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10 October, 2014

Where Are Estonia’s Friends?

NATO does not know how to deal with small, confusing challenges, so Russia unleashes them. If they go unpunished, they set a precedent

The safest way to attack someone’s credibility is to nibble at it. This is what Russia is doing to NATO with its abduction of an Estonian security official.

The kidnapping exemplifies the way the Kremlin works. Gangsterdom, intelligence, propaganda, a sense of history and diplomacy all overlap. The timing is excellent and so is the targeting: hitting the West in its weakest spot, in the zone between what frontline states find intolerable, and what their allies are ready to notice.

The result is the slow collapse of NATO. The alliance does not know how to deal with small, confusing challenges. So Russia unleashes them. If they do provoke a reaction, the Kremlin has not risked much (Kohver could have been bundled back across the border within hours). But if they go unpunished, they set a precedent. Future breaches makes bigger ones seem more likely. Small countries, who depend on the rules being enforced always and everywhere, become demoralised.

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Eston Kohver is a decorated Estonian crime-buster. Presumably he was on some kind of surveillance mission, or possibly meeting with an informer in a Russian crime gang. Whether he was kidnapped by criminals and then handed over to the FSB, or whether the mobsters were working alongside the notoriously corrupt Russian internal security agency is unclear. Estonian media say the kidnappers used smoke grenades and jammed electronic communications. That doesn’t sound like run-of-the-mill gangsters.

What we do know is that kidnapping is an old Soviet habit. Bohumil Laušman, a notable Czechoslovak Social Democrat, was snatched from Vienna in 1953 and died after being given psychotropic drugs. Abduction of defectors and dissidents (and sometimes of Western soldiers) was endemic in West Berlin at the height of the cold war.

Kohver ended up in a Moscow prison, facing a possible 20-year sentence for spying. Russia has launched a textbook disinformation campaign, saying that he was caught inside Russian territory, and with espionage equipment. The historical echoes are chilling: In 1938 the Soviet Union seized and executed three Estonian border guards, Artur Pungas, Voldemar Käo and Vassili Eva. Two years later, it invaded.

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Russia has left no room to back down. It will be hard to admit now that the evidence was planted, or that Kohver was abducted by criminals. It may try to trade him for a real Russian spy held in Estonia, such as Herman Simm. That would twist the screw neatly.

Estonia has a stellar record of truthfulness even in the notoriously murky world of intelligence. Russia is a habitual liar. Annoyingly, most media are reporting the case as if both sides’ claims were of equal weight.

The abduction comes just after Barack Obama came to Tallinn and sent spirits soaring in a country rattled by the war in Ukraine. NATO would defend Tallinn just as it would Berlin, London or Paris, he said, invoking “a solemn duty to each other”. The alliance’s Article 5 is “crystal clear”:  an attack on one is an attack on all.  

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Russian ambassadors should be summoned in all NATO and European Union capitals, to be told that if Kohver is not released at once, they can pack their bags. Our ambassadors in Moscow will be withdrawn. No Western visas for any official of any state agencies involved in the abduction—including family members. An emergency session of the UN Security Council.

That might show Russia that Obama was not joking when he declared that an “attack on one is an attack on all”.

Kohver is that one. All Estonia feels under attack. But where are Estonia’s friends?

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