The Corner

National Security & Defense

Estonian Intelligence Officer Kidnapped by Russia Now Sentenced to 15 Years in Prison for ‘Espionage’

Eston Kohver, the Estonian intelligence officer dragged into Russia a day or so after Barack Obama’s visit to the Estonian capital, Tallinn, and then jailed in Moscow, has now been sentenced to 15 years for, in a Kafkaesque touch, illegally crossing the Russian border, as well as for espionage and various other charges.

The Washington Post:

Russian security officials claim that Eston Kohver, a decorated officer in Estonia’s security police, slipped into Russia last September with thousands of euros, covert audio equipment, and a pistol to carry out “an undercover operation.”

Officials in Estonia, a member of NATO, said that Russian security operatives kidnapped Kohver in a cross-border raid using stun grenades and jamming equipment and dragged him back to Russian territory, where he was arrested.

Up North:

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said on August 19 that Kohver’s “abduction and subsequent illegal detention in Russia constitute a clear violation of international law.” She also said Kohver had been deprived of the right to a fair trial because it was held behind closed doors, the Estonian consul was not allowed to be present, and “Kohver was deprived of adequate legal aid.”

…Tallinn says Russian agents seized Kohver at gunpoint on Estonian territory and that footprints and other markings on the ground proved he was ambushed and forcibly dragged across the border in a well-planned kidnapping operation that included the use of stun grenades.

A bilingual protocol apparently signed by both Russian and Estonian border officials who inspected the scene hours after the incident appeared to corroborate that view. It said the footprints indicated a group of individuals entered Estonia from Russia and then returned there, and it noted impact craters from stun grenades.

Kohver was reportedly trying to meet on September 5 with a Russian informant as part of an investigation into ties between Federal Security Service (FSB) agents, Russian criminal organizations, and smuggling operations across Russia’s border into Estonia.

Estonian’s internal security service, the Kaitsepolitsei (KaPo), is responsible for counterintelligence duties, as well as countering terrorism, protecting state secrets, and preventing the trafficking of weapons and radioactive material.

I blogged at the time about the incident here and here.

It could be that the original kidnapping was the result of Kohver discovering too much about cross-border smuggling in that (lightly-populated) area, an activity that—shall we say—supplements the salaries of Russian officials. 

But, even if that, rather than payback for Obama’s visit, was the reason for the abduction, once Kohver was in Russian hands the opportunity his kidnapping gave Moscow to remind Estonia of its powerlessness (despite that country’s membership of NATO and Obama’s fine words in Tallinn) must have been too much to resist.

The Kohver case only underlines the need for NATO to deploy the permanent military presence (a brigade, ideally) in the Baltic region requested by Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. To show weakness in the face of Russian bullying is to ask for something even worse next time. I touched on this topic in the course of a recent article for Prospect. That’s pay-walled, but this Chatham House piece (which is focused more on Latvia) also sets out some of the key issues.

Here’s an extract:

The perception of the threat faced by the Baltic states is twofold: military aggression or the external threat; and what is now termed ‘hybrid warfare’ embracing subversion, hostile propaganda, military intimidation, economic pressures and cyber-attacks, which is the internal threat. Attention within NATO has so far concentrated much more on the former but both should be considered together – as the crisis in eastern Ukraine has emphasized.Russia has an enormous conventional as well as nuclear military superiority. Its Western Military District alone consists of: 65,000 ground forces, compared with 10,450 for the three Baltic States; 850 artillery, compared with 158; 750 tanks, compared with three; and 320 combat aircraft compared with none, apart from NATO aircraft policing Baltic skies. One should add that Russia has over the past five years given priority to modernizing its military capacity, including military deployment in the St Petersburg region within six hours, and accordingly increasing military expenditure by 26 per cent in 2013 alone. At the same time NATO’s defence spending has been falling. There is a stark contrast between the combined Baltic defence budget of €1.2 billion for 2014 and Russia’s €60 billion

During 2014 there was a substantial increase in the activity of Russian military units near Latvia’s borders with more than 250 incidents – a fivefold increase over 2013 – involving Russian military aircraft and warships, the former operating with their automatic transponders turned off and refusing to respond to civilian air traffic controllers. This pattern has persisted throughout this year. At the same time, Russia has conducted military training exercises in recent years east of the Baltic States simulating an invasion. These exercises included a sea-and-air blockade of the Baltic region with the aim of forestalling a NATO response; the alliance has now begun preparations in the area for the new rapid reaction force. Thus, there is military escalation in the Baltic region much influenced by the ongoing Ukraine crisis.

The Baltic states are a vulnerable target for hybrid warfare given their geographical proximity to Russia, network legacies from the days of Soviet rule and the existence of strong Russian minorities in two of the countries….

As for Mr. Kohver, the best guess is that he will eventually be exchanged for Russian spies held in Estonia, but, for now, his continued detention is a challenge as well as a disgrace, and—for him and his family—it is a nightmare. 


The Latest