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The Russian invasion of Ukraine as a contestation of the liberal script? - № 17: "Our neighbor's problem today will be our problem tomorrow." Explaining Estonia’s Outsized Aid to Ukraine”

SCRIPTS Ukraine Blog Post No. 17 by Kevin Axe

№ 57/2022 from May 23, 2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in a wellspring of support, from taking in refugees to sending tanks. Although the war has created serious security concerns in Estonia, Tallinn has responded by donating more military aid relative to GDP than any other country, including many of its most expensive weapons. The outsized role played by small countries in aiding Ukraine demonstrates a shared understanding that their continued freedom is aided through alliance and support for Ukraine, states Kevin Axe. As a small state based around the liberal script, located next to a very large illiberal neighbor, Estonia views the Ukrainian invasion as an existential contestation of the liberal script, requiring a rapid response and extreme measures. As Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said at a recent Berlin speech, “Our neighbor's problem today will be our problem tomorrow.”


Image Credit: Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

In mid-April, the Ukraine Support Tracker at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy turned heads by determining that Estonia had bilaterally donated four times as much military aid per capita as any other country. This amounted to more than had been announced by all large EU economies at that point, equivalent to roughly one-third of Estonia’s 2022 defense budget. Since then, the Ukraine Support Tracker has found that between January 24 and April 23, Latvia had committed to donating nearly as much as a percentage share of its GDP, and Poland had donated half as much. These figures do not include private donations, support for refugees outside Ukraine, or aid from international organizations or the EU. As Christoph Trebesch, Kiel Institute research director and lead author of the Ukraine Support Tracker noted: “Geographic proximity to Ukraine seems to play a major role in the engagement of Eastern European countries.”

These commitments were unsurprisingly accompanied by support for refugees arriving in Estonia and more symbolic measures, such as choosing a Ukrainian refugee’s “Slava Ukraini” design for the upcoming Estonian €2 coin. Estonian aid has included, according to the country’s Center for Defense Investment, at least “80 different types of warfare resources…including weapons, ammunition, protective equipment and other crucial technologies.” These donations are not obsolete surplus goods, but armored vehicles, howitzers, and the expensive Javelin anti-tank missiles that Estonia has spent the last few years purchasing from NATO allies. Prior to the February 2022 invasion, Estonia already prioritized military aid to Ukraine. Its Javelins arrived in Ukraine shortly before the war began, alongside a field hospital, although Germany prevented Estonia from donating artillery that had previously belonged to East Germany.

Such commitments both underscore Estonia’s long-term relationship with Ukraine, and demonstrate its ability to employ soft power in wartime. Ukraine was the first recipient of Estonian foreign aid, back in 1998, and has remained a priority recipient for aid. An unusual source of Estonia soft power has been its “X-Road” e-governance system, which has been exported to countries from Finland to Namibia to Japan. The Ukrainian counterpart of this digital system, developed in cooperation with Estonia, has helped the Ukrainian government remain functional in the midst of war (the original Estonian system was designed to remain functional in the event of an invasion, and features a backup in Luxembourg). Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas' many media appearances in support of Ukraine have also come to be seen as a source of soft power. Between March 1 and May 2, she was referenced over 11,500 times in the foreign press, leading The New Statesman to declare her “Europe’s new iron lady.”

Sending further aid to Ukraine has undoubtedly improved relations between Estonia and Ukraine, which were already united by a shared history of Russian colonialism and invasion. But with its largest neighbor threatening even neutral states like Ireland and Sweden with nuclear strikes, why is Estonia exporting valuable weapons, weakening its own defenses?

