The new «cross and grab» reality

Nils Niitra
, reporter
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Photo: Ekraanitõmmis

Kidnapping of security police officer Eston Kohver meant to damage Estonians’ feeling of security.

Media and social networks alike are abuzz with theories, the bulk of which focussing on what the security police officer was doing anyway, Friday morning in some far and forsaken place. Like: Mr Kohver was on the trail of top Russian security officials involved in smuggling and had to «taken out of the way».

Or: Eston was there to exchange some intelligence information with an agent meeting him on the other side, and the latter turned out to be double agent. All that Security Police director-general Arnold Sinisalu said, on Friday, was this had been «accumulating information regarding cross-border corruption in the broadest sense [of the word]». The question arises: how were the FSB able to foresee Mr Kohver happening to be just there and just then?

According to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), this was a case of a spy captured on their side – the man was allegedly stripped from a Taurus pistol, €5,000, secret recording devices and special equipment used in intelligence. As assured by Estonia’s Security Service – the Kapo – Mr Kohver was kidnapped from Estonian territory and with no special equipment on him.  

Planned ahead

In one thing, by now, both Estonians and Russians agree – Mr Kohver’s kidnapping was a special operation thoroughly planned and organised, such as are prepared for weeks at least, if not for months.

By Saturday already, Mr Kohver was in Moscow, under the care of local «specialists». No doubt, the specialists will do their best to obtain and process the valuable information in the Estonian’s head.  

Should the Russian side remain true to the claim that they captured an Estonian spy on Russian territory, Mr Kohver is faced with the gloomy prospect of a couple of dozen years in a Russian prison. At that, makes no difference if Russia is again lying or perhaps not – all that matters id unshakable evidence.

And even with such evidence – as currently obvious in Eastern Ukraine – Russia may just keep brazenly lying, in their own «sacred» interests.

«This is a Russian provocation,» Edward Lucas of The Economist and author of «Deception: Lies, Spies and How Russia Dupes the West» told Postimees yesterday.

As assessed by Mr Lucas, the incident is purely the Putin bunch’ handwriting and was orchestrated from Moscow. An aim of such provocations is cultivating a fear in Estonians for their security, a knowledge that they are no longer protected within their own borders.

Through the woods

As a response to Russia’s behaviour, Mr Lucas advised the Baltic and Scandinavian countries to take a more coordinated and systematic approach to uncovering Russian intelligence in our nations.

According to Mr Lucas, he prefers to believe the Estonian version of what happened – as history has proven the Estonians tell the truth and Russia tells lies. «Russia is known for its lies and disinformation,» added Mr Lucas.

The place the border was violated is near Miikse Village, where the Estonian side is quite bare and the Russian side is covered by woods and thickets. The nearest inhabited farmhouses are over a kilometre away. From the Estonian side, the site is accessible by car; a glance at Google Earth satellite images tells us the nearest Russian roads are far away – thus, the FSB operative group walked quite a distance, through the woods.

Near the scene, at about 9 am last Friday, there were some security police officers who detected interference of radio coverage and saw the incident but had no time to react. Reacting was also complicated by the cloud caused by a smoke germane. Had the Estonian borderline been equipped with digital monitoring devices which shoot pictures of any movement, these may not have worked.

Such devices are widely used by Border Guard – according to a border guard talking to Postimees yesterday, it is not possible nor practical to cover the entirety of border line with digital monitoring devices, so these are just constantly rotated from one place to another.

By Friday night, the border violation site had at least two monitoring devices (to catch curious journalists?), but to the knowledge of Postimees these indeed weren’t there while the incident took place in the morning – as also confirmed by interior minister Hanno Pevkur.

Also, «considering» such devices would probably be no big problem for Russian special services.  

Last hope

Thus, Estonia may run into difficulty to present, at least to Russia, unshakable proof that the officer was indeed kidnapped from the Estonian side. Sure, the footprints are there – coming from Russia and heading back there again – but that will definitely not be enough.

Yes, Kapo says the spot of the struggle was identified as well. Yes, the Russians used a smoke grenades and, as confirmed yesterday by interior minister Mr Pevkur, the craters of the grenades are there. But he also admitted the craters are also found on the Russian side and there our investigators cannot operate. Now, it appears the strongest and perhaps the last card in our hands is the very protocol of border violation as signed on Friday about 1 pm.

To the knowledge of Postimees, at that moment the Russian Border Guard was not yet aware that their FSB was kidnapping a security police officer. Therefore, both sides jointly established that the border had indeed been violated and, according to Mr Pevkur, this was documented and signed on location by deputy border representatives. «The document needs to be formalised as a protocol between border representatives, and the meeting for that will take place today (on Monday).»

Should Estonian state run out of options and Russia keep denying border violation, the documents will probably be made available to media, as the last resort – until then, they are trying out all options.

Yesterday afternoon, Mr Pevkur confirmed Russia was yet to allow the arrested Mr Kohver to meet the Estonian consul. «Regrettably, we have no explanation nor reason from the Russian foreign ministry. At the moment, our embassy on Moscow is compiling a new address towards the Russian foreign ministry, and the interior ministry keeps communicating via its contacts,» said Mr Pevkur.

Textbook case

Postimees talked to a former special forces man of the Soviet military intelligence GRU who said the kidnapping was a textbook case. «I firmly believe this was a special forces operation, it was purely from the textbooks,» said the source who sought anonymity.

«Before the ambushers, observers are on location – three little green men who just observe what’s going on. After that, they compile the force for action – including the immediate observers, the ambushers, the attackers, and the «cover». I believe an operation like this was performed by 10–15 special forces people. At that, the team is being prepared for the task for a minimum of two weeks.»

According to the source, before carrying out the operation the special forces may have operated also on Estonian territory for a longer period of time.

«Smoke grenades differ; there’s also the mind-blowing grenade with magnesium which comes with quite a flash and a deafening bang,» said the man. «For a while, you’ll be quite blind and deaf. And interfering with radio and mobile coverage is quite easy for contemporary intelligence.»

What he described next was grabbing a so-called tongue i.e. catching somebody to get intelligence data which cannot otherwise be obtained.

«To get a tongue is a difficult, risky and bothersome way of getting intelligence information, and this is only done to obtain an informant who knows a whole lot, to stop the leaking of especially sensitive information, or to prevent enemy action.»

According to the source, even in the end-of-Soviet-era power structures it was considered inhuman to physically beat prisoners to get the information out.

«But there are other means of processing. They used hypnosis, medicines and torture with acoustics and water – such methods will leave no traces of physical torture.»

Again, Postimees would underline these were the Soviet time methods. It is now known if and to which degree these are used by the current FSB.