Sunday

21st Oct 2018

Russia's abduction of Estonian officer 'very disturbing'

  • Tallinn: Russia has declined to comment on the border officials' protocol that its men crossed into Estonia (Photo: Steve Jurvetson)

Russia’s abduction of an Estonian officer poses questions on Nato’s Article V, the Baltic state’s former intelligence chief has said.

The incident, which took place on Friday (5 September), escalated over the weekend.

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Estonia says the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, seized its man, Eston Kohver, at gunpoint at 7am near the Luhamaa checkpoint on the Estonian side of the border while he was investigating arms smugglers.

The FSB says he was on the Russian side.

It took him to Moscow, where, on Sunday, he was shown on Russian TV and charged with espionage in a case which could see him jailed for 20 years.

The Estonian foreign ministry told EUobserver the situation is “very disturbing”.

It noted that Kohver is being refused consular assistance in violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

It added that its foreign ministry and interior ministry "have demanded his return” and that Estonia has opened a criminal investigation into what happened.

The events come in a nervous political climate.

Estonia and Latvia, which host large Russian minorities, fear that Russia could cause instability using the same mixture of provocation and subversion it employed in Ukraine.

The abduction occurred shortly after US president Barack Obama visited Tallinn to pledge Nato solidarity.

It also occurred during a Nato summit in the UK in which the alliance agreed to create a rapid reaction force to deter Russian aggression.

For his part, Eerik Kross, an Estonian politician who used to run the country's intelligence service, said Russia’s claims do not add up.

He noted that Russian border officials signed a joint protocol with Estonian officials confirming that a group of Russians entered and left Estonia at the time of the kidnapping.

“At this stage it should be a bilateral issue. It’s our problem and no one should intervene. It’s our border, our fight, our guy”, he told this website.

He added, however: “It poses a question about Nato. No reasonable person would say that one incident, one [abducted] person should trigger Article V [on collective defence]. But what should trigger it? What if tomorrow they take two, or five, or 10 people? I'm not saying this is in the pipeline. But the question remains.”

“Russia has a long history of kidnapping its enemies in foreign countries. But in the past, as far as I know, these were always ‘its own people’ [e.g. Russian defectors]. There was no single incident of abducting a Nato state’s citizen from Nato territory”.

“This is something new”.

Scoring points

One theory is that Kohver is part of a local vendetta which blew up by accident.

The FSB in a report in 2011 already named him as someone who tries to recruit Russian citizens when they cross the border.

It was also annoyed by an article in June in the US journal, Foreign Affairs, which said Estonia has the best counter-intelligence service in Europe.

The theory goes the FSB seized Kohver to score a point and might have given him back. But the Kremlin decided to cause a scandal when Estonia went public on Friday afternoon.

Karel Kaas, an analyst at the International Centre for Defence Studies, a think tank in Tallinn, described it as “a deliberate show of force”.

“It’s hard to say whether it was ordered by the top level of the FSB or the top level of the Kremlin [Russian leader Vladimir Putin]. But the whole circus in Moscow and the decision to create an international scandal was clearly a political one”.

He said “it wouldn’t hurt” if the EU or Nato published a complaint.

But he added: “I doubt it would have any influence on Russia. Events in Ukraine have shown that it's deaf to the voice of the international community”.

EU sanctions on Russia in limbo

EU countries have adopted a new round of sanctions against Russia, but cannot agree when or whether to implement them.

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