Luodanni “Denni” Chen graduated from USC in May 2015 with a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations. While at USC, she was a correspondent for “Glimpse from The Globe,” a student-run online outlet for international affairs. Now Denni works for General Mills in its Walmart Business Center as a Business Management Associate.
“When the Soviet army entered Tallinn, the Germans had already left. It was the Estonian flag they lowered, not the Nazi swastika. The Soviets would kill eight times more
Estonians than the Germans. This was conquest not liberation.”
Tiit Madison, Estonian nationalist
“The virtual medium has become an inseparable part of real life in real space. So those
[cyber] attacks … were aiming at the credibility of the Estonian government.”
Jaak Aaviksoo, Estonia Minister of Defense
In April 2007, the worst riots since Estonia declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 broke out in the middle of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, where a Second World War monument was located. The riots between the ethnic Russians and the police lasted two nights, killed one, and injured more than 153 people. The war monument, known as the Bronze Soldier, became the center of public controversy after Estonia’s 1991 independence, since the statue was built to honor the Red Army soldiers who died fighting Nazi Germany during WWII. To the ethnic Russians in Estonia, the Bronze Soldier symbolized liberation and the defeat of Nazism. But to the Estonian majority, the statue reminded them of half a century of brutal Soviet occupation.
Efforts have been made in the Estonian parliament since 2006 to relocate the Bronze Soldier to a military cemetery on the outskirts of Tallinn. The parliament passed legislation granting the relocation in early April of 2007, claiming that the current location of the statue and the nearby graves, being next to a busy intersection, was not a proper resting place for those buried there. This move not only offended the Russian-speaking minorities, but also Russia. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, labeled the move as Estonian government’s “blasphemous attitude towards the memory of those who struggled against fascism,” and warned that Moscow would “take serious steps” against Estonia. “We must react without hysteria but also take serious steps which would demonstrate our true attitude to this inhuman action.”
On April 26th, 2007, as the authorities began preparation for the statue’s relocation by fencing off the area, protestors refused to leave the site and left the police with no choice but to extract the protestors forcibly. Conflicts began to brew when the protestors spread the rumors that the removal procedure had begun, and within a few hours over a thousand Russian-speaking people gathered around the police line. Things turned ugly very quickly when the protestors threw petrol bombs and looted nearby shops. Tear gas and rubber bullets were used to stop them. The situation continued to deteriorate later into the night.
Jaak Aaviksoo, Minister of Defense, was summoned along with other top government officials to an emergency meeting of the government by Prime Minister Andrus Ansip at 11pm on April 26. Although the government originally planned to relocate the statue and nearby graves sometime in July or August after excavations and discussions, the Prime Minister urged that it needed to happen that very night, “a situation has emerged where [storefronts in] central Tallinn had been shattered to pieces, we had a large-scale conflict like we had seen only on television so far. It was a shock not only for members of the government, but also for residents of the whole country. Politically, it would have been an unacceptable situation if the only thing left intact in Tallinn by the morning would be the Bronze Soldier.” When Aaviksoo gave the Prime Minister his full support to dismantle the statue immediately, he had no idea their hasty decision would precipitate the most destructive cyber attack Estonia has ever seen.
Estonia – Before and After
When the Red Army marched back onto Estonian soil to reclaim it from the Nazis in 1944, many Estonians left their country to escape communism. The drainage of Estonian elites was further exacerbated by a decree “on the expulsion and deportation” from Baltic States of “all kulaks and their families, the families of bandits and nationalists, and others,” issued by the Soviet Council of Ministers in 1949.8 In 2005, the Estonian State Commission on
Examination of the Policies of Repression published a white paper titled “Losses Inflicted on the Estonian Nation by Occupation Regimes 1940 – 1991.” The white paper estimates that Estonia lost 17.5% of its population following WWII, “in addition to which the ethnic minorities of Estonia (except Russians) were almost totally destroyed.” The severe human losses followed by the elimination of social classes and relevant institutions contributed to the loss of national identity. The other two Baltic States suffered in similar ways. In searching for a new identity, the Baltic States responded differently to communism. In Estonia and Latvia, the elite were mostly either Russians or Estonians/Latvians who had lived in Russia for generations. Compare
to Lithuania, where the society actually took initiative to accept communist ideology, “Estonians maintained their individualism in which they hid themselves. And locked themselves into small groups – families, friends, etc. But the society as a whole – the nation – did not go so far as to build a wall against communist ideology,” Estonian Minister of Defense Jaak Aaviksoo recounted in an interview.
