Russia Steps Up Pressure on the Baltics

Days after Obama visited Estonia and vowed to defend it, the Russians appear to be testing NATO by snatching an Estonian official and stepping up airspace violations.

An officer from the Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS), “was abducted at gunpoint at Luhamaa border checkpoint this morning” and “taken to Russia,” according to an Estonian government statement.

The incident comes at an extremely delicate moment, just as the United States and NATO try to convince the front-line members of the Alliance that have solid protection from Russian territorial ambitions. The sleight-of-hand invasion of non-NATO Ukraine over the last several months has raised fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin will claim in the Baltic States, just as he claimed in Crimea and the Donbass region, that the large Russian-speaking population needs to be protected, separated and inevitably annexed to a reconstituted Russian Empire.

The Estonian statement implied the alleged abduction is an intentional slap in the face to the Americans. “The incident comes two days after a visit to Estonia by U.S. President Barack Obama and in the middle of NATO’s summit in Wales,” it said. Apparently there have been “airspace violations” reported as well, including over Finland, which is not a member of the Alliance.

The whereabouts of the officer remain unknown, the Estonians did not name him and what he was doing at the border, precisely, has not been specified except to say he was performing his official functions. The ISS is Estonia’s national agency for counterintelligence and high-profile corruption investigations. The Estonian state prosecutor’s office said he was “fulfilling his duties in connection with preventing a cross-border crime from taking place.”

Estonian officials claim Russian forces mounted their operation at 9:00 a.m. Friday, using smoke grenades and intense interference of "operative radio connections" to cover their action and force to drag the officer away. “The area is in Võru County, by Russian border post #121,” said one Estonian government statement. “The border lacks major fortifications; the area is thinly populated.”

Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas issued a statement from the NATO summit in Wales regarding the incident: “Our primary task is to do all [we can] to free the officer. We await all facets of cooperation and legal assistance from Russia.” Rõivas called the kidnapping of a counterintelligence official a serious crime “unacceptable to any Estonian.”

The timing of the alleged abduction has triggered alarm throughout the region. Tensions between Russia and Estonia have been extremely high since Russia launched a cyber attack on Estonia in 2007, paralyzing the country.

On Friday, Russia responded almost six hours after the first reports of the incident, claiming the officer was on an intelligence mission inside Russian territory. “An official named Eston Kohver of the Tartu office of the Estonian Security Police was arrested on the territory of the Russian Federation,” according to a statement by the Russian security service known as the FSB, successor to the KGB. “A Taurus handgun with bullets was discovered on his person as well as 5000 euros in cash, special equipment for covert audio-recording and other materials that have intelligence-related characteristics.”

A criminal investigation has begun and the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has summoned Russian Ambassador Yuri Merzlyakov.