Cyberwar in the Baltic

17 May 2007

Cyberwar in the Baltic

By Gwynne Dyer

Estonia is one of the most wired countries in the world — people even vote on-line — but for the past three weeks the country has been under a massive cyber-attack that has disabled the websites of government ministries, political parties, newspapers, banks and private companies. Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip directly accused Russia of being responsible, and appealed to the NATO alliance do something about it. Things are getting seriously foolish in Eastern Europe.

NATO can’t do anything about it, because the treaty does not currently define cyber-attacks as a military act that would allow the victim to invoke the alliance’s provisions for collective defence. Besides, there is no obvious action NATO could take that would stop these attacks, which are being coordinated by Russian hackers who may or may not have been sent into action by the Russian government. And yet another reason for NATO not to get officially involved is that grown-ups have been conspicuously absent on both sides in this quarrel.

It was provocative for Estonia’s right-wing government to remove the Soviet war memorial from the centre of Tallinn on 27 April and re-erect it at a military cemetery on the outskirts of town. The Russians take their 30 million dead in the Second World War very seriously indeed: the Russian parliament immediately deemed the act “blasphemous and barbarous,” and urged President Vladimir Putin to break diplomatic relations with the small Baltic republic. He didn’t do that, but he may have found another way of making the Estonians pay.

This is all about history, and the passions run high on both sides. The Estonians got their independence from the Russian empire in 1918, but lost it again in 1940 as a result of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, in which Stalin got a free hand to invade and annex Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and eastern Poland and Hitler got the rest of Poland.

The Soviet Communists only murdered about five percent of the Estonian population — “class enemies,” clergymen, Socialists, and other “unreliable” elements — during their occupation, whereas the Nazis eventually slaughtered about twenty percent of Poland’s population. But then the Soviets only had a year and a bit to work with, because Germany invaded the Soviet Union in mid-1941 and liberated Estonia.

At least, it felt like liberation to most Estonians, although for the country’s 5,000 Jews the arrival of the Nazis meant exile or death. When it looked like the Soviet army was winning the war in 1943-44, some Estonians even volunteered for the German army — and most of them were put into SS divisions because that was where most foreigners in the German forces served. But the Soviets did re-conquer Estonia in 1944, and they called that a liberation, too.

For the Estonians, it was the beginning of another 46 years of Soviet occupation, during which tens of thousands of Estonians were sent to the camps and so many Russian immigrants arrived in their little country that it is today almost one-third Russian-speaking. They always saw the huge bronze statue of a Red Army soldier that has now been moved from central Tallin as a symbol of occupation, not liberation. There is a lot of room for bitterness in this history, and plenty of opportunities for really nasty behaviour. Few opportunities have been missed.

Even post-Communist Russians cannot bear to have the Red Army in which most of their fathers or grandfathers served treated as just another invading army, not much better than the German Wehrmacht, but like it or not, that was the experience of many Eastern European countries. Moreover, the half-century of Soviet occupation is a lot more recent than the long-dead Nazi era, so the resentments are a good deal fresher. Now most of these Eastern European countries are in both NATO and the European Union, and they have brought their anti-Russian grudges with them.

This is not going to be solved by sweet reason, but it can be managed and contained if the authorities on both sides don’t exploit it for domestic political purposes.

The Estonian government, which says that at least a million computers worldwide were taken over by Russian hackers in order to launch three waves of cyber-attacks that paralysed Estonian websites, has largely solved the short-term problem by denying access to e-mail from all foreign addresses. Estonian defence minister Jaak Aaviksoo now concedes that “there is not sufficient evidence of a (Russian) governmental role.” It could have been outraged Russian nationalists acting on their own.

It would help if the Russian government could be a little more grown-up about it, too, and stop interfering with transport and trade ties with Estonia. If the Estonians had been more saintly, they would have left the statue where it was and just ignored it, but they didn’t desecrate it or destroy it. They just moved it to a less conspicuous place. It’s time to move on.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 2. (“NATO…quarrel”)