Russia is expelling an Estonian diplomat based in St. Petersburg, charging him with inappropriate intelligence gathering. Estonia's foreign ministry said Wednesday evening that it may also be ejecting a Russian diplomat in response.
Spokesperson for the Estonian foreign ministry in Tallinn Aari Lemmik told ERR Wednesday that: "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation handed over a note to a diplomat at the Estonian Embassy stating that Consul at the Consulate General in St. Petersburg, Mart Lätte must, leave the country within 48 hours.
Kremlin press secretary Maria Zakharova (pictured above) said Wednesday that: "Russia has declared its strong protest over the collection of intelligence incompatible with diplomatic status by consul Mart Lätte of the Estonian Consulate General in St. Petersburg," BNS reports, citing Russian newswire Interfax.
Estonian consul has 48 hours to leave Russia
Lätte, pictured below, is one of three Estonian consuls based in St. Petersburg, reporting to Consul General Eric Laantee Reintamm. Russia has also declared him persona non grata and confirmed he has 48 hours to leave Russian territory.
"The Estonian charge d'affaires ad interim to Russia, Ulla Uibo, was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry on July 7," Zakharova continued. "Said official of the Estonian consular mission has been declared persona non grata, and must leave the Russian Federation's territory within 48 hours."
News broke Tuesday evening that Lätte had been detained by the Russian internal security service, the FSB, for around an hour-and-a-half after leaving a meeting at t the Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University, on suspicion of on suspicion of obtaining sensitive documents, in a move strongly condemned in Estonia as a provocative set-up.
Maria Zakharova went on to say that the Ulla Uibo had been told that: "Such attempts to misrepresent the situation are unacceptable".
"We emphasized that we consider the official position of Tallinn to be extremely cynical, as there is irrefutable evidence of the illegal activities of the Estonian diplomat who, as we know, was detained at the time while receiving classified information from a Russian citizen," Zakharova added, BNS reports.
The FSB had stated on its website that Lätte's alleged activities did not coincide with his diplomatic status and were clearly hostile to the Russian Federation, noting at the time that: "Measures shall be taken in respect of the foreign diplomat in accordance with the rules of international law."
Latest round of diplomatic expulsions involving Russia and the west
The development is the latest in tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions involving Russia and various European and western nations, including Estonia.
Ulla Uibo, who is based at the Estonian embassy in Moscow, left the Russian foreign ministry's building of the Russian Foreign Ministry Wednesday without issuing comment, an Interfax correspondent has reported, according to BNS.
Uibo declined to answer media questions about her visit to the foreign ministry and whether Lätte's detention in St. Petersburg had been explained to her, saying only that: "It's all been said before."
Estonia's foreign ministry called Latte's detention "a show" and a provocation Wednesday, while ministry director of communications Aari Lemmik said on Tuesday that the FSB accused Latte of acquiring sensitive documents – charges she said where wholly unfounded and: "Another example of Russia's lack of interest in friendly relations with neighboring countries."
Estonian foreign ministry spokesperson: Lätte had been performing his usual tasks
Aari Lemmik reiterated this line Wednesday evening, telling ERR that: "We stress here that, in the opinion of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the detention of the consul in St. Petersburg yesterday was a provocation by the Russian Federal Security Service against the Estonian diplomatic representative, and the allegations made are unfounded. The Estonian diplomat was performing his usual work in the receiving state in accordance with the legislation regulating diplomatic activities."
Riigikogu foreign affairs committee chair Marko Mihkelson (Reform) concurred, calling the outcome a premeditated provocation and adding that if Lätte were expelled from Russia, Estonia should respond in kind.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Estonia: We may expel one Russian diplomat in response
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs says it may respond to Lätte's expulsion in kind, i.e. by sending away one Russian diplomat from Estonian soil, without elaborating further.
Aari Lemmik told ERR that: "In the practice of international relations, it is common for such expulsions to result in a symmetrical response. It is also part of diplomatic practice that the details of the expulsion of diplomats are not discussed in public."
Moscow removed an Estonian diplomat from its soil, along with one from Latvia and two from Lithuania, in late April this year, in response to the three countries doing same a few days previously. The three Baltic States had made their move in solidarity with the Czech Republic, which sent away close to 20 Russian diplomats in the wake of news that the Russian secret service had been involved in a 2014 explosion at an ammo dump in Czech territory, which killed two people.
Media reports also linked this incident to the 2018 Novichok poisoning of dissident and former FSB man Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Julia, in Salisbury, England, where Sergei resides.
A similar incident reportedly also took place in April, when a long-serving Ukrainian Consul to St. Petersburg was detained, on similar charges, and subsequently forced to leave Russia. Kyiv declared a Russian embassy employee persona non grate as a result, while both countries later ejected one diplomat from their soil each.
This article was update to include the Estonian foreign ministry's statement that a Russian diplomat will be expelled from Estonian soil, in response to the Lätte expulsion.
Editor: Andrew Whyte