Fast forward to the USSR’s decline, as it gradually lost its grip on the client states, the Estonians quickly grabbed the opportunity and kick started its quest for independence, succeeding in 1991. One year later, Estonia reapplied the Citizenship Law of 1938, based on blood relationship. This law restricted automatic citizenship to thousands of ethnic Russians and left them stateless. Today, this population with undetermined citizenship is about 6.5% of the whole population. Freedom House, a U.S. based NGO, gives rating to countries based on their democracy, human rights, and political freedom. Even today, the almost perfect Estonia’s political rights category (39/40), consisting of three elements, is still marked down for political pluralism and participation (15/16). “Only citizens may participate in national elections; as a result, ethnic Russian residents of Estonia whose citizenship remains undetermined cannot vote in national polls. Resident noncitizens are permitted to vote in local elections, but may not run as candidates.” Today, ethnic Russians represent ¼ of Estonia’s population. In Tallinn, that number almost doubles – above 40%, thus representing a powerful force in city politics. Scholars speculate that Prime Minister Andrus Ansip’s push to remove the
Bronze Soldier from the local to the national government was motivated by the fact that most
protestors, ethnic Russians, can only vote in city elections but not national ones, thus crippling the opposition.
On the other hand, the Estonians were also experiencing a moment of loss after breaking free from the Soviet Union. Alexander Astrov, an associate professor of international relations and European studies at the Central European University, recalled the period when the liberated Estonians started to identify with Europe and were looking toward EU and NATO membership. “The identity of the state was in flux,” and thus the symbols of Soviet occupation – war monuments – became natural targets for expression of a new national identity.
While Estonia was reluctant in pursuing EU membership right away, by the end of the millennium, the EU project gained more momentum. “We made ourselves – our government officials, our parliament, and people – understand that what we’re doing for European integration is not for Europe but that we’re doing this for ourselves. Those laws, those institutions, they’re not necessary so much for European integration, but they are necessary for us,” the two-term
Prime Minister Mart Laar said in an interview. Laar won the election in 1992 when he was only 32 years old. Along with his youthful government, with an average age of 35, Laar exposed Estonia to a series of unprecedented radical reforms guided by a liberal economic outlook—for example, flat 26% income tax, zero trade restrictions, balanced budget required by law, and massive deregulation, etc.21 In discussions about his policy priorities for the second term in 2000, Laar stressed the importance for Estonia to become a part of the EU, “during my first time in office, we turned Estonia from the East to the West. Now, we must make this turn irreversible. And thisis possible by joining and integrating Estonia into European and Trans-Atlantic structures, which is without a doubt a priority for Estonia.”
Meanwhile, the Estonian statesmen also searched for a niche for a small state of only 1.3 million people. “We wanted to have market economy, but the problem was everything else was fifty years old, including our foreign exchange. The question we faced was how are we going to get over this. The solution a number of us came upon was that we needed to focus on digital solutions.” Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1996 to 2002 and President of Estonia since 2006, addressed an audience at the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) in 2012. “We need to really computerize, in every possible way, to massively increase our functional size.” Estonia has the most technologically advanced government in Europe, and even in the world. As of 2013, 77% of the population from age 16 to 74 are Internet users, all of Estonia’s school systems are online, 95% of tax declarations filed electronically. They also have a very advanced online health system, and started to implement e-voting in several local and national elections. After meeting with Ilves in Tallinn, President Obama jokingly remarked during the press conference, “I should have called the Estonians when we were setting up our healthcare website.” “We are a country that is highly dependent upon the use of computers. And ultimately, the rationale for it is that we cannot only leapfrog backwardness, but the other thing is our fundamental neurosis with our smallness – what can we do in the world and how can we survive in the world?” recalls Ilves during his IIEA speech.
The Minister of Defense
Jaak Aaviksoo was born into a middle-class family in Tartu, Estonia on January 11, 1954, fourteen years after the Soviet annexation of Estonia. Being raised by parents who had memories of a different society, the young Aaviksoo came to know “what was told to us indoors was not meant to be heard outside our home.” At age seven, he was taught Russian as a “second mother tongue,” and began learning English at eight. Learning English exposed him to the world beyond the Soviet Union, along with books and periodicals from the pre-war period. Aaviksoo marked this period the beginning of his “dual existence.” Throughout his youth and later college years, Aaviksoo was able to travel within the Soviet Commonwealth and beyond, first Finland, and later New Orleans, Paris, Germany, and Japan.
