Russia’s hybrid warfare at work in Estonia

Givi Gigitashvili highlights the role of Russian minority riots in Estonia, cyber attacks on state institutions, use of propaganda and abduction of the Estonian officer Eston Kohver as instruments of hybrid warfare. They are employed by the Kremlin, with the purpose of destabilising Estonia and underminig the credibility of NATO, without the resorting to military coercion

   The Ukrainian crisis revived fears about Estonia’s vulnerable position as an agent in the Russian-led hybrid war. Notwithstanding Estonia’s NATO membership, Russia is likely to destabilise the country, without resorting to military action. Moscow can use its Russian-speaking minority living in Estonia, which makes up to 25% percent of the total population, as a power instrument for conflict in the region. An explicit military onslaught upon Estonia holds worldwide ramifications, as it would likely translate into an attack on the Western security alliance. The feasible option for Russia in the Estonian context is to wage hybrid war, through various available means of geopolitical influence.


Hybrid war is a new form of warfare, combining non-linear and modern forms of warfare, designed to exploit weak targets in the alien country. As claimed by General Raymond T. Odierno, hybrid warfare means “operating in environments with both regular military and irregular paramilitary or civilian adversaries, with the potential for terrorism, criminality, and other complications. In other words, both state and non-state actors are together in a war theater”.[1] Russian hybrid tactics are quite similar to KGB-style operations. Significantly, an informational campaign is a crucial aspect of hybrid war strategy. This involves disseminating Russian narratives through state-owned TV channels and broadcasting abroad.


Merle Maigre, the national security adviser of Estonia’s president had announced that Russia launched a hybrid war on Estonia back in 2007.[2] The process was triggered by the Estonian parliament’s decision to move the Bronze Soldier monument from the centre of Tallin to a military cemetery located in a different part of city. For the Russian minority in Estonia, this WWII monument embodies the “liberation and the defeat of Nazism”, and is reminiscent of “half a century of brutal Soviet occupation” for the Estonian people.[3] The event was depicted in a negative light in Russian media outlets, while on the other hand, the Kremlin and Russian MFA officials accused Estonia of revitalising “fascism”. The Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, further announced that Russia would undertake retaliatory action.


The decision of the Estonian parliament to move the monument resulted in a series of riots in Tallinn, organised by ethnic Russians, who launched attacks with petrol bombs against the Estonian police. The riots resulted in the death of one protester, 153 injuries and 800 arrests. In retaliation, the Russian youth movement “Nashi” arranged a siege and vandalised the building of the Estonian embassy in Moscow. Estonia’s Foreign Minister, Urmas Paeet, had accused Russian diplomats of involvement in the organization of the Tallin demonstrations and of funding extremist groups.[4] In short, Moscow’s use of media channels and political influence fits in with the hybrid warfare narrative; while Estonian state-owned media outlets criticised the incident, Russian governmental institutions incentivised minority groups, fuelling a social movement against Estonia’s central government. The imposition of strict economic measures followed, as a form of counter-attack launched by the Kremlin on Estonia.


Shortly after the Bronze Soldier incident, Russia continued its series of hybrid warfare actions against Estonia, through a cyber attack, which effectively froze key websites of the Estonian Presidency, Parliament, ministries, banks and the country’s network of emergency services. NATO officials did not perceive the attack a form of overt military assault against Estonia, decision which effectively revoked the provision on collective defense, as per NATO’s Article 5.[5] “. The Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs accused Russia of launching a cyber attack on Estonia, by quoting investigation data, which revealed official IP addresses linked to Russian authorities and Russian state institutions.[6] Needless to say, Russia denied any form of involvement in the cyber attack.

A complex facet of Russian hybrid warfare is the use of state propaganda, as reflected in the Kremlin’s accusations of the Estonian government’s infringement of Russian minorities’ rights in Estonia. A plethora of allegations concerning Estonian injustice followed. A year ago, Russia’s Ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko, made the unsubstantiated claim that “Hundreds of thousands of people in the Baltic states have their human rights violated, simply because they choose to speak Russian”.[7] Russia’s commissioning of numerous reports in international and regional organisations upholds the narrative, given their focus on the violation Russian minorities’ rights in the Baltic region. The argument forms the backbone for Kremlin’s justification, in the process of annexation of Crimea, where indictments of minority rights play a key ideological role. Due to NATO’s pledge to protect Estonian security interests, the viable alternative in Russia’s toolbox is to make use of instruments of soft power, such as the involvement of Russian speakers in riots against Estonia’s central government.


