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Putin sets his gaze on Estonia: It’s time for a new approach

By Will Cathcart

TBILISI — The abduction of Estonian Security Services officer Eston Kohver on the final day of the NATO summit and two days after President Obama’s visit to Estonia was not a coincidence. The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) had known of Kohver since 2011 when he was specifically named, along with several other Estonian security officials, in an FSB press conference about the threat of Estonian intelligence services. Moscow sent a very clear message to the NATO country — that they could cross its border and take one its own by gunpoint, toss him indefinitely in a former KGB prison and charge him with espionage.

In an interview with the Charleston Mercury, the Estonian Ministry of the Interior stated the following:

“On September 5th, Estonian Internal Security Service (KAPO) officer Eston Kohver was on duty on Estonian territory, near Russian border, gathering information on cross-border corruption and smuggling. He was abducted by the Russian FSB and was taken to Russia at gunpoint, resulting in illegal imprisonment in Moscow. This incident has been documented and signed by representatives of both countries on site where the incident took place. However, Russia has failed to acknowledge the protocol that was signed by Estonian and Russian border representatives. In recent years, the Estonian-Russian border has seen a number of incidents involving the smuggling of goods and migrants. It is clear that Russia has very high rate of corruption, also in government sector.”

In a new low for the Russian justice system, the day before his lawyers were to appeal his pre-trial detention on September 18th, a Moscow court spokesman claimed that Eston Kohver had fired his own legal team, Mark Feigin and Nikolai Polozov, who famously defended members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. Estonia’s Foreign Ministry fired back a statement that Kohver’s “decision” to dismiss the legal team, which Estonia hired for him, was clearly not his own. Considering that Kohver is being held in the notorious Lefortovo prison, it is no surprise that the Estonian agent is under intense psychological pressure.

Lefortovo prison is a living nightmare. As former FSB/KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko put it (before his murder by polonium) in Alan Cowell’s book The Terminal Spy, “Lefortovo crushes you spiritually. There is some negative energy coming from those walls. They say that birds avoid flying over it. Perhaps it’s the legacy of the old days when Lefortovo was a place of mass executions and torture.”

Questions remain over agent Eston Kohver’s exact activities on the border. Kohver was supposedly meeting an FSB source in the preliminary stages of a weapons smuggling operation. One Estonian government official who preferred to remain anonymous told us put it, “Smuggling on Estonian-Russian border is quite active. If we have to deal with untaxed cigarettes today, we could see illegal weapons and explosives trafficking in on the very same route tomorrow. Russia’s special services are entwined with organized crime — as our colleagues from neighboring countries have indicated, Russia even recruits smugglers to carry out its goals.”

According to former Estonian Intelligence Chief Eeirk Kross, “We don’t know much information, at least publically, about the source but it has been described as a setup by our security police.” Smoke grenades and radio jamming equipment were used to sideline Kohver’s backup team. “They had no coms and no visibility because of the tactics used and because he was relatively close to the border it did not take a long time.”

Eerik Kross is vice chairman of the conservative Estonian Parliament Party. He was the country’s intelligence chief from 1995-2000 and later served as National Security Advisor. Discussing parallels between this incident to Crimea and Russia’s New Hybrid Warfare, he said, “The difference between this incident and Crimea is that [the Russians] do not deny that they abducted the officer, they just claim it was on their side. So it is a combination of lies and subversive tactics … I’m not saying that we are having a hybrid war with Russia; I’m saying that an operation like this this can happen again. So we imagine that it can happen again in another context.”

Or to put it differently, Kross concedes that similar hybrid warfare tactics that we’ve seen in Crimea are being employed in this situation in Estonia as well. Yes, we are talking about the abduction of only one man, not the annexation of a territory — but to abduct that one man, Russian forces crossed the border of a NATO country and brought him back to Russia at gunpoint in an organized and deliberate operation, on the final day of the NATO Summit in Wales. Actions like that speak louder than words, even the words of an American president, even two days after they are spoken.

“Kohver was doing his job on Estonian soil and in this particular case the Russians knew about it,” Kross explains. “The Russians knew that he was there and they also knew what he was doing; he was investigating an arms smuggling case … If you talk about some sort of tacit agreement between intelligence services, [Kohver] was not there in the role of an intelligence officer, although that would not change the general situation because he was on Estonian soil.”

The former intelligence chief lays out the big picture as he sees it: “If you read the Russian security articles, concepts and documents and then read the speeches, it becomes evident that Russia has since 2000, at least, followed a clear set of goals in [its] foreign affairs and domestic policy. This in short is to restore Russia’s greatness, restore ‘historical justice’ whatever that is, reestablish spheres of influence around Russia, stop NATO expansion and rearrange the security architecture of Eurasia. Defacto, Russia has pretty much achieved all these other goals. But it hasn’t achieved its goal for NATO. Today, of course, NATO is more vital that it has been for a long time. Theoretically … the conclusion can only be that if Russia thinks that it can get away with it, it will test NATO. It will prove NATO doesn’t work — at least [Russia] would, if it could. So yes, the credible defense of NATO — of all NATO members is very important for the organization … Particularly if Russia tries that kind of ambiguous invasion, false flags or no flags or ‘green men,’ against a NATO country and if NATO doesn’t react, then that would be or could be fatal to NATO.”

To put this kind of shortsightedness on the part of the West in context, Kross gives another example to show that essentially anything is possible: “In 2007 when the Georgians were writing their first papers for NATO to prepare for NATO membership, one of the documents they had to write for NATO was a threat analysis. The Georgians wrote in the threat analysis that threat number one is the military threat from Russia and NATO said, ‘No, no, you can’t do that. That is not true. You have to get real in your threat assessment.’ So the Georgians changed it and the Russians invaded a year later. No one believed that Russia would cross borders militarily. No one believed, even after Georgia, that this could happen in a Western direction. So I think it has been a wakeup call for most, the Ukraine aggression. So if you ask the question ‘could it happen?’ Yes it could. And it depends a lot on NATO countries at this point. The deterrent needs to be believable and real.”

When pressed on promises made in the past by the Obama administration — such as those regarding Syria — which were not kept, Kross says diplomatically, “Let’s say that the record is mixed. There are differences and similarities between the Syria situation and the Ukraine situation for example. But I think that sooner or later we have to admit that if Putin is not stopped, then the cost will be higher.”

As this article goes to print, armored vehicles equipment and troops are arriving in Estonia, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania from the U.S. for joint military exercises, which will last for three months. One can only hope that this will send a message to Putin that he will understand, but as the overused axiom goes, “Hope is not strategy.”

If we’ve learned anything from the actions of Vladimir Putin, it is that he fears the West. He fears a Ukraine that isn’t a buffer zone and he fears NATO. His fear is logical, but it is also shortsighted and extremely dangerous for all parties. This fear is also very telling. Putin’s aggressive actions are an attempt to show strength, though in reality he fears the West — particularly the U.S. — far more than the U.S. fears him. That is because Vladimir Putin, a one-man autocrat helming a power-vertical system attempting to control the largest country on earth, has far more to lose in a direct confrontation with the West.

It’s time we recognized that in dealing with him.

Will Cathcart is a former media advisor to the president of Georgia and former managing editor of the Charleston Mercury. Will currently works in media and business development in the Black Sea region.

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