TALLINN — When Russian President Vladimir Putin and then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder announced plans to build a gas pipeline bypassing Estonia and the other Baltic countries, many Estonians not surprisingly viewed this accord as a direct threat to their national security, with some even making emotionally charged references to this agreement as an update of the Molotov Ribbentrop pact.
That Estonians and indeed many others should be alarmed by this agreement is completely understandable, but what is not defensible was precisely what the Estonians thought should happen in response: All too many of them said that the international community should force Moscow and Berlin to back down and thus maintain into the foreseeable future the existing arrangements.
Such an outcome were it possible might have been nice, if it had been possible, but the fact that this was virtually the only proposal that Estonian commentators had on what should be done is extremely disturbing.
On the one hand, that pattern reflects a tendency to assume that what happens to Estonia and Estonians will always be decided by others, and therefore it encourages a kind of irresponsibility that makes this outcome even more likely.
And on the other, it reinforces the assumption typical of many places but all too often on public view here with respect to energy questions that whatever exists at the present moment will continue and that what worked as a defense against change in the past will continue to work in the future.
Indeed, take together, these attitudes reflect the thinking of the French generals who build the Maginot line in the 1930s on the assumption that the kind of defenses that worked against the Germans in World War I would infallibly work in the future, a conclusion that subsequent events showed was profoundly wrong and one about which the more recent Russian-German pipeline agreement should be the occasion for reflection.
That agreement highlights that the world is changing rapidly in ways that many Estonians and others do not want to acknowledge. The older members of the EU have become so dependent on Russian gas that they are unwilling to stand up to Moscow whose rulers have clearly indicated that they are more than willing to use as a political weapon.
And Russian use of such economic leverage against the EU and ultimately Russia’s more immediate neighbors is something that the other alliance in which Estonians have placed so much faith — NATO — is not in much of a position to counter either. Indeed, energy security has never been at the center of its agenda, even as important as that issue has become for this part of the world.
Because of that and because Estonia is a small country, many here have assumed that there is nothing they can do and have given free rein to a kind of unbridled pessimism about the future, a pessimism that does no honor to those who worked so hard to establish and maintain Estonian statehood.
In fact, there are many things Estonians can do to promote the energy security of their country, but most of them are neither easy nor cheap. Estonians, for example, could begin asking themselves about the continued desirability of their increasing reliance on automobiles rather than public transit. They could begin exploring a dramatic expansion in oil shale conversion. And they could also begin thinking about whether they will eventually want to expand energy ties with Finland and other countries and/or move toward a greater use of nuclear power on their own.
Obviously, a decision to undertake one or more of these steps will be difficult, and carrying out such a decision will require significant sacrifices both financially and politically. But even having such a discussion will bring real benefits to Estonia and her partners. First, it will show that Estonia has broken out of the kind of Maginot Line thinking referred to above. Second, it will reinforce a sense of national purpose, one that has been reduced if not compromised by the view that Estonia must always rely on others rather than itself.
And third – and this is perhaps the most important given the dangerous neighborhood in which Estonia finds itself – such a discussion and a subsequent decision to act will give this country the possibility of responding more nimbly than some other nations to the rapidly evolving security environment in all its forms, not just those in the critically important area of energy alone.
Avoiding Maginot line thinking about Estonian energy security