- - Thursday, February 24, 2022

With Russia having begun an all-out invasion of Ukraine on Wednesday night, the U.S.-led NATO alliance should reflect on the significance of Estonia’s independence day, Feb. 24. After czarist Russia collapsed in the wake of WWI, Estonia fought back a Soviet Red Army invasion. It enjoyed two decades of independence until Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which divided the Baltic States, Poland and Finland into their respective spheres of influence.  

Sealing off Estonia from the outside world behind its totalitarian iron curtain, the Soviet Union forcibly deported tens of thousands of Estonians to Siberia while inflicting massive environmental damage and decimating Estonia’s living standards.

The Soviet Evil Empire never fully extinguished Estonia’s relentless pursuit of freedom, liberty and democracy. For decades, Estonian “Forest Brothers” fought an insurgency against the Red Army. Estonia won its independence and helped drive the final nails into the Soviet Union’s coffin with peaceful protests and the Singing Revolution.

Russian President Vladimir Putin once called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.   

Freedom-loving Estonians would vociferously disagree.   

American diplomat George Kennan opined, “the jealous and intolerant eye of the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies, and the neighbors of Russia if they do not wish to be one, must reconcile themselves to being the other.” 

That is at least for now unless Russia’s neighbor happens to be a member of NATO. Estonia did not join NATO, a defensive alliance, to attack Russia but rather to guarantee safe space for freedom, liberty and democracy, which represent an existential threat to Mr. Putin’s autocratic regime.  

In the ensuing years after Estonia joined NATO and the European Union in 2004, Russia invaded Georgia; annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine; interfered in elections in Europe and the U.S.; was a co-conspirator with its ally Iran in Syria’s massive human rights violations and use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians; used a banned chemical weapon against oppositionist Alexei Navalny and in the U.K. against Sergei Skripal; and dialed up its military, economic and diplomatic partnership with China.  

A global technology leader with a highly innovative and growing economy, Estonia is on the front lines defending against Russia’s multifarious cyberattacks, ubiquitous espionage operations and repeated airspace violations. But Russia has stopped short of direct military confrontation.

Not so for non-NATO member Ukraine, which is in the Kremlin’s crosshairs because nothing threatens Mr. Putin’s regime more than a neighbor with a sizable Russian-speaking population seeking to build a western-oriented democracy. 

Russia is laying siege to Ukraine with a new round of hybrid warfare, combining air and land-based military operations with cyberattacks on Ukraine’s government ministries and banks.

Mr. Kennan would have recognized unless it becomes Russia’s vassal, Ukraine is its enemy.

In a two-act Kremlin scripted propaganda theater, Mr. Putin delivered a speech to his sycophant National Security Council in which he falsely claimed Ukraine was part of Russia and was run by a “puppet regime” controlled by the U.S. The Kremlin’s justifications for war against Ukraine are eerily similar to the attempted “genocide” Russia accused Georgia of committing against innocent civilians in 2008. Seeking to discredit Georgia’s national sovereignty, the Kremlin portrayed the conflict similarly as a proxy war against the U.S.

Russia had already induced capital flight from Ukraine and destabilized Ukraine politically. Mr. Putin risks spilling massive blood and treasure to destroy Ukraine’s independence as a nation-state. Forget NATO and EU membership. Mr. Putin plans to take over Ukraine and make it Russia’s vassal. 

No matter that Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in return for Russia guaranteeing its independence and territorial integrity in the 1994 Budapest memorandum.

Ukraine has become the geopolitical fault line between Western democracy and Russian authoritarianism. Successive U.S. administrations failed to deliver an effective strategy for preserving what was left of Ukraine’s independence after Russia illegally annexed Crimea and invaded Donbas in 2014. The threat of punitive economic measures has never been enough to induce a change in Putin’s calculus and deter his aggression.  

With Ukraine’s independence at peril, the Biden administration should be held accountable for ensuring the defense of our most vulnerable NATO members, especially the Baltic States, from Russia’s aggression. 

• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.

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