In a demonstrative snub to NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin has named an aviation regiment of the Russian Air Force “Tallinn” after the capital of neighbouring NATO and EU- member Estonia.
The decree signed says the naming of the 23rd Fighter Aviation Regiment was decided in order “to preserve glorious military traditions.” The aviation wing is based in the Khabarovsk region in Russia’s Far East, near its border with China.
Putin’s decree has sparked both anger and concern in Estonia, a NATO member that has often had strained relations with Russia since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Soviet Air Force bombarded retreating German forces across Estonia in 1944. In March of the same year, Soviet pilots razed the city of Narva, similar to the bombing of the Chechen capital Grozny in 1995 and 2001.
The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were occupied by the Soviet Union and did not gain independence until 1991. Each has a minority Russian-speaking population and widespread fears of a military intervention similar to what the world witnessed in Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014 have fuelled Estonians’ fear that Putin is playing a similar operation to “protect Russians”.
There are strong symbolic ties between Estonia and Russia’s restive North Caucasus region Chechnya, which has also struggled to break away from Moscow’s rule for centuries.
Chechnya’ first President Dzhokhar Dudayev spent time in Estonia as a general in the Soviet Air Force and commander of a strategic air command based in Tartu. Dudayev is regarded as a criminal and traitor in Russia but is seen as a national hero in Estonia for refusing to execute Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s orders to put down pro-independence demonstrations. Grateful Estonians erected a plaque in his honour at the entrance of what had been his headquarters in Tartu.
Dudayev’s refusal to use violence to break up nationalist demonstrations in Estonia is regarded as of the first acts that later perpetrated the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Putin has called the fall of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”.