Russian border guard quits cooperation with Estonia

Risto Berendson
, reporter
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Photo: Marko Saarm

At the beginning of November, former Border Guard Board director-general Vice-Admiral Tarmo Kõuts and University of professor emeritus Ülo Vooglaid handed the Riigikogu a collective address to restore standalone Border Guard. According to interior minister Hanno Pevkur (Reform Party), the idea ought to at least be discussed.

How serious is the proposal to recreate a separate Border Guard?

Any idea, especially when it comes from men of dignity, must certainly be discussed. But I’d rather discuss with them the essentials of what to alter in Border Guard. For the former border guard heads, I believe the outward is not as important as the content.

Well it has for years rather been the formal side of it, a matter of feelings and identity crisis in the border guards.

Yes, the temptation is to say Border Guard has lost its face into Police and can no longer be as strong as it once was while standalone. I’d say rather the opposite is true. Meaning the cooperation.

Let’s take the South-Eastern Border Guard District – all it takes is one phone call by Southern prefect to send all the district’s strike teams to the border. With two separate institutions, that would surely be more awkward and clumsy, and not as effective. I clearly support a strong police and border guard. But I am always willing to hear wise council on what to essentially do better.

In a manner somewhat low, the petition is playing on the current political situation, noting that cooperation between Estonian and Russian Border Guards has been broken …

(Mr Pevkur cuts in at half the word – R. B.) This is in no way related to whether we have a standalone Border Guard. Yes, it is true, good cooperation has been broken. But this is directly linked to Russia-Ukraine relations and the consequences towards us. The cooperation got worse for two reasons.

Firstly, it got substantially worse as related to events in Crimea when our border guards no longer received higher level confirmations to border incidents. On the border, there is a two tier confirmations system: at first the observation by the men on the spot; then it goes to be confirmed by higher border representatives, and truly from the Russian side there have no longer been higher level confirmations.

After the Eston Kohver case, the communication got even scarcer. There have been the instances when the Russian side has not even bothered to show up. Or if they do show up, they refuse to confirm the incident. The footprints are there, they come from Russia into Estonia, but the Russian side will not confirm the crossing of the border. To tie this to the existence of Border Guard Board or nonexistence … no link here, really.

It is claimed too few men are guarding the Eastern border.

Taking just the Eastern border, before the Border Guard and Police merger there were 683 specialised in guarding this border, and now there’s one man less – 682.

Counting all police forces, over the five years they have been thinned by about a thousand. Meaning: proportionally, the numbers on the border and the numbers securing public order can in no wise be compared. This is the naked fact.

To this, I’d add that there are multiple times less superiors in the Border Guard now – so, physically, more men are watching the border.

That’s true. Let’s take the talk that there are fewer cordons – vive remaining of the 13. In reality, this is misinformation. A lie, actually.

We still do have 13 cordons on the Eastern border after October 1st, border guards still do work in them. What was changed was that they each used to have a head and his deputy. And so after every 20 kilometres. There may have been the situation of only one or two border guards present in a cordon, on top of the bosses.

The change now was that the leadership level was only left in place in five of the cordons. The other cordons, however, retained the same amount of border guards i.e. people directly guarding the border are more in number. Earlier, there used to be 13 cordon heads, now there are five.

And on top of that, police is dealing with proceedings of the violations – doing the paperwork.

Yeas, it used to be that the Border Guard did the entire proceeding. Now, an illegal entrant is handed over to criminal proceedings by the police. They will deal with the person. The border guard will return to his duty.

Military experts can’t help but smile that if border patrols would be given greater fire power i.e. better weapons, and the number of patrollers increased, this might somehow intimidate the adversary special forces.

What is right here is that the equipment needs to be updated. Every item has its service life. While five years back the border guard equipment was handed over as the new shift came in – the replacement got the other guy’s flak jacket, torch, truncheon and other protective equipment and went to work – now each guy has his own set.

At the moment, we are investing a million euros into acquiring equipment. This will be night vision devices, binoculars, humidity-proof suits, new telescopic batons.

The decision to acquire new small arms seems to be related to these recent events.

