FOOKUS Tarmo Miilits: Firefight between border guards on Narva River would serve Russia's interests

Meelis oidsalu
, editor of the «Power and Security» section of Fookus
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Estonian Ministry of Interior believes that Estonian border guard acted wisely when refraining from using force against the Russian border guard illegally removing navigation buoys from the Narva river.
Estonian Ministry of Interior believes that Estonian border guard acted wisely when refraining from using force against the Russian border guard illegally removing navigation buoys from the Narva river. Photo: Tairo Lutter
  • Russia has not provided any evidence that the Narva River bed has changed.
  • The normal course of action would have been to re-survey the riverbed together.
  • The decision not to intervene was a decision of the Police and Border Guard Board.

When the Russian Border Guard started removing navigation boys in Estonian waters on the Narva River in the early hours of May 23, the Police and Border Guard Board had the opportunity and capability to stop them, says Tarmo Miilits, secretary general of the Ministry of the Interior.

The Estonian border guard service currently has extra Frontex forces helping them, and in the event of a major border crisis, police officers who do not guard the border on a daily basis will also come to their aid.

What conclusions have the Ministry of the Interior and the Police and Border Guard Board drawn regarding the stealing of buoys on the Narva River last week?

The main conclusion is the long-known fact that the Russian Federation uses borders to create fear and confusion in Western societies. But we will not give in to provocation. Although this was a provocative border incident, Estonia is taking a balanced approach to the case.

Have proceedings been opened regarding the Narva River buoys, and if not, why?

The border incident has been recorded, and in connection with this, the border guard service has approached the Russian Federation through border representatives for an official explanation. Additionally, the Russian Federation has been approached through diplomatic channels.

When will the buoys be reinstalled?

Let's not rush ahead. Currently, we are awaiting explanations from the other side, and the Police and Border Guard Board has suspended the installation of the remaining buoys until an official response is received from the Russian Federation.

Tarmo Miilits, secretary general of the Ministry of the Interior.
Tarmo Miilits, secretary general of the Ministry of the Interior. Photo: Mihkel Leis

Could there be any treaty-based grounds for the Russians to disagree with the demarcated boundary line in the river, such as changes in the riverbed or something similar?

The last agreement on the location of the buoys was made at the border representatives level in 2022, and since then, the Russian Federation has not updated their location. From our perspective, the previous agreement is therefore still valid. The Russian Federation has also not provided any additional evidence or reasons suggesting that the navigation channel has changed.

When we look at the broader picture and Russia's patterns of behavior, whether the riverbed has changed or not obviously doesn't hold any real significance. If it did, the normal course of action would have been to propose jointly re-surveying the riverbed and, based on the results, agree on new buoy locations if necessary.

Was the Police and Border Guard Board's decision to «not escalate» a decision of the agency or a guideline from politicians?

This was a decision of the Police and Border Guard Board, which, looking back on the events, has also been judged correct by politicians.

When we look at the broader picture and Russia's patterns of behavior, whether the riverbed has changed or not obviously doesn't hold any real significance.

Was non-intervention a forced move, or did the Police and Border Guard Board have any real capacity to intervene in what was happening on the Narva River?

Of course, the Police and Border Guard Board has the capacity to intervene, but in this case, a decision was made not to intervene after assessing the situation. The actions were recorded, and further communication will take place both at the level of border representatives and through inter-state channels. A skirmish between border guards over buoys, or worse, an exchange of fire, would have had unpredictable consequences and would certainly have served the interests of the Russian Federation, not Estonia.

Has the Police and Border Guard Board also adjusted its concept of border surveillance and protection due to the migration attack operations in the region in recent years? Has anything been changed?

We have analyzed the various types of migration attacks in neighboring countries, drawn up our own plans and have repeatedly practiced them ourselves and with our partners. Also, colleagues from the Police and Border Guard Board have gained relevant experience when assisting other countries. At the Estonian-Russian border, migration attacks have remained at the level of incidents, with the Police and Border Guard Board stopping and returning groups of illegal migrants.

