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OPINION

No quiet on the Russian front: Estonian officials treat Ukraine's struggle as their own

Since February 24, 2022, no country has donated a larger share of its GDP to the Ukrainian war effort than Estonia has. Given the tiny Baltic state’s Soviet-era experience of life under Moscow’s domination, that level of generosity is not difficult to understand. The Insider recently traveled with two high-level Estonian officials on a tour of the front in Ukraine. The experience underscored just how deeply Russia’s other neighbors understand that the failure to properly arm Ukraine is already placing the European Union’s security in jeopardy.

“If all countries did what Estonia was doing, we’d be in Moscow by now,” Mykhailo, the commander of a Ukrainian infantry unit currently deployed in Robotyne, told The Insider, only half joking. We’re meeting Mykhailo at an undisclosed location to the north of his unit’s positions, roughly 20 kilometers behind the frontline.

It’s one of the last stops on a three-day tour of the front, with The Insider joining Estonia’s Ambassador to Ukraine, Annely Kolk, and Marko Mihkelson, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Estonian Parliament. The trip coincides with what one Ukrainian officer described as the “toughest fighting since the beginning of the full-scale invasion.” As we saw and heard for ourselves, Ukrainian forces are suffering acute ammunition shortages while attempting to hold off an enemy that is stubbornly determined to advance, regardless of the human cost.

Ukrainian forces are suffering acute ammunition shortages while attempting to hold off an enemy that is stubbornly determined to advance, regardless of the human cost

The trip has been arranged by a Ukrainian-Estonian group of volunteers, who run the “One Team, One Fight Foundation.'' They’ve been delivering non-lethal military aid to Ukrainian soldiers across the country for nearly two years. The foundation’s director, Dmitro Drey is an affable Ukrainian originally from Luhansk who speaks the heavily accented Russian common for a native of the Donbas region; its co-founder is Harri, an Estonian ex-soldier. Both men have traveled hundreds of thousands of kilometers across Ukraine delivering desperately needed military equipment to frontline units.

Most foreign dignitaries, understandably, will never come as close to the fighting as Drey and Harri do. Many of them would never leave Kyiv or Lviv to travel incognito in inconspicuous, unarmoured vehicles without a security escort. But for both Kolk and Mihkelson, the importance of speaking to Ukrainian troops in person — to get a firsthand understanding of the war — outweighs the not inconsiderable risk. For long periods of time, we were well within Russian artillery range, and the sound of incoming shelling was a disconcerting constant.

From left to right, Kolk’s husband, Kolk, Dmitro Drey, Mihkelson, and another volunteer outside of Lyman, approximately 12 km behind the front line
From left to right, Kolk’s husband, Kolk, Dmitro Drey, Mihkelson, and another volunteer outside of Lyman, approximately 12 km behind the front line

For Mihkelson, a reserve officer in the Estonian armed forces, speaking directly to Ukrainian soldiers enables him to better understand the situation on the battlefield, enabling him to be a more effective advocate for the increased provision of Western aid. For Kolk, trips like this one are part of her diplomatic mission. “I’m ambassador to all of Ukraine, not just the capital,” she says. “Sitting in Kyiv gives you an unrepresentative picture of this war.”

“Sitting in Kyiv gives you an unrepresentative picture of this war”

And the ambassador is right. Unlike last winter, this year Kyiv has experienced no blackouts and no loss of water supply. The atmosphere on the streets remains relatively calm. If it weren’t for the air attacks — which rarely penetrate the excellent Western-supplied air defense network guarding Ukraine’s largest city — a visitor could be forgiven for forgetting that Kyiv is the capital of a country fighting for its survival.

It’s different in Druzhkovka, 20 kilometers from the battle. Here the sound of artillery is constant, and yet, as in Kyiv, people continue to go about their lives the best they can under the circumstances. A mother and her child walk in a nearby park, while city maintenance workers prune trees. It is a surreal picture. Military aid is distributed to soldiers that have recently come back from their positions in nearby Chasiv Yar, and Kolk and Mihkelson get to hear about the situation in the trenches.

The situation is bleak. Nearly every unit we speak to says that Ukrainian troops are outmanned and outgunned, facing extreme ammunition shortages as they attempt to hold the line against an enemy with an almost suicidal determination to advance.

It’s not difficult to make the direct connection between broken Western promises and the current difficulties on the front line. According to Mihkelson, a lack of Western strategic vision is also to blame. “There’s no clear understanding of how this war should end in Washington or Berlin,” he argues. “We rarely hear that Russia must be defeated on the battlefield.” The constant slow-walking and incremental provision of aid, particularly from the United States, clearly frustrates him. “Why don’t they send some of their own F-16s? They have so many!” Mihkelson says, referring to the American decision not to supply their own fighter jets to Ukraine, instead relying on European allies such as Norway, Denmark, and The Netherlands. “Or the ATACMS missiles that are just sitting in warehouses waiting to be decommissioned.”

