Narva, Estonia (speculative)

Michael Ben-Gad, a professor at London’s City University who has studied the credibility of long-term promises by governments, questions whether Nato’s commitment to collective defence is absolute and asks what would happen if Russia’s border guards crossed the bridge that separates Narva from Ivangorod and took the Estonian town.

“Would the US and western Europe really go to war to defend the territorial integrity of Estonia? I think Estonia has reasons to worry. Narva is the most obvious place; it is almost completely Russian-speaking,” he says.

More than 82 per cent of Narva’s residents are ethnic Russians and 4 per cent are ethnic Estonians. More than a third have Russian citizenship.

Here is the FT article, here are photos of Narva.  Here is a map of Narva:



Russia took Crimea without a single shot fired because Russian majority there was insulted by the events in Kiev and believed in better life in Russia. Russians in Narva want to speak Russian but live in Europe. Russian government understands that so Mother Russia is not coming to Narva. Donetsk is harder to call.

I'm not sure how valid or applicable Google's graph of GDP per capita is, but it shows Estonia at $17k, Russia at $14k, and Ukraine at an amazingly miserable $4k.

By that metric northern regions of Germany ($44,000) probably want to be annexed by Denmark ($59,000).

In Northern Germany there's a party representing the Danish minority and whose policy often comes down to "let's be more like Denmark". It gets more votes than there are Danes so this might be true for some.

GDP per capita of Qatar is about $100K a year. Yet I wouldn't expect incomes to double if Texas was handed over the Emir.

If you'd retroactively applied Qatar's guest worker and immigration laws to Texas, I would expect that figure to double!

This diaspora that Mother Russia always claims to be so concerned about, I'm wondering does Russia grant them right to Russian citizenship in status quo?

Say, I'm ethnically Russian but living in Ukraine, can I walk into the Russian embassy & ask for a Russian passport?

Russian ambassador to Latvia recently said they would start to make it easier for ethnic Russians to obtain citizenship:

For about 10 years after the Soviet Union, those in the successor countries just had to apply for Russian citizenship if they wanted it. However, it became trickier when some of those countries started to ban dual citizenship. For Russians not planning to actually move to Russia, it theoretically became illegal for many of them to remains citizens in their home country while holding a Russian passport, though I understand enforcement is fairly impractical.

In the Baltics you have plenty of Russian citizens to make an excuse for defensive actions. In Estonia, for example, something like 5-10% of the population are Russian citizens, though the number is ethnic Russians is higher than that. And if Putin wants to extend his protection to Russian speakers, there are even more of them.

Would Russia be willing to risk a wave of economic immigrants from erstwhile Soviet satellite nations, many of them having a far lower standard of living than Russia? Would easy citizenship to ethnic Russians abroad cause an immigration spike?

Most of the world does not share our worship of spreadsheets.In fact, I think you can make an argument that the modern Eurasian cultural outlook is in reaction to the extreme materialism of the modern West. Unlike the West where efficiency is the one and only god of the copybook heading, the Russians are more focused on preserving Russian language and culture.

The prince may not have wanted the smelly peasants and their livestock inside the fortification walls, but you do what you must in order to survive.

'Would easy citizenship to ethnic Russians abroad cause an immigration spike?'

No. At least if one of my Russian-born work colleagues is to believed. According to him, the Russian government has spent billions attempting to get emigrated Russians and their children to return to the Motherland. An example being his son, who had apparently spent some time in St. Petersburg as part of this program.

Ironically, that exposure was enough to ensure that his son will never consider himself a potential immigrant to Russia. Really, pretty much only Ukraine and Moldavia look worse than Russia to the people living there.


What about places like Turkmenistan or Azerbeijan?

'What about places like Turkmenistan or Azerbeijan?'

I recognized after posting that I should have said 'Europe' - I have no idea whether it is noticeably worse for a Russian to live in Armenia, not to mention the other more eastern and Muslim parts of the former Russian/Soviet empire.

Russia is in a population death spiral. For all the apparent xenophobia, they really need immigrants. Thing is, they already have ton of Central Asians working there illegally or temporarily. Something like half of Tajikistan's income is from laborers who spend most of their year in Russia. Lots of this thing happening with Kyrgyz and Uzbeks as well.

