When thousands of people are moving away from border crossing points in a short period of time, we must be prepared for all kinds of scenarios, including an orchestrated information and hybrid attack by the Russian authorities. The plans and preparations of the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) cannot be based solely on the actions and testimonies of Russian volunteers, writes Estonian Interior Minister Lauri Läänemets (SDE).
The situation on Estonia's south-eastern border has been in a constant state of flux over recent weeks. This is largely a result of the actions of the Russian border guards, but also of local volunteers and activists, about whom it is extremely difficult for us to obtain reliable information or make predictions. We have even less ability to control these activities.
It is the role of the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) to identify which of the people crossing the border crossers really are Ukrainian war refugees, to ensure they are accepted quickly and, in cooperation with the Women's Voluntary Defense Forces (Naiskodukaitse) and the Social Insurance Board, are provided with initial assistance and support on the ground, as well as with their onward journeys, if necessary.
Around one week ago, the number of Ukrainian refugees arriving in Estonia via Russia started to increase significantly. The number almost doubled to about 750 people a day.
At the same time, we also started to receive information about long queues on the Russian side, where refugees had been waiting for several days to cross the border, essentially under dark skies and in very poor conditions. The problem became more acute as the days went by, and on Tuesday, refugees who had arrived in Estonia told us about a four to five day long queue.
The sudden and unexpected shrinking of the border queue occurred overnight. Sometime on Tuesday night going into Wednesday or on Wednesday morning, the queue practically disappeared, and it disappeared extremely quickly. Information from border crossers arriving in Estonia suggests that some (in the queue) may have been bussed elsewhere. We have no firm information about who exactly transported them, why and to where. We have heard rumors that some of them may be being accommodated in Petseri.
The PPA has also received information suggesting that some Ukrainians may have been transported to other crossing points to cross the border. That people did not simply cross the border at a faster pace (than before) is supported by our statistics at the border crossing point. According to our information, there is still a small queue of refugees on the Russian side, looking to cross the border by car.
An important source of information
The testimonies provided by those crossing the border crossers about what is happening on the Russian side are an important source of information for us. We ask them about the length of the queue and the conditions on the Russian side under which they had to wait to cross the border. Refugees who have arrived in Estonia often show PPA officers photos they have taken of the queue on the Russian side on their mobile phones. For the PPA, this information is important in order to know the number of refugees to expect, for how long, and what kind of assistance they may require.
For example, the PPA, together with the Social Insurance Agency, have organized everything necessary at the border crossing point to provide food, water and warm conditions for people who have been waiting for days in the cold, as well as transport for those who need it.
What I have just described is not only happening in Estonia. In Helsinki, I met with the Latvian Interior Minister, Kristaps Eklons, who said that there had been similar developments at their border (with Russia) at the same time (as they were happening here.) On Wednesday, a huge queue (of people) disappeared, just like in our case.
According to information from Latvia, the queue also predominantly consists of people in trucks and cars, with few people traveling on foot. They also have no information to share regarding whether the people there were taken, to where they were taken or how this may have happened. As of Friday evening, we also know that the Lithuanian border guards have no information about Ukrainian refugees arriving from the Estonian or Latvian border crossings, so they have probably not reached there yet.
The majority of refugees who are now entering Estonia want to move southwards from here, with most of the buses organized, going to Warsaw. In fact, many Ukrainian refugees also want to cross Estonia so that they can return to Ukraine.
The long journey through Russia and then the countries of the European Union is essentially the only way that these people, who have fled eastern Ukraine to reach western Ukraine, can avoid passing through an active war zone where bullets are flying and bombs are falling. And, in many cases, they are unable to enter the war zone at all. Indeed, people coming from these regions prefer to enter Estonia via the south-eastern border, rather than through Narva, because it is a shorter route and many have arranged transport in advance.
Prepared for different scenarios
With thousands of people moving away from controlled border crossing points in such a short period of time, we need to be prepared for all kinds of scenarios that may occur. This includes an orchestrated information and hybrid attack by the Russian authorities, which may involve claims of a crisis in one of our border areas.
It is no secret that the PPA, together with its partners, has been thoroughly rehearsing thoroughly over the past year for a scenario in which the Russian authorities direct refugees to an inconvenient or undesirable location and force them to cross the border there.
The plausibility of this scenario was supported by false information spread on the Russian side, which said that Estonia would block the passage of refugees at our border crossing. This was completely untrue.
The last time the PPA, together with the Defense League and its other partners, trained for a possible hybrid attack at the border, was just a few weeks ago. At the moment, we have seen no signs of this threat materializing, and there have been no illegal border crossings in the area between official crossing points. However, we are certainly monitoring the border situation closely and are ready to react swiftly if the situation changes.
If it is true that the reduction in queues is actually a result of efforts made by pro-opposition volunteers in Russia, then this can only be welcomed. The priority is to ensure that war refugees are able to leave Russia safely, and that we do not continue to have people in freezing conditions for days on end at the Russian side of the border.
We will certainly keep in touch with our friendly counterparts in neighboring countries to seek confirmation regarding whether they have observed more active movement of refugees at their borders than before.
However, it is important to emphasize above all, that our government agencies cannot make plans or preparations solely on the basis of the activities of Russian volunteers. Due to the changing situation, and in the absence of a single piece of verifiable information about what is happening on the other side of our eastern border, we constantly have to consider different scenarios (which may unfold) and be prepared for them.
Editor: Michael Cole