Estonia, War Monuments and Strategic Communications

In 2014, Russia launched a stealth invasion of Ukraine. Resulting in the annexation of Crimea, the 2014 invasion saw the mass utilization of social media by Russian state authorities, the Russian foreign ministry and Russian diplomats. Russia’s digital communications rested on four arguments. First, that the democratically elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from office in an illegal coup. Second, that the coup was led by Ukrainian neo-Nazis. Third, that these neo-Nazis threatened the lives of Russian minorities in Crimea. Finally, that Russia would allow Crimea to join the Russian Federation in order to save the lives of Russian minorities.  Yet Russia stipulated that Crimea could only join Russia following a referendum vote. Whether or not any of these arguments were grounded in reality is immaterial as they were used to legitimize the annexation of Crimea.

Throughout the 2014, Russia argued that Ukraine had joined a host of countries that promote Russia-phobic behavior. These included the Baltic states who, according to Russia, limit the rights of Russian speaking communities by banning Russian television channels; prohibiting the wearing of Red Army medals; prohibit teaching the Russian language and continually desecrate monuments of Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany. To this day, many official Russian tweets highlight the desecration of these monuments.

For Russia, such desecration fits neatly into its narrative of neo-Fascism in Ukraine and in the Baltic states. Afterall, it was the Red Army that defeated fascism in Europe. Thus, contemporary attempts to “cancel” Russian history, or to erase the memory of the Red Army’s heroic stance against fascism, can only be motivated by neo-Nazi sentiments.

As was in 2014, so in 2022, Russia maintains that its militray actions are aimed against neo-Nazis who threaten the lives of Russians and of Russian minorities. In fact, Russia depicts its current war with Ukraine as part of Russia’s historic commitment to opposing Nazism and fascism in Europe. Both Ukraine and the Baltic states have been active on their own digital diplomacy accounts, attempting to rebuff Russia’s arguments. Some have drawn attention to the fact that Russia is looking to depose a Jewish Ukrainian President under the guise of de-Nazification. Others have argued that the Red Army and the Soviet Union were an oppressive force that occupied nations for decades. Monuments to the Soviet Union are thus a painful reminder of a legacy of violent political and social oppression.

Against this backdrop of competing historical narratives, The Prime Minister of Estonia tweeted today that her government has decided to remove Soviet monuments from public spaces across Estonia. “As symbols of repressions and Soviet occupation they have become a source of increasing social tensions – at these times, we must keep the risk to public order at a minimum”. A few hours later another tweet stated that “Soviet monuments with historic value will be removed to the museum, not demolished. We try to preserve as much as possible, so that future generations can learn from those painful lessons”.

The Estonian tweet has already been liked more than 20,000 times and has generated a heated debate online. Some have cautioned that Russia may use the announcement as a pretext to attack Estonia, be it physically or through cyberattacks.  The last time Estonia announced the relocation of a Soviet war memorial, it fell prey to series of Russian cyberattacks on Estonian banks, ministries, broadcasters, newspapers and government services. Others uploaded videos and images of Soviet memorials being torn down in Ukraine. Still others tweeted “better late then never” or shared memes expressing respect for Estonia’s bold decision.  

However, the Estonian decision was also criticized by many Twitter users. Some stated that War Monuments honor the many individuals who gave their life in WW2 and removing these monuments would remove their memory. Others urged the Estonian government to remove everything built by the USSR thus going back “to the state of European backyard”. Some users mocked Estonia saying that if all Soviet construction was removed, there would be nothing left in Estonia while there were also some that responded visually by reminding the Prime Minister what the Red Army achieved, and why it is worth remembering.

The Russian government has yet to officially respond to Estonia’s announcement, although it is worth noting that the profile picture of the Russian Embassy in Tallinn is a Soviet War monument. It is fair to assume that Estonia’s move will be depicted as proof of Russia-phobic behavior, of neo-Nazism and neo-fascism in Eastern Europe and will serve to “demonstrate” why the War in Ukraine is essential. In this sense, Estonia may be granting Russia a strategic communications gold mine through which Russia may try to sway public opinion at home and abroad. Indeed, the move will be cited as evidence of Russia’s assertions dating back to 2014 and will contribute to Russia’s Selfie as the staunch opponent of fascism in Europe. The Estonian move may also be used in Russian tweets celebrating the achievements of the Soviet Union. Like many countries, Russia’s current tweets are soaked with nostalgia.

Even though the Prime Minister’s tweet frames the Estonian government’s decision as a national security issue, and promises to safeguard some monuments in museums, most news headlines have focused on the removal of the monuments. Politico ran the headline “Estonia removes Soviet Union war monuments”, while the Guardian wrote “Estonia removes Soviet-era monument amid Russia tensions”. Only the Associated Press included Estonia’s framing in its headline writing “Estonia Removes Soviet-era Monument, Citing Public Order”.

In its decision, Estonia rans the risk of playing into Russia’s hands. Two important questions follow. First, will Estonia complement its announcement with a communications campaign rebuffing Russian assertions made is the past regarding the status of Soviet monuments and Russia-phobic behavior. Second, will Estonia practice real-time digital diplomacy by rebuking Russian tweets and messages in the coming hours and days.

Failure to do so may result in a Russian digital victory.

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