I know you weren't asking me, but I have a little insight from living in Turkmenistan 04-06. Even by that time almost all the Russians had already left. It was a terrible environment for them -- they couldn't get government jobs, private sector was dead, Russian language schools had been almost all shut down. The ones who had any means to get to Russia or the West had already done so. Even most ethnic Turkmen and Uzbeks believe Russia and Ukraine offer much better educational and work opportunities. The last few years, most every family I knew with kids had sent them to study in Russia or some other country. In short, yes, I think Russia is seen as an appealing destination for at least some folks in the worse off former Soviet republics. (Also note, that while Turkmenistan appears to have very good per capita GDP growth, that is all stolen by gov cronies, and it is a terrible authoritarian regime, so quality of life is very low).

Not surprisingly, it is the countries that have done relatively well which have retained significant populations of Russians. Kazakhstan, Estonia, and Latvia still have a lot of Russians as a share of their population.

Well, a population death spiral has never been guaranteed to trump over xenophobia: Just look at Japan.

Nations can be stubbornly suicidal.

"Unlike the West where efficiency is the one and only god of the copybook heading, the Russians are more focused on preserving Russian language and culture."

Virtually all revealed preference indicate that Russians prefer material comfort over cultural solidarity. That's why Russian to Western immigration is several orders of magnitude higher than vice versa. If Russians preferred their language and culture so much, there would be an exodus from Brighton Beach to Moscow, not the other way around.

Perhaps Putin and his cronies prefer Russian cultural solidarity. But that's quite easy for them as they already have all the material comforts they could ever want. Consigning their population to live in poverty is a quite easy and hypocritical decision for them to make. There is no rejection Western materialism, in Russia or anywhere else in the world. Immigration patterns clearly reveal that every population highly prefers higher incomes virtually every other factor.

"However, it became trickier when some of those countries started to ban dual citizenship."

As opposed to America where the upcoming deputy chairman of the Fed took out citizenship in another country in 2005 to be a high government official there.

When Israel starts trying to annex Williamsburg, I'll start opposing Fisher's dual citizenship.

I think the armed revolt among the fervently anti-Zionist Satmar population in Williamsburg would put a stop to it first.

Agree about Narva. Donetsk, otoh, is as Ukrainian as Crimea. Only without Tatars. Same for Luhansk.

The best way to disincentivize Russia from this expansionist behavior is to foment ethnic instability in as many such hotspots within Russia's current borders as possible. Is there anything left of Chechnya to stir up?

I see you went to British Empire College of Realpolitik....

That has worked so well with Pakistan, Nigeriea, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Ulster...

No blowback there!

Ethnic trouble works by its own logic and doesn't give a damn about distant empires. I know some Sri Lankans like to blame the British for all their troubles, but our civil war only started in 1983. It took 35 years of independence to unpick the social fabric enough start a really big fight.

Agree. In India too it's the fashion to blame British colonialism for almost everything from poverty to laziness.

Why do we oppose Iran getting the Bomb? That would help focus Russia's attention.

Stalin didn't have any trouble forming an alliance with Hitler, albeit temporarily, thus creating enormous trouble for the West, I'm sure Putin and Khamenei would come to an understanding too, with similarly unpleasant results.

We oppose Iran getting the bomb for the same reason the Ukrainians are probably now wishing they had held onto the bomb.

"The best way to disincentivize Russia from this expansionist behavior is to foment ethnic instability in as many such hotspots within Russia’s current borders as possible. Is there anything left of Chechnya to stir up?"

Who says the U.S. doesn't already do that?

There are problems of blowback, though. For example, the Tsarnaev family, who blew up the Boston Marathon, got refugee status in the U.S. because their Uncle Ruslan was in the 1990s the son-in-law of CIA legend Graham Fuller (the guy who came up with the original idea behind Iran-Contra). Uncle Ruslan ran anti-Russian front bringing together Al-Qaeda donors and Chechen rebels out of Fuller's house.

Good post. Similarly, one might ask what reasons there are for NATO members not to support non-members of sufficient importance to NATO. If area A is important, why should it matter whether it is a member of NATO?

I think Russia was genuinely surprised at how easy it was for them to take Crimea and how many in the west were desparate to believe it was something Crimeans wanted (ignoring all the armed Russians and electoral irregularities and the fact that continuing the status quo was not an option in the referendum, the options were different ways to be absorbed). I think that caught them off guard but now they're going ahead with the same model.