“There’s no clear understanding of how this war should end in Washington or Berlin. We rarely hear that Russia must be defeated on the battlefield”

The limitations and conditions under which the West has supplied weapons to Ukraine also come in for criticism. In Mihkelson’s words, demands that Kyiv refrain from using Western-supplied weapons to strike targets inside Russia’s internationally recognized borders is akin to asking Ukraine to “fight this war with both hands behind their backs.” It is an opinion commonly shared amongst the Ukrainian troops we spoke to.

As infantry commander Mykhailo noted near Robotyne, Estonia’s commitment to the Ukrainian cause stands out. The Baltic country of less than 1.5 million has donated a staggering 3.6% of its GDP in bilateral aid to Ukraine since January 24, 2022, easily the most generous country by this metric (for comparison, the United States has donated 0.32%). “We know this war is existential,” Kolk tells The Insider, explaining Estonia’s high level of support. It is an understanding that permeates every level of the Estonian government. Given the country’s direct experience of Russian imperialism, there is a widespread belief in Tallinn that if Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, Estonia could very well be his next target.

There is a widespread belief in Tallinn that if Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, Estonia could very well be his next target

The same is true for Estonia’s neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, both of which have also donated significant amounts of military support to Ukraine while imploring their European and NATO allies to take the threat of further Russian aggression more seriously. For years, the NATO strategy for defending the Baltic states followed the “tripwire” approach — having small numbers of international troops forward deployed to the alliance’s eastern flank not in order to successfully defend against an invasion, but to ensure that any Russian incursion would risk inflicting casualties on British and American active duty personnel, thus bringing the full force of those two military powers into the conflict. But of course, in the event of an actual Russian invasion, the arrival of help from points further west could not have come immediately. “The ‘tripwire’ policy would have left our country occupied by Russian forces,” Mihkelson explains.

The experience of Ukraine under Russian occupation, along with the effectiveness with which Russia has used threats of nuclear “escalation” to delay Western aid deliveries — from the United States and Germany in particular, Mihkelson notes — have led the Baltic States to begin constructing a defensive line of bunkers and fortifications along their countries’ borders with Russia. The importance of Russia not being allowed to quickly take territory, illegally annex it, and then hide behind a nuclear shield is now well understood. Questions of whether an American President would risk nuclear retaliation to support a European NATO ally date back to the Cold War, and the defensive line currently under construction is an attempt to prevent that question from ever having to be answered.

Both Kolk and Mihkelson express frustration at how long it has taken some of Estonia’s allies to appreciate the danger Russia presents to its neighbors. “The West has massively underestimated the threat Russia poses, at all levels,” Kolk argues, paying particular attention to the Kremlin’s information warfare operations. “Here in the Baltics we’ve seen it for years. Russia tries to claim Russian speakers are ‘oppressed’ in our countries, but the truth is Russians living in Estonia have more rights than Russians living in Russia.”

“The West has massively underestimated the threat Russia poses, at all levels. Here in the Baltics we’ve seen it for years”

Mihkelson highlights the pattern of Western passivity towards Russia that, in his estimation, led to the current full-scale war in Ukraine. “There seems to be little understanding in many Western capitals that Russia is fundamentally attempting to overturn the current world order,” he says. “This is not only about Ukraine,” he adds, drawing lessons from recent history. “We’ve seen continued weakness in the West’s response to Russia, from the invasion of Georgia, to Obama’s ‘red line’ in response to chemical weapons attacks in Syria. That was clearly a moment when Putin detected weakness.” He notes that, when confronted, Russia has almost always backed down. “We’ve seen so many ‘red lines’ Russia themselves have set down, and then backed away from, when they’ve been crossed,” Mihkelson says.

“Obama’s ‘red line’ in response to chemical weapons attacks in Syria was clearly a moment when Putin detected weakness”

Towards the end of our tour of the frontline, we arrive at a position close to the town of Orikhiv, north of the highly contested settlement of Robotyne. As we pull up, an M142 HIMARS rolls out towards its firing position. In a testament to the ammunition shortage, only one of its six launch tubes is loaded with a GMLRS rocket. Several groups of Ukrainian soldiers arrive at the meeting point simultaneously. Two young servicemen who hadn’t seen each other for months hug upon realizing that the other is still alive.

Kolk clearly finds the experience emotional. “At that moment I felt I couldn’t hold back tears anymore. My own son is 21,” she says. “I cannot imagine him greeting his friends in such a way.” Except if Estonia’s continuing support for Ukraine demonstrates anything, it is that Kolk, Mihkelson, and hundreds of thousands of other Estonians can all too well imagine that, if Ukraine does not receive the military aid it needs, then the ambassador’s son really could be greeting his friends in exactly the same way in the not-too-distant future.

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