The Russian Hybrid Warfare: Case of Estonia

The term “Hybrid Warfare” was defined by Hoffman as:
Hybrid threats incorporate a full range of modes of warfare, including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations,terrorist acts that include indiscriminate violence and coercion,and criminal disorder.These multi-modal activities can be conducted by separate units, or even the same unit, but are generally operationally and tactically directed and coordinated within the main battle space to achieve synergistic effects in the physical and psychological dimensions of conflict.

More precisely, hybrid warfare does not exclude the essence of war, conversely, it comprises the core characteristics of war, such as: the goal and the usage of coercive measures. Besides, the hybrid warfare represents some kind of fusion of conventional and unconventional measures of war. In particular, the unconventional measures of war are related to the usage of diverse techniques of war: Propaganda, espionage, agitation, “Fifth Columns”, unmarked soldiers, and “Border Skirmishes”.

Below-presented article aims at defining the mechanisms of hybrid warfare that are used by Russia in Estonia. Thus, the research question on which the publication is relied is the following: What are the strategies of the Russian hybrid warfare in Estonia?

One of the mechanisms of the hybrid warfare utilized by Russia in Estonia is propaganda. The Russian propaganda mechanism is focused on two main dimensions: depiction of Estonia as a country that closely adopts the fascist ideology and usage of the Russians living in Estonia as a leverage tool against Estonia. The main goal of the propaganda strategy is threefold. The first goal is to depict Estonia as a failed democracy by creating and revealing the artificial gaps in democratic system which aims at discrediting generally the Western democracy model. The second goal is to sow the disagreement within the Estonian society and the third goal is to pervert the international image of Estonia. All these goals are unified in one basic goal pertaining to the establishment of the legitimation for further intervention in Estonia or in general, in the Baltic countries.

The usage of the propaganda strategy by Russia in Estonia was well reflected in the case of “Bronze Soldier”. The statue of “Bronze Soldier” glorifies the victory of the Soviet Union in the WWII over the Nazi Germany. It is worth mentioning that the perception of the importance of the “Bronze Soldier” within the Estonian society is highly controversial. The “Bronze Soldier” is a commemoration of those soldiers who fought against Nazi army to liberate Estonia for certain group of society while the statue is a reminiscent of the Soviet aggression for the rest of the Estonians. The issue of the replacement of the “Bronze Soldier”, that was highly rejected by 73% of the Russian-speaking citizens of Estonia, but accepted by 53% of Estonians, became the instigator of the usage of diverse propaganda strategies by Russia. In particular, the fact that Russian-speaking citizens in Estonia are dependent on Russian media outlets in terms of getting information created fertile ground for disseminating Russian propaganda and reaching easily the Russian-speaking citizens. The Russian propaganda was hinged on the assumption that the people who did not acknowledge and respect the role of Red Army in terms of defeating the Nazi Germany in the Europe, it meant that they were sympathizers of the fascist ideology and Nazi Germany in general. Russia used the techniques of propaganda, such as the disseminating the videos about the Estonian police accompanied by the Nazi music, denigration of high-ranking Estonian officials by depecting them as the fascits and creation of images of martyrs among the Russian-speaking citizens who became the victims of the clashes that took place in Tallinn around the “Bronze Soldier”.