Yes, we had no plans to change weapons and the decision – to change Makarov pistols for Walthers – I took two months ago.

Theoretically, would Estonian state manage to keep two armies – Border Guard and Defence Forces?

Border Guard’s task is guarding the border. Defence of the Estonian state is up to Defence Forces. Border Guard’s task is to be aware of everything that is happening in the border zone. Guarding the border is not only reacting to military threat against Estonian state.

Today’s military activities … we need to admit, both sides are also doing intelligence. It’s not quite like some paratroopers cross the border and Estonian state knows it not. Let nobody imagine that. These systems are a bit otherwise.

Talking about peacetime, then Border Guard’s main role is guarding the border – that there be no smuggling, drug trafficking, etc. Naturally, border guards do carry arms which they may use if the need arises; but talking about a situation where a foreign state militarily intervenes, that isn’t an attack against Estonian border – that’s an attack against Estonian state. Then, national defence mechanisms will automatically come into play, which is an altogether different thing than just guarding the border.

As the Boards were merged, the noble idea was that two prefects, presumably the Southern and Eastern ones, will come from Border Guard, and the Northern and Western ones from the Police. Why has no border guard risen to prefect status?

We have talked about that with director-general. The term on office will soon run out for two prefects – Southern and Western. The Eastern prefect is rather fresh, Vallo Koppel just recently appointed. I will have to admit that Vallo Koppel has done a good job for the border guard and taken it much to his heart.

Yes, the word did reach me that the idea was there as the joint agency was put together. We shall see what the director-general will propose.

On the other hand, Tarmo Kohv has done quite a good job as Southern prefect, thinking towards the border and the changes over there …  Okay, money has also been allocated – whether to build the Piusa cordon or create special units –, these have all served to further secure the South-Eastern border. But never have I seen Mr Kohv looking down at border issues.

Well, time will tell who the new prefects will be.

So we arrived at the special units. The earlier border guard readiness unit was rather the «training-based» kind. What will the special unit role be?

Yes, the readiness unit based in Valga was doing all kinds of other things. That was no classical special unit. They were not into special operations.

The special unit now being created is the classical one. Better yet, let’s call it strike team. They will be training according to special unit standards, reacting to border incidents, getting tactical training. If needed, it can summons K-Commando, [K-komando], if needed, it goes and helps the latter. We have been talking about 50 men. That, surely, will be considerable additional force at the border.

When it comes to illegal migrants or smuggling, it has all become much more professional. The way the criminals operate requires very well trained people to resist them, able to tackle them.

A look at the Erna Hike results in former years says human resources for a special unit ought to be goof in the Border Guard. The worry rather is, how will these 50 men reach every place?

Their main base will be in the Piusa cordon now being prepared. The other base will be in Narva. A part will have to be in Tallinn, to react at sea if necessary or do border operations in Tallinn. But the Tallinn unit will be smaller and will carry a smaller load.

If a signal comes about smuggling or illegal migrants, they will have to react fast. Their training is such as to be good with weapons. If needed, all special measures will be used. At any rate, this will be strong support and this is not at the expense of the current Border Guard, but on top of it.

Let’s leave the Eastern border. The petition says the marine rescue capability of Border Guard is lousy and that in no country this has been replaced voluntarily.

These are two totally different topics. On the one hand, they are talking about national defence on Eastern border, and then they bring in marine rescue capacity. I agree, the latter could be better. Even so, comparing to a while ago when we had no helicopters nor fast launches, and adding the pollution fighting capacity of border guard vessel  Kindral Kurvits, we may claim things are better now.

From internal security fund money, it is already planned to acquire two new ships. As I visit the cordons on sea border with some older ship at the berth, I also see the volunteers with a vessel of their own. And when you see the volunteer unit has a launch able to go at 35–40 knots an hour, and you know the old border guard ship can do eight to nine, it is obviously obsolete. These need to be replaced.

Mostly, marine rescues do happen quite close to the shore so what we need is fast and agile launches. Considering also the capacity of our helicopters and partners, to say maritime rescue is too bad ... doesn’t seem right.