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Russia’s Involvement in the Tallinn Disturbances

On the evening of April 26, unrest and vandalism broke out in Tallinn. During these events, the city suffered damage, the likes of which has not been seen since the air raid by the Soviet Air Force in 1944. Apparently the last previous occasion that someone was killed in street disturbances in Tallinn was 1918.The unrest was precipitated by the decision of the Government of Estonia to begin excavations at the site of a Soviet monument called the Bronze Soldier, with an eye towards relocating the monument to a military cemetery.

Initially, both the Estonian authorities and our allies treated the events as local looting – an internal affair of Estonia. Agitators from abroad were seen to primarily have had a propagandistic role. Subsequently, Moscow’s involvement has become visible in a piecemeal fashion in a much broader variety of specific ways. Based on available information, a Working Group created by the ICDS has tried to chart where and how Moscow was involved in Tallinn’s “crystal night”. This analysis is based on publicly available information and on discussions with Estonian government officials. The following treatment is quite tentative and cursory. Our aim has simply been to assemble the facts that are known to date. On the one hand, we are hampered by having insufficient information, but on the other hand, there are other areas, such as the disinformation campaign being waged by the Russian media – which, due to an overabundance of source material – cannot be comprehensively analyzed within the purvey of a quickly written review, such as this one. Consequently, we have chosen to only highlight the facts that we feel are the most important, and that are likely to have impacted events as they unfolded.

How the Monument of the „Bronze Soldier“ was Transformed into a Magnet for Conflicts

The bronze statue of a soldier erected at Tõnismäe Green in the center of Tallinn (the Estonian capital) by the Stalinist regime in 1947 is one of the few monuments symbolizing Soviet ideology that remained standing in Estonia after the country reattained its independence in 1991. There are a number of reasons why the monument was previously left where it was. Of these reasons, one is of true significance at the present. Put succintly, the statue didn’t previously have an excessively polarizing effect. Persons who went to place flowers at the base of the statue didn’t behave in a provacative manner, while others who felt that the bronze monument reminded them of the difficulties of the Soviet era were somehow capable of averting their gaze.

The situation was altered on May 9, 2006, when the police had to intervene in a conflict that arose between persons carrying flags of the USSR assaulted persons carrying the flag of the Republic of Estonia.

The conflict caused a polarization of society, and the statue in question became the site of ongoing offensive agitation directed against Estonia. It became evident that something had to be done.

The emotional climate surrounding the Bronze Soldier turned more and more aggressive in synchronicity with societal developments in Russia. Vladimir Putin, who ascended to the Russian Presidency in 2000, began to actively restore a version of history that was very similar to the earlier Soviet version of history, and he also brought back several symbols of the Empire that had disintegrated, such as the Soviet Anthem. Another example of this is the way in which the red flag was made the flag of the Armed Forces. Victory in the Second World War, which the Russians call the Great Fatherland War, became one of the primary message platforms used for the purpose of legitimizing the past, as well as the historical narrative that was in need of being restored to its earlier state.

Moscow responded with increasing irritation to the unwillingness of the Western world to subscribe to this interpretation of history, and in particular to that of her former hostages. This trend was amplified by a deepening overall xenophobia in Russia. The disputes about history that accompanied the 60th anniversary of the World War were one of the culimations of this process. This was one of the first manifestations of attempts by Moscow – for all intents and purposes – to force her interpretation of history upon others. On that particular occasion, Russia’s attempt was destined to fail.

It is difficult to pinpoint whether and to what extent Moscow knowingly contributed to the radicalization of the environment surrounding the statue of the Soviet soldier at Tõnismägi during the past three to four years. One way or another, the changes that took place in the psychological climate of Russia during the period described above could not have left the commmunity of Russians resident in Estonia unaffected, for they live to a substantial degree in the information sphere created by a media that is manipulated by the Russian government.

The Estonian Government and above all the Reform Party have been accused of having made the so-called Bronze Soldier an electoral issue. It is important to try to appreciate that this was not an artifically induced campaign issue: the problem existed and lived a life of its own, independent of the realm of the general elections. Had it been left at its earlier location, the Bronze Soldier would have caused societal tensions every year in May, and possibly in September as well. A Bill presented with a certain amount of trepidation to the Riigikogu (Parliament) by the previous Estonian government, which envisaged the disinterrment of the war dead buried at the foot of the monument, along with the identification of the remains, to be followed by their reinterrment and the relocation of the monument, only became a true campaign issue when the Russian media, manipulated as much of it is by the Russian state, began to heatedly comment on the topic. These echoes were inevitably followed by reactions on the part of the Estonian media – reactions that became a part of the context that shaped the political landscape that led up to the elections.

