Russia’s War against Ukraine and Its Hybrid War Against Estonia

Before 24 February 2022, it was a common view amongst Russia experts in the West that Putin’s autocratic regime was some kind of curiously ‘postmodernist’ phenomenon, exercising state power less through direct coercion and more through propaganda and deployment of behind-the-scenes political technology. But by now, this narrative’s credibility has been dented. Russian elites have taken to using rhetoric of open genocidal incitement, and Russia’s criminal war of aggression against Ukraine has revealed its essential brutality in a way that harks back to the worst excesses of the USSR. There is not much space left for postmodernism after all.

Estonia … should not be surprised at the recent mass bomb threats against its schools and kindergartens, and the sabotage of its underwater infrastructure.

The ‘hybridity’ of Russian military doctrine, another much talked-about topic, also rings largely hollow today. The idea that Russia would rather use non-kinetic capabilities – from cyber-attacks to weaponisation of migrants – and prefers low-intensity grey zone conflicts to all-out war, might be true, but it is not the whole truth. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which has by now lasted for more than 600 days, is for the most part a conventional land war with attrition battles: precisely what various theorists of “future war” had already consigned to the dustbin of history.

However, this does not mean that the propaganda theatre in Russian politics no longer merits scholars’ attention, or that the Russia’s hybrid war has gone away. The full-scale war against Ukraine was difficult for many to foresee and is taking up much of the bandwidth of both the Russian leadership and international observers. Yet Russia also continues its sub-Article 5 aggression against its other neighbouring countries, and the West in general. In fact, it is now even more dangerous than before, because Ukraine’s prospects for success are directly linked to the support it receives from its partners, and this is something that Russia hopes to undermine with its hybrid measures.

Estonia, which has experienced some level of Russian aggression near-constantly since the early 1990s and is now one of the staunchest supporters of Ukraine, should not be surprised at the recent mass bomb threats against its schools and kindergartens, and the sabotage of its underwater infrastructure. But what we are seeing now serves as a yet another reminder that Ukraine is fighting not only for its own freedom, but also that of ours, and that of other countries bordering Russia. Supporting Ukraine is not just a moral necessity, it is also essential for regional security as a whole.

As far as other countermeasures are concerned, they must not only be carefully considered; they must also be bold. The purpose of Russia’s probing is to find out how far it is possible to go, and what the likely reaction is going to be. If the reaction remains lukewarm, then escalation will follow: for example, a drone or missile that “accidentally” falls on Estonian territory. The Russian side will naturally deny having any knowledge about where it came from, but Estonia is once again presented with a fait accompli to which it must somehow respond. If the reaction is lukewarm again, the next experiment will soon be ready in the pipeline. In fact, this is currently the only possible way to communicate with Russia: in a caveman-like fashion through reciprocal demonstrations of force and resolve.

It is up to the Estonian state to make sure that, together with our allies, we will have the last word in this exchange.

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