We certainly need to remain vigilant. It is also important to build the border infrastructure and install necessary equipment. Our eastern border needs modern solutions and the development of surveillance capabilities.

How many border guards does Estonia have now and what is their number compared to, for example, ten years ago?

We cannot reveal our capabilities in detail, because our media is also read by the special services of the neighboring country with bad intentions. What we can say is that we have close cooperation both with partners within the country and internationally, with whom we communicate on a daily basis. Our colleagues from Frontex are still present at the eastern border, and it is also not right to divide the people of the Police and Border Guard Board into police officers and border guards in this context – when solving a major crisis, the Police and Border Guard Board will use all the resources for this, regardless of their daily duties.

The aim is not to monitor every square meter in real time, but to set up a system combining different solutions in such a way that drones cannot fly unnoticed to any destination.

Estonia initiated the drone wall project of six NATO countries. What is it and when will Estonia have the planned capability?

The so-called «drone wall» would mean a stationary drone detection and interception capability on the eastern border and in major cities (Tallinn, Tartu, Narva, Pärnu). The aim is not to monitor every square meter in real time, but to set up a system combining different solutions in such a way that drones cannot fly unnoticed to any destination and we can react at any time, including bring down illegal drones. The Police and Border Guard Board is soon about to open a public tender for the installation of stationary drone surveillance equipment on the first completed section of the land border, and from there the work will continue as funding becomes available.

What are the risks associated with unidentified cross-border drone traffic?

Let's start with the dangers associated with the use of drones in general. Given the rapid development of drone technology, drones are also increasingly being adopted by people with bad intentions. We know from global experience that drones have been used by criminals to collect information, to assassinate people. Thanks to their cheap price, drones can also be used to commit terrorist attacks.

In Estonia, a large proportion of drone users are law-abiding individuals, but we have nevertheless had dangerous situations caused by drones, where careless drone users have been a threat to aircraft. Suspicious drones have also been identified near critical infrastructure sites. Unidentified drone traffic across borders means that all these hazards and risks are leveraged.

The Estonian Ministry of the Interior's initiative for an international drone wall hopes to bring unidentified drone traffic across borders under control. Pictured: a friendly drone flying over the city of Tartu.
The Estonian Ministry of the Interior's initiative for an international drone wall hopes to bring unidentified drone traffic across borders under control. Pictured: a friendly drone flying over the city of Tartu. Photo: Kristjan Teedema

What is the current state of the West-Russia hybrid war?

It is not sensible to either under- or overestimate the Russian threat. Russia is using every opportunity to weaken the unity of Western countries when it comes to the sanctions against Russia and the isolation of the aggressor state on the international stage. More covert action is being taken, attacks are being organized from across the border through social media contacts or by organizing information operations.

This is not only the opinion of the Estonian security authorities, but Russia's hybrid activities are being watched closely by partner countries and NATO. A recent NATO statement drew attention to various hybrid activities by Russia in Europe, and partner countries reaffirmed their readiness to jointly counter threats and continue to support Ukraine.

Russia's hybrid activities are being watched closely by partner countries and NATO. A recent NATO statement drew attention to various hybrid activities by Russia in Europe.

Was Russia's alleged intention to unilaterally change the boundaries of internal waters in the Gulf of Finland, announced almost at the same time as they removed the buoys from Narva River, more of an information operation by the Russians, or a real intention that was rolled back?

Considering the security policy situation, we must be prepared for continued hybrid activities by Russia, including the possibility that the news was just an attempt to cause confusion. Russia is vast, and often the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing.

But in the broader picture, it doesn't matter whether these two incidents are related or not – in any case, such actions will not go unnoticed or unanswered by our country. This may involve unilateral measures or international steps.

Various hybrid manifestations of hostilities can be expected on the part of Russia in the future too, and this is also the reason why we need to maintain and increase resources for internal security. In the view of the Ministry of the Interior, the Internal Security Service and the Police and Border Guard Board are the country's peacetime line of defense against security threats. The essence of their activities is to mitigate security threats in peacetime, so that the likelihood of reaching a military conflict is reduced.

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