With TV screen by river, Russia subtly threatens NATO

While occupants of the Kremlin have long argued their focus remains defensive, for Russia’s neighbours the consequence has often felt more like subjugation

Peter AppsPeter Apps
Published : 14 May 2023, 04:29 AM
Updated : 14 May 2023, 04:29 AM

In an era of high-tech information warfare, Russia’s posturing into NATO territory was basic: a giant TV screen beneath the walls of the Ivangorod Fortress on the Russian side of the Narva river, blasting footage of a concert towards a predominantly Russian-speaking town on the Estonian side.

Estonia’s response was blunt and similarly unsophisticated: a giant poster describing Russian President Vladimir Putin as a war criminal, lashed to the side of the smaller Hermann Castle that faces back across the rocky gorge.

According to Estonian authorities, only a few hundred people in the town of Narva gathered to watch Tuesday's concert across the river, monitored by Estonian police. Ever since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, analysts and pundits have talked of the risk of something similar happening there – much to the irritation but also mounting unease of residents.

That unease should perhaps be more widely shared. Should Russian forces ever cross the river to seize the town, it would trigger NATO's Article 5 self-defence clause, committing all the other 30 NATO nations, including the United States, to come and fight in Estonia’s defence.

Compared to Putin’s bombastic rhetoric at Tuesday’s Victory Day parade in Moscow, or the profanity-laden social media postings of mercenary Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Narva concert might seem tame. But it represents a subtle and perhaps serious escalation.

The immediate consequences were limited but real. According to Estonian media reports, Russian border guards demanded the removal of the war criminal poster, which Estonian officials predictably refused as it remained within their territory.

Video posted on social media showed an Estonian waving the Ukrainian flag towards the border being briefly attacked by an apparently Russian-speaking counterpart, who was swiftly arrested by police.

Since Estonia joined NATO in 2004, the Kremlin has largely held back from direct action or engagement over Narva. That may now be changing and, if it is, it could impact the entire alliance.

At the very least, it is likely to intensify calls from Estonia and its fellow Baltic states for NATO to double down on its military planning to protect them ahead of its Vilnius summit in July.

Shortly before NATO’s Madrid summit last June, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, whose grandmother was among tens of thousands of Baltic citizens deported to Siberia in the late 1940s, bluntly warned that NATO plans to defend the Baltic states were inadequate. The NATO battle groups in each country – only comprising several thousand troops between them – would have been overrun by an invasion force of the size used against Ukraine, she said.

In Madrid, NATO pledged a huge uplift in its troops prepared for battle – including increasing its high-readiness forces to more than 300,000, with the alliance also accelerating work to build more credible defence plans. NATO officials now talk in terms of making its "Enhanced Forward Presence" battle groups in Eastern Europe ready to "fight tonight", a tacit acknowledgement that this had not previously been the case.


In February 2015, US and British armoured vehicles paraded 300 yards from the Russian border in Narva, a deliberate show of force in response to Russian actions in Ukraine. By and large, however, NATO forces have avoided such visible presence in the town. When this columnist visited in 2017, there was no sign of them at all, but residents were often reluctant to talk politics.

Around 80% of Narva’s almost 60,000 population are Russian speaking, making it the largest predominantly ethnic Russian settlement in the Baltic states – or anywhere in NATO territory. Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February last year, Estonian media reported panic buying in the town, and since then tensions there have reportedly been quietly on the increase.

Since 2014, Estonia has implemented a multitrack approach to safeguarding its borders – furious lobbying of NATO nations for more troops and defences, building its own defences, working to better integrate its Russian-speaking population and areas and limiting Kremlin influence. All of those have intensified sharply since February 2022, with the removal of a former Soviet tank and war memorial from central Narva, sparking protests last summer.

The reasons are steeped in history. When the Soviet Union seized control of the Baltic states in 1945, it replaced most of the pre-existing Narva population with Russian speakers from elsewhere. It was the latest upheaval after centuries of posturing and conflict.

The first castle on the Estonian side was built by 13th century Danes, descendants of Viking settlers who are the ancestors of many modern Estonians. It was then sold to the Teutonic Knights, Germanic Catholic Crusaders determined to overrun the city states that would become modern Russia. A 1242 battle on a frozen lake south of Narva was immortalised in film by Soviet propagandist Sergei Eisenstein shortly before World War II, still a central myth of Russian nationalism.

While occupants of the Kremlin, including Putin, have long argued their focus remains defensive, for Russia’s neighbours the consequence has often felt more like subjugation.


When Ivan the Great built the gigantic Ivangorod Fortress across the river from Narva in 1492, it was part of a much broader strategy to assert nationhood. Ivan was the first ruler of Muscovy to call himself “tsar of all the Russias”. As Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English explorers sailed out to build their global empires, the Kremlin would expand its power south to Ukraine and Central Asia – and periodically to the east to the Baltic states, Poland and beyond.

The legacies of that ambition remain clear in Putin’s rhetoric over the Ukraine invasion – and also his decision to invite the leaders of former Soviet satellite states Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgystan to Tuesday's Victory Day parade in Moscow.

None of those leaders looked happy to be there – several Central Asian nations, particularly Kazakhstan, have looked to distance themselves from the Kremlin since the invasion of Ukraine. For many in Baltic states and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, events in Ukraine have redoubled their commitment to never again face Russian occupation.

Many in Eastern Europe, and particularly Ukraine itself, describe the current war as a once-in-a-lifetime decision-point to break Russia’s colonial ambitions and control. In Ukraine, the Kremlin clearly expected many Russian speakers to back invading troops, but this often did not happen, the heavily Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv fighting particularly ferociously.

Few in Narva have publicly expressed a desire to be ruled by the Kremlin either, with the Russian side of the border notably poorer than the Estonian side.

The Kallas government’s proposals to move all education in previously Russian-speaking schools into the Estonian language, however, remains controversial. Some pro-Kremlin politicians have gained ground, including one – Aivo Peterson – who has made campaign videos from near the frontline in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine.

Speaking following election results in March, Narva's Estonian-speaking outgoing mayor, Katri Raik, warned that the politics in the region resembled that of eastern Ukraine before conflict erupted in 2014. With their TV screen across the river, those in Russia are signalling they might wish to exacerbate that further, with all the risks that brings.

* Peter Apps is a Reuters columnist writing on defence and security issues.