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The Power Vertical

Why Eston Kohver Matters

Estonian law enforcement officer Eston Kohver is detained by Russian security agents.
Estonian law enforcement officer Eston Kohver is detained by Russian security agents.

Less than a year ago, Eston Kohver was an Estonian law enforcement officer investigating a suspected smuggling operation by organized crime groups. Today, he is a potent symbol of Russia's challenge to the international order.

On the morning of September 5, 2014, Kohver was on his way to meet a confidential informant in a secluded forest near the village of Miikse, just a few kilometers from the border with Russia.

In what Estonian officials describe as a well-planned operation, he was ambushed with stun grenades, abducted at gunpoint, taken across the border to Russia, and charged with espionage. His trial is scheduled to begin next week and he faces more than two decades in prison.

At the most basic level, the Kohver case is important, and deeply disturbing, because it involves the forceful abduction of a European Union citizen from the territory of an EU state -- and it shows that Moscow can get away with such behavior.

In a larger sense, Kohver's case is emblematic of Russia's ongoing challenge of the West. It starkly illustrates the Kremlin's campaign to intimidate its neighbors, flout global rules and norms, and test NATO's defenses and responses.

And it is another example of how Moscow is able to shamelessly construct absurd counternarratives -- in this case claiming that Kohver was a spy abducted on Russian territory -- and stick with them despite clear and compelling evidence that they are outright lies.

Sovereignty For Me, But Not For You

One of the most alarming things the Kohver case drives home is the approach Vladimir Putin's Kremlin has toward sovereignty.

Russia is absolutely obsessed with its own sovereignty. But that of others, particularly its smaller or weaker post-Soviet neighbors, not so much.

"A persistent strand in Russian thinking maintains that only big states can be truly sovereign, while smaller ones are inevitably 'vassal states,' underlings of some big power," Kadri Liik, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote recently. 

WATCH: The Daily Vertical: We Are All Eston Kohver

The Daily Vertical: We Are All Eston Kohveri
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With this dual approach to sovereignty, Moscow has no qualms about seizing other countries' territory -- or its citizens.

You can draw a direct line from the occupations of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniester to the annexation of Crimea to the abductions of Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko and Kohver.

The Kohver case is emblematic of Russia's determination to dominate and intimidate its neighbors, whether or not they are -- as is the case with Estonia -- NATO members.

Bully Thy Neighbor

The timing of Kohver's abduction was no accident. He was kidnapped during NATO's summit in Wales, just days after U.S. President Barack Obama visited Tallinn to reassure Estonians that the Western alliance had their backs.

Russia had long been conducting menacing overflights in the region and holding military exercises near the border.

Moscow has also been attempting to stir up trouble among Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania's Russophone population and threatening to bring criminal cases against Baltic citizens who evaded serving in the Soviet military.

And there have been persistent fears in the West that the Kremlin would try the hybrid-war tactics it used so effectively in Ukraine in one of the Baltic states.

Such a move would present NATO with a nightmare of a dilemma: either go to war with a nuclear-armed Russia or not respond and effectively admit that the alliance's collective-security guarantee is hollow.

Moscow's persistent prodding of NATO's eastern flank -- cyberattacks, sea and airspace violations, border incursions, and agitation of local Russian-speakers -- created a threshold problem: how far would Russia need to go before the alliance invoked Article 5 and came to the Baltics' defense?

Kohver's abduction represented an escalation of this tactic. And the fact that the Kremlin got away with it scot-free means they will likely become increasingly bold and brazen in the future.

"Is this the beginning of something or a one-off? Time will tell," Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves told The New York Times after Kohver's abduction. "You can’t draw a line until you have two points." 

The Mafia Weapon

When Kohver was abducted, he was in the early information-gathering stages of an investigation by Estonia's Internal Security Service into a smuggling ring run by organized crime groups operating in the border region.

He was ambushed en route to a prearranged meeting with an ethnic Russian who was purporting to act as a confidential informant. Estonian officials have long alleged that Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) and Russian organized crime groups have been involved in smuggling across the border.

Shortly after Kohver was abducted, Estonian President Ilves tweeted that the country's Internal Security Service "deals both with counterintelligence and organized crime. Just in some places they turn out to be [the] same." 

And in an interview with The Guardian, Eerik-Niiles Kross, a former Estonian intelligence chief and national-security adviser, suggested Kohver may have been set up. "This is not something cooked up the day before yesterday," he said. 

The use of Russian organized crime groups as a tool of foreign policy is, of course, nothing new for Moscow. It was part of Moscow's playbook in frozen conflicts in Georgia and Moldova, as well as in Ukraine.