An additional form of evidence exists regarding of measures taken by the „powers that be” in Moscow that contributed to the escalation of the situation. In 2006, The Embassy of the Russian Federation contributed to the production of a propaganda film named „Estonia – the Crossroads of History”, which presents a distorted version of Estonian history and incites hostility against Estonians and the Republic of Estonia, in an attempt to make Estonians somehow culpable for fascism and the war crimes of National Socialist Germany. Activities of the „Notshnoi Dozor” movement („The Night Patrol”) were also justified by labeling these to be „antifascist” in nature. The Soviet monument at Tõnismägi plays a central role in the production. When the film was released, the Russian Embassy in Estonia stated that the film reflects the perspective of the country of Russia.

Another example of Russia’s desire to radicalize the conflict can be seen in the disfavor experienced in the corridors of power in Russia by Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the State Duma Mr. Konstantin Kosachev, when he dared to suggest at the end of March that the relocation of the Tallinn statue was inevitable, and that it would be useful for Moscow to come to terms with the relocation, and to participate in the ceremonies related to its being moved. (Regnum, March 26, 2006).

Direct Involvement on the Part of the Embassy of the Russian Federation

There are grounds to suspect that the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, has been directly instructing local extremists and organizers of unrest.

According to the Estonian Security Police, during the weeks leading up to the disturbances that took place in Estonia, Senior Counselor of the Embassy of the Russian Federation Sergei Overtshenko met repeatedly at the Tallinn Botanical Gardens with Dmitri Linter, who is the leader of „The Night Patrol” – the grouping that is suspected of having organized the rioting. (Source: Postimees, April 25, 2007)

In a similar manner – Andrei Zarenkov – the leader of the Constitution Party in Estonia, who is one of the most active of the defenders of the Tonismae memorial statue, met on April 18, 2006 with Vadim Vassilyev, the First Secretary of the Russian Embassy. On the same day, Zarenkov announced that the leadership of the Constitution Party had decided to recruit bands of volunteer agitators, whose task was to convince servicemen and women in the Estonian military that intervention by the Armed Forces in the event of a conflict would be impermissible. (Sources: Baltic News Service, April 18, 2007 and Postimees, April 25, 2007).

Actions of Russian Youth Movements

The fact that the youth organizations that maintained a blockade around the area of the Embassy of the Republic of Estonia in Moscow for a period of one week (April 27 – May 1, 2007) are linked to the Kremlin is widely known, with the Nashi movement at the forefront. There are several indications that belie the fact that the encirclement of the Embassy was officially sanctioned, and that the authorities provided support to the picketing youngsters. These are aspects that don’t characterize ordinary spontaneous demonstrations. Participants in the siege had a bus for the preparation of food, over 30 identical tents, modern water dispensers, proper sound equipment, and high-quality placards, which were replaced with new placards every day (Eesti Päevaleht, May 2, 2007). Moscow sanitation workers help to keep the site clean. Leased buses brought protestors from the furthest reaches of Russia’s regions. According to Eesti Päevaleht, people arrived from places as distant as Mordovia. (Eesti Päevaleht, May 5, 2007).

The Russian militia (police), which is tasked with providing security and ensuring normal working conditions for the Embassy, clearly did inadequate work, operating sporadically. On most occasions, protestors were moved aside to permit the official vehicle of the Ambassador to depart and arrive, but not always. On April 27, Ambassador Marina Kaljurand was forced to reenter the Embassy after an abortive attempt to leave. On several occasions, the people laying siege to the Embassy blocked invited guests from entering the Embassy, and the police did nothing. Jaanus Piirsalu – an Eesti Päevaleht reporter – shouldered his way into the Embassy of his own volition on May 29, but Vice-Consul Silver Läänemäe was unable to gain access to the door of the Embassy on the evening of the same day, and was forced to depart (source: conversations with Embassy staff).

The most impermissible events that took place during this week-long saga in Moscow were the attack that took place against Ambassador Marina Kaljurand at a press conference convened at the premises of the Arguments and Facts newspaper on May 2, and the firing of guns at the windows of the Embassy on the night of May 3. The Moscow militia were either incapable of thwarting or unwilling to stave off either of these incidents.

