The former US Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott writes in his “The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy” how his boss, the then US President Bill Clinton had promised international support to the Russian President at the time, Boris Yeltsin in order to allow the latter to withstand attacks from the domestic opposition.
Namely, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Yeltsin needed the Baltic States in his fight against Mikhail Gorbachev, Yeltsin had promised to withdraw the Russian troops from the Baltic States. Three years later Yeltsin faced huge criticism from the opposition who according to Talbott was lamenting about the “free fall of Russian influence”.
Support from the US gave Yeltsin an opportunity to withdraw Russian troops from Latvia and Lithuania as well as from Eastern Germany by the agreed deadline, 31 August 1994. As far as Estonia was concerned, the situation still seemed critical, since Yeltsin insisted upon guarantees for the Russian military pensioners. Everything was left open and finally the issue was to be decided between the Estonian President Lennart Meri and Yeltsin in Moscow.
On 26 July 1994 the plane of the Estonian President landed at Vnukovo Airport and a car took Lennart Meri straightaway to the Kremlin. Some Russians had been more than convinced that no agreement would be reached. However, after five hours (which included some vodka drinking among other things) the agreement was signed. In the end, Yeltsin himself was so impatient that he signed the document with hand-made corrections.
Russia agreed to withdraw the remaining 7000 troops and Estonia gave social guarantees to about 9000 Russian military pensioners. The July Agreements, as they came to be called in Estonia, were the cause of a constant headache for President Meri and the Estonian government since they were frequently accused of selling Estonia out and of perpetuating the Soviet occupation.
Symbolically, the agreements meant that finally the Second World War in the Baltic States was over. The Soviet (Russian) troops which had entered the Baltic States in 1939 were finally gone.
However, the implications were even more significant for the future. The Estonian diplomat and Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, Jüri Luik who accompanied President Meri to Moscow in 1994 has said that “it is a fact that if even the smallest number of Russian troops had stayed in Estonia, there would have been no way for Estonia to become a member of the NATO”.
In 1990s, of course, it was very hard to believe that the Baltic States would join the NATO in the foreseeable future. It has to be remembered, though, that the NATO Madrid Summit in 1997 had created an opportunity for the Baltic States to become members of the NATO. The subsequent events showed that the Baltic States received invitations to NATO in 2002 and joined the alliance in 2004.
All that meant that the Baltic States had to prove constantly to the West their readiness for the Atlantic alliance. Russian troops in their soil would have proved a very handy tool for those who opposed the Baltic States’ bid for NATO and who were afraid of provoking Russia. Needless to say, it would have also allowed Russia to have leverage over the West by using the “Baltic card”.
The subsequent events have shown that despite the Russian military pensioners’ social guarantees the absence of Russian troops on her territory drew a clear line between Estonia and these countries where Russian troops have bases. Moldova and Georgia struggled for years with Russian troops’ withdrawal and due to the troops’ presence, Russia succeeded to create separate states within the territories of Moldova and Georgia.
Russia had attempted the same strategy also in North-Eastern Estonia (a region mostly inhabited by ethnic Russians) in 1993, but because of the vigorous actions of the Estonian government and support from the West the attempt to create a pro-Russian region within Estonia failed. A continuous presence of Russian troops would, however, have given Russia many other opportunities to toy with the idea of having a loyal region inside Estonia.
Consequently, the July Agreements of 1994 still hold great significance for Estonian foreign policy. Unlike many other nations in the Second World War Estonia managed to get rid of foreign troops by negotiations. The heavy price, on the other hand, was that unlike many other nations in the Second World War the foreign troops did not leave in 1944 or in 1945, but in 1994.