Of course the Baltics are next after most of Ukraine (Putin might leave a rump landlocked state for the EU to milk). But now Russia has every reason to believe that NATO will find excuses to not defend Estonia and Latvia against the same tactics. There are fewer Russians in Lithuania but they're guilty of provoking Russia by separating Kaliningrad from the Motherland.

So, the idea that Crimea is the Russian equivalent of the Canal Zone is not reasonable?

And that on several levels, actually, including practical naval considerations, history (Americans know who built the Canal, just like Russians know who built Sebastopol), and the fact that a treaty from 1979 or a bit of Soviet boundary redrawing in 1954 is very unlikely to matter to the people commanding armed forces dedicated to ensuring the continued security of a major strategic area. ('In February 1954 the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) transferred Crimea as a gift to Ukraine from the Russians; even if only 22 percent of the Crimean population were ethnic Ukrainian.' - )

Or to be more theoretical, Imagine that San Diego was returned to Mexico when the U.S. and Mexico were part of a confederation. Then further imagine, a couple of decades after the end of that confederation, with San Diego having remained a major port for the American fleet and the home of many active and retired members of the American military, the Mexicans threw out a pro-American government in protests accompanied by violence, followed by the apparent desire and ability to join an alliance formed explicitly to oppose the U.S.'s demonstrated inability to stop meddling in Central American affairs.

I'm sure that the flag bedecked Abrams and Bradleys that returned San Diego to its self-designated proper owners would be approvingly shown on all American media outlets, along with the results of the immediately following popular vote.

If the U.S. broke up and the Republic of the West Coast got Hawaii, at some point in the future when the rump of the U.S. was back on its feet, while the Republic of the West Coast was falling into the Chinese sphere of interest, it would hardly be surprising if Washington started conniving to get Pearl Harbor back.

The West was not desperate to believe that annexation was something the Crimeans wanted. It was, however, desperate to shout it.

Until the next time the White House is controlled by the GOP -- and that could be a very, very long time -- the Western media is heavily invested in promoting the idea that "Everything In The World Is Perfectly Fine. Never Been Better, In Fact." Witness that we now sit around and try to guess what Putin will seize next as if it were a parlor game.

The sole exception to the All Is Great media credo: The weather. Now that's something we need to do something about! Pay up, peasants!

Well said "the other Jim"!! It won't be the Russians on your doorstep—just the weather. "PAY-UP Peasant," and everything well be alright. Just take the "Blue-Pill" and relax.....

So I take it your preference would have been a different president (presumably Republican) going to war with Putin over Crimea?

NATO would have to do everything short of actually launching an assault to retake the town.

Nobody wants world war three over Narva; on the other hand nobody is prepared to allow the Russians to in effect dissolve NATO.

Article V would undoubtedly be invoked, which would not mean a general state of war between Russia and all NATO members, but that all would declare themselves as being under military attack.

Russia would lose access to the Kaliningrad enclave which would become a hostage as long as Narva was under occupation.

Both the Baltic and the Black Sea would be closed to all Russian shipping.

Any wargaming of the scenario on the Russian side would probably conclude that the outcome would be massive militarisation of the eastern Baltic. Sweden and Finland would apply for and instantly be granted NATO membership.

European NATO members would finally be afraid enough to push defence funding back up to Cold War levels.

Putin would end up with large permanent garrisons US and British, down the line perhaps even German and French, ground forces along his borders all the way from northern Norway to the Black Sea.

Right now Putin has stabbed Ukraine and he can keep turning the knife because Ukraine is to weak to respond, and Western governments are not yet being so humiliated that they cannot afford to walk away.

Seizing Narva would deliver such a challenge - without overstatement an existential threat to NATO cohesion - that the ratio of interest weights would be inverted.
I believe Putin understands the logic of brinksmanship very, very well which means he will always try to appear as the party holding the highest stakes.

"nobody is prepared to allow the Russians to in effect dissolve NATO"

What evidence are you basing this on? Imagining actions that could be taken is no guarantee they'd be taken especially if they'd cause anyone any inconvenience. I'm sure all sorts of excuses would be found to do nothing.

You are aware that NATO has moved various assets to the general region over the last month?

Partially because, in stark contrast to the Crimea and Ukraine, NATO members control their own territory, including corrdinating the actions and allowing access to NATO forces, and that all NATO members currently possess governments that are actually not based on popular protests overturning a putatively democratically elected government?

