Estonia’s Arctic Thinking

Estonian flag in Tallinn [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
by Marc Lanteigne

In November of last year, Mr Urmas Reinsalu, Foreign Minister of Estonia (Eesti), announced his government would seek to join the Arctic Council as a formal observer, early next year, when the next ministerial meeting of the organisation takes place in Reykjavík. Currently Estonia is the only country to have officially announced its intention to seek that status at the upcoming Council ministerial, and the next few months will see Estonia put together its proposal to become the fourteenth state with official observer status, (Switzerland was the most recent state to obtain that status, in 2017).

As codified in the 2013 Arctic Council Observer Manual, observer states and other actors are expected to observe the work of the organisation, while also engaging with the Council’s six active Working Groups. Observers may also propose specific projects via the eight Member States or the Permanent Participants within the Council.

Estonia’s application appears at a time when the Council, as well as the Arctic region itself, is facing greater political headwinds due to the opening of the region to increased economic activity as a result of climate change, cracks in the diplomatic mosaic of the region due to both downgraded relations between Russia and the West, and a progressively hard-line stance on Arctic security by the current government in Washington.

As well, the Arctic is slowly but steadily becoming an international concern to many governments well outside the circumpolar north. Therefore, the question of how best to define an Arctic stakeholder in light of these changes remains a challenging one. Over the past decade, potential new observers in the Council have had to not only elucidate their specific Arctic interests, but frequently have also needed to develop their own Arctic ‘brand’ to distinguish their specific contributions to regional policymaking, especially in the scientific branches. Switzerland, for example, stressed the concept of the ‘vertical Arctic’ to highlight its history of research in the Alps, including glaciology and related fields.

Parliament of Estonia, Toompea Castle, Tallinn [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
In his announcement, Mr Reinsalu suggested that Estonia’s Arctic interests fell under three distinct categories, namely economics, science and security. All three areas can be connected in some way to Estonia’s geography, as the country is a small state, (population 1.3 million), located close to the Nordic-Arctic region and facing many of the same challenges as the Nordic states in regards to the opening up of the Arctic. These include environmental changes and increased Russian military activity within its own territory and in the waters off Northern Europe.

There is also much shared history between Estonia and the Nordic region, including enduring cultural and linguistic ties with Finland, and diplomatic goodwill with Iceland, given Reykjavík was the first government to formally recognise Estonian independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991. In a visit this month by Icelandic Foreign Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, Estonia’s Arctic ties were discussed [in Icelandic] along with greater regional economic and security issues, including cyber-security. By contrast, relations between the Estonian government of Prime Minister Jüri Ratas and the Vladimir Putin regime in Russia remain sensitive at best.

A plaque at the Estonian Foreign Ministry which commemorates Iceland’s recognition of an independent Estonia in 1991 [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Economically, Estonia has moved towards high-technology and internet industries and applications, and there is great enthusiasm for further development of green technologies in coordination with the European Union, (which Estonia joined in 2004). Estonian trade is dominated by two Arctic states, Finland and Sweden, in addition to fellow Baltic countries Latvia and Lithuania.

Estonia is also linked with Arctic Europe via multilateral arrangements including the Nordic-Baltic Eight (NB8), which brings together the three Baltic governments with their counterparts in Finland and Scandinavia. This coalition oversees a number of fields related to economic cooperation, including energy, infrastructure, transportation and cyberspace. Many of these areas of cooperation were discussed within the NB8’s ‘Wise Men’ (Birkavs-Gade) Report [pdf], published in 2010, which outlined the need for improved sub-regional cooperation after the start of the global recession two years earlier, and described the possibilities for cooperation in renewable energy, in addition to defence and cyber-security. During 2020, Estonia will act as the coordinating government for the NB8’s activities.

Plans have also been put forward to physically link Estonia with Finland in the form of an undersea tunnel project though the Gulf of Finland, connecting the capital cities of Helsinki and Tallinn, which lie approximately eighty-five kilometres from each other. The concept had been debated for many years, but moved closer to actual implementation after the competition of a feasibility study between 2016-18 on the ‘Helsinki-Tallinn fixed link’, (also known as the Talsinki Tunnel).

The report concluded [pdf] that the project, with an estimated cost of approximately €16 billion (US$17.3 billion), would reduce transit time between the two cities to approximately thirty minutes, (most transit between the two cities is currently via ferry), greatly improve economic contacts, and would be the longest such undersea tunnel in the world. There is also the possibility of the tunnel connecting to the Rail Baltica initiative, a proposed railway connecting all three Baltic countries with other parts of Europe, and the projected arctic rail link between Rovaniemi and Kirkenes.

