Henry Williams

Is Putin eyeing up the Baltic states?

For the frontline in a Cold War which has been rapidly heating up in recent years, Narva certainly does not look it. The small Estonian town on the border with Russia has a mainly ethnic Russian population, settled after the Soviet Union annexed Estonia at the end of the Second World War. However the closest (and potentially most lethal) thing to a Russian machine gun nest I could find is the 24 hour burger van next to the border post, complete with a suitably surly staff.

But is Narva’s ethnic Russian population a potential fifth column as tensions across the border with Nato increase? ‘The old babushkas in Narva are getting tired of being asked about it,’ Hannes Hanso, Estonia’s Defence Minister says in his offices in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn. ‘Every time I go abroad the question is always – is Narva next? The average pension in Narva is higher than the average wage in Ivangorod across the border. Why would they want to change?’


Anne Applebaum and Freddy Gray discuss Donald Trump’s Russian connections:


Certainly at the Maxima supermarket in Narva you can see plenty of cars with Russian numberplates stocking up with goods no longer available in their home country after EU sanctions. Russian tourists are also happily milling around the town’s medieval fortress, which faces off against its Russian equivalent across the River Narva. ‘You can see why there is interest in Narva,’ Tamel Mazer, professor of history at the University of Tartu’s Narva College, says. ‘It is probably the most Russian city in the EU, but I think it is all hype. Russians in Estonia certainly have a strong identity in terms of language and culture, but they know they would not want to move there for economic reasons.’

Despite the hype, Estonia and its Baltic counterparts Latvia and Lithuania remain Nato’s number one concern.

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