intensified counterintelligence measures to counter these threats.

In addition to air and sea incursions, Russia has orchestrated provocations on the land borders. Incidents such as the removal of border buoys on the Narva River and other territorial violations are examples of Moscow’s attempts to create instability and test the sovereignty of the Baltic states. These actions not only undermine local security, but also have the potential to trigger wider military incidents.
NATO has responded to Russian provocations by increasing its military presence in the Baltics. The Alliance has deployed multinational battalions to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as part of its Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP), an initiative aimed at deterring potential aggression and reassuring eastern allies. These battalions are supported by regular exercises and a rapid reaction capability.

The Narva River dispute at the border between Russia and Estonia

Recently, Russia’s removal of border buoys on the Narva River has exacerbated diplomatic tensions with Estonia. This act provoked strong reactions from the European Union and fuelled concerns about Russia’s intentions towards its Baltic neighbours.
The Narva River marks a significant part of the border between Russia and Estonia. Each spring, both countries place buoys along the river to mark the border, a necessary process due to natural variations in the riverbed. In recent years, however, Russia has shown increasing disapproval of Estonia’s buoy positions, leading to a number of diplomatic incidents.

The removal of the buoys and the Estonian reaction: a provocative action

In May 2024, the Russian authorities removed more than 20 buoys installed by Estonia, stating that their positions were not agreed. This unilateral act led Estonia to summon the Russian ambassador for explanations, describing the event as a ‘border provocation’. The Estonian authorities insisted that the buoys had been installed in accordance with the 2022 bilateral agreement, which regulates the demarcation of the river border.
Eerik Purgel, an official of the Estonian Border Guard, stressed the importance of the buoys in preventing navigation errors and maintaining safety along the Narva River. The Russian removal of the buoys not only violated the existing agreement, but also raised fears of further provocative actions.

The reactions of the European Union: Condemnation and demand for immediate explanation

The European Union condemned the removal of the buoys as an act of provocation by Russia. EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell demanded an immediate explanation from Russia and the reinstatement of the buoys. This incident is seen as part of a wider pattern of hybrid actions by Russia, including destabilising activities on both maritime and land borders in the Baltic Sea region. The EU’s response reflects the security concerns of its eastern member states, already alarmed by Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine and elsewhere. Solidarity among member states was reaffirmed, with the EU pledging support for Estonia in this dispute.

Geopolitical implications: the provocation on the Narva River is part of a broader context of tensions between Russia and the Baltic states

The dispute over the Narva River has significant implications for regional security and geopolitical stability. The removal of the buoys is seen not only as a violation of bilateral agreements, but also as a test of the West’s resolve to protect its most vulnerable members. Analysts believe that these actions are part of Russia’s strategy to maintain constant pressure on its Baltic neighbours and test their resilience. Writing in Politico, Veronika Melkozerova pointed out that the provocation on the Narva River is part of a broader context of tensions between Russia and the Baltic states. Russian policy appears to be aimed at creating uncertainty and division within the EU, testing its cohesion and ability to respond to security challenges.
The diplomatic clashes between Russia and Estonia over the redefinition of borders along the Narva River are an emblematic example of the complex security dynamics in the Baltic region. Russia’s removal of the buoys raised concerns not only about Estonian sovereignty, but also about the stability and security of the entire region. The EU’s firm response underlines the importance of solidarity among Member States and the determination to protect the Union’s external borders.

The strengthening of the Baltic states’ coöperation in an anti-Russian perspective

The Baltic States have strengthened their defence and security cooperation by participating in joint exercises and sharing intelligence information. They have also increased investment in national defence, modernised their armed forces and improved resilience to hybrid threats, including cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns.
Russian provocations against the Baltic States pose an ongoing challenge to regional stability and European security. Russia’s determination to maintain an assertive position in the region, combined with its hybrid warfare capabilities, requires constant vigilance and a coordinated NATO and EU response. The resilience of the Baltic States will depend on their ability to adapt to these threats by improving their defences and continuing to build strong alliances.
These events highlight the need for continued vigilance and enhanced international cooperation to meet the challenges posed by hybrid actions and state provocations. The situation on the Narva River will continue to be monitored closely, in the hope that dialogue and diplomacy will prevail over tensions.