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European nations bordering Russia worry they could be targeted after Ukraine

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many European countries have watched Russia's invasion of Ukraine and asked where Russian troops might go next. They fear invasion, even though many are members of the U.S.-led NATO alliance. NPR's Philip Reeves recently went to the former Soviet republic of Estonia.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: These days, this is where West meets East. A cold wind is racing across the fields from the nearby Baltic Sea. The Russian border is just a short ride down the road.

UKU: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: That's Uku (ph). He's a weather-beaten man of 67. He doesn't want to give his full name for fear of reprisals. Uku's spending this afternoon pottering around his run-down homestead. He inherited this place from his grandfather and lives here alone. His is the kind of story you often hear in Estonia.

UKU: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: He says, when the Soviets occupied this country during the Second World War, they seized this land. Uku's father was sent to a prison in Siberia.

God forbid this happens, but if the Russian military was to come here tomorrow, what would you personally do?

UKU: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: I'd stay here, he says, and he adds, I'd fight. A Estonian flag flies defiantly from a pole in his yard. This talk of war may seem far-fetched. Estonia has been independent since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. It's in NATO and protected by its all-for-one clause, Article 5. Finland, a short trip across the sea from here, recently joined NATO. So did Sweden, giving the Alliance control over the Baltic Sea. Yet Estonia is tiny, just twice the size of New Jersey. It has a long history of being invaded, especially by Russians.

TOOMAS HENDRIK ILVES: Our attitudes toward Russia are based on empirical experience.

REEVES: Toomas Hendrik Ilves is a former president of Estonia.

ILVES: Mass deportations, rapes, killings, tortures - you can go and see places where the Russians had torture chambers for Estonians. So, I mean, we've been there. We know what it's like.

REEVES: Vladimir Putin launched his all-out invasion of Ukraine just over two years ago. It began on the 24 of February. That happens to be Estonia's Independence Day.

LINDA LUTZ: And we were kind of waking up to start celebrating. You know, it's a big day for our Estonians when we got our independence back.

REEVES: Linda Lutz (ph) is 22. She's with a friend, Hanistiya Tonyes (ph), in a cafe in Estonia's capital Tallinn.

LUTZ: And I was just about to go out with my parents to see our Estonian flag to be kind of risen up.

HANISTIYA TONYES: Yeah. We have this tradition every single day...

LUTZ: Yeah.

TONYES: ...With the sunrise, they raise our flag.

LUTZ: Yes.

TONYES: It's a big procedure.

LUTZ: And suddenly, you know, we kind of all froze because, you know, there's the news that, oh, Russia attacked Ukraine. It truly felt like kind of a personal attack on also Estonians, because it was kind of like a warning, like, we can get to you if we want to.

REEVES: Lutz is in the process of joining Estonia's volunteer military force, the Defense League.

LUTZ: You know, I want to be part of it. I'm willing to fight for my country. It's my homeland. It's where I live. It's where I want to grow kids.

REEVES: Putin has said the idea that Russia would invade a NATO country is nonsense. Some Western analysts tend to believe him. Estonia's prime minister, Kaja Kallas, is urging the world not to. In 1949, her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were among more than 20,000 Estonians, loaded into cattle trucks by the Soviets and deported to Siberia. This evil lives on in Russia, Kallas said in a recent speech about that atrocity. The question is how many of her allies are listening. Former President Ilves has his doubts.

ILVES: I think a number of countries in Europe are just hoping all of this goes away so they can go back to getting cheap energy and making a lot of money with Russia.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Our adversary is massive and...

REEVES: Politicians, diplomats, and pundits gather in Tallinn for a roundtable discussion billed as a celebration of NATO's 75th anniversary. No one's in party mood. There's frustration about the lack of consensus in Europe and the U.S. over their ultimate goal in Ukraine. Is it to prevent Russia achieving outright victory, laying the ground for negotiations, or outright victory for Ukraine? General Riho Terras is a former commander of Estonia's armed forces and a member of the European Parliament.

RIHO TERRAS: It is clear that we have to define what is the end state we need to achieve. And then, from my opinion, is that Russia has to lose the war in Ukraine.

REEVES: By lose, Terras means...

TERRAS: Out of territory of Ukraine, full stop.

REEVES: B Many Estonians fear that if that doesn't happen, Putin could seek to test NATO and Article 5 by entering the Baltics despite the risk of triggering nuclear war. Estonians are making their feelings clear outside the Russian embassy in Tallinn.

There's a long railing absolutely covered with pictures, posters, condemning what Russia's doing in Ukraine, condemning the death of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who died in prison. There are piles and piles of flowers. There are candles. There are notices calling for Russia to be held accountable.

Even here, there are shades of gray. About a quarter of Estonia's population are ethnic Russians, many of whom moved here in Soviet times. They speak Russian and tend to live separately.

SERGEI METLEV: When war broke out, this segregation because of the language that we have inside Estonia - it became basically a problem.

REEVES: Sergei Metlev is editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Postimees.

METLEV: Where we have one-third of local Russians who are pro-Putin, one-third who are neutral, and one-third who decided to choose kind of, you know, this Western Estonian narrative - people basically were forced in a way to make decisions.

REEVES: Yet most of this country would fight, says Metlev.

METLEV: We survived one Soviet occupation with huge losses for our country. Every fifth Estonian disappeared in Soviet gulag prison camps or fled Estonia, and there is no alternative reality for us besides fighting if there is a need to fight.

REEVES: As he potters around his yard in the biting wind, Uku is hoping that won't happen. Along this eastern frontier, there'll soon be hundreds of bunkers, which Estonia is building just in case. Here, history and the present are entwined.

UKU: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: Putin wants to rebuild the old Russian Empire says Uku. And if he's not stopped in Ukraine, we'll all have a problem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.