When Boring Is Good (1)

A view of an Estonian internal security agency (KaPo) regional office in Tartu. The Estonian government said one of its security officers had been abducted on the border and taken into Russia on Friday as he tried to stop illegal activity on the border, but Russia said he had been detained on its territory as a suspected spy. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)
Päivi Pilvepiir
9/10/2014 9:59 AM
Category: Opinion

Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas gave an incredibly boring interview to ETV the other night on the subject of the counterintelligence officer who was kidnapped by Russia. Other officials and ministers have done the same. These interviews are a news writer's nemesis. There's very little to go on, nothing to chew on or regurgitate. But I salute them for it. It's completely the right approach.

Commentators outside the government have been far more dramatic, trying to elevate the abduction of Eston Kohver into an massive international incident, a Venlo 1939, even a Sarajevo 1914, certainly a winds-of-war occurrence.

"Casus belli?" wrote more than one Facebook friend on Friday afternoon. Many observers suggested that it could even border on an NATO Article Five situation. (Now that would indeed be something - to have to cash the huge proverbial check Obama wrote only a few days after his visit!) As I was writing this, a journalist was querying NATO on Twitter to ask them what steps the alliance was taking.

These are all good questions, and they must be asked, but hopefully the answer from NATO would be just as boring and logical: the Estonian government has not made any request for assistance in this internal matter, and so no, we are not going to bomb Moscow today.

To make a big deal would be to cry wolf in the absence of an acute threat to national security. To overreact here, too early, is to play into the Russian hand. After all, the operation to kidnap a counterintelligence agent was not so much to learn secrets from the agent, Russia having presumably learned most of them from its former, now-captured moles and the ones still in place in Latvia. It's actually asymmetric warfare in the face of a superior NATO - a low-cost way to sow confusion, keep the West off balance and guessing, and, not least, make people feel insecure about Estonian security.

It would be a big PR risk for Estonia, maybe even for the tourism sector, if people had the impression there were LGMs (little green men) running around here. Already this spring, emigre Estonians must have asked me about five times whether they should cancel their Song Festival plans over Ukraine. (The idea of Putin nuking the Song Festival came up, too, I'm afraid.) Even before that, people have asked me how many Spetsnaz groups there might be among the 20,000 New Year's tourists. (Three each year, actually, but all unarmed and off duty until Jan. 7.) These are questions from people who are perhaps not as up to date with the Old Country, but it shows how fear spreads. Even among the better informed - I do some work for an Estonian agency with international clients, and when our servers go down, I'm always asked whether we are being cyber attacked - no one believes that an ordinary crash is possible in IT-savvy Estonia. (Not yet, I say, but we had one troll once; keep on checking, some teenagers in Pskov will probably DDOS us soon.) Obviously memories of 2007 will not fade fast if even the events of 1937-1940 are still fresh in people's minds.

There is now a dangerous idea being circulated that suggests Estonia "lacks a border" or that the border is "open," which sounds exactly like the porous Ukrainian frontier where Russians can come and go at will. But "open" in this case merely means: "We have not built Castle Black yet."

Yes, the FSB can cross a few meters into a foreign country to grab a guy, just like I can drive into Russia in Estonia's Saatse Boot, stop my car, get out, moon a Russian border post, and quickly be on my way again before any hassle. So, FSB men can ambush Kohver in a brushy isolated area and be back in Russia in under a minute. But if the FSB had tried to venture 100 meters farther into Estonia, they would have been detained or worse. This is, after all, the external border of the EU. Just because there isn't a wall and a brand-new treaty signed doesn't mean the line isn't well-guarded, just like it's checkmate in one move for every Russian plane that so much as noses into NATO airspace.

So after the initial shock, it's good to see government officials - the counterintelligence agency director, the interior minister, the prime minister - proceed with procedural, clinical calm and state the facts. A, counterintelligence officer Eston Kohver was chasing bad guys, smugglers who were fleeing to the wilds of Russia and had to be stopped before they got there. B, Kohver was on the Estonian side when he was ambushed and kidnapped - an outrageous act that we expect Russia to rectify. C, things take a long time with Russia, but we will be patient. D, we don't see political motivation and there isn't even a diplomatic row.

And why should there be? One way to solve this crisis is to keep on working the middle officials on the Russian side. For example, those Russian border guards - they know very well that they saw the FSB clowns come over the border to Estonia, and they know that the Estonians know that. It's a long shot, but it's something that isn't going to go away; all of the border guards are not going to be murdered by Putin to shut them up.

If you take August 20, 1991, when Soviet armor was on the way to Tallinn, Estonians didn't escalate, either. I may be taking some liberties here, but I have been told that at some point, people started talking to the soldiers around the TV Tower and asking them if they needed food, and eventually the soldiers accepted a few meals and people even felt a little sorry for them, having come all that way in their rickety tanks on those bad Soviet Estonian roads to surround a TV tower that didn't even have Edgewalk® or a glass floor at the top. Pretty soon the putsch had collapsed, the way Putin's regime will collapse not long from now.

It may be a while before Kohver comes home and the Russian system may shock us a couple times with its brutality before that happens, but sometimes idiot moves like kidnapping (kidnapping after all being one of the lowest-percentage crimes there is) just need a little bit of attrition to starve them of fuel.

Of course, it doesn't mean people shouldn't join the home guard in the meantime. And maybe getting started on building some Castle Black and a bit o' Wall wouldn't be a bad idea.

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