Aaviksoo went on to study Physics at the University of Tartu, because he deemed Physics to be an ideology-free discipline where “national identity plays no role whatsoever.” Nonetheless, he was deeply influenced by the history and traditions of his university. Although the University of Tartu was founded by the Russians and deeply influenced by German ideologies, it still managed to define and maintain an Estonian identity by using Estonian as the lingua franca, even through fifty years of communism. The university became the birthplace of Estonia’s national identity after 1989. During his years at Tartu University, Aaviksoo was able to read books mostly written by Western and Estonian thinkers. As a result, for Aaviksoo, “the western Soviet border was always an artificial one, never a cultural border. Now with a new Europe emerging, I feel as European as I ever have before.”31
After climbing up the ranks of academia, where Aaviksoo first became a professor and later a dean at his alma mater, he entered politics and took the position of Minister of Culture and Education. He returned to Tartu University as the rector (president) in 1998 for eight years and went back again into politics. After losing the 2007 parliamentary election for party leadership and the candidacy for Prime Minister of Estonia, Aaviksoo was elected to Riigikogu, the unicameral parliament of Estonia. His party, Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica, lost the election as well, but was invited by the leader of the Reform Party, Andrus Ansip, to form a coalition government. Although Aaviksoo was tapped for positions like the Speaker of Riigikogu and Minister of Economics, he took the post of Minister of Defense instead. Aaviksoo along with the new government assumed office on April 5, 2007, and delved right into the controversy and ethnic tension over the Bronze Soldier.
The Attack Begins
In the early morning of April 27, hours after the emergency government meeting took place, things went south. Not only was Tallinn city center being trashed, so were the cyber spaces of Estonia being violated. The attacks had affected a range of government websites, including those of the parliament, governmental institutions, banks and news agencies. “Looking back on it, it was kind of a crazy period,” President Ilves remarked during his IIEA speech. For hours, those websites were overwhelmed with traffic resulting in a systematic denial of service. Estonian officials pointed out that on Russian-language Internet forums, instructions on how to disable government websites were posted. “It was like an Internet riot,” said Hillar Arelaid, 34 a
lead specialist on Estonia’s Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT). President Ilves, when talking about this incident in 2012, also drew references to the military tactics deployed by the Russians during the Georgian war of 2008. The Russians would launch cyber attacks against a certain area an hour or so before they deploy the actual missile and bomb the area. “When you think of Colin Powell’s new integrated approach of warfare from the first Gulf War, which is combining the air strikes carefully in precision with the tank attacks, then this [Russian’s tactic] is moved one step beyond.” Mikhail Tammet, head of IT security at the Minister of Defense, pointed out Estonia’s vulnerability, “Estonia depends largely on the internet. We have egovernment, government is so-called paperless… all the bank services are on the Internet. We even elect our parliament via the internet.” Aaviksoo suggested a deeper ramification, “the virtual medium has become an inseparable part of real life in real space. So those attacks … were aiming at the credibility of the Estonian government.”
Although the Estonian government quickly identified that the attacks were hired and took action to stop the attacks by blocking traffic from Russia, the attacks became more sophisticated with zombie computers (botnets) that could be remotely commanded to participate in an attack. “When botnets were turned loose on Estonia, roughly one million unwitting computers worldwide were employed,” said Aavkisoo.41 On May 9, Russia’s Victory Day for winning WWII, a new wave of attack was launched, “It was a Big Bang. Everyone from 10-year-old boys to very experienced professionals was attacking. It was like a forest fire. It kept spreading,” described Arelaid, CERT specialist. As a result, Estonia’s banking system was crippled. Online services for all customers of Estonia’s largest bank were shut down for 1.5 hours. Hansabank’s online service remained close to all customers outside the Baltic States and Scandinavia. Linnar Viik, a government IT consultant, pointed out the unfamiliar nature of the latest attacks, “This is something that will be very deeply analyzed, because it’s a new level of risk. In the 21st century, the understanding of a state is no longer only its territory and its airspace, but it’s also its electronic infrastructure. This is not some virtual world. This is part of our independence. And these attacks were an attempt to take one country back to the cave, back to the Stone Age.”
