A new report by the Estonian Internal Security Service emphasizes the danger a resurgent Russia and a weakening European Union poses to stability and democracy in the region, highlighting Russian propaganda efforts in recent years.
The service, known in Estonia as Kaitsepolitseiamet or "Kapo," produces an Annual Review summarizing trends and internal threats to Estonia. The 2015 Annual Review, released last week, includes sections on cyber security, preventing international terrorism, and fighting corruption, among other issues.
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However, the first page of the report makes it clear what the service considers the top threat to Estonian and European security: "In the context of Russian aggression, the security threat arising from a weakening of the European Union is many times greater than that arising from the refugees settling in Estonia."
"This is the most important point," Martin Arpo, Kapo’s deputy director general, told the Washington Free Beacon. "For Estonia, the report is a reminder: let’s think about real security threats, and not imaginary ones. The migration crisis is bringing focus away from real threats not only in Estonia but in Europe, as well. The only hope for Putin to fulfill his ambitions is that Europe and NATO are split or have controversies inside. The refugee crisis is really the only serious topic that can bring these controversies."
The first page of the report references the Gerasimov Doctrine, a vision of war through non-military means published by Russian Chief of General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov in early 2013.
The doctrine stipulates that the purpose of modern war is to erode the "readiness, will, and values" of the enemy. This concept drives how Estonia evaluates the internal threat from Russia.
Propaganda and other Russian activities in Estonia are tools, Arpo says, "for possibilities to create instability. The Russians won’t do anything militarily without creating an internal threat—the impression of an internal threat, if not a real one."
One front in the information battle has been the debate over Syrian refugees.
Estonia, like the rest of Europe, has hosted fierce public debate about immigration due to the influx of refugees from Syria and other conflicts zones. Arpo said fear of the refugees is misplaced.
"Thousands of immigrants come to Estonia and integrate, create no problems," said Arpo. "The number of refugees coming to Estonia is marginal compared to this number. These are ungrounded fears."
Arpo said Russia is exploiting the immigration debate to sow dissent and bolster opposition movements within European countries.
"Populists have gained a lot of ground by bringing the refugee topic to the public," he said. "Russian propaganda picks up the populist comments. The prevailing message is that governments in Europe are unable to address the migration crisis, so populists now represent ‘the people’ more than their governments."
Asked how Estonia tries to fight the Russian propaganda campaigns against it, Arpo laughed. "The best you can achieve with Russian outlets is that they don't use what you give them."
If the facts are good enough, he says, the Russians can’t spin them, so they end up on the cutting-room floor. Often this process is seen as wasted effort.
"You have to tell your own story. Don't get trapped into their story. If there are lies, we have to say it is a lie, and what is the truth. But we can't lose ourselves on this Russian battlefield, reproducing their narrative for them.
"Propaganda is for the Western audience as much as the Russian one, and the West should not forget this. It is the electorates of NATO countries who will ultimately decide if NATO protects us or not, if sanctions continue or not."
Arpo compared the information campaigns of Russia with those of ISIS.
"Russia wants to show itself as the last fortress of the Christian world and conservative values. ISIS propaganda also tries to offer an alternative to the liberal world and Western values," he said. "Both use anti-liberal, anti-Western rhetoric. This is the common ground. But more important is the synergy between them. The big, distorted picture of the West as weak, and decadent.
"Maybe Russian propaganda is not a direct threat for western European countries," Arpo said. "But it is a threat to the integrity of Europe."
When Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it embraced a national policy of rapid integration into the EU and NATO to provide political and security guarantees for its sovereignty. Estonia is now one of the few NATO countries spending the target 2 percent of GDP on national defense.
Estonia’s recent history of Soviet occupation, as well as attempted Russian disruption of its internal affairs since, means it keeps a wary eye on its neighbor to the east.
The review provides detailed examples of what Arpo describes as the "hybrid threat" that Russia presents to Estonia. Arpo emphasizes that the threat is about far more than espionage.
"Information is not a goal, but a tool. The goal is not information, but to influence," Arpo said.
Previously seen as an outlier in its fear about Russian aggression in its near abroad, Estonia is now at the center of conversations about countering the Russian threat.
"It's not Russia that has changed," Arpo said. "It’s the perception of Russia that has changed."
Arpo said Baltic economies have been impacted far more by sanctions against Russia than the rest of Europe, but that it is a small price to pay. "Europe needs this approach to Russia. So we are accepting the losses. It is cheaper to deal with Russia this way than deal with consequences later from their aggressive policy."
High-profile examples of Russian aggression, such as the dangerous flyover of the USS Donald Cook and intercept of an American reconnaissance plane, dominate media coverage, but the review said more attention should be paid to the internal subversion being pushed and funded by Russia across Europe.