Putin's war fuels tensions in Baltic states with Russian-speaking populations

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NARVA, Estonia — This city of about 55,000 on the border with Russia could be at the edge of a new Iron Curtain created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s a place between two worlds, where Russia and Russian identity meet Estonia and the West.

That’s apparent even in the architecture: Hard-edged brutalist buildings of the Soviet era house or sit between sushi restaurants, a German grocer and a startup incubator. A curvy new shopping center that boasts shops like H&M contrasts with a well-guarded and busy border checkpoint less than a mile away. Around 3,000 people cross daily. Russians come to Estonia to buy cheese they can’t buy at home or other Western goods, and Estonians sometimes travel to Russia for cheap fuel and building supplies.

Estonia, as well as the neighboring Baltic countries of Latvia and Lithuania, have populations that reflect that mix and the tense geopolitics. Many here describe three camps among Russian speakers. About a third entirely oppose Russia’s war in Ukraine, while a middle group says it desires peace but expresses a sense of confusion among vacillating reports from Western news media and Russian propaganda sources. A small minority support Russia’s invasion.

As Russia persists in its attacks in Ukraine under the guise that it is protecting ethnic Russians in the Donbas regions and the false claims that it is rooting out Nazis, there are concerns that the Russian speakers in the Baltics could provide another avenue for President Vladimir Putin to expand Russia’s sphere of influence. Some also believe the group could be manipulated by Moscow — and the propaganda that is broadcast across borders — to become unwitting agents in the new Cold War that’s beginning to take shape.

Video: Baltic nations raise concerns about sharing border with Russia

Adding to the volatile circumstances, more Russians who are likely to oppose Putin are also crossing the border as they flee the country’s crackdowns and spiraling economy.

“We realized that we were at great risk and had to leave,” said Felix, a Russian IT professional who asked that his surname be withheld out of fear of the Kremlin. “When the war started, we thought that there was a very high probability that all possibilities to go abroad, to come from abroad and so on would simply be closed — the Iron Curtain would fall.”

Felix had attended and helped organize weeks of protests before rumors of martial law and tightened border security persuaded him to flee for Estonia with his family. They still had tourist visas from a recent visit and wiped their social media accounts and phones of any material that might be deemed opposition to Putin or the war in Ukraine.

Russian identity and the Russian language were once considered political issues that were used in elections, said Dmitri Teperik, the chief executive of the International Centre for Defense and Security in Tallinn, who previously led a number of efforts to integrate Russian speakers in Estonia. That has changed.

“Unfortunately, since 2014 the discourse within our society shifted to see the Russian-speaking population through the prism of security,” Teperik said.

The former government official lamented that Estonia’s integration efforts were reactionary in the past. In 2007, after the Estonian government chose to move a bronze statue of a Soviet soldier in the capital that many viewed as a symbol of repression, pro-Kremlin activists started a riot.

After that, Teperik said, Estonia pursued greater methods of outreach, which the government repeated every time Russia lashed out: Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014 and now in 2022.

“These were all very serious signals,” Teperik said, “and our politicians and state authorities became very much concerned with the now famous question: ‘Will Narva be next?’”

‘Let’s not fool ourselves’

More than 95 percent of Narva residents speak Russian, and at least 30 percent carry Russian passports, so every act of the Kremlin’s aggression becomes a flashpoint for the city.

Government posters that recently circulated in Narva ask the question in Russian, Ukrainian, Estonian and English: “Did you have any contact or do you know anyone who has had any contact with the intelligence agencies of Russia or Belarus? Report these instances to the Estonian Internal Security Service.”

Image: A poster asking for information from Estonian civilians if they have had contact with intelligence agencies in Russia or Belarus. (Estonian Intelligence)
Image: A poster asking for information from Estonian civilians if they have had contact with intelligence agencies in Russia or Belarus. (Estonian Intelligence)

Jürgen Klemm, the press officer for the Estonian Internal Security Service, said that the agency can help people who are being used by foreign intelligence services but that they have to come forward.

“We will provide these people with the best possible way out of this situation inflicted on them by Russian or Belarusian intelligence,” Klemm said. “Otherwise, in case of a criminal conviction, one may find their name on the list of people convicted for treason and crimes against the state.”

Estonia and other countries have tried to integrate Russian-speaking communities to varying degrees in the past, but the efforts are assuming a new urgency. The war in Ukraine increasingly worries some officials in the Baltic states that Russian speakers could be marks for disinformation and thus threats to national security.

The concern is a response to the Kremlin’s nationalist doctrine. While Estonian government officials do not fear Russia as an immediate military threat, they remain clear-eyed that Moscow could be a major risk to its national security and that Russia’s expansionist plans may not end in Ukraine.

Many more signals come from Russia itself: The state Duma, the lower house of parliament, said it was considering legislation that would declare all Russian speakers “compatriots” of the state and worthy of Russia’s protection, and former President Dmitry Medvedev, who is now the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, said last week that the goal of the Ukraine war is for “the opportunity to finally build an open Eurasia — from Lisbon to Vladivostok.”

In response, Estonia has pushed for greater military support from NATO, and it recently added some restrictions on Russians and Belarusians who want to declare residency in Estonia, which has made it more difficult for people from those countries without visas to travel here.