To give one hint of just one possible NATO response that does not involve the U.S. or the EU - the Crimea only makes sense as a territorial possession as long as the Turks, a NATO member state, allow Russian shipping the ability to pass through the Bosphorus. Want to guess what the Russians call the Crimean Tartars? - They call them Crimea Turks. Nobody invited the Russians into that region, and that emphatically includes the Turks.

> Want to guess what the Russians call the Crimean Tartars? –
> They call them Crimea TurksWant to guess what the Russians
> call the Crimean Tartars? – They call them Crimea Turks

Did you write the Pulp Fiction script? Or are you simply an ignorant troll?

You mean no one other than the current administration, I am assuming.

Assuming you are talking about Sebastopol and Russian conquest, that city was founded before the U.S. existed as a nation in the eyes of its former owner - so not only did it not concern a current American administration, the Continental Congress was quite occupied ending the war with George III at the time, and didn't pay any attention back then, either.

As a matter of fact, we didn't care about the Crimea in 1854. Or 1941, as we hadn't yet entered WWII.

We have a long and honored (and more than bipartisan, for that matter, as the Whigs didn't give a fig either) tradition of not paying any attention to what is happening in the Crimea.

The U.S. supported Russia diplomatically in the Crimean War and in the 1870s war with the Ottomans.

mnemon has done a good service by explaining how powerfully NATO can respond without launching a physical assault. This shows that it NATO can usefully help the Baltics. But just because it can doesn't mean it will. There are plenty of people in the West who will argue that any one of the actions above is a provocation, or that it is not in the economic interest of the big NATO power, or whatever.

Not a chance in hell, for all the reasons memnon lists.

I would probably be a good deal for Estonia to give Narva over to Russia. It's a dump.

Yeah, that's a great attitude. Hey, maybe Putin can take Detroit, too?

Except for providing Estonia with pretty much most of the electricity it consumes.

In 1951 Eisenhower wrote “if in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed.”

The US should put in its formal notice that it will withdraw from NATO in one year. Its just a welfare program for Europeans countries and American defense contractors. Europe has a bigger economy, more people, then the US it can pay for its own defense

'then this whole project will have failed.”'

And ten years later, the Berlin Wall was being constructed.

Yep, no question, we should have written off Berlin, gone home, and been content to watch the Soviet empire take over Western Europe.

With a success like that, who needs failure?

Europe's free ride needs to end. The Soviet Union and its Iron Curtain disappeared in 1991. If Western Europeans are still worried about Russia, then they are certainly prosperous enough and patriotic enough to support their own national militaries.

The last U.S. base in this region closed in 1994. Which also ended the support of the German government for the facilities of the American soldiers stationed there - that's right, when American troops were stationed in Germany, the bases were German property, maintained with German tax money. Meaning that when units were redeployed to the U.S., it was the American taxpayer picking up the bill for the barracks, roads, electricity, etc.

And as for German base closings - check out the link -

We have been leaving for decades - much like how so many Americans think foreign aid is a major component of the U.S. government's budget, the belief that the American military has more than a shadow presence in Germany is not based on reality. The GIs have pretty much left Germany - a lot of the equipment that used to be here was wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan (the dust is a real problem - along with the lack of support facilities that were so abundantly provided in Germany).

However, when talking about the U.S. Navy, things are a touch more complex - it isn't as if the U.S. Navy plans to give up its ability to dominate any major maritime trade route involving either oil or America's possible opponents. Well, until we can't pay for it - the British commenters here can explain how that works, by the way.

Yet the US still spends billions on NATO. While Europe has more people and more money then the US

The Berlin Wall went up around East Berlin, it did not involve taking any land from Western Europe that was not already under Soviet control.

It should have been a wakeup call to the Europeans, but instead they drifted into passivity with the US constantly having to goad them into military preparedness. Since the Berlin Wall has fallen Europeans have drastically cut their defense budget and most of what they do spend has more to do with politics and crony business then with defense.

Europe is a classic case of someone who has been on welfare for too long and no longer can take care of themselves. Sorry but the US does not have the money anymore to pay for Europe defense.

Oops sorry the Berlin Wall went up around the already surrounded West Berlin

It sure did - because the East Germans were fleeing to the freedom offered by the West, a clear demonstration of the utter bankruptcy of Soviet style ideology.

Which, apparently, is the reason we should have let the Soviets simply take over Western Europe in 1961 - a solution to their problems which they would have endorsed completely, by the way.