The Russians Weigh In
During an interview, Aaviksoo recounted his experiences traveling in the Soviet Commonwealth, “living in Russia proper for more than a year, I experienced a state where private space was compressed, and being alone was almost unheard of. The wish to be alone was considered impolite, or even threatening.” Indeed, Russia could not leave Estonia alone. “The Baltic states fail to understand what ‘protection of minorities’ is. They have been neglecting their own minorities for 20 years, actually mistreating them.” Valdimir Chizhov, Russian Ambassador to the EU said during an interview, “When the Soviet Union was collapsing, the three Baltic republics organized referenda, which led them to proclaiming independence. And everybody voted, including the ethnic Russians. And the majority voted for independence, but the next day they were told: okay, we don’t need you anymore; you can pack and go. Even today, the seats allocated to those countries [the Baltics] in the European Parliament are counted on the basis of the overall population, though the Russian-speaking minorities are deprived of their voting
rights.” Russia feels a strong obligation to protect the rights of the Russian-speaking minorities in its former client states, “when we speak of ‘protection of Russian speakers,’ we mean by political, diplomatic and moral means, by promoting Russian language, Russian culture, by drawing the attention of the European Union to fix where there are deficiencies of their rights,”
Immediately following Estonia government’s decision to relocate the Bronze Soldier, the Russian Foreign Ministry spoke out, “Yet again, we can qualify the actions of official Tallinn as sacrilegious and inhuman.” Russia then sent a State Duma delegation to Estonia on a “factfinding mission,” and declared beforehand that the Ansip government should step down.
Although the Russians have denied any involvements related to the cyber attacks on Estonia, Sergei Markov, who was leading the State Duma delegation, revealed on a radio show two years later, “About the cyber attack on Estonia… don’t worry, that attack was carried out by my assistant. I won’t tell you his name, because then he might not be able to get visas.” Another group has also claimed responsibility for the attacks. Konstantin Goloskokov, a “commissar” for the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi admitted that he and his colleagues had launched the attacks, saying, “we taught the Estonian regime the lesson that if they act illegally, we will respond in an adequate way.” However, experts were doubtful that such organized attacks could be the work of a single individual or even a group of hackers. Gadi Evron wrote the post-mortem analysis of the attack and recommendations for the Estonian CERT, “What I can say is that the Estonian attacks, while simple in nature, were immense in scale. The mob that mobilized was beyond any one group’s control.”
Estonia’s foreign minister, Urmas Paet, refused to meet with the State Duma delegation during its visit to Estonia, “I will not meet with a delegation that spreads only lies regarding events in Estonia and whose objective is not the accurate portrayal of the situation, but rather election campaigning. I believe that it is out of line to…make demands for the resignation of the Estonian government…” Interestingly, there were also voices coming from within Estonia that called for the cabinet resignation, the Center party, which was left out of the coalition government discussion after the election, being the most vocal one.
Violence also followed at the Estonian Embassy in Moscow, where the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi attempted to “physically assault Estonian ambassadors.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also said, “the incident amounted to a violation of diplomatic conventions.” In a statement released on May 1, Paet said, “The EU is under attack, because Russia is attacking Estonia.” He urged the EU to “seriously consider” calling off the upcoming EU-Russia Summit on May 18, “EU-Russia relations have entered a very complicated situation.” The EU stepped in, sort of – Commission spokesperson Christiane Hohmann said, “we share the concerns about the increasing violence around the Estonian embassy in Moscow and we strongly urge the
Russian authorities to implement their obligations under the Vienna Convention for diplomatic relations.” However, “strongly urge” did not promise actual political actions, and the EU-Russia Summit was not cancelled or postponed.
With the elephant in the room, the EU-Russia Summit did not go very far. It failed to initiate talks on an EU-Russia partnership agreement, which would improve trade relations between the two powers. During the summit, Russian president Vladimir Putin accused Estonia of “unacceptable violations against the rights of Russian speakers.” On the other hand, the Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso stressed the unity of the bloc by stating, “we had an occasion to say to our Russian partners that a difficulty for a member state is a difficulty for the whole European community.” While the relationship between Estonia and Russia seemed to be in a deadlock, former Russian prime minister Yegor Gaidar, now head of the Institute of Economics in Transition, spoke out during an interview, “with the collapse of a territorially-integrated empire, the easiest policy has always been to play on radical nationalism, both in the metropolis and in those states that were forcibly integrated into that empire. Now Estonian political crooks are playing into the hands of Russian political crooks by playing on nationalist feelings. This could result in a deterioration of my country’s relations with the EU and there’s nothing favorable about that. I urge the EU to send a strong signal to Estonia not to play such games. And we Russians should not be provoked.” Nonetheless, the Russians remained unwavering, even after the Estonian Prime Minister tried to rationally approach the issue, stating, “even though we have not recognized goodwill on Russia’s part, we hope Russia will find the political will to improve relations.”
