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Home/Articles/Realism & Restraint/Estonia Toys With World War III

Estonia Toys With World War III

Estonia's Parliament endorses a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Someone should remind them of their place.

Twin towers of Viru Gate in the old town of Tallinn, Estonia. (Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock)

Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, neoconservatives have accused their opponents of burning straw men. No one seriously wants the U.S. or NATO to put troops on the ground, to leave Ukrainian biolabs unsecured, or implement a no-fly zone over Ukraine, they say.

The fact that media darlings Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) and, more recently, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky have repeatedly called for a no-fly zone didn’t seem to phase them. Putting a no-fly zone over Ukraine, they claimed, was still a fringe opinion. But as the war has waged on, more U.S. politicians, such as Republican Florida Reps. Brian Mast and Maria Elvira Salazar, have also come out in favor of implementing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. “I don’t know what it will mean, but freedom is not free,” Salazar said to justify her endorsement of the move.

Others who do know what putting a no-fly zone over Ukraine will “mean” seem to agree with Salazar. “Are we going to sit and watch while a world power invades and destroys and subjugates a sovereign nation?” asked retired four-star U.S. Air Force General and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Philip Breedlove in Foreign Policy. Another two dozen foreign policy “experts” signed a letter to the Biden administration advocating for a so-called “limited” no-fly zone over Ukraine. The signatories included Evelyn Farkas, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia during the Obama administration. Then again, it’s Washington—you can find two dozen self-proclaimed experts to say just about anything in this town.

But would it still be considered a fringe opinion if a NATO member’s parliament came out in favor of a no-fly zone? Because that’s what happened Monday, when Estonia’s parliament called upon members of the United Nations to “take immediate steps to establish a no-fly zone” over Ukraine.

A statement released Monday by the Riigikogu pledged “its support to the defenders and the people of the state of Ukraine in their fight against the Russian Federation that has launched a criminal war, and calls on showing absolute support to Ukraine in its war for maintaining its freedom, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

“The Riigikogu asks the U.N. member states to take immediate steps to establish a no-fly zone in order to prevent massive civilian casualties in Ukraine,” the statement went on to say. “The Riigikogu urges all national parliaments to adopt statements that call on their governments to support the imposition of additional sanctions against the Russian Federation as well as the Republic of Belarus that participates in the aggression.”

Tough talk from a country that has no means of enforcing a no-fly zone on its own. As one might expect, the Estonian Air Force is small relative to Russia’s, but even that grossly understates the case. In total, the Estonian Air Force has six planes: two M28 Skytruck transport planes, three Robinson R44 patrol helicopters, and one Aero L-39 jet trainer. Notice Estonia’s lack of fighter jets or any of the other offensive aircrafts that are necessary to establish a no-fly zone.

Estonia joined NATO during the military alliance’s fifth and largest enlargement in 2004, along with its Baltic brethren Lithuania and Latvia, as well as Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, and Slovakia. Three of those seven countries—Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia—share borders with Russia, which means the 2004 expansion more than doubled the number of NATO countries along Russia’s borders. Norway, a founding member of NATO, and Poland, which joined in 1999, also share borders with Russian territory.

While these borders are small relative to Russia’s vast perimeter, the existence of modern military technology means that forward-facing weapons and other installations can easily hit targets across Russia, leaving Russia little time to respond. It wasn’t all that long ago—60 years to be exact—that America rightly thought it intolerable for an adversarial power to put powerful weapons in our backyard.

Estonia, contrary to most other NATO countries, does in fact meet NATO’s defense-expenditure guideline by contributing at least 2 pecent of the member state’s GDP. The last time it failed to live up to NATO’s 2 percent benchmark was in 2014—the year Russia annexed Crimea. From 2015 to 2019, Estonia hovered just above the 2 percent threshold, but preliminary estimates suggest it has increased its defense expenditures as a share of GDP by a quarter of a percent in the last two years.

