National Security & Defense

The Corner

Estonia, Newt Gingrich and Strategery

There was a time when JFK went to West Berlin, a city surrounded by Soviet-occupied territory, and announced that he was a Berliner.

There was a time when Ronald Reagan went to West Berlin, a city surrounded by Soviet-occupied territory and made a speech calling on the Soviet leader to “tear down this wall”.

And then there was this, reported by CBS, from Newt Gingrich:

“Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg. The Russians aren’t gonna necessarily come across the border militarily. The Russians are gonna do what they did in Ukraine,” he said. “I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg. I think we have to think about what does this stuff mean.”

“Some place”.

Estonia, a country about the same size as Denmark, is, at the closest point, about 85 miles from St Petersburg. As is Finland.

Gingrich complains that a large number of European countries do not meet the NATO target of spending two percent of GDP on defense. It’s a point well worth making, but not to Estonia, which already has met this target and will be increasing the percentage still further this year.

Nine Estonian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan. Kabul is about 2,700 miles from the Estonian capital, Tallinn. The first soldier in an independent Estonian army to be killed in combat since 1920 was Andres Nuiamäe. He was killed in Baghdad in 2004. Baghdad is about 2,000 miles from Tallinn.

West Berlin was in a highly vulnerable location, yet the 1948-49 blockade, itself an act of ‘passive’ aggression, was the closest that the Soviets ever came to a direct attempt to take it. The reason for the Kremlin’s restraint over the decades that followed was the fear of nuclear retaliation. Would Americans really have been prepared to die in their millions in a war to take back a city that the Red Army would have (again) reduced to ruin? Maybe, maybe not, but Moscow never knew for sure; and it could not afford to run the risk that they might. Deterrence deters when it is credible, and during the Cold War NATO’s deterrent was.   

Putin has a number of reasons for wanting to see Estonia forced back into the Russian camp, but the most important would be as a demonstration that NATO’s members could no longer rely upon its principle of collective self-defense.  If Putin could prove that, there’s every danger that the Atlantic Alliance would begin to unravel, making the world a far more dangerous place. Quite how that is in America’s interest escapes me.

Putin sees NATO as an integral part of a system that elevates the US above all other powers, a state of affairs incompatible with the ‘multi-polar’ world he would like to see. To trigger its dismantling would be a triumph. But Russia’s leader is an opportunist, not a madman. He would only launch an operation against Estonia (Ukrainian-style or otherwise) if he thought that there was a very good chance indeed that he could get away with it. Comments such as those made by Gingrich increase the chances that, one day, he just might.

Gingrich is a historian, so here’s some history.

In June 1940, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were occupied by the Soviet Union, at the time, of course, Hitler’s accomplice. ‘Elections’ were held in each country the following month, and their new communist-controlled parliaments ‘asked’ to join the USSR.

On July 23, 1940, seventy-six years ago today, Sumner Welles, acting US Secretary of State, issued what became known as the Welles Declaration in response:

During these past few days the devious processes whereunder the political independence and territorial integrity of the three small Baltic Republics – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – were to be deliberately annihilated by one of their more powerful neighbors, have been rapidly drawing to their conclusion.

From the day when the peoples of those Republics first gained their independent and democratic form of government the people of the United States have watched their admirable progress in self-government with deep and sympathetic interest.

The policy of this Government is universally known. The people of the United States are opposed to predatory activities no matter whether they are carried on by the use of force or by the threat of force. They are likewise opposed to any form of intervention on the part of one state, however powerful, in the domestic concerns of any other sovereign state, however weak.

These principles constitute the very foundations upon which the existing relationship between the twenty-one sovereign republics of the New World rests.

The United States will continue to stand by these principles, because of the conviction of the American people that unless the doctrine in which these principles are inherent once again governs the relations between nations, the rule of reason, of justice and of law – in other words, the basis of modern civilization itself – cannot be preserved.

 That was then. 

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