One of the reasons I routinely attempt to connect Estonia to other northern European countries for readers used to seeing it portrayed as just another piece of the geopolitical puzzle, is that Estonia is blessed with a quality one might find in Bergen, Reykjavik, Umeå, or Oulu: isolation.
On any map, Estonia is connected both to the central European landmass and is a stepping stone to the St. Petersburg region and Eurasia beyond. Yet on three sides Estonia is surrounded by water. To the south are the avenues of Riga and Europe, and to get there you must get on a bus or plane. This is not Benelux where happy backpackers can zoom from country to country by high-speed train, drinking all the way. Even within Estonia, travel is encumbered by unpaved roads, ferry connections, and aggressive drivers.
If a person wakes up in Kärdla, Hiiumaa, how long would it take them to get to Narva at the other side of their tiny Baltic nation? And for the residents of Võrumaa, how genuine were events like last year’s riots in Tallinn? Weren’t they just like every event in the world, broadcast by radio and television? In Estonia, the outside world takes awhile to seep in.
It is in this context that I should say the premise of Edward Lucas’ book The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces both Russia and the West seemed troubling. Here Estonia is portrayed as the frontline in the behind-the-scenes battle between Western liberalism and Eastern illiberalism. Banks and gas pipelines are the carriers of the disease. President-Select Dmitri Medvedev might be the poster boy for New Russians, but who knows what his heirs or handlers might do with the channels of power they inherit.
From the perspective of The New Cold War, small fishing villages such as Omedu on Lake Peipsi where they sell smoked fish and onions are the new guard posts of the West. It seems a preposterous notion. But on Omedu’s side of the lake, the politicians are derided as idle or self-interested servants, held to scrutiny, and discarded when they are no longer useful. On the opposing side of the lake, the politicians are gods massaged by the media and industries they own. They are only accountable to the man at the top, not the people at the bottom.
This is the crucial difference that makes for the conflict described by Lucas and it is all true and widely known in Estonia. While Lucas tries to rouse Rip Van Winkle-like Western Europe to the fact that the narrative of 1989, of Russians embracing Western values, listening to the Scorpions and Billy Joel, eating Big Macs, and trudging down the road to the West is long over, it is not difficult to argue that Estonia never had much faith in its eastern neighbor to begin with.
More likely the Estonian government of the 1990s and early 2000s that successfully navigated the Estonian ship of state into the ports of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization saw Russia like any Pärnu homeowner would view the retreating of the Baltic Sea after a flood. It was time to inspect the damage, repair what could be salvaged, and build a better foundation. Moving, in Estonia’s case, has never been an option.
And because of this quiet country cynicism, a better bulwark for the West could not be imagined. During last April’s nonsense, we pondered what would happen in our home city of Tartu should the “Pskov division” be “not far off.” And it was difficult to imagine Tartlased doing much of anything other than shrugging and going about their business. Either they would stand by the invader’s tanks and mock, as they have done for centuries, or, more likely, they would hunker down inside with a stash of alcohol from the local Selver and mock some more via Internet. If the invaders were to sever Estonia’s Internet connection, well: that would only result in one thing: a fierce and bloody guerrilla war.
And that leads us to the final question. For whom is this book written if the Estonians are already aware of what lies across the River Narva? Well I bought it in Heathrow Airport, and it is written by a British author in the English language, though many editions are planned in other languages. So I suppose the main audience is the readership of The Economist itself: Britons and those who take part in corner-booth international relations chats at cafes from Santiago to Hong Kong. This is a book written partially for those in the know and partially for the English-language audience that needs to know.
Inside you will find the sinister murders of Russian journalists and dry humor in explaining how Gazprom manages to waste so much of its money on “ludicrously grand buildings, holiday resorts, yachts, and other gimmicks.” It is as if Edward Lucas’ brain were uncorked and its contents, mixed from the briefings of Vladimir Socor’s postings at The Eurasian Daily Monitor, the behind-closed-doors musings of NATO officials, the paranoia of Lithuanian energy heads, and the rare moments of honesty on the part of Kremlin apparatchiks, were poured into nine chapters that somehow manage to tie the mess of the Putin years into a coherent framework. A book, if you will.
This is no easy task. Lucas’ final chapter: ‘How to Win the New Cold War, Why the West Must Believe in Itself’, could be a book on its own right. But rather than ponder where there could be more and where there could be less, readers should instead just read it. Some might read its title as a call to arms. But, rather, I see it as a very long letter written by a correspondent who has so much to tell you that he cannot squeeze into an article in The Daily Mail or The Economist. It’s a letter from the correspondent to you. In this way, the book is for everybody: the traveling journalist in Heathrow, the London commuter, the corner-booth conspiracy theorists in Santiago, Chile, and maybe even the citizens of small Estonian villages who wearily watch Russia from the other side of the lake.