Sergei Aksyonov, the man Moscow installed to run the annexed Crimean Peninsula, for example, is a reputed gangster who reportedly went by the street name "The Goblin."

In Ukraine, Russia used mafia groups to seize territory. And in Estonia, Moscow apparently used them to seize an EU citizen.

He Said, She Said

We've been hearing the white noise from the east for well over a year now.

The Euromaidan uprising was a Western-backed fascist coup. There are no Russian soldiers fighting in eastern Ukraine and Moscow has nothing to do with the conflict there. Flight MH17 was shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet, or a NATO missile, or something.

The Russian disinformation machine is formidable and persistent in cranking out counternarratives designed to confuse and muddy the waters.

And the Kohver case is no exception. After disappearing on September 5, Kohver appeared in handcuffs on Russian state television a day later. In addition to footage of Kohver being locked in a cell by masked security officers, the report showed his Taurus service pistol, 5,000 euros in cash, and a recording device.

The Estonian authorities don't deny any of these things are his. Kohver is a police officer who was meeting a confidential informant, after all.

But Moscow, which claims that he was arrested inside Russia, presented them as evidence that he was a spy. And once they did, most Western reports on the incident used this he-said-she-said formulation, implicitly suggesting that the Estonian and Russian versions of events carried equal weight.

They don't. As with the conflict in Ukraine and MH17, there is clear and compelling evidence that Moscow's account of the Kohver case is an outright fabrication.

Estonian and Russian border guards inspected the area where Kohver disappeared on the day of the incident.

A bilingual joint protocol clearly states, based on analysis of footprints in the area, that a group of people entered Estonia in the area from Russia and then returned there. It also noted impact craters from stun grenades in the area. 

Eston Kohver is a metaphor for the challenge Russia has posed to the West since the Ukraine crisis erupted. The Kremlin is holding this man hostage, just as it has been holding the post-Cold War world order hostage as well.

-- Brian Whitmore

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Anonymous
June 04, 2015 01:29
Outstanding work exposing Putin, his thugs, and the Russian gangster state

by: Jack from: US
June 04, 2015 02:19
it is a holy duty of every honest person to resist dictatorship of Washington malakas. President Putin ought to liberate Estonia from malaka control
In Response

by: robert
June 28, 2015 08:12
Washington >> Moscow.

by: Clint from: Doha
June 04, 2015 04:08
Great article and great body of work Mr. Whitmore. It seems President Hendrik's analogy still holds as I have seen no reports of the 'line being drawn' and poor Mr. Kohver's fate is hanging in the balance.

by: Philip Larmett
June 04, 2015 08:23
Great article. I watched the video too.
Estonian President says we need two points to draw a line.
Well, the parallels with Savchenko are obvious. She was also captured within Ukraine and taken to Moscow to face trial.

by: al capone
June 04, 2015 11:55
cant we seal team 6 him out of there?

by: Albert from: Germany
June 04, 2015 12:00
It is really biased, unbalanced and unprofessional article! I get an impression that the author Brian Whitmore is an eyewitness of all of those incidents what happened at the border of Estonia and Russia? How this author with the hundred percent certainty can say "Kohver was near the village of Miikse, about 8 kilometers from the border with Russia..." Did Mr. Whitmore personally see him there? Of course not. Then why we should accept the Estonian interpretation of the incident as a true, but not the Russian one? How about if Eston Kohver really was on the territory of Russia spying against Russia, as the Russian officials have been claiming? On the basis of such a debatable incident the RFE/RL correspondent makes a far going conclusion, saying "it is another example of how Moscow is able to shamelessly construct absurd counternarratives... and stick with them despite clear and compelling evidence that they are outright lies." Dear Brian Whitmore, I can see that you, having no factual evidence in your hand, personally are constructing absurd counternarratives and outright lies, if I put it with your own words. How the RFE/RL's correspondent can make a judgment about who tells the "outright lie", and who tells the "absolute true"? Is Brian Whitmore a judge of some kind of court or a media-reporter? If the US radio allows to it's correspondents to make such kinds of judgments, there will be no trust to it's puppet correspondents, as well as the radio itself.
In Response

by: Brian Whitmore from: Prague
June 04, 2015 13:11
Albert, first you need to take a deep breath. Zen, baby. OK, are you relaxed? Good. Now you need to actually read the piece. What happened is confirmed by an investigation by both Russian and Estonian border guards that was conducted on the day of the incident. I linked to the protocol, which is in Estonian and Russian. Now that we've settled that, go do your relaxation and anger management exercises and have a nice cup of herbal tea.
In Response

by: Moisha Rabinovich from: Brooklyn
June 04, 2015 13:34
@Albert asks -
"How the RFE/RL's correspondent can make a judgment about who tells the "outright lie", and who tells the "absolute true"?"