The main goals of the Russian propaganda is to represent Estonia as similar to the Nazi Germany, the puppet of the West and oppressor of the Russian-speaking citizens of Estonia. Such narratives aim at causing the friction within the Estonian society and depicting Russia as a protector of the Estonian-Russians. This policy is often called as “compatriot policy” and it is focused mainly on the unification of the Estonian Russians. The “compatriot policy” derives from the assumption of the existence of the “Russian World” that emphasizes the closeness of Russian minorities residing in different places of the post-Soviet space to Russia in terms of identity, culture and civilization and it aims at re-establishing the close relationships between Russia and these minorities. The notion of “Russian World” and “compatriot policy” might serve as a tool in the hands of Russia to use Russian minorities as a leverage against Estonia, for instance,to incite the separatist movement. One of the main tools resorted by Russia to achieve the above-mentioned goals is media which comprises three dimensions: newspapers/maganizes, TV-channels and social media. More precisely, Russia uses the newspapers/magazines printed in Russian language , such as: “Den za Dnyom”,”Molodjozh Estonii”, “Delovye Vedomosti” and “Estonija”.As for the TV-channels, the most popular Russian ones are :”PBK”,”RTR Planeta”, “Orsent TV”, “ TV 3+”, “Muz-TV”. In case of social media, trolls, bots and groups in social media platforms are the major tools for disseminating the Russian propaganda and disinformation.

Another hybrid warfare mechanism that is resorted by Russia is an attack via Cyberspace. In 2007 Estonia became the target of massive cyber attacks for which Russia was blamed. Once again the background of this cyber attack was related to the issue of replacement of the “Bronze Soldier” that caused the eruption of the Russian-speaking citizens’ protest against this decision and finally the protest resulted in emprisonment of some of them. The cyber attack was carried out in three stages: the first stage comprised the cyber attack that took place in April in 2007 against the official web-pages of the governmental bodies, political parties, media outlets and banks, while the second stage comprised the cyber attacks carried out in May against the computer servers that impeded the conduction of operations in online space. It is worth noting that this attack occurred on the same day as Russia celebrated the victory over Nazi Germany on May 9. The third stage of attacks took place after several weeks and mainly targeted the private web-pages to disseminate certain propaganda. It is important to mention that the major aim of these cyber attacks was to discredit the institutions responsible for ensuring the security and depict Estonia as unstable and insecure country as well as to emphasize the advantagous role of Russia as a stabilizer.

Economic leverage is another crucial mechanism in the hands of Russia to influence the policies of Estonia. In particular, Russia mainly resorts to the economic sanctions against Estonia. The issue of “Bronze Soldier” once again became the major reason why Russia imposed the sanctions on Estonia in 2007 in terms of energy and railway transportation as well as of rejection the products made in Estonia. In general, the issue pertaining to the rights of the Russian-speaking citizens in Estonia represents the main legitimizing factor of Russia’s such actions in the Baltic states. Furthermore, Russia’s hybrid warfare in Estonia has military dimension. More precisely, the military leverage in the hands of Russia is related to the emergence of the Russian military forces in the air and maritime spaces of the Baltic Sea region. Estonia underwent such actions in 2014 while the Russian jet transgressed the airspace borders of Estonia. Another military leverage is related to the creation of the military installations near the border of Estonia.The military installations that was set up in Pskov is the best example of Russian military pressure on Estonia. The military exercises close to the Baltic states’ borders that are usually launched by Russia is deemed to be another important dimension of military pressure. For instance, the military exercices “Zapad 2017” that took place in the areas, that are close to Estonia’s border,is the best example of the usage of military leverage. Mostly, the goal of the military exercises is to pervert the image of the NATO as a guarantor of security for the Baltic States and to reduce it credibility among allies.


The Russian hybrid Warfare against Estonia is multi-faceted approach that combines the mechanisms, such as: propaganda,cyber attacks, military and economic pressure. The tools resorted by Russia to make these mechanisms operational and successful are media outlets: magazines/newspapers,social media, TV-channels, cyberspace,military installations, border violations and exercises, economic sanctions, embargos and boycotts. The goal of these mechanisms is to discredit democratic institutions in Estonia, pervert country’s international image, polarize the Estonian socity, strengthen the feeling of insecurity and instability and decrease the credibility of NATO as a scurity guarantor of Estonia.

Elita Khmelidze

The article was published in the framework of Jan Karski Program for Young Georgian Leaders 2021.

The opinions and conclusions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Council, Embassy of the Republic of Poland to Tbilisi or Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.

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