The most apparent indication of the fact that the blockade of the Embassy took place with the approval of the authorities is manifested by the way that it came to an end. The Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation promised in a phone call to his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier that the Government would ensure that the police force would terminate the blockade of the Embassy, but only under one condition, that being the departure from Moscow of the Estonian Ambassador (Financial Times, Germany, May 5, 2007). The departure of the Ambassador was something that the Nashi youth movement had also demanded, and which they subsequently heralded as their victory. After the departure of the Ambassador, the people who had laid siege to the Embassy packed up their field camp and left. The militia removed its barriers at the same time, almost in a synchronized fashion.

Cyberattacks

Beginning on April 27, Estonia fell victim to a series of powerful cyberattacks. The attacks entailed a broad array of techniques, beginning with simple spam posting and ranging to well-coordinated DDoS (Distributed Denial-of-Service) attacks against the IT systems of the Government. A DDoS attack consists of the sending of multitudes of meaningless queries by many computers to a specific server or to a network of computers. As a result, the targeted network or server becomes oversaturated or simply ceases to function.

The cyberattacks were coordinated in the Internet in the Russian language. Many of the attacks originated from computer networks and servers situated in Russia. The Internet was used to distribute detailed instructions on how to act in the Russian language. These instructions covered topics about the nature and execution of attacks (how to attack), as well as information about targets (what to attack) and timing (when to attack). The instructions were disseminated on websites, in forums, and in chat spaces.

In most cases, these were very basic instructions, which don’t require the user to have particular knowledge or skills. This facilitates attacks being carried out at the level of the ordinary citizen. All one requires is access to a computer with an Internet connection.

The first attack took place on April 27 after the first night of rioting and was fairly simple. The portrait of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip on the home page of the Estonian Reform Party was defaced. On the same day, the first denial-of-service attacks were directed against Estonian government organizations. Some of these were successful, but it was possible to restore the normal operation of the websites within a reasonably short time.

The first signs that someone was urging attacks to be carried out against Estonian web pages was discovered on April 28 at the address http://2ch.ru and http://forum.xaker.ru. Discussions were also taking place about how to finance the rental of the server farms and botnets needed to carry out massive attacks.

A botnet (a robot network) consists of a large number of hijacked computers that are used for the purpose carrying out an attack or for distributing junk mail. So-called Trojan Horse applications are often used for the hijacking of computers. These log onto chat lines in the Internet and await instructions from the party who controls the botnet. Botnets are ordinarily owned by criminal gangs, who rent botnets in order to be able to launch attacks, usually against enterprises, for criminal purposes. Simultaneously, the detailed orders to attack, as described earlier, were being disseminated via the Internet. Although the majority of the attacks that resultantly took place were of a rather primitive nature, they were effective for the purposes of creating chaos and confusion. The attacks were also discussed and coordinated in concert in IRC (Internet Relay Chat) environments, which are intended to be used for group discussions. The consequence was a large incremental increase in spontaneous attacks carried out by individuals.

On April 30, a sharp rise took place in respect to the sophistication of attacks and the resources that are needed to carry out such attacks. From this point on, a number of very complex attacks were launched. The attacker or attackers were able to dedicate substantial resources to the attacks against Estonia, which is indicative of the existence of a well organized and financed opponent.

By this time, the Estonian authorities had blocked the majority of Internet traffic arriving in Estonia from IP addresses with the extension .ru, as well as from other foreign IP addresses. Then the brunt of the attack shifted to Domain Name Servers in the DNS system. Domain Name Servers „translate” IP addresses into human-friendly website names that are utilized by the majority of Internet users. As a result, websites become recognizable as addresses (for instance, in the form www.nato.int), instead of appearing as numerical IP-address combinations (an example of which would be 127.0.2.6.4.7). Putting the DNS-system out of commission would cripple all Internet use throughout Estonia. Some of these attacks were able to achieve temporary success.

During the first days of May, telecommunications companies (Elion and Elisa) providing Internet services and Estonian media publications (Postimees) were added to the list of targets.

The attackers covered their tracks by using global bot networks (not all of which are located in Russia), by using proxy servers located in third countries as the channels for their attacks, and by distorting their IP addresses.

