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In Putin's Plan, Are the Baltic States Next?

04/06/2014 14:51 BST | Updated 03/08/2014 10:59 BST

It's my second time in Tallinn in just four months. The weather in the Estonian capital in summer seems nearly as cold and rainy as late February. Tourists are out in ample numbers this time, wrapped in raincoats and scarves for strolls through the medieval old town. There's a sense of normalcy on the streets and in the tour groups. In the political class, though, there's angst-ridden chattering.

What a difference a few months make. Pre-Crimea, there was vague disagreement here and there in this small Baltic nation -- population 1.3 million -- that the country would spend as much as 2 percent of its GDP on defense. Post-Crimea, that's vanished. Elites across the political spectrum speak with one voice. There's a surge of enlistment in the Estonian National Guard. "It's an unbelievable feeling," a young journalist tells me, "that after 20 years of working for freedom, it might all get snuffed out." It does sound hard to fathom. Estonia is a member of NATO and the EU. It's a stable democracy and has a tech savvy, modern market economy (wifi is everywhere -- across towns, forests, the beaches). But Estonians see all this progress in jeopardy today. In Tallinn, everybody I speak to is convinced that Russia is a threat, and an existential one at that.

There are at least two powerful reasons why Estonians -- and by now the rest of Europe -- should be worried.

First, Russia has been evolving from gangster state to predator nation. "Vladimir Putin was a bully in school and a chose to be a bully in professional life as a KGB man," says a senior Estonian official. "His behavior should not surprise us now," he adds. At first, Putin and fellow kleptocrats began to shrink space for free media, independent NGOs, and meaningful political opposition. They have been consistent. It's a pattern stretching over a decade and a half now. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down because of her reporting on Chechnya. Mikhail Khodorkovsky spent ten years in prison because Putin considered him a political rival. Members of the band Pussy Riot went to jail for impertinence. It's pretty hideous stuff, but many of us assured ourselves, this was merely a domestic affair.

But now it's clear that Russia wants to spreads its brand of illiberalism abroad. Putin's speeches speak to his ambition. He derides Euro-Atlantic values, and has no time for rule of law, accountable government, tolerance or diversity. He sees these things as decadent and as signs of weakness. That's why Putin is the darling of Europe's radical right. That's why Russia has just quit cooperation with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. It's a body that brings together legislators from 47 European countries to discuss human rights issues. The body's approach to Ukraine was apparently more than thin-skinned Russian delegates could bear. This Russia of Vladimir Putin is opting out of discourse and debate -- at least that which it cannot manipulate and control. The country is ready to fight for the values it believes in, at home as well as abroad.

The second reason for concern? It's unclear whether we're ready to fight for anything. Some seem to think we're actually responsible for Russian belligerence. Reflecting this sentiment, in Germany 300 intellectuals signed an open letter to the Russian President recently apologising for NATO's provocative and threatening expansion to the East. Did these intellectuals forget that joining NATO was a sovereign decision of free nations and democratically elected governments in Central and Eastern Europe? Or that these countries wished to join NATO after the dissolution of Soviet Communism because they feared Russia would one day come back to threaten their freedom? Countries like Estonia who now belong to NATO -- and count on collective defence if attacked -- worry today that NATO allies will temporise and be reluctant to respond to Russian aggression. Perhaps even more menacing: what if, rather than sending tanks, Russia destabilises Estonia through cyber attacks -- there's a 2007 precedent -- economic espionage, and manipulation of the country's ethnic Russian population? Without firing a shot, Moscow could slowly turn a gem to ashes. The other Baltic nations, Lithuania and Latvia, feel similarly intimidated.

And so it is, as Estonia and parts of Eastern Europe are threatened, we're distracted, divided and uncertain. Russia sees clearly what it wants. Our vision is blurred. It's commercial ties with Russia. It's energy dependence. The EU currently relies on Russia for more than half of its energy needs. It's oligarch money in Mayfair and the City. It's the false hope that trade makes for peace. It's misguided realpolitik, with the idea that if only we give Mr. Putin his spheres of influence in the east, he'll leave us alone in the west. Let him have Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia. Then he'll surely stop, goes the logic.

In Estonia and this part of Europe, they're not convinced.