PPA chief: We need to be prepared for mass border crossings from Russia
Mass border crossings from the Russian side of Estonia's eastern border is a very real risk for which preparedness is needed, head of the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) Elmar Vaher says.
While most of Estonia's border with the Russian Federation follows water-courses, in the far southeast of Estonia, the border runs across land.
This frontier needs to be seen in the context of the recent Russian attempted mobilization of as many as 300,000 reservists, since the drive, aimed at making up for military setbacks Russia has been facing in its invasion of Ukraine, is likely to affect areas near the Estonian border, for instance the city of Pskov.
This picture is complicated by the fact that many people waiting in line for days on Russia's western borders are legitimate refugees from Ukraine, mixed in with draft-dodging Russian citizens, those seeking economic opportunity and even out-and-out criminals.
As a result, a large proportion of people are sent back from the border, by the PPA, Vaher added, appearing on ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) Thursday evening – putting a figure of 50-60 on the previous evening alone – on the grounds that they have no legitimate reason to enter Estonia.
At the same time, many Ukrainian refugees attempting to enter Estonia are being prevented from doing so, and removed, by the FSB and other Russian state agencies.
That large lines developed was likely also due to Russian security services not being ready for the sheer numbers attempting to leave.
While the risk level is nonetheless currently low, Vaher said, it cannot be assessed in terms of months, but rather from the perspective of hours and days.
The situation on Russia's borders with the EU and on the border of nearby EU countries is tense, Vaher added
Vaher told "Esimene stuudio" that: "The kind of volumes or pressure that we saw last Friday or over the weekend has fallen a bit, but it is still there."
"For example, my partners in Poland and Lithuania are working each and every day in conditions where hundreds of people are trying to get across the border. Human shields are set up; border guards are being outwitted," he went on.
Poland and Lithuania do not border with the bulk of the Russian Federation, but do via the Kaliningrad exclave, a highly militarized zone sandwiched between the two EU states. They also both border with Russia's ally, Belarus.
While scenes on the borders of Poland and Lithuania have not yet been played out on Estonia's frontier, the PPA and other agencies are ready for such an eventuality, Vaher said.
He said: "We are continuing to guard the border with all the possibilities we have, and we have slightly increased our capabilities. But we have to be careful here; we don't have many border guard personnel, so we need to think carefully about what we do today so as not to tire ourselves."
No Russian citizen has yet presented at the Estonian border with call-up papers, following last month's mass mobilization, Vaher went on.
"There's a lot of talk about call-ups, but when we ask for proof of a call-up, we so far haven't received one," he added.
On the other hand, the prospect of a mass crossing of the border, for instance using children or the elderly as human shields, is a level which the Russian regime is more than capable of sinking to, Vaher went on, meaning being prepared on the Estonian side is essential.
This becomes even more poignant as colder weather approaches, and humanitarian rescue with, for instance the use of PPA or other vessels is one possible scenario, while border vigilance during the increasingly long nights is also in hand, Vaher went on.
At the same time, human traffickers and other unsavory elements must be combatted – here the experience of Lithuania and Poland on their border with Belarus is valuable, the PPA chief went on.
As to people who had already been waiting in the vicinity of the southeastern Estonian border, on the Russian side, according to some sources people have assembled at a monastery near Petseri, while sources have said that buses are moving towards Belarus, Vaher went on.
Since the number of people drafted into military service in areas closer to Estonia is likely to rise, Vaher went on, while numbers of Ukrainian refugees may rise as damaged homes become uninhabitable in colder weather, meaning extra preparedeness along these lines is needed to.
Vaher considers an organized hybrid operation to the Estonian border as probable. "I would say that I don't doubt if it will happen, I'm more concerned with when it will happen and how to be ready for it," he said.
Hybrid operations on the border, he added are also a possible development.
Estonian NGOs focused on aid to Ukraine have highlighted how people fleeing the war have been impeded once reaching the border with Estonia, while Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) said Thursday that the reported removal of refugees from the border by Russian authorities on Wednesday is no coincidence.
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Editor: Andrew Whyte