Briefs

Kremlin "humor" seeks to divide Estonia

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On 30 April and 7 May, former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and Aleksey Pushkov, the former head of the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, mocked Estonia on Twitter. Pushkov ridiculed Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid’s statement on Estonia’s military exercise, codenamed Hedgehog.  Both Rogozin and Pushkov made fun of Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser’s comment on Europe’s need for strong and unified position on Russia. Humor can be used to unify and it can be used as a weapon to create divisions. The Kremlin’s jokes are aimed at the latter.

On 28 April, the Sydney Morning Herald published an interview with Mikser on hybrid threats, Russian aggression against Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, the downing of MH17, the Sergei Skripal poisoning, and the Syrian chemical weapons attacks. In the face of these challenges, Mikser says unity is vital: “When you talk to a leader like [Putin], and obviously we need to talk with Russia, then you need to talk from a position of strength and unity and determination. Because any sign of hesitation is interpreted in the Kremlin as weakness to be exploited.”

On April 30, Mikser’s statement was first picked up by Russian media, and then in two twitter posts by Rogozin. In the first, Rogozin compared Russia to a big hound and Estonia to a puppy, with the caption, “The Estonian Mixer is determined to speak with Russia from a position of strength.”

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The tweet by Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin on 30 April. (Source: Twitter)

An hour later, Rogozin posted another tweet, this time mocking Mikser for his name: “Fearless mixer. Now on sale.”

 

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The tweet by Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin on 30 April. (Source: Twitter)

Rogozin’s tweet was followed by one from Pushkov the same day.  In an ironic Twitter post, Pushkov snidely commented that Mikser’s call for the West to talk to Russia from a position of strength should be seen in light of Estonia’s strength and power.

 

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The 30 April tweet by Aleksey Pushkov, former head of the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee. (Source: Twitter)

These three tweets, together with Mikser’s interview, triggered a massive flow of articles and comments in Russian media. According to the Estonian anti-propaganda website Propastop, the number of articles set a record for the past six months. Some of these comments dusted off a familiar and frequently used narrative: that Estonia is an unreliable partner for other NATO members. Bogdan Bezpalko, a member of the Russian President’s Council for Interethnic Relations, commented on Mikser’s statement, saying that Estonia, like all Baltic States, sees the confrontation between the West and Russia as beneficial.

The second round of the Kremlin’s Twitter jokes on Estonia followed on 7 May, when Pushkov made fun of Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid’s statement on Hedgehog, an international military exercise held annually in Estonia.  This year, more than 15,000 troops from 15 countries and the Estonian Defense Forces and Defense League took part in the exercise with NATO and other allies. Describing the exercises, Kaljulaid remarked, “When we are like a Hedgehog, nobody can easily harm us – the attacker will get very hurt and nothing in his mouth.”

Pushkov commented on President Kaljulaid’s statement in a tweet, saying that Estonia does not have to worry: either it is a hedgehog, a grass snake, or a ruffe (a freshwater fish native to the region), so no one would bother to harm it and here no reason to overstate its importance. Russia media took up the theme.

 

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Pushkov’s tweet of 7 May. (Source: Twitter)

Since these two cases are similar, they should be analyzed together. There are three noteworthy aspects of each: choice of topic; the narratives used; and techniques employed. Both cases concern Estonian defense policy, the country’s NATO membership, and the presence of NATO allies in Estonia. NATO is a Kremlin sore point; it sees the Alliance as a threat to Russia and seeks to sow doubt and division among NATO member states. Its method: painting Estonia as an untrustworthy ally that exaggerates both its own importance and the potential Russian threat. At the same time, the Kremlin wants to de-escalate tensions with the West, out of a fear that Russia’s geopolitical isolation could lead to “100 years of solitude,” as Russian presidential advisor Vladislav Surkov described in a recent article, a view presumably shared by some Russian leaders.

In the past few months, the Kremlin has repeatedly referred to the countries along its periphery as “Russophobic neighboring countries” or “Russophobic Baltic states” that oppose Russia’s core interests. Russia seeks to show that the potential for conflict along NATO’s eastern border is merely an Estonian fantasy, beneficial to its government but not quite in line with reality; and further, that Estonia is too small to have a say in the weighty matters confronting NATO and Russia. The Kremlin’s intent is to discredit Estonia in the eyes of its allies.

The techniques in this instance, ridicule and humiliation, are consistent with these goals. Humor can both unite and divide; it can both ease and fuel tension. The Kremlin wields humor to accomplish the latter.