Government-controlled Media in Russia

Research shows that residents of Estonia who do not speak or comprehend Estonian do not follow much of the Estonian media (including the Russian-language Estonian media). Since television is the most important source of information for persons of over twenty years of age, and in view of the fact that nearly 3/4 of Russians in Estonia actively watch programs broadcast by Russian state TV channels, which are conspicuous by virtue of their anti-Estonian attitudes, it is safe to say that Russian television channels play a substantial role in shaping the information space of Russians resident in Estonia. (University of Tartu Study – “Me. The World. Media 2005”). Opinions expressed by participants in the unrest and their supporters repeat the false information and propaganda broadcast by the government-controlled media in Russia. The government-controlled TV and Internet media in Russia have been shaping anti-Estonian-Republic and anti-Estonian attitudes for an extended period. Subjective reporting and opinions on the situation in Estonia (unfounded accusations about violations of human rights, „fascist mentality”, etc.) as well as propaganda films have been broadcast. Anti-Estonian attacks intensified particularly during the last few months. During the middle of April, regular calls for the institution of sanctions against Estonia started to appear in the Russian media. Outright demands have also been made for starting a war against Estonia. (For instance, by Dmitri Rogozin, member of the Russian Duma and leader of the patriotic movement Rodina – Postimees, April 21, 2007).

The history and nature of the media war being waged by Moscow against Estonia, as well as more widely against the West, would actually warrant the writing of a more comprehensive research paper. It is, however, possible to highlight some facts that can be interpreted as direct attempts to influence the events that took place in Tallinn.

On 26 April, the Russian TV channel RTR repeatedly broadcast an interview with Dmitri Linter, one of the main organizers of the unrest, in which the latter threatened Estonia with civil war and promised, among other things, that in a few days, the Estonian state will no longer be taking orders from „this government”.

The next day, the same TV channel reported in its live broadcast from Tallinn on a Night Patrol member who phoned from his supposed place of detention, and who described the events there, claiming that one person had been beaten to death and taken away in view of the other detainees. This information, which turned out to be untrue, had – in all likelihood – the effect of being a speech that incited some of the unrest that took place on the following evening.

Tendentious and even totally untrue reflections of the events in Tallinn are evident in respect to everything that took place in Tallinn. Youth gangs that went on a rampage of vandalism are called peaceful demonstrators and footage of looting is avoided on TV. Fabrications about police brutality are presented instead. In respect to the relocated Bronze Soldier, it was asserted that the Estonian authorities had sawed it into bits. Dmitri Ganin, who was killed during the unrest, was portrayed by many Russian media organizations as having died in a clash with the police while protecting the Bronze Soldier. The fact that the stabbing could not have been committed by the police was suppressed, since the police do not have such weapons, as was the fact that the unfortunate incident happened on Tatari Street, about 500 meters away from the Bronze Soldier, and quite some time before police units arrived on Tatari Street. False accounts were also disseminated about the supposed slowness of the arrival of the ambulance.

Economic pressure

Russia has also started applying economic pressure on Estonia, which currently primarily affects transit and transport companies, such as Estonian Railways, the Port of Tallinn, Port of Sillamäe, Port of Paldiski, and companies operating in these ports, such as Coal Terminal, DBT, Alexela, Pakterminal, Eurodek, Stivis, Petromax, and E.O.S.

According to Andrus Kuusmann, Managing Director of the Association of Transit, the loading of transit goods in Russia for movement through Estonia has decreased by 60% since the beginning of May, including a complete cessation of the loading of coal and fertilizer, and there has been an approximately 50% reduction in the loading of petroleum products compared to previous levels (only the Krishi refinery in the East is sending shipments towards Estonia). (Source: Official memorandum from the Association of Estonian Transit to the Government of Estonia, May 7, 2007).

On May 3, Russia’s October Railway notified GoRail, a company providing international passenger transport, that it will terminate the servicing of the Tallinn-St. Petersburg-Tallinn passenger train.

On May 3, the confectionary producer Kalev was notified that all their sales contracts in Russia have been cancelled. The Russian market represented 7-8% of Kalev’s sales volume.

Several companies operating in Estonia (such as Spacecom and Transgroup Invest) have announced that in order to maintain relations with Russia, they will register their companies in third countries.

Near the Ivangorod border checkpoint, Nashi members have tried to stop trucks with Estonian license plates, in order to frighten drivers and interfere in the hauling of goods.

On Friday, the Russian fertilizer producer Akron announced the suspension of its investments in Estonia, justifying this on the basis of the relocation of the Red Army monument from the center of Tallinn (Baltic News Service, May 4, 2007).

Conflicting information is being received regarding meat and dairy products. According to information from the Nõo meat packing plant, Russian retail chains have received a letter from the local veterinary authority prohibiting the sale of Estonian meat (Baltic News Service, May 4, 2007), while the Estonian Veterinary and Food Inspectorate confirms that it has received no official notification regarding the supposed non-conformity of Estonian products to Russian standards, and that products continue to move toward Russia.

Author: International Centre for Defence Studies in Tallinn

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