In fact, assisting ethnic Russian minorities in the process of socio-political integration in Estonia does not constitute a genuine concern for Kremlin. A recurrent theme amongst the countries of the former Soviet sphere is to see Moscow mobilising Russian-speaking minorities, in a deliberate attempt to fuel confrontation with the local political establishments. The recent abduction of Eston Kohver, the Estonian officer, is therefore to be perceived as a phase of Putin’s hybrid war against the West. In September 2014, President Barack Obama paid Estonia a visit, followed by a public statement, in which Tallinn was declared a city as secure as Paris, Berlin or London. Only 48 hours following the Presidential announcement, Russian agents captured the Estonian officer on Estonian soil. Moscow’s actions uphold the idea rooted in Russian propaganda, namely that “Russia can seize an EU citizen on the territory of the EU and of NATO and this will not have any consequences for Moscow”.[8] Simply put, the Kohver case is testimony that Russia is free to provoke NATO on NATO territory, without repercussions. Russia’s waging of hybrid war is a display of Kremlin’s powerlessness, as Putin is well aware that Russia cannot score a victory against NATO, in a conventional warfare scenario.

Similarly, Edward Lucas suggests that Putin’s actions target the credibility of NATO as an institution. “The alliance does not know how to deal with small, confusing challenges. If they do provoke a reaction, the Kremlin has not risked much (Kohver could have been bundled back across the border within hours). But, if they go unpunished, they set a precedent”.[9] Propagandistic goals clearly emerge from Putin’s narrative. Russian media can make use of the Kohvert story to assert the detention of a NATO spy, to boost existing anti-Western propaganda across Russian TV channels.

Available evidence suggests that Russia has been testing hybrid war elements against Estonia since 2007. Moscow has resorted to use of instruments of soft power over an open military attack on a NATO member state, to pursue its strategic goals. Putin’s primary aim is to undermine NATO security guarantees, while avoiding deployment of Russian military capabilities. Backing up Russian minority riots by the Kremlin, cyber attacks, the abduction of an Estonian soldier and Russian aircrafts’ incursion into Estonian airspace represent the components of a broader gybrid warfare strategy.

NATO should reconsider this, both as a threat to the West and as a trigger for security conflict in the targeted countries. NATO member-states agreeing upon hybrid warfare as a stipulation of Article 5 would send Russia a retaliatory signal. Presently, Estonia is in need of reassurance from NATO officials, as it looks to the Alliance and its safety pledge, at a time when hybrid war is fought against Russia.



Givi Gigitashvili holds a BA degree in International Relations from Tbilisi State University and is currently enrolled in an MA Programme in the EU-Russia studies at the University of Tartu, Estonia. His areas of expertise comprise international politics, Russian foreign policy, EU-Russia relations and the Eastern Partnership.



[1]Miagre M. 2015. Nothing new in Hybrid warfare: The Estonian experience and recommendations for NATO. The German Marshall fund of the United states. Policy brief. February 2015. Available from: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:hEaak353QhQJ:www.gmfus.org/file/4272/download+&cd=3&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us Accessed: 08.10.2015.

[2] Mackinnon M. 2015. In Estonia, a glimpse into the reach of the Russian world. The global and mail. March 2015. Available from: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/in-estonia-the-reach-of-the-russian-world/article23350317/ Accessed 07.10.2015

[3] Conley A and Gerber P. 2011. Russian soft power in the 21st century. An examination of Russian compatriots policy in Estonia. Center for strategic & international studies. August 2011. Available from: http://csis.org/files/publication/110826_Conley_RussianSoftPower_Web.pdf Accessed: 07.10.2015.

[4] Ibid

[5] http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_110496.htm

[6] Bright. A. 2007. Estonia accuses Russia of ‘cyberattack’. The Christian science monitor. May 2007. Available from: http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0517/p99s01-duts.html Accessed: 08.10.2015

[7]Kudors A , (2014) Baltic security over the decade: political threats and the Russia factor, Ten years in the Euroatlantic community: Riga conference papers. Available from https://www.academia.edu/9863975/_Ten_Years_in_the_EuroAtlantic_Community_Riga_Conference_Papers_2014_ accessed: 16.01.2015

[8] Goble, P. 2015. Kidnappings abroad another form of Putin’s “hybrid war’ against the West, Latynina says. Window on Eurasia – new series. August 2015. Available from: http://windowoneurasia2.blogspot.nl/2015/08/kidnappings-abroad-another-form-of.html accessed: 09.10.2015

[9] Lucas E. 2015. Where are Estonia’s friends? The Ukrainian week. Available from: http://ukrainianweek.com/Columns/50/121034 Accessed: 09.10.2015



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