Security expert: freeing Kohver wouldn't solve the real problem

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Photo: Pm

According to New York University professor Mark Galeotti, Estonia need not overly worry for the arrest of security police officer Eston Kohver, who will probably be released soon.

Rather, we should be concerned about the Russian plan to split the West and the allies.

According to the expert of Russian security affairs and transnational crime, Moscow is trying to prove that the words by the US President Barack Obama during his Tallinn visit last week were just... well, words.

An Estonian security police officer arrested at this point in time – was that an accident, or part of a bigger Russian plan?

This is not a coincidence. We might think it was to do with smuggling with corrupt FSB staff involved, as corruption and crime are pretty endemic within the FSB. On the other hand, speaking about my experience with these people, they always have a very clear sense of the limits of their acceptable behaviour.

The Kremlin is ready to give them great latitude... to steal and so forth, but they know that whenever they become politically inconvenient, Kremlin will come down on them very hard.

But: a full-blown raid with smoke grenades and [radio communication] interference, to seize a foreign security police officer? That’s not the kind of thing any of such corrupt officials would ever contemplate doing on their own.

Therefore, this [order] had to have come from Moscow, from the very top.

The incident happened while Estonia was paid more attention due to Mr Obama’s visit. That wasn't a coincidence either?

I guess not. This is part of a wider campaign that Russia is waging against the West. Russia’s current tactics are very much about undermining the morale and the unity of the West.

For Russia, Estonia is a point of focus for various reasons, ranging from the Russian minority... to Estonia’s commitment to Western values. They want to demonstrate that Mr Obama and NATO may come with their big statements... By its actions here, Russia wants to say these are just words – don’t you think these words actually mean anything, as we can still do all kinds of things.

But, one may argue that for years FSB has tried to get Mr Kohver. That it’s just an accident that they now succeeded, at long last...

When was the last time any country staged a raid like this, to seize a foreign security officer? And this not being an officer arrested while working undercover in Moscow for secret operations [there].

When, then?

I cannot recall a single incident in Europe. During the Cold War, people were snatched across the German border, but these were Germans catching Germans. Otherwise we might have to look to the Indian-Pakistani border. This just has not happened.

Firstly, this guy [Eston Kohver] is not all that important... I am not trying to underestimate the incident, but he is not some nuclear scientist who just came up with some special invention to bring breakthrough to the way wars are waged. He is a professional security official, but one among many. You don’t trigger a diplomatic incident to grab one guy. And even if that were a case, the local security service would never have carried out this operation without consulting Moscow.

So – no, it cannot be anything but intentional. This is a political operation, plain and simple.

So how should Estonia now respond? What should we do?

This needs a two level approach. In addition to the obvious diplomatic complaints, Estonia will also have to decide whether it is willing to go for some high level tit-for-tat retaliation. That would mean, you know, expelling people from the Embassy or something like that. These are the kinds of things the Russians expect. And, for that Estonia’s leverage is rather limited.

The real leverage will come from Brussels, Washington, Berlin, from EU or NATO state institutions. And the whole point, indeed, is how will the rest of the alliance regard it. The whole point of the provocation was to make that challenge: will the West state it will do something major and substantial, or will it just say it’s reprehensible but we think there’s bigger issues.... Vladimir Putin believes the West, ultimately, is too disunited, too undisciplined and, frankly, too weak to really challenge him.

What a game! Should we, perhaps, swap Mr Kohver for a Russian prisoner?

That’s one of the classic ways... If you have people already that you can swap.

We have three security staff [formerly working for Russia] (Herman Simm, Aleksei Dressen, Vladimir Veitman – edit) behind bars...

A swap... is an option. That settles the matter of getting some guy [Mr Kohver] home. And that’s obviously very important. But that doesn’t resolve the underlying political issue. We come back to this point: this is clearly a provocation by Russia, and a test. The question is how you respond on that level, not only how you get this guy [Mr Kohver] home.

How are the Russians treating him?

I don’t think the Russians will be treating him excessively badly... torturing and stuff like that. They will be trying to interrogate him... I don’t think they will want to jail him for the next 20 years. They are going for a short-term political advantage.

So... he will not be imprisoned for 20 years?

Maybe they’ll put him on trial and sentence him for that, but will probably be looking for ways to get rid of him before that [term is up]. Otherwise he becomes a long-term embarrassment.