Last November, Estonian fans of Russia’s famous Alexandrov Song and Dance Ensemble were disappointed to learn an upcoming performance in Tallinn (as part of the group’s all-European tour) had been banned by the Estonian government. This was, of course, expected—the Ensemble included the words “of the Russian Army” in its title and its singers and dancers often perform in Russian military costumes.
Considering the world-renowned ensemble to be nothing more than a division of the Russian Army, the Estonian government has demanded the Russian Ministry of Defense send future requests to the Ministry of Defense of Estonia.
“This Ensemble is run by the Russian Ministry of Defense. In accordance with international military legislation, representatives of the armed forces of foreign nations can be in Estonia only with authorization by the Ministry of Defense, the Parliament and the government,” a spokesman for the Estonian Ministry of Defense explained. “Had we received such a request, Estonia would be guided by the fact that international cooperation between NATO and Russia had stopped,” he added.
The unfortunate incident with the Alexandrov Ensemble reflects the attitude of Estonian officials—and a large part of the country’s population—toward its mighty neighbor: no Russian soldier will ever step foot in Estonia again.
‘Article 5 is a beautiful thing, but is it protected?’
Estonian independence doesn’t come for free. With a population of about 1.3 million, little Estonia is one of just five NATO countries to religiously keep its promise to spend two percent of its GDP on defense. Such an enormous economic burden was demonstrated just last week, when Estonia decided to ground two Sherpa C23-B+ military transport aircrafts that had been presented to the country as a gift from the U.S. in 2014.
Maintenance costs of the aircrafts were too high, explained the press secretary of the Estonian Defense Forces.
Hoping to counterbalance its defense spending, Estonia welcomed the recent increase of NATO troops on its territory with open arms. Many view the troops’ arrival as potential for increased business.
Such economic opportunity has began to materialize in the small town of Tapa, where the NATO military base is stationed.
“One day, American soldiers ordered 70 pizzas at once,” a local businessman told a reporter with excitement. “Ten pizzas are the regular order! We offer the exclusive ‘Soldier’s Pizza’ to them: barbecue sauce, cheese on the crust, ground-meat, pickles and—of course—bacon. Because of the increased business, we had to hire another employee.”
A second pizzeria will open in Tapa soon, by the bus station. In addition to pizza, it will also serve hamburgers. It seems NATO soldiers cannot get used to traditional Estonian cuisine, a waitress at a local inn, complains. Every time they are offered local food, they demand a side of French fries or rice instead of buckwheat.
Even the Commander of the Estonian Defense Forces, Lieutenant-General Riho Terras, made it known that he himself would like to jump the gold rush, an Estonian newspaper reported. Terras wants to open an English pub for British troops quartered in Tapa. When he retires, Terras would love to serve them a pint of beer and traditional fish and chips.
NATO soldiers in Tapa are good customers: they have money and are settling in for the long run. Tapa currently has 8,000 residents, and when the additional NATO troops arrive later this year, their population will increase by 20 percent, Eesti Paevaleht reported.
Until recently, the biggest concern among local residents with regards to NATO troops was the issue of hundreds of young foreigners finding a ‘home away from home’ in Tapa.
“These are healthy young men, with obvious natural desires.” Local residents voiced their concerns. “We worry how their relations with local girls will develop. Who is going to pay child support if—God forbid—there is a pregnancy? These guys are stationed here for a short term.”
Another major worry is the guaranteed airstrike by Russian missiles in the event of military conflict with Russia. “If you were a bomber pilot, where would you bomb if you have railroad hub on one side of town, and a military base on the other?” another local resident asked a Delfi reporter.
And a new cause for concern: No help at all from NATO allies if Russia decides to invade this Baltic country.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump would reconsider American commitments to NATO. Trump’s words—that he would not send U.S. troops to protect those in NATO who do not pay their fair share of military expenses—were met with alarm and panic across Estonia’s political elite.
The country’s president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, was quick to confirm on Twitter that, unlike other countries, Estonia spends two percent of its GDP on defense.
In accordance with Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, Estonia sent 400 troops to Afghanistan to fight alongside Americans, he continued.
We served you, you serve us, was the Estonian president’s message.
Despite Trump’s harsh words, he was confident the NATO would be there for Estonia.
Other Estonian politicians were not so sure.
Martin Helme, a young deputy chairman of the nationalist Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) that has seven seats in the Parliament, and son of the former Estonian Ambassador to Russia, said in an interview with Estonian National TV-Radio ERR that he believes Donald Trump simply said out loud what every other NATO member has been thinking: i.e. in the event of war, the alliance would not rush to the defense of the Baltic states.
“Trump said what all in NATO know and think, but would never say in public: that the [NATO] Treaty is nothing more than a nice political declaration that will never be used in practice, especially if we ourselves are not going to lift a finger,” Helme said on June 21 to the BNS agency. “They think the same way in Germany, in France, and in England. This should serve as an alarming reminder to the people of Estonia who believe we have Article 5 protecting us. As one can see, when great power changes, this Article becomes unworthy of the paper it is printed on. This must signal to the Estonian government a very serious need for change in its politics and in its rhetoric.”
He continued: “The NATO Treaty’s Article 5 is a beautiful thing, but is it protected? I would like to know what the Minister of Defense, the head of the Parliament Commission on Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister have to say about this matter. Because, constantly, we hear from them over and over again about Article 5. But what if this Article does not have protection? Shall we just go to the cemetery now?”
“In our party, there is no doubt we will be helped [by NATO in case of war]—when there is no other remedy left. And it will happen only after we have been resisting heroically for weeks,” Helme added.
The Estonian MP emphasized that Trump has said on many occasions that, if other NATO countries do not contribute financially into the common budget, he sees no reason for the U.S. to protect them.
“Such position is justified,” Helme said. “And this is exactly why our party advocates for strengthening the primary line of defense in Estonia the way that her allies become her secondary, or next, component. Out of all the NATO countries, there are only five that have fulfilled the demand to spend two percent of their GDP on defense: the U.S. and Estonia among them. Trump’s statement is a means to put pressure on other NATO states to start building their own armed forces.”
To Helme, Trump is more favorable for the U.S. presidency than Hillary Clinton.
“Clinton will never say things as honestly as Trump. But what Trump thinks, Clinton does, too. Americans will never help us if they believe their national interests and international position don’t demand it,” the Estonian Parliamentarian said.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.