Nevertheless, just because Estonia meets NATO’s minimal benchmarks does not mean that the country is not a security-dependent of the NATO alliance. For example, Spain is one of the poorest-performing NATO countries in terms of meeting NATO’s 2 percent guidelines—it has spent about 1 percent of its GDP on defense for the last two decades. But Spain has a defense budget that is 20 times the size of Estonia’s. A more militarized country, like France, has a defense budget more than 80 times the size of Estonia’s. The United States, if you were wondering, spends more than 1,150 times what Estonia does on defense every year.

Of course, it would be unreasonable for a military alliance like NATO to suggest that Estonia spend as much on defense as the United States. After all, the U.S. defense budget is more than 20 times the size of Estonia’s entire GDP. And while NATO’s percentage-based guidelines are the only practicable solution for a mutual-defense alliance, war is waged in absolute terms. It’s not determinative, but numerical advantages in men, tanks, jets, ships, guns, and bullets do matter. 

Why does a country with an army of just 7,000 men feel emboldened to test the might of the Russian military? Because we’ve let them. Estonia feels free to behave like a great power rather than a strategic backwater because it knows that if it ever gets into real trouble, NATO’s Article 5 commitments will kick in, and the Americans, French, British, Germans, and so on, will come to their rescue.

It’s no wonder, then, that Estonia’s parliament “invites the member states to support Ukraine’s official application for the status of a E.U. candidate state and calls on granting Ukraine a roadmap to membership in NATO”—it’s of no real cost to them. This is precisely the kind of destabilizing behavior that should be expected from the free-riders that have entered the alliance in droves thanks to NATO’s open door.

It does seem that Estonia has at least retained some idea of where they sit on the NATO pecking order. Clint Ehrlich, an attorney and Russia-policy researcher, told The American Conservative via email that “the action of the Estonian parliament isn’t binding.”

It’s a symbolic gesture, as underlined by the fact that it calls on “United Nations member states” to implement the no-fly zone. In practice, that would mean that the United Nations Security Council would need to pass a resolution authorizing a no-fly zone, like it did in 2011 with Resolution 1973 – which authorized the no-fly zone over Libya. Today, as a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia would veto any similar attempt to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

Nevertheless the symbolic nature of the gesture shouldn’t be used to understate its importance. “Estonia’s status as a member of NATO makes its words important. When its parliament endorses the concept of a no-fly zone in public, it sends a signal to Russia that there is growing support for this concept in the West,” Ehrlich told TAC. “When combined with growing calls for such an operation within the United States – including from sitting members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate – there is a real risk that Russia will begin to anticipate the direct intervention of NATO in the war in Ukraine.”

As for Estonia’s claim that a no-fly zone would prevent further civilian bloodshed, Ehrlich told TAC that “in reality, a no-fly zone would not prevent civilian casualties.”

For one, “the majority of the civilian deaths in Ukraine have been caused by artillery fire – something a no-fly zone would do nothing to prevent. If the Russians wanted to kill civilians, a no-fly zone would do virtually nothing to slow them down,” Ehrlich said. “Worse, the steps needed to enforce a no-fly zone could trigger a broader NATO-Russia war, in which civilians might perish on a scale never seen in world history. Not only would NATO need to shoot down Russian planes, it would likely have to target Russian air-defense systems inside both Belarus and the Russian homeland. It is plausible that the result would be World War Three.”

San Diego, California, boasts a slightly bigger population than Estonia’s 1.31 million and is home to about 15 times more active-duty military personnel than Estonia’s entire armed forces. If the Russians decided to attack San Diego, then the United States should, of course, fully militarize to defend the homeland and punish the Russians. But as far as I know, the municipal government of San Diego isn’t calling for a Ukrainian no-fly zone and gesturing at war with Russia. 

about the author

Bradley Devlin is a Staff Reporter for The American Conservative. Previously, he was an Analysis Reporter for the Daily Caller, and has been published in the Daily Wire and the Daily Signal, among other publications that don't include the word "Daily." He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Political Economy. You can follow Bradley on Twitter @bradleydevlin.

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