Last night I drafted a piece musing about the comparisons and contrasts between the imperial mindsets of Russia and Britain in history. This morning I threw it away. Instead my mind went back to a visit a decade ago to the border between Estonia and Russia In what seemed like entirely tranquil circumstances.
We had taken a train from Talliin the capital of the tiny Baltic state of Estonia a couple of hundred miles to the old Russian imperial capital of St Petersburg. I had expected a sleek modern express. Instead we got a little shuttle that reminded me of the old Donegal diesel railway. We were poured rather good coffee out of an enormous pot – no Starbucks here. As we approached the densely forested gorge of Narva on the border, I caught sight of an abandoned look-out tower lurching at a crazy angle. This I learned had been erected not as border defence between two independent states but remarkably in the Soviet era to guard the border between two fellow Soviet republics. So great was the sense of Russian insecurity even then. It had been abandoned in the euphoria of the collapse of the USSR, when even Russia talked about joining Nato, But tension remained, When Estonia joined Nato, Russian retaliated with a cyber attack which briefly paralysed the brand new infra structure on which it depended . It is hard to recall now what communication was like in the old Soviet Union. Full hard copy maps and phone directories weren’t easily available in Moscow. The internet revolution created both huge opportunities and new vulnerabilities.
The train halted at the border. Guards were dressed in Ruritarian uniforms, the Estonians decked out in n red and gold, the Russians in vivid green. Passports were briefly inspected. Within minutes the little train groaned to a start. In less than an hour we were gazing on the splendours of Peter the Great’s capital. So hard to contemplate that this innocuous little journey had signified so much. The German invasion when the siege of Leningrad when a million starved to death. Earlier in Tallinn we visited St Saviour’s e church where a memorial had recently been unveiled to commemorate Royal Navy support in establishing Estonian independence in 1919. That freedom was crushed twenty years when when Stalin reoccupied the Baltic states under the notorious Molotov- Ribbentrop pact which paved the way for Hitler to invade Poland and start World War Two. But Soviet security was ill founded. Stalin was stunned when Hitler invaded in June 1941 for a war that was to cost them over twenty million lives.
Therein lays Russia’s profound sense of insecurity which revived to a far greater extent than the West like to believe. Today, one side’s insecurity is another’s rampant nationalism.
A s I crossed that little border gorge ( which had once been part of the estate of my son in law’s Russian great, great grandfather, a personal bonus ) I thought : “ we may have to defend this little country one day” And then perished the thought. How wrong I was.
A British battle group is installed in Estonia today. Hardly a bulwark against Russia but certainly a trip-wire.
Does Putin have a case? In the welter of properly outraged coverage of his invasion, it’s right to give it an airing. This was made a couple of days ago by Jonathan Steele the Guardians’ former Moscow correspondent who was always keen to counter simplistic Cold War attitudes.
It is crucially important for those who might seek to end or ameliorate this crisis to first understand his mindset. What happened this week is that Putin lost his patience, and his temper. He is furious with the Ukraine government. He feels it repeatedly rejected the Minsk agreement, which would give the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk substantial autonomy. He is angry with France and Germany, the co-signatories, and the United States, for not pressing Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to implement them. He is equally angry with the Americans for not taking on board Russia’s security concerns about Nato’s expansion and the deployment of offensive missiles close to Russia’s borders.
Remember that Steele was writing two days ago
There is speculation about what will happen next but from his standpoint, it is not actually necessary to send troops further into the country. He has already taken what he needs..
How wrong he was too.
My photo of the Taliinn to St Petesburg ” express“
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London