The tunnel project, at least initially, appeared to receive another boost in July last year after an announcement was made that a Finnish firm overseen by local entrepreneur Peter Vesterbacka, FinEst Bay Area Development, had signed a memorandum of understanding with Chinese firms to potentially fast-track the project. Said companies were the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), the China Railway International Group, and the China Railway Engineering Company, as well as the China-backed, UK-based TouchStone Capital Group. This new partnership, which had reportedly secured €15 billion (US$16.2 billion) in initial funding, announced it would be in a position to spearhead the building of the tunnel, possibly finishing construction as early as 2024, (The government feasibility report had suggested a completion date of 2040).

The completed underwater link could also form a part of the emerging ‘Polar Silk Road’ (PSR), which is emerging as the northern tier of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. As a December 2019 paper [pdf] from the Tallinn-based International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS) explained, the Talsinki Tunnel could be one component of a multi-stage project linking China with Northern Europe via various transportation initiatives, which might also promote expanded cross-regional economic cooperation. Nonetheless, the paper also concluded there were risks involved in the Chinese bid, including irreconcilable debts, increased political influence by Beijing, and the potential ‘dual use’ (civilian/military) aspects of PSR projects.

The Chinese funding option for the tunnel has also received recent criticism, including questions about its economic viability as well as potential security risks. The latter concern was outlined by the annual report [pdf] on Estonian security published this month by the country’s Foreign Intelligence Service (Välisluureamet). Although Russia, understandably, was the subject of most of the report’s findings regarding current and latent security threats, the paper also detailed the organisation’s trepidation about China, spotlighting recent Sino-Russian military cooperation, but also the uncertainty accompanying potential investment in the tunnel construction by firms closely linked with the Chinese government. The Chinese Embassy in Tallinn subsequently denigrated the report for its perceived inaccuracies, and for reflecting a ‘cold war mindset’.

Compass mosaic at the foot of the Estonian Parliament, Tallinn [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
From a scientific viewpoint, Estonia’s involvement in the Arctic well predates the Soviet era. Even before the founding of the Soviet Union, the historical Estonian region had produced venerable Arctic explorers, including Ferdinand von Wrangel and Karl Ernst von Baer. The Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic was frequently represented within numerous USSR research initiatives, such as ice-core drilling [pdf] for historical research at both poles.

Since independence, Estonia has been seeking to develop its own set of priorities for Arctic studies as part of the establishment of an independent foreign policy. Current scientific research priorities for the country as they relate to the Arctic include atmospheric, biological, climatic and glaciological (such as ice core) analyses, as well as local marine issues and climate change concerns. The social sciences have also been involved, including comparative social-anthropology research on Russian indigenous communities. Estonia has been seeking to develop its Arctic scientific policies via bilateral partnerships, such as with the Norwegian Polar Institute on Svalbard-based projects, as well as multilaterally via the European Union and the Arctic International Science Committee (AISC).

The security dimension of Estonia’s Arctic interests have, first and foremost, originated from questions regarding the regional strategic policies of the country’s large neighbour to the east. Russia has formed the core of the Estonian government’s concerns about the growing politicisation and militarisation of the Arctic, as well as the strategic relations between Moscow and the three Baltic states. In an August 2019 speech, Minister Reinsalu called for closer scrutiny of Russian and Chinese activities in the Arctic Ocean as well as the inclusion of the European Union as a formal observer in the Arctic Council. Recent EU attempts to achieve that status have been de facto blocked by Russia as the diplomatic fallout from the 2014 Ukraine crisis increased.

Old City, Tallinn [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
When Estonia first publicly debated an application for Council observership in 2014, then-Foreign Minister Urmas Paet noted the growing role of politics in the Arctic, and in a follow-up commentary with the ICDS in 2017, he added that the EU needed to pay closer attention to the security dimensions of the Arctic, and that greater regional militarisation should be avoided.

Although Estonia has a long history in the far north, the country is in the process of a modern reworking of its policies in the region, including an expansion of its far northern interests as well as further cooperation with the Arctic’s most prominent institutions. Moreover, as the country approaches its thirtieth anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union, Estonia has also been seeking to better define and distinguish its foreign policy identity, with the Arctic becoming a more prominent aspect of that process.