Is Putin Prepared to Die for Narva?

Estonia-Russia border crossing at Narva. Photo: Tiit Mõtus

Staunton – Ever since Vladimir Putin began his aggression in Ukraine and sent signals that he was prepared to move against the Baltic countries, people in the West, either because they were intimidated by the Kremlin leader’s words or for other reasons, have asked whether their countrymen were “prepared to die for Narva?”

But a better question, Andrey Piontkovsky suggests, is whether Putin himself is ready to die for that northeastern Estonian city at the eastern edge of NATO and the European Union given that the leaders of the West now see him not as a strategic partner but as a strategic “problem” (

Piontkovsky raised what he calls the “Narva paradox” in April when he outlined what he suggested Putin might do in Estonia and how the West might react. Putin might organize a referendum in Narva and then intervene in the name of protecting the ethnic Russians there and recovering “immemorial Russian lands.”

That would confront NATO with a terrible choice: either it would fail to defend a member country as Article 5 of its charter requires, something that would mean both the end of the alliance and “the end of the US as a world power” or it would have to respond in ways that might lead to a nuclear war.

In such a situation, Piontkovsky said, many in the West would declare that they “are not prepared to die for Narva” just as their parents and grandparents said they were not “prepared to die for Danzig” when the world faced Hitler. They would say that this “Estonian problem” did not have a military “solution” and they would want to send an OSCE mission to Tallinn.

Since last April, there have been many discussions about “the Narva paradox” and about Putin’s success in confronting the West with a Hobson’s choice between “shameful capitulation” and “nuclear war with someone living in another reality.” And until very recently, those discussions showed that the West had not made a decision one way or the other.

Moreover, he writes, there was evidence that Putin was making progress in splitting the alliance and making any tough response less likely. There was the pro-Putin “drift” of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia who were clearly, in the words of Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post, “hedging their bets” in the face of Putin’s threats.

It certainly appeared that “the Kremlin had achieved its first psychological victory in its hybrid war with its Baltic neighbors.” Three NATO countries were suggesting that they would not want to defend another NATO member against Putin’s efforts to be “the ingatherer of immemorial Russian lands.”

But now, “the situation has completely changed,” Piontkovsky says, and consequently, the question “are you prepared to die for Narva?” should be asked not in Western capitals but in Moscow and especially in the Kremlin.

Western leaders no longer view Putin “as a partner” but rather “as a strategic problem which requires an immediate and clearly formulated response,” and they are making the kinds of statements and taking the kinds of actions which show that they are prepared to live up to the principles on which NATO is based.

The Russian analyst says that it is “difficult to say” just what pushed them to this point. Clearly, Putin’s offensive Valdai speech played a role given that it was “almost a textual remake of Hitler’s speech on the Sudetenland” – especially given Kremlin propagandist Andrannik Migranyan’s talk about “the good Hitler” of before 1939 and “the bad one” after that time.

Using Migranyan’s schema, one can say that “Putin’s Sochi speech represented an even more opening borrowing” from the Nazi leader, “but already from ‘the bad’ Hitler,” from his messages to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, as Andrey Illarionov documented (

“Today,” Piontkovsky says, “there are no politicians like Churchill and Roosevelt in the West,” but what many had seen as “a collective Western Chamberlain” have nonetheless “found an adequate answer to Putin’s growing nuclear blackmail.”

On the one hand, the participants in an Aspen Institute session, including former American officials, were unanimous in saying they backed the basing of American troops on the territory of the Baltic countries in order to act as a restraining influence on the Russian president and his threats. And on the other, the NATO countries have dispatched troops there.

“The symbolic presence of American troops in the region of Narva psychologically transforms the situation 180 degrees,” Piontkovsky says. The appearance there of the first armed polite little green man would automatically mean the involvement of the Russian Federation in a full-scale war with the United States.”

Some Russians may believe that they can fight and win a nuclear war at relatively low cost or that they can go back to the status quo ante of “business as usual” with the West, the analyst continues. But they are wrong: if Putin makes a move, the assets of the Russian elite in the West will be frozen, and the US will be ready to respond with its own nuclear assets.

That in turn means that Putin and his entourage need to begin asking themselves the question that they worked so hard earlier to get some in the West to ask. Now that the West has given a clear answer to that question, it should not be difficult for the Kremlin to recognize that its answer, albeit a different one, should be clear as well.

This article originally appeared on Paul Goble’s Window on Eurasia

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