Estonia, a tiny Baltic nation dwarfed by neighboring Russia, isn’t a premier American tourist destination. But when Vice President Mike Pence arrives there on Sunday he’ll be just the latest in a parade of senior Washington officials to visit in recent months.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) led a congressional delegation to Estonia in December and so did Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) in June. America’s top NATO general dropped by in March, followed soon after by House Speaker Paul Ryan in April. President Barack Obama himself gave a September 2014 address in the Estonian capital of Tallinn.
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Why all the fuss over a nation of just 1.3 million with a landmass roughly half the size of Maine? The short answer is Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Situated across a 200-mile long border with Russia, Estonia—invaded by the Soviet Union in World War II and occupied for 70 years—is seen by strategists as a likely target for Russian aggression that could test the NATO alliance. Estonia is home to some 300,000 ethnic Russians whom many fear Putin could incite or take action to “protect.” And a recent RAND study showed a surprise Russian offensive could reach Tallinn within 36 to 60 hours. The unease is especially high ahead of a massive Russian war game this fall which experts see as a dry run for a possible invasion of the Baltics.
Such fears will be the main focus of Pence’s visit, according to a senior administration official who previewed the vice president’s trip to reporters, which will include a meeting with Estonian prime minister Jüri Ratas and an address to Estonian Defense Forces HQ.
“The Vice President’s speech there will underscore… the administration’s commitment to NATO, including Article 5,” the official said Thursday.
Many Estonians believe the only thing keeping Putin at bay is Article 5, the mutual defense guarantee of the NATO treaty, to which Estonia is a signatory. President Donald Trump has questioned Article 5 in the past, though he has more recently affirmed his commitment to defending fellow NATO members.
In that sense, Estonia—an Eastern European democracy aligned with the West—has become a powerful symbol for the NATO alliance itself and one that many security-minded U.S. officials are eager to embrace, providing comfort not just to Estonia but to all its neighbors fearful of Moscow.
But Estonia’s clout is also the result of a sustained influence campaign in Washington D.C. The country’s defense minister visited lawmakers on Capitol Hill in June, while its foreign minister scored face time with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in March. Current and former Estonian government officials are some of Europe’s most visible at think tank events, skillfully schmoozing Washington politicians and journalists.
“They definitely punch above their weight,” said Michael Carpenter, who served as a foreign policy adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and then as the Pentagon’s top Russia official. “They’re definitely good at working the political scene in Washington.”
All three Baltic nations—Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia–have stepped up their diplomatic contacts with the U.S. in recent years as a revanchist Russia builds up its forces on their borders. The three nations typically arrange joint meetings with administration officials, such as a confab with Secretary of Defense James Mattis in Lithuania in May. Pence will also meet Lithuania and Latvia’s heads of state in Tallin.
The countries together host thousands of NATO troops stationed along Russia’s border as part of the alliance’s “enhanced forward presence,” which has grown significantly since Putin’s March 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and his ongoing military support for a pro-Russian separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. Those acts prompted Obama’s trip to Tallinn, where he assured nervous Estonians that the U.S. would defend them against Russian aggression.
Over 11,000 troops participated in an annual exercise known as SABRE STRIKE in the Baltic region last month, war gaming NATO’s response to a potential Russia invasion.
Pence has already met with Estonia’s president, Kersti Kaljulaid, during a February trip to Europe where he met all three Baltic heads of state. But U.S. officials describe Estonia as the brightest of the Baltics, thanks to its strongly pro-U.S. posture, robust defense spending and relative sophistication of its economy.
“Both from the e-commerce and the business side of it, the military aspects, and sharing best practices, Estonia is really leading the way in that region of the world,” the senior administration official said.
The tech-savvy nation—the birthplace of Skype and sometimes called “e-Stonia”—has moved governance onto the cloud. Each citizen has a chip-enabled national ID card which allows them to file taxes, complete public school forms and even vote online.
