Share story

TALINN, Estonia —

Two decades before seizing Crimea, Vladimir Putin showed his willingness to challenge the post-Cold War order in defense of Russians in Estonia, a country now bracing for the possibility he may go even further.

In 1993, as the St. Petersburg official running foreign affairs, the former KGB colonel helped the Russian majority in the Estonian border city of Narva approve a referendum on autonomy that was later struck down as unconstitutional, according to Vladimir Chuykin, then head of the city council.

A unit of pro-Russian Cossacks, who once policed the czarist empire by horse, had amassed on the Russian side of the Narva River before the ballot. Its organizers, who wanted a “clean” referendum, feared bloodshed, Chuykin, 62, said in an interview.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

“I held talks with Putin about the need for Russia to close its border so these guys couldn’t come here,” Chuykin said. “I knew Putin and his boss, Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, and they arranged a meeting for me with basically the KGB. We agreed that no ‘third forces’ would be allowed to interfere.”

Unlike Crimea’s vote to join Russia and Putin’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula, which the U.S. and the European Union declared illegal, the Narva initiative didn’t have the backing of the Kremlin, so there was no outside pressure to grant Russians greater autonomy, Chuykin said.

That experience may have helped shape Putin’s approach to helping Russians throughout the former Soviet Union, which became a foreign-policy priority after he was elected president in 2000.

“Putin, surely, is the main guarantor of the security of the Russian world,” the president’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on state television last month. “And Putin has rather unambiguously stated that.”

In 2005, after winning a second presidential term, Putin told the nation that the Soviet collapse in 1991 was a “genuine tragedy” for the Russian people.

“Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory,” he said at the time.

Since Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed leader, Viktor Yanukovych, was deposed during bloody protests in February, Putin has pushed for greater autonomy for Russian-majority regions in eastern Ukraine.

He’s also won parliamentary approval to use force as needed to protect Russians inside Ukraine, setting off alarm bells in Estonia and other former communist colonies with sizable Russian minorities.

After his victory that March, Putin signed a decree boosting funding for the Foreign Ministry and other government agencies to increase protection for Russian citizens and compatriots who live abroad. He also said the role of Russians abroad needed to be “completely rethought.”

The ethnic divisions that lead to the Narva referendum have never fully healed. That’s led native Estonians, who make up 70 percent of the population and just 4 percent of Narva’s 63,000 residents, to grow increasingly concerned that Putin’s moves in Ukraine may be a prelude to something similar in their country, even though it’s been a NATO and EU member since 2004.

Estonian President Toomas Ilves and Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics have likened Putin’s seizure of Crimea to the Soviet Union’s agreement with Nazi Germany that paved the way in 1940 for the Red Army to retake the three Baltic states, which had been independent since 1918.

During World War II, Putin’s father, Vladimir, was almost killed when his paramilitary unit was “betrayed” by native Estonians during a mission behind the front lines west of St. Petersburg, according to “First Person,” a book of Putin interviews published in 2000.

“Father was forced to breathe through a straw submerged in a swamp,” Putin said in the book. Only four of the 28 soldiers in the unit survived.

That ordeal led Estonia’s Foreign Ministry to conclude that “Putin has a personal gripe with Estonia,” according to a secret 2009 cable published by WikiLeaks.

Russia has repeatedly condemned Estonia and neighboring Latvia for violating the rights of their Russian-speaking minorities.

When Latvia and Estonia, with 2.1 million and 1.3 million people each, respectively, regained independence in 1991, they didn’t grant citizenship automatically to people who moved there during the Soviet era, classifying them as either noncitizens or stateless.

Latvia has about 46,000 Russian citizens and 291,000 noncitizens, while Estonia has 95,000 Russian citizens and 91,000 stateless people, government data show. The third Baltic state, Lithuania, which has fewer Russians among its population of 3 million, granted everyone citizenship after independence.

While membership in the EU and NATO hasn’t stopped Putin from punishing the Baltic states through measures such as trade sanctions, the three countries were included in NATO’s military planning after Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia to defend two breakaway regions. The alliance initiated military exercises in the Baltics in 2010 to counter Russia’s annual war games.

Russia started amassing troops on its Baltic borders in 2009, increasing the contingent to almost 100,000 from 16,000, then-Estonian Defense Minister Urmas Reinsalu said last September.

It’s also built a landing strip for jet fighters in Belarus, near Lithuania’s border, and a helicopter base in Ostrov, near the Latvian border, Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks said then, according to the Latvijas Avize newspaper.

The standoff over Ukraine and Putin’s decision last month to deploy about 150,000 soldiers for military drills on Russia’s western frontier prodded NATO to bolster air defenses in the Baltic states for the first time since 2004, when they joined the military bloc. The U.S. deployed six warplanes to Lithuania on March 6, expanding its squadron to 10, and added another dozen in Poland.

Back in Narva, it’s hard to find anyone that wants to be part of Russia again, unlike in Crimea, Mayor Eduard East said, adding that media speculation about the likelihood of another referendum is “insulting” to residents who are now part of Estonian society.

“The fact that some people don’t share all the political views of most Estonians is a normal thing,” East said. “We don’t need a society where only one opinion is allowed.”

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.