Me say:
Moisha can always make a judgement
In Response

by: Jerry
June 04, 2015 14:56
Albert there was evidence and it was mentioned in the article: The bilingual written report given by the Estonian and Russian border guards who both concurred that the incident took place within Estonian territory. this report was signed by the Estonian and Russian border guards. asking somebody if they were actually there is a red herring and you know it. Peace, Jerry
In Response

by: cat from: Estonia
June 04, 2015 20:14
Well, Albert from Germany, Prove Estonians or Russians wrong. All I can say is that I live here, and probably am more aware of the subject than You. Would You Please not Comment if You don't know!
In Response

by: Andreas from: Estonia
June 05, 2015 09:16
Dear Albert, it really takes to be a special kind of stupid to present such nonsensical arguments. I kindly suggest you to watch less RT news. These have clearly made your logical thinking a bit blurred.

by: John Kanuck from: Canada
June 04, 2015 16:11
"most Western reports on the incident used this he-said-she-said formulation, implicitly suggesting that the Estonian and Russian versions of events carried equal weight."

RFE/RL is guilty of using this formula also (as is BBC and everyone else) but always adding Moscow's denials to demonstrable facts. There was a good "Newsroom" episode about this - there are not always two sides to a story, or at least not two equally valid sets of facts.

Western media should stop treating official Russian sources as if they had any credibility whatsoever, any more that say, North Korea.

Knowing what the Russians are saying might be relevant to analysts, trying to read the tea leaves, but they should not be reported as factual news in a misguided effort to provide balanced coverage. (Just to be clear, balanced coverage is good, but it is not achieved by giving ink to Putin's imaginary narrative.)
In Response

by: Albert from: Germany
June 05, 2015 11:18
The corrected version:
I absolutely agree with the point of John Kanuck: "Western media should stop treating official Russian sources as if they had any credibility whatsoever..." When it comes to Russia, such US correspondents, as Brian Whitmore, are ready to take a really brazen stance to make Russia a scapegoat in all the possible sins.

Why Mr.Whitmore wouldn't explore, let's say, the current alarming situation with the ISIL' advancement in Iraq and Syria, which imposes far more danger to the whole world?? Why the US journalist wouldn't explore the accusations about the US support to ISIL and video evidences on how the US airplanes were dropping stockpiles of weapons to the area controlled by the ISIL fighters, etc?

Nowadays for the millions of people these issues are far more important and urgent. Because the current situation leads to the impression that for the US the so-called "human rights abuses of the Assad's regime" are more "threatening" than the current occupations of the Islamic militants in the region, who are about to establish their own state in the vast territory of the Middle East.

If you are really interested in justice and truth, then analyze the causes of this tragedy and real threat. But you would not. Because it would be against the interest of the USA. That's is the most alarming thing for us!!!
In Response

by: Steven from: Germany
June 05, 2015 17:38
Now I have no doubt, that "Albert" isn't a real german commenter, exposing his sincere opinion in his comment, but a typical Russian troll (St. Petersburg troll factory?). He follows step by step the Russian trolling handbook:

1.) If it is not feasible to credibly support the Russian official stance, than you must spread a fog of relativistic sophistic reasoning. You must insist, that the commenters are not able to know the truth by any means. So they at least must give to the Russian official version the same credibility as to the non-Russian version.

2.) If you could not impress the other commenters enough by your spreading of relativistic fog, then procede to create additional confusion by making some shift in relation to your original stance and

3.) start then with the tactic well known as "whataboutism". Fill the lines of your next comment with mostly supposed or sometimes even real faults of US-policy in the the Middle East, either by the G.W.Bush or by B. Obama. That's not very difficult and only few people know exactly, what happened and happens there. So you should be able to distract the attention from the proper matter of the article and lead the discussion to a totally different subject. So "Albert" managed to leave the discussion on that what happened on the Estonian-Russian border, according to the Report signed by Estonian and Russian border guards and the later presented Russian government's version to some aspects of US foreign policy.
But what have the US to do with this story? Nothing, absolutely nothing! This is exactly the clue of "whataboutism". Therefore the comments of "Albert" are pure trolling and by no means serious commenting.