But given President Trump’s complaints that NATO are not paying their “fair share” to support the NATO alliance, U.S. officials are particularly aware that Estonia is among just five countries to meet a commitment by all members to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Neither Latvia nor Lithuania has reached the 2 percent mark, although both plan to meet their targets in 2018.
“There is a certain degree of envy that we get meetings that other people have a hard time getting,” said ex-Estonian President Toomas Hendrick Ilves, who stepped down from his position in October. “But that’s what comes from meeting your commitments.”
“It’s kind of a no-brainer from the U.S. point of view to visit a country that meets that commitment,” he added.
Serving as Estonian president from 2006 to 2016, Ilves, a bow-tie wearing fluent English speaker who grew up in New Jersey and was educated at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania— remains connected and active to the D.C. foreign policy establishment, making him an effective ambassador for the country.
Although he is now out of office, Ilves remains engaged in U.S. foreign policy circles as fellow at Stanford University and a member of the advisory board of the Alliance for Securing Democracy—a new transatlantic project aimed at countering Russian information warfare. The project’s roster is bipartisan who’s who of prominent Washington national security insiders, including top advisors to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Even though its modest economy doesn’t allow for a high-priced lobbying operation —the country’s GDP is nearly half that of Lithuania — Estonia’s government works the U.S. capital from its embassy, a turreted, eggshell white row house near Dupont Circle.
Marki Tihhonova-Kreek, the embassy’s number-two diplomat, said she meets “on a daily basis” with Trump administration officials—including a White House visit earlier this week to help plan Pence’s visit. “My desk officer at the State Department knows I’m a regular.”
Former U.S. officials confirm that Estonia casts a wide net across government agencies, knocking on any available door to enhance its alliance with the U.S.
“They did that even when Estonia wasn’t technically part of my office’s purview,” said Dr. Evelyn Farkas, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia from 2010-2015. “They knew we were the drivers of the policy vis-a-vie Russia.”
During the Obama years, Carpenter said, Estonians courted Biden more than other countries of its size.
“A lot of people don’t think to reach out to the staff of the vice president,” Carpenter said. “They were very, very good at checking in on a regular basis.”
Current and former Estonian officials also pop up in disproportionate numbers at think tank events and foreign policy conferences in Washington, and pay regular calls on Washington reporters to press their case.
“Some embassies around town really know how to work the scene,” Carpenter said. “The Estonians are a good example that works the whole scene.”
That hustle has paid off. Four U.S. M1A2 Abrams tanks and 15 Bradley infantry combat vehicles arrived in February, while two F-35 jets, the latest generation of American fighters, conducted training exercises there in April.
Those additions come as the Baltics turn a wary eye to major Russian military exercises, known as “Zapad” or West, this September, which could involve as many as 100,000 soldiers operating across the border.
“They are going to [simulate] attacking NATO member states. This is pretty clear,” former Estonian Defense Minister Margus Tsahkna told POLITICO in April. “This is a full-scale exercise.”
Top Russian officials have denied any intention to invade or subvert Estonia, and say the growing troop presence there is a dangerous provocation. But some analysts said the Estonians have avoided self-defeating hysteria about the Russian threat.
“Washington is always a little bit skeptical about those who can be emotional or hyperbolic about threats from the east,” said Ian Brzezinski, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO during the George W. Bush administration. “The Estonians have figured out how to thread that needle.”
Earning the country goodwill is its skill in combatting Russian cyber and intelligence operations.
Russia targeted Tallinn with a huge cyber attack in 2007, targeting its parliament, banks, broadcasters and newspapers following a dispute with Moscow over the relocation of a Soviet war memorial.
Since then, Estonia has bolstered its cyber defenses and know-how. The country is home to a NATO cyber center and hosts an annual cyber war game called “Locked Shields,” which U.S. European Command participated in last year.
Ilves boasts that his government is quick to grab Russian intelligence operatives who cross into his country border.
“We have a really good counterintelligence,” Ilves said. “We’ve arrested as many moles as Germany.”