The Economist senior editor Edward Lucas told ETV the move to apprehend Estonian secret service official Eston Kohver may backfire in the long run, as Russia could have a famous political prisoner on its hands for the next 20 years, which will become an irritant.
In an interview with ETV's "Pealtnägija" program, Lucas said Russia could exchange him for Herman Simm, or escalate propaganda once the focus is off Ukraine.
Q: To the best of your knowledge, what happened last week on our Estonian eastern border?
A: I don't have any inside information on this, but it seems pretty clear Mr. Kohver was meeting an informant from a Russian crime gang - he was there with money to give this informant. He was jumped very close to the border by a bunch of men. We don't know if it's FSB or gangsters, not that there's much difference these days. He was dragged across the border and they used a smoke grenade and jammed communications to stop his armed backup getting to him to help. The sand marks on the sand cordon on the border seemed pretty conclusive this was a group, not just one guy crossing the border, and he is now a victim of a [...] provocation. I fear for his safety and for Estonia's.
Q: So you are convinced Kohver stayed on Estonia's side?
A: As I said I don't have any inside information. I think it would be highly unlikely that he would go across the border to meet an informant. It would be very dangerous and it's not how KaPo [the Internal Security Service, Estonia's security police] does things. They try to run agents in neutral countries rather than trying to expose their officers to danger by doing something like that. It looks to me something the Russians would like to pretend KaPo does rather than something that KaPo would actually do.
Q: Just to give some background: how exceptional is an abduction like this?
A: This is extraordinary. We haven't had this even in the Soviet period. We haven't had this since the 1950s, the 1960s, when at least in Berlin and in Austria when the Soviets were kidnapping British and American and other intelligence agents from the streets of Berlin. It was a practice in what one might call the High Cold War. And it was one which both sides gave up, because it was where both sides could play at, and I suspect we probably did it to the Soviets as well on occasion. The rules of the spy game are that you don't physically target the other side's intelligence officers. You don't use drugs against them, you don't shoot them, you don't kidnap them, because once you do that everybody else does it too and nobody benefits. So it's not just a breach of international law and breach of good-neighborly relations - it's also a breach of the rules of the spy game.
Q: You have described this as a slap in the face for Estonia and its Western allies. Why?
A: I think this really isn't a coincidence that this comes just after Mr. Obama was in Tallinn, giving that fantastic speech. It's a challenge to say to the world and to Estonia - well, what are you going to do about that then? It is very difficult for Estonia now as it doesn't want to act alone because it will look isolated, and if it appeals for outside support and doesn't get it publicly that is bad. Now it's stuck with the very slow pace of international diplomacy, trying to get its friends and allies interested in this case at a time when there is a great deal going on elsewhere.
Q: There have been several spy incidents between Estonia and Russia, some serious, some less serious. Is there a pattern that you see?
A: I think Estonia has been a tremendous success story in terms of both intelligence and counterintelligence. We don't know so much about the intelligence side but we have certainly seen some major [counterintelligence] breakthroughs, particularly the prosecution of Herman Simm, and I think this annoyed the Russians considerably. They would like to teach Estonia a lesson that there are penalties that come from being so good. I wonder if perhaps they are going to suggest that Mr. Kohver is traded for Herman Simm, which would pose an interesting problem for Estonia and its allies.
Q: So you see a straightforward case that Estonia was too successful and Russia basically needed to retaliate, it needed a hit so to speak.
A: Yes, that seems to be the most logical explanation that Estonia is both a success story in terms of intelligence and counterintelligence. KaPo and the Teabeamet (Information Board, the intelligence service) are very effective and Russia doesn't like that. And not only that, Estonia spends its 2 percent of GDP on defense and gets President Obama coming here, and it has become a poster child for Western influence and solidarity. I think this is something the Russians don't want to let succeed, and they are doing something which is painful and humiliating and complicated in the hope of making the Estonians feel that maybe life isn't so good after all.
Q: What mistakes has Estonia, and more specifically Kaitsepolitsei [ISS, the security police] made, in your eyes?
A: I guess the only real mistake was letting it happen. Maybe they should have some communications equipment that can't be jammed or should have possibly had better knowledge of what is happening across the border to sense that a group of men was lurking ready to capture Mr. Kohver. It's easy to be wise after the event, and it is true that this kind of intelligence game is always full of risks. Whenever you run informants there is always the danger of them turning out not to be real, or at least become compromised, and then they become a trap for you. We are not talking basketball - this is a very serious high-stakes game. Estonia plays it very well; this one went wrong. But I am not sure I see anything that the Kaitsepolitsei did that's systematically wrong. It is a very unfortunate incident and one that ultimately comes from political reasons rather than intelligence ones.
A: Publicity regarding Kohver's arrest has been relatively low-key in Russia. What do you read from that?
Q: I wonder whether the Russians are bit worried about what they've done and there must be some people in the higher circles of power who say “look, this is something that is not going to end well for us, if we put him on trial and give him a 20-year sentence.” And then he becomes a very famous Western political prisoner in Russia and will continue to be an irritant. In the end the West is going to wake up and they are going to complain about this. If they let him go then it raises the question why did they take him in the first place. So the short-term effect is quite good, I wonder if they thought it through completely. Certainly there are some long-term disadvantages. For the Russian press there is a great deal else going on, their focus is very much on Ukraine and I suspect if the Kremlin wants to turn up the propaganda it will, but perhaps it will wait until he is formally charged or the trial starts. Or Russia makes an offer to exchange him for Simm or whenever the next episode of the story unfolds.
Q: And to wrap up finally, what should Estonia do in this situation? How can we avoid Kohver spending the next 20 years in prison in Russia?
A: Estonia has to do what it is doing at the moment. It has to be very remain calm and look like a civilized, normal country. It needs to keep working on its allies and make sure this is a NATO issue, not just an issue for Estonia. It needs to coordinate its public messaging very much. It needs to not look weak or panicked and keep public confidence in the Western alliance as strong as possible. But I must say, personally I find it extremely frustrating and I am very angry about it and very upset, and feel very sorry for Mr. Kohver and his family and for Estonia. I very much hope that the outside world will repay Estonia for all the loyalty and sacrifice that Estonia showed towards its allies in previous years.