Estonia’s police and border guard services have also increased security measures at the border crossing. Erik Liiva of the Estonian Police and Border Guard said it had reinforced the border and that it was conducting longer interviews with those crossing, conducting more thorough checks of vehicles and belongings and dedicating more staffing to surveilling the area.

Police officer Erik Liiva at the Narva border crossing where Estonia meets Russia.  (Alessandro Rampazzo for NBC News)
Police officer Erik Liiva at the Narva border crossing where Estonia meets Russia. (Alessandro Rampazzo for NBC News)

Edgars Rinkēvičs, the Latvian foreign minister, said in an interview last week that the government is keeping a close eye on the situation. Officials have provided more than 160 humanitarian visas to Russians since the start of the war, but they have clamped down on immigration as much as they can from Belarus and Russia because some peple are simply fleeing the economic situation.

The Latvian Parliament, meanwhile, is considering bills that would suspend issuing temporary residence permits to citizens of Russia and Belarus until July 2023. A second bill would allow for the stripping of Latvian citizenship from those who have supported war or other crimes against a democratic state or the people who committed those crimes.

Rinkēvičs said the country cannot afford to be naive about the broad support for Putin and the war in Russia.

“Let’s not fool ourselves,” he said, asserting that some governments in the West were mistaken to insist that Putin’s views did not reflect those of the greater Russian population. “There is a kind of solid feeling that they need to rebuild some kind of empire, that they need to make Russia great again, and that sentiment is shared by many.”

Battling Russian propaganda

Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets said many of the Russian speakers in Estonia have integrated, noting that there are Russian-speaking members of Parliament.

She said that while her country is aware of Russians coming to Estonia, the government’s priority is the Ukrainians crossing the Estonian border. Liimets said about 100 to 140 Ukrainians who were forced to flee were making their way across the Estonian border every day.

The river Narva separates Estonia from Russia. (Alessandro Rampazzo for NBC News)
The river Narva separates Estonia from Russia. (Alessandro Rampazzo for NBC News)

Estonia has shown its commitment to Ukrainian refugees by taking in around 25,000 since the start of the war — the equivalent of 2 percent of its entire population, Liimets said. In the U.S., that would amount to more than 6 million refugees.

The Estonian government is also working to ensure that the truth of the conflict is clear to Estonian residents, she added.

“We have also seen a massive campaign of Russia with regard to disinformation and misinformation, and, of course, our Russian-speaking community follows a lot of Russian news,” Liimets said. “And therefore, from our perspective, it is very important to continue to explain to our society who is the aggressor, what really happens in Ukraine — this is something that we continue to do to all our people.”

Estonia, like other countries, has banned Russian media that is deemed propaganda. Such channels were often popular in Russian-speaking households, not just for the news and talk shows rampant with Kremlin propaganda, but also for their entertainment programs — more rhetorically innocent detective shows and historical dramas.

They can still be accessed, however, by those who pay for premium cable packages or acquire satellite dishes, but officials here said they wanted to at least create a barrier to entry and limit the advertising dollars Russian propaganda channels are able to take in.

They have also increased investment in Estonia’s own Russian-language media. Raadio 4 and ETV+, which are both supported by the Estonian government, have expanded their programming options recently, but they still contend with the perceptions and views of the audience they are working to serve.

Raadio 4 Editor-in-Chief Julia Bali at her office in Tallinn, Estonia, on March 31. (Alessandro Rampazzo for NBC News)
Raadio 4 Editor-in-Chief Julia Bali at her office in Tallinn, Estonia, on March 31. (Alessandro Rampazzo for NBC News)

Julia Bali, the editor-in-chief of Raadio 4, said the channel — the largest Russian-speaking radio channel in Estonia — lost 30 percent of its audience after it closely covered Russia’s invasion of Crimea and pushed back against the Kremlin line. She has a sense she may lose listeners again now.

Listeners regularly call into the station, she said, to call her a “Nazi,” a “fascist” and even a “slave of the U.S. State Department” for opposing Putin and Russia.

“I spend my time — as much as I have, as much as I can — talking to every person who calls or writes to me, even if it’s the weekend, nighttime. We are always online,” Bali said. “This is part of our work, and this is now normal. This is nothing exceptional. We have to do that, otherwise these propaganda channels eat all the listeners and all the audience, and they have no alternative.”

Still, the truth can feel relative in places like Narva, a town where Russia is close geographically but still viewed a bit blurry by some.

Jevgeni Timoštšuk, a Russian-speaking Narva resident who works as the program coordinator for the Narva branch of the Nordic Council of Ministers, an intergovernmental group, leads seminars for Russian-speaking residents on how to identify disinformation, but he said even he struggles at times.

“I have my friends from St. Petersburg, they are telling me that all European and U.S. media is propaganda, then we are told in Estonia that everything from Russia is propaganda, and we are here in Narva between these two worlds,” Timoštšuk said. “I myself read news once a day to try to get a whole picture — Russia says this, Ukraine says that, the U.S. says this — and maybe after that, I can understand something, but I’m not sure.”

CORRECTION (April 11, 2022, 6:00 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the name of an Estonian TV channel. It is ETV+, not NTV+.