The West Responds
NATO offered its help immediately after the attack, “In the 21st century it’s not just about tanks and artillery. We have sent one of our experts at the request of the Estonia authorities to help them in their defense,” James Appathurai, NATO spokesman announced. On June 14, the defense ministers of NATO member states met in Brussels and pledged to the Joint Communique proposed by Aaviksoo, which promised “immediate action,” but did not entail the creation of a full-scale cyber defense policy. The most significant item in Aaviksoo’s proposal was the call for establishing a NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence (CCD COE), which would become the first Center of Excellence (COE) dedicated to research and training on cyber security among NATO’s 18 COEs. One week later, Estonian President traveled to the U.S. and met with President Bush. Although Bush was more focused on Iraq and careful about antagonizing Russia, he still mentioned the cyber attacks Estonia had suffered during the press conference by saying, “We also talked about an interesting subject, and one that I can learn a lot about, and that is the cyber attack that makes us all vulnerable. Estonia recently went through a wave of cyber attack. And this President [Ilves], one, understands the issue well; two, has got some ideas, including a NATO center of excellence in Estonia to deal with this issue. And I really want to thank you for your leadership, and thank you for your clear understanding of the dangers that that imposes not only on your country, but mine and others, as well.”
Since the cyber attacks, Aaviksoo has made the issue a priority during his time as the Minister of Defense. However, in trying to bring Estonia’s neighbors and allies together to formulate concerted approaches, he has run into many obstacles. Russia has refused to cooperate; “they introduced formal excuses of not having the appropriate legal agreements in place to look into cybercrime.” Aaviksoo continued, “Like there are safe havens for terrorism… there are very many more safe havens in cyberspace than in real space. And even the only international working document – the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime – is so far signed and ratified by 50 countries. So there’s a long, long way to go, for different reasons. Sometimes there are constitutional limitations for ratifying [cybercrime law], some don’t take that seriously. Some may have bad ideas about this Convention altogether.” Although the Convention suggests a common legal framework that was designed for weaving through the jurisdictional hurdles of law enforcement processes against the borderless cyber crimes, national law still takes precedence in many signatory countries, including the United States. The amount of international cooperation is also very worrying. As of October 2014, only six non-Council of
Europe states have signed and ratified the treaty.
Aaviksoo also pointed out that the lack of cooperation could also be a result of low public awareness, “Without public awareness and public concern, politicians tend to underestimate the threats… Unless you are hit by that kind of crime yourself, I think this is so unreal, something from far away in the expanses of cyberspace. Psychologically it’s a much stronger feeling when your purse is stolen from your pocket. That makes these things complicated.” With these obstacles in mind, how should Aaviksoo formulate the most effective strategy to tackle cyber terrorism as a small state with limited international presence, even within the EU and NATO? Or should the Ansip government focus on repairing relationship with Russia, even if it would mean making unfair compromises? How can Estonia continue to be on the forefront of fighting against cyber crimes in spite of the changes in administrations?
From Bronze Soldier to Cyber Crimes – Conflicts between Estonia and Russia Epilogue
The NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence (CCD COE) started operating on May 14, 2008 on the outskirts of Tallinn, Estonia. Ironically, it is situated down the street from the Bronze Soldier at his new resting place at the Cemetery of the Estonian Defense Forces, where only a few elderly members of Tallinn’s Russian community would venture through. Membership at the NATO CCD COE is open to all NATO members, and currently there are fifteen countries involved within the center, including the other two Baltic States, the
U.S., France, Britain, and Germany among others. Austria is the only non-NATO state, and Iceland is also considering membership.
Jaak Aaviksoo moved on from the post of Minister of Defense to the Minister of
Education and Research in 2011. He was succeeded by Mart Laar as the Minister of Defense. Although Laar resigned after a year due to health reason, he oversaw the U.S. and Poland joining the NATO CCD COE. Subsequent Minister of Defense, Urmas Reinsalu, was in office for two years from May 2012 to March 2014, and established the groundwork for a major breakthrough in NATO policy. In June 2014, NATO announced an update to its policy at the Wales Summit and was solidified later in a written declaration, “Cyber attacks can reach a threshold that threatens national and Euro-Atlantic prosperity, security, and stability. Their impact could be as harmful to modern societies as a conventional attack. We affirm therefore that cyber defense is part of NATO’s core task of collective defense. A decision as to when a cyber attack would lead to the invocation of Article 5 would be taken by the North Atlantic Council on a case-by-case basis.” Cyber defense has definitely jumped up quickly on NATO’s agenda if Article 5 can be applied. This also signaled the conviction of the international community against Russian aggression in the region, especially from Obama’s visit to Tallinn one day before the Wales
Summit. The country of only 1.3 million people has definitely come a long way since 2007. While the progress is encouraging, cyber terrorism is still on the rise, coming at us with ever-changing shapes and forms, and unknown potential.
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