Typical arguments of real german "Putin understanders" are e.g.:

A) The profitable economic relations we have developed with Russia, based on big investments german firms have done in Russia over the last 25 years, that we should sacrifice now in order to protect the international order and the rights of quite small or "less important" countries.

B) This banal economic egoism finds a solid fundamentation in the long lasting shameful tradition of german foreign policy, of considering the people and nations between Germany and the Russian Empire more as passive and rightless objects of German-Russian agreements than as subjects of equal rights. This arrogant mentality culminated in the Hitler-Stalin pact with its criminal secret annex that partitioned Eastern Europe between the German Third Reich and the Soviet Union.

C) After 1990 German politicians created within the German People the powerful illusion, that the era of classic wars has definitly ended, in Europe at least, and we entered a kind of eternal peace, where all differences were resolved by international dialogue. Germany would experience no more any miltary threat for ist territory, as we were surrounded by friends only. Russia was presented as a friendly partner of NATO in security issues and not as possible threat or enemy. Strong conventional defence forces, together with US nuclear deterrence the heart of the Cold War security concept, were taken by German politicians as an unnecessary historic relict and therefore suffered continuous budget cuts. The duty of our Armed Forces would consist furthermore only in some minor peacekeeping or peaceenforcing missions abroad. Defense industry was forced to reduce drastically its capacities and convert them to civil production.

Conclusion: This would be the background of a real German "Putin understander". Therefore a real German "Putinversteher" would argue in the Eston Kohver case, that it doesn't matter, that the Russians may have abducted the Estonian officer, because in any case there would not be a military solution for the problem, or should we Germans "die for Narva"? And as far as Putin does not invade German lands, why should we care? As those people have lived half century enslaved under Russian rule, why not for some decades more? This thoughts certainly are very cynical, as are the real German "Putinversteher". I don't belong to them, as I remember very well and in gratitude the great western -specially US- solidarity with Western Germany during the long Cold War years, ensuring our freedom from Soviet slavery.

by: Estonian from: Estonia
June 05, 2015 07:48
Sorry but this article gets at least one fact wrong quite badly.

Mr. Kohver was abducted near the border, as in few meters from the border in a forest where he was supposed to be meeting with an informant, that turned out to being a trap.

Not 8km inside estonia that I deducted from the article then there would not be a problem because the agent in question had a support team close by who was not able to react quickly enough (as the russian team was a lot closer and just did a quick snatch and retreated back to their side of the border)

And the main key point is that russia argues Kohver was inside their border. And this is a key matter in the case against Kohver, all other accusiations are based on that (illegal weapon etc).
Both border agencies checked the ground together where it happened, they both knew it was on estonian ground but orders came to the russian side from their goverment to insist it happened in russia. It's as political as it can get, because we just had Obama in Tallinn who sent a strong political message to the russian and this was their answer. We can do what we want and you can't do anyhing about it.

Sadly before this incident lot of border with russia was in a bad state so the "extraction" team from russia could get close very easily. Now the goverment quickly found the money to fix it.

All this is written from memory from articles I read in the few weeks following the event.

by: Jordan Clark from: London
June 05, 2015 15:54
Award winning British journalist Neil Clark recently wrote: “When the bombs of Al-Qaeda or their affiliates go off in Syria and innocent people are killed there is no condemnation from our leaders: their only condemnation has been of the secular Syrian government which is fighting radical Islamists and which our leaders and elite media commentators are desperate to have toppled. I'm confused. Can anyone help me to understand it?" It is just food for thought, especially for the author of this article Brian Whitmore...
In Response

by: Steven from: Germany
June 05, 2015 18:06
So, there had been active Al-Qaeda, radical Islamists and the Syrian government in the forests of the Russian-Estonian border? Maybe also the Chinese and North Korean Army? Or why not some Alien Army? So we could further discuss interplanetary travels.

But what has all this and your entire comment, Jordan Clark, to do with the violent abduction of a Estonian citizen by Russian Secret Forces from Estonian -NATO- territory, that is remembered in the article above? Nothing, absolutely nothing! Pure "whataboutism"! St. Petersburg calling?

NATO and the EU have urgently to learn, that with Russia, violence has to be answered with violence, in the ratio of 100:1, in order to achieve effective deterrence. And the Response must be determined and very quick. If NATO and EU countries don't want to realize this, they should better incorporate themself by now to Putins splendid empire of corruption, called Russian Mir.

by: Robert
June 28, 2015 08:11
Nothing too surprising about the Kremlins behavior. was Mr Kohver abducted before the Russian separatist s murdered the passengers of KLM?

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or