“We know our neighbor”

As a small state, Estonia relies on the liberal script, with its emphasis on individual self-determination and the cooperation of countries that emphasize these shared values. In its bid to join alliances such as NATO and the EU, Estonia radically adopted neoliberal economic policy, to such an extent that the EU mandated the implementation of tariffs and restrictions on business in order for the Baltic nation to join the union. As Kallas told the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung in Berlin last month, “It was only natural that in the 1990s our foreign and security policy focus was set on joining the EU and NATO. We decided that we were never going to be alone again.” These alliances now guard Estonia from aggression from Russia, whose irredentist alternate script creates constant tensions, which have historically resulted in invasion and occupation.

Estonia’s long shared border and history with Russia has brought with it an understandable fear of attack. Kallas noted this in her recent Berlin speech: “When we look at Russia, we see darkness – fear is keeping its society together. And we see thousands fleeing the country. We know this fear…Tens of thousands of Estonians fled this same tyranny after World War II.” Russia’s acts of aggression have a long history in addition to those cited by Kallas. These include family stories of surviving the Soviet occupations that began during World War II, mixed with more recent Russian aggressions, including cyberattacks following the relocation of a Soviet war memorial in 2007, frequent illegal overflights by the Russian air force, and the cross-border kidnapping of an intelligence officer have left Estonian leaders constantly watching the border. As Kallas declared before the European Parliament in early March, “we know our neighbor.”

Liberal script as guardian

The big role played by small countries in aiding Ukraine demonstrates a shared understanding that their continued freedom is aided through alliance and support for Ukraine. Russia’s desire to institute a sphere of influence is deeply unpopular among those who would be inside said sphere. This stands in contrast to the slower, more tepid response by larger European states, such as Germany and France. With the exception of Hungary, post-socialist EU member states, especially Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic States, have generally taken the lead in responding to the war in Ukraine and defending their own sovereignty, which has helped revitalize a previously moribund NATO. In so doing, they have also demonstrated a desire to defend the liberal script, despite their mixed record (especially in the case of Poland).

The leadership mantle taken on by East and Central European states has begun to shift the balance of power eastward. It has also started a discussion in the media and public sphere about “Westsplaining,” where Americans and Western Europeans privilege Russian concerns over those of Eastern Europe, even blaming victims of Russian aggression. These counter-reactions to a contestation of the liberal script by Russia and its sympathizers ultimately strengthen the liberal script at home and demonstrate the importance of organizations like the EU which serve as the liberal script’s symbols.

Estonia has thrived thanks in part to its position within a system with the liberal script at its core, instead of one that privileges spheres of influence or alternative scripts. Despite its NATO and EU membership, Estonia sees Ukraine as fighting on behalf of the sovereignty of Russia’s other neighbors. Leo Kunnas, a retired Lieutenant Colonel and current member of Estonia’s parliament, recently stated that “every month the Ukrainians hang on buys us a year” of preparation for a possible war. Kallas likewise reflected this “fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here” mentality in late April, when she said, “Our neighbor's problem today will be our problem tomorrow…were this war to be lost, it would not be lost by Ukraine but us.”

Although their small size renders them oft-overlooked, post-socialist states like Estonia and Latvia have demonstrated the ability to move faster in response to a crisis like the Russian invasion of Ukraine than larger, more cautious states such as Germany and France. Ukraine’s shared history and opposition to Russia have further engendered support from Estonia. Ultimately, because Estonia depends on the liberal script system that the Russian invasion of Ukraine threatens, Estonian leaders are easily able to portray support for Ukraine as necessary for self-defense. The outsized role played by the relatively small states of East and Central Europe reveals a shared understanding that their sovereignty and prosperity are aided by a system in which the liberal script endures and a resulting emphasis on aid for Ukraine.

Last edits for this blog entry were on 20 May 2022, 12:26 p.m. CEST.

Kevin Axe is a doctoral researcher at the Peripheral Liberalism Junior Research Group at SCRIPTS. He is currently writing a dissertation entitled “From 'Model Pupils' to Model State: Estonian Economists and the Globalization of the (Post)Socialist World.” He holds an MA in Baltic Sea Region Studies from the University of Tartu in Estonia. Contact: Twitter/Linkedin