Analysis: Estonia — from Baltic pawn to global powerhouse

Estonia is the 132nd-largest country on the planet, but it’s the world’s most technologically advanced nation. It’s also America’s most critical ally in Eastern Europe and the U.S. state of Maryland’s “State Partner.” The nations share a rich, cultural connection. From long-standing historical links to modern strategic military and geopolitical bonds, the two countries’ futures are intertwined. WTOP national security correspondent J.J. Green traveled there to explore the significance of the connections and Estonia’s growing presence on the world stage. In this short series of articles, he reveals the people, ideas and relationships contributing to the ascendancy of Estonia.

TALLINN, Estonia — The pilot of the Air Baltic flight carrying 145 passengers and a crew of six announced: “Passengers, we’re now beginning our descent into Tallinn. Cabin crew, prepare the cabin for landing.”

Bathed by strong, bright midday sunshine, the Airbus A222-300, with lime-green tipped wings that were pointed up at a 135-degree angle, began its slow descent through a thick deck of dark clouds.

Dropping below the clouds, passengers craned their necks to peer out of windows streaked with raindrops. A turbulent, quick spring rainstorm had just passed, leaving the lush green countryside dripping and the runway glistening.

The ominous black clouds were breaking up, and large blotches of light gray and white clouds were visible. The rapidly moving air mass and the speed of the plane revealed patches of deep blue sky and rays of golden sunshine beaming down to the ground — promising a beautiful day. A few minutes later, dark clouds rolled in again.

That 30-minute scene on a day in late May captured the essence of the last 100 years of Estonian history. A free, prospering country rocked by the dark trauma of World War II survived, only to be occupied by next-door neighbor Russia. After the Cold War allegedly ended, it began another period of optimism, only to be brought to its knees by a vicious Russian-government-sponsored cyberattack.

But Estonia, ever the resilient country, emerged triumphant from yet another gloomy chapter to once again plot a course toward freedom and prosperity. This time, it’s seeking not to keep up with the world, but to become a global leader. The first order of business has been putting Estonia’s security first.

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After rising from the crippling cyberattack in 2007 — the first-ever case of a nation-state being attacked by another using cyberweapons — the nation has embarked on an ambitious program to make sure it never happens again.

In doing so, it’s emerged as the world’s most technologically advanced country. Estonia’s citizenry are responsible for inventing such modern conveniences as the communications application Skype, secure online voting, and the two-factor-authenticated national ID card.

It’s a country that’s learned from centuries of hard knocks that the only way to defeat an adversary is to outthink them.

They’ve done it.

While Russia’s leadership — through fearmongering, aggressive cyber information operations and hybrid warfare — has tried to reincarnate the regional dominance that characterized the old USSR, its economy continues to tank and its population continues to age. And as Russia’s image dulls, companies, other countries and even its own citizens are leaving.

Estonia, on the other hand, has learned from the past, and instead of trying to prosecute it again, has built a bright future out of its misfortune. Now, more than 100 delegations from around the world come here each year to learn how to best deploy a resilient cybersecurity strategy in their own countries. Nation-states large and small all want a piece of Estonia’s mind, for their own peace of mind.

Next …

Estonia: Leveraging the past; U.S. alliance to chart future course

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J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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