Editor's Note:An error in this analysis as originally published has been corrected. The Estonian government arrested some 300 protesters April 27 during the removal of a Soviet monument commemorating the end of World War II. For the most vulnerable member of the NATO alliance, the action is not so much waving the flag as it is testing the winds.
A Soviet-era monument called the Bronze Soldier, located in downtown Tallinn, Estonia, was dismantled the night of April 26-27, despite the protests by some 500 ethnic Russians. The Russian Duma and Foreign Ministry immediately responded, calling the action "blasphemy" and "disgusting." The Duma recommended Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately sever all economic and diplomatic contact with Estonia. The Estonian government plans to exhume and remove the remains of Soviet soldiers interred under the monument as well for reburial in a cemetery. Estonia sees the monument, constructed during what Estonians call the "Soviet occupation," as a lingering sign of Russia's overbearance. Yet, of the three Baltic states, Estonia is the one that tends to have the best relationship with Moscow and prefers to keep the lowest profile. This raises a question: Why dismantle the Bronze Solider now? Controversy over the statue is nothing new; it has been simmering ever since Estonia achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia's biggest holiday — the celebration of the anniversary of victory in World War II, a conflict in which at least 20 million Russians died — is just around the corner on May 9. After 15 years of relatively harmless sniping, it seems the Estonians have chosen this precise moment to step on the Kremlin's most sensitive nerve. That might be precisely the case. On April 26, Putin gave his state of the union address, in which he essentially lambasted everything the United States stands for. For Estonia, such a speech is the equivalent of an air raid siren. Aside from Iceland and Luxembourg, Estonia is the smallest NATO member in terms of population, and none is more strategically exposed. If Russia is about to go on a strategic tear, no one faces the prospect of more suffering — and more quickly — than does Estonia.
But rather than cowering in silence, the Estonians might have struck upon a rather interesting strategy: Test the waters to see just how real this Russian change of tune is. After all, if it is real, it is best to know soon. And if it is just rhetoric for public consumption, it is best to continue with business as usual without developing an ulcer. By this logic, no matter how much Estonia's actions annoyed the Russians, those actions are not of a magnitude to make Moscow rapidly shift its entire military strategic and foreign doctrines. But dismantling the monument will force the Russians to show at least some of their cards. Whether or not the Estonian strategy is truly to tell the Russians to "Put up or shut up," the world will know the Russian mind very soon. Estonia provoked the Duma and the Russian Foreign Ministry into their expected responses and, in doing so, placed the issue squarely on Putin's desk. His response will be Russia's policy. It is a response Putin will weigh very carefully. While the Kremlin thinks of Estonia as an ungrateful, malcontented speck on its western border, it is an ungrateful, malcontented speck that also happens to be a full member of the NATO alliance and the European Union. The former grants Estonia the nuclear umbrella, and the latter means any economic sanctions against Estonia would immediately draw retaliation from all of Europe. If Putin is going to call Estonia's bluff, it will not be a simple overreaction — it will be a calculated move that will have repercussions far beyond a mere stump of broken rock in a Tallinn traffic circle.