Under the Kremlin’s Watchful Eye: can Ukraine follow Estonia’s break from Russia?

ukraine-protests-2

In September 1939, Estonia and the USSR signed a Mutual Assistance Pact based on:

Recognition of the independence of state and non-interference in internal affairs of either party; recognising that the peace treaty of February 2nd 1920 and the treaty of non-aggression and the peaceful settlement of conflicts (dated May 4th, 1932) continue to constitute firm basis of their mutual relations and obligations. (FO 371/23689)

The Pact would not ‘in any way infringe sovereign powers of the [the] contracting parties’.

By June 1940, Soviet troops had invaded Estonia. Using a clause in the Mutual Assistance Pact – which allowed for Soviet aerodromes and naval bases in Estonian territory – as a pretext for a military blockade of the independent state, Stalin easily made one of several successful territorial acquisitions at the beginning of WWII.

Although German forces ousted their Soviet foe from Estonia in 1941, embarking on their own three-year occupation, by the end of the war the Estonia Soviet Socialist Republic (ESSR) had been reestablished. It would remain in place until 1991.

The illegal incorporation of Estonia into the USSR was accompanied by an intensive programme of Russification
The illegal incorporation of Estonia into the USSR was accompanied by an intensive programme of Russification

Estonia had been independent during the inter-war years, boasting a population with Germanic, Nordic and Russian influences. Ukraine, meanwhile, having declared a short-lived People’s Republic in 1917, was by 1921 a state within the Soviet Union.

Having also been occupied by both Soviet and German troops during WWII, Ukraine was in a similarly-weak position to Estonia when it was re-incorporated into the Soviet sphere in 1944.

Ukraine was the scene of fierce fighting during WWII
Ukraine was the scene of fierce fighting during WWII

Whereas Estonia had cultural, linguistic and geographical ties with Baltic Europe and Scandinavia, Ukraine had for several centuries been subjected to strong Russian influence. This influence, as this year’s protests attest to, has been hard to shake off.

The overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych and the establishment of a pro-European interim government in Kiev has led to accusations from the Kremlin of an ‘armed mutiny’ backed by the West. Commentators fear a split between Ukraine’s pro-European and pro-Russian segments of the population that could lead to a fracturing of the state.

In February 1958, Estonian exiles in London celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of their state, which they refused to accept was a legitimate component of the Soviet Union. One point was made particularly clear:

The Republic of Estonia was invaded by the USSR in June 1940…To this day the Estonian people are kept in bondage by the Soviets and prevented from exercising their basic rights as an independent and sovereign nation. (FO 371/134617)

Since regaining independence in 1991, Estonia has turned abruptly away from its troubled Russian past, joining both the EU and NATO and making itself a popular business and tourist location for Westerners.

Ukraine, meanwhile, has retained a degree of the Russian ‘bondage’ that the Estonians bemoaned in 1958.

With an economy heavily dependent on Russian patronage and energy imports, a large demographic minority of ethnic Russians and extensive land borders with Russian territory, it will take more than the ousting of a Kremlin stooge for Ukraine’s sovereign integrity to finally be resurrected.

National Archive Sources

FO 371/23689 – ‘Soviet Relations with Baltic States’ (1939)

FO 371/134617 – ‘Non-Recognition by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia of Annexation to Soviet Union’ (1958)

Other Sources

For more information of Estonia-Soviet Relations see: Davies N, Vanished Kingdoms: the History of Half-Forgotten Europe (2011)

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

1 thought on “Under the Kremlin’s Watchful Eye: can Ukraine follow Estonia’s break from Russia?”

  1. The title of this post is the big question, isn’t it? Linguistically and culturally, the Ukrainians are much more tied to Russia. Estonia, as a non-Slavic country, may have had an easier time of it.

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