The only reason why the Soviets could have taken over the West in 1962 is if the Europeans did not fight them. If they did not care enough about fighting invasion then why should the US care about it?

Does withdrawing from NATO imply closing the European bases too (Ramstein etc.)?

Yes. No more bases in Europe that the Pentagon can use for adventures.

The point I'm not sure about is, on net, are bases like Rammstein proving an expensive liability for babysitting Europeans or an asset to evacuate casualties from the middle eastern theaters of war & to launch missions into the east etc.

Wouldn't closing down all our EU bases hurt the US's non-EU military missions?

Of course, a NATO unwilling to prevent further Russian expansion - with or without Estonian membership - is a bad thing only if resultant policy after annexation is worse than what it would have been had no annexation occurred. I'm not sure what to expect here, but if evidence from other circumstances is any guide, one might perhaps expect policy not to change too much.

For instance, policy does not seem to change very much when one party takes over from another. Casey Mulligan had a paper a while ago (with Sala-i-Martin and Gil, I believe) saying that democratic or autocratic status also had a very small effect on the public policies pursued in an area. Maybe the same forces which cause policy to be fairly stable in these settings also apply to territories being annexed?

First there would pop up heavily armed pro-Russian defence forces. Maybe they would take control of the border to allow manpower and guns to be imported from Russian Ivangorod. When Estonian forces would try to retake the control of the border there could easily happen some sort of mix up where unidentified people fire at Russian border guards, maybe allegations that Estonian forces went into Russian territory and arrested Russian citizens there. Russians of course would be forced to take action.

This will look to other NATO members that the case isn't so clear cut. Estonia fucked up and they would hate to be dragged into a war because Estonians are so trigger happy. That kind of reasoning would make it easier to delay taking any actions and until Narva seems like a lost cause not worth fighting a war, like Crimea. Another round of stern warnings that if Russia will go any further NATO will take drastic actions.

Ivangorod was part of Estonia between wars, so Estonia de facto claimed it in 1990s. The only dropped the claim in anticipation of joining EU and NATO.

In the West, you don't hear much about the Estonia's (and Latvia's) territorial claims on Russia but neither Balics, nor the Russians have forgotten.What if a new, ulta-nationalist government comes to power in Tallinn and revives the claims? What will NATO do?

Why would Estonia do that?

Why did it do it in the first place? Nationalism, perhaps. Also, the sense of the West always backing them up no matter what.

There is no widespread support in Estonia for any claim for some useless territory and gain a dozen thousand more ethnic Russians inhabiting it. Appeals for restoration of pre-WWII borders resurface every once in a while by fringe lunatics, but no-one takes it seriously.

So Narva is the new Gdansk/Danzig?

The hypothetical assumes that "Russian border guards" could assemble in sufficiently large numbers to cross the border and secure Narva without Estonia or NATO noticing. I don't find this plausible. Any massing of Russian soldiers close to the Estonian border would draw a corresponding show of force from NATO.

Real question is whether US and Western Europe would go to war to save the whole Estonia (possibly even Latvia and Lithuania) from Russian occupation.

I think Latvia will be before Estonia. A story out of Latvian TV3 (picked up on the Polish wire service) finds Russians conducting stealth opinion surveys in eastern Latvia.... similar to ones carried out before the decision to invade and take over Crimea was made.

"Russians Of Narva Not Seeking 'Liberation' By Moscow"

"Like the vast majority in the sleepy eastern Estonian border city of Narva, Brokk is an ethnic Russian. And while he's proud of his language and heritage, all he needs to do is look across the river at the dilapidated Russian fortress city of Ivangorod to know which side of the border he wants to live on."

(from Radio Free Europe so take with grain of salt...)

Given that things have gone comparatively well in Estonia in many indicators of economic and political well-being, I'd be surprised if the Soviets got a quarter the support in (what's that Estonian town called again?) as they did in Crimea.

What's the wage multiple (not gap) between Estonia and Ukraine?

Giving up Narva would mean giving up NATO. The liberal-PC consensus may not be quite that defeatist just yet, not when there are Russian ships that could be sunk worldwide, special forces that could be sacrificed, and bank assets that could be seized.

I do some analogizing in a recent post at Law adn Economics Professors Blog, where I also post my game theory class Crimea final exam question. Estonia is 1938 Czechoslovakia. A major purpose of its conquest would be to destroy NATO by showing the unwillingness of its members to defend each other.

Comments for this post are closed