Fjodor Santsev can see Russia from the window of the building where he works. On his side of the river lies Narva, the third-biggest city in Estonia. On the other a few hundred metres away is the Russian town of Ivangorod. St Petersburg is closer than the Estonian capital Tallinn.
“Do not wake the sleeping bear because when it wakes it will become angry. It is not a good thing,” Mr Santsev, who has spent 19 years building a model of Narva’s destroyed old town, says of Russia.
The Estonian border town of 63,000 people, dominated by a fortress that straddles the river, has been thrust into the geopolitical spotlight since Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Some have suggested that Narva could be where – after Ukraine – Russian president Vladimir Putin opts to test the Nato alliance directly.
The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are the only former members of the Soviet Union to join either Nato or the EU. Concern over their former occupier runs high despite repeated reassurances from Nato allies, headed by the US.
“Putin is a judo master,” says one former Baltic intelligence official, “and when he sees his opponent off balance his instinct may be to put him on the floor. The best place to try that could be Narva.”
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.
For their part, US officials have been at pains to reassure the three Baltic states that the principle of collective defence on which Nato is based applies to them as much as anyone else. Speaking in general terms this week, Victoria Nuland, US assistant secretary of state, said: “Our message to Putin and Russia is clear: Nato territory is inviolable. We will defend every piece of it.”
Sven Mikser, Estonia’s defence minister, mixes reassurances that an invasion is not likely with calls for Nato’s Baltic deterrent to be as tough as possible. “Everyone has been saying the guarantee provided by Article Five [on collective defence] is absolute,” he says, adding he would like to see Nato land forces in the Baltics.
“The situation in Estonia is calm and quiet . . . When it comes to the north-eastern part of Estonia, I am quite sure the vast majority are very happy to be living in Estonia and the EU rather than Russia,” he adds.
The situation on the ground in Narva for the most part bears this out. Mr Santsev, a Russian citizen, says of the possibility of an incursion from Russia: “No, it’s never going to happen. Crimea is another story.”
At a branch of Swedbank, a woman called Irina says: “I am glad Crimea came back to Russia. But I do not want the same situation in Estonia.”
She adds: “I doubt it will; the Russians here are very patient.”
But Galina, an older woman who has lived in Estonia for almost 50 years, takes a different view. She says: “Many retired people think the situation in Crimea can happen here, and many retired people want it to happen, not just here but Latvia and Lithuania too.”
Russia has sought to play the discrimination card, comparing Estonia’s treatment of the Russian language to Ukraine’s at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last month. Few in Narva believe that is justified. But Katri Raik, director of Narva College, notes local tensions over the fact that 60 per cent of teaching in secondary schools must be in Estonian.
Narva has historically been a battleground between large forces, being the site of fighting between Sweden and Peter the Great of Russia in 1700 as well as Germany and the Soviet Union during the second world war. But locals are keen to downplay any chance of an invasion.
“I am not in a position to comment on the intentions of Mr Putin,” says Eduard East, Narva’s mayor. “But [an invasion] is very unlikely. Estonia is a sovereign country. There is no possible international law under which this could be imagined.”
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