Why Estonia Might Be Next on Putin’s “Wanted” List
Policy + Politics

Why Estonia Might Be Next on Putin’s “Wanted” List

President Obama last week reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to the security of Estonia, one of a handful of small former Soviet states bordering Russia that have joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Two days later, according to the Estonian government, Russian agents crossed the border, and using smoke grenades and radio jamming devices, kidnapped an officer of the country’s Internal Security Service.

The officer, Eston Kohver, appeared later that day in Moscow, where he was charged with spying and carrying an illegal handgun, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation. Russia claims that Kohver was arrested on Russian soil, but Estonian officials claim that not only is this untrue, but that Kohver appears to have walked into a trap set by Russia’s security service, the FSB.

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The alleged kidnapping of Kohver has increased tensions among the independent states in Europe and Asia that were once part of the Soviet Union. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula this summer, and its ongoing support, including troops and weaponry, of rebels in Eastern Ukraine has many concerned that Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to reunite the former Soviet Union by force.

In remarks at the opening of the Estonian Parliament on Monday, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has revealed its true intent.

“The masks have fallen,” he said. “We see how Russia continues to isolate itself from democratic nations.” Addressing the taking of the security officer, he said, “Russian security service FSB kidnapped an Estonian citizen from Estonian soil and took him to a prison in Moscow and even bans the Estonian consul from meeting the Estonian citizen.” 

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Ilves made it clear that he is counting on his country’s relationship with the West – including the United States – to protect Estonia from its much larger neighbor.

“Our past decision - to embrace democracy, a rule of law, the European Union and NATO is now our best defense,” Ilves said.

Estonian officials said Kohver was in a wooded area near the town of Miikse in southeast Estonia, near the Russian border when he was abducted. Officials told Estonian media that Kohver was an organized crime investigator, and was there to meet an alleged informant. 

Arnold Sinisalu, the head of the Estonian Internal Security Service, said that Kohver had armed backup officers nearby, but they were unable to react in time, because the abductors used smoke grenades and radio jamming devices to make communications difficult.

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“One must take into account the fact the thick smoke the explosive device produced, and when the forces reacted Eston Kohver was already taken to Russia,” Sinisalu said

Kohver was quickly taken to Moscow, where he was charged with spying and illegal possession of a firearm. Russian officials displayed his property to the media, including a pistol, a recording device, and 5,000 euros in cash. They said that he was carrying documents “indicative of an intelligence mission.”

Estonian officials retorted that the cash and recording device had been for the informant who Kohver was supposed to be meeting

Even in the event the Estonian government’s version of the story turns out to be true, the idea of Russian agents crossing the border of another former Soviet state is sure to provoke worry in Russia’s other, smaller neighbors. The crisis in Ukraine has been punctuated with stories of “little green men” – the recently adopted term for men in uniforms with no insignia who appeared in key areas of Ukraine as rebels fought with government troops. The assumption among many is that the unidentified soldiers are Russian troops detailed for unofficial duty in Ukraine.

Estonia officials told Western media that in the immediate aftermath of the incident, Estonian and Russian border guards met and surveyed the site, determining that a number of men had crossed the border from Russia, and that blast marks from a smoke or flash-bang grenade were found on the Estonian side. That has not been confirmed by Russia.

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