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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.

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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

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

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


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