Estonian officials have been ready to face a so-called migration attack from Russia for a long time – the only real question was when it would occur, Veiko Kommusaar, deputy director general at the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) said. ERR News outlines the situation and what could happen next.
Kommusaar has been active in the field of internal security for over 20 years and served as undersecretary for internal security at the Ministry of the Interior until this August. He has also held various roles at the PPA.
The situation at the Finnish border over the last week, where dozens of third-country migrants are trying to enter without legal basis every day, has not come out of nowhere. It follows directly on from the crisis on the Latvian, Lithuanian, and Polish borders with Belarus that started in 2021. While the international media's attention turned elsewhere, the problem never went away.
The number of people attempting to cross the border has risen and fallen over the years, however, Kommusaar said: "The situation is far from over."
"Generally, if I'm looking at the full regional picture, it hasn't changed," Kommusaar said, summarizing the last three years. Belarus has not altered its tactics during this time either, he said.
Estonia has not been as affected as its southern neighbors and has instead been used as a transit country to reach Scandinavia. Extra security checks were introduced at ports in the north and on the southern border with Latvia which stopped international coaches. Occasionally, migrants were caught by officers. But, migration problems were not detected on the Russian border.
But politicians and officials knew it was only ever a matter of time until the "hybrid attacks" headed north.
"We have been expecting this for a long time," Kommusaar said. "It wasn't a question of if this will happen, it was when will the Russian Federation join the same track as Belarus."
In order to prepare, several teams of law enforcement were sent to work on the Latvian, Lithuanian, and Polish borders after the countries requested extra help. The latest rotation returned from Latvia last week after a record uptick of migrants was recorded this summer. Officers patrolled Lithuania's border during the NATO Vilnius summit in July. Estonian politicians have already said they will send help to Finland if the government asks.
Kommusaar said the PPA was "not surprised" by what it saw on its neighbors' borders.
"What we have learned from the Belarusian side's activities is that we can expect such regimes to use all means, including people or personnel, to attack democratic countries, and violence," he said.
Last year, the Estonian government legalized migrant pushbacks in an "emergency immigration situation." This allows border guards to send migrants back across the Russian border if they cross at a non-official crossing point without accepting asylum claims. This is technically against international law.
After their experiences in neighboring countries, Estonian officers know how to handle such situations. A press release from the PPA said they helped "apprehend" over 900 migrants in Latvia this summer.
"We have learned a lot from this situation," Kommusaar said. "There were people who stopped the [Belarusian security] officials, who stopped the illegal border crossings."
The deputy director general pointed out that Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland have already taken similar moves to legalize the pushbacks.
"Currently we have not used that yet. But if the circumstances change dramatically and rapidly, we are not afraid to use it," he said. "We will choose all the necessary activities wisely and we'll activate them when the situation is actually happening and what we're facing on the border actually requires it from us."
At the moment, the majority of migrants in Finland are being directed to official border crossings, which is similar to events in 2015 and 2016 that were also blamed on Russia. The situation is occurring in a smaller, calmer way in Estonia, but the same trend is seen.
"We saw that officials are actually helping them get through. To support and help them to find the way to border crossing points," Kommusaar said. "We are not entirely sure why they choose these tactics. It might be one part of their gameplay. It might change.
"This could be Finland's punishment for its choice to join NATO, for example. On the other hand, redirecting individuals to border points seems to provide some legitimacy to their actions in the eyes of Russia"
Speaking to ERR News several hours before the Finnish government announced it would shut all but one crossing on the eastern border, the official said he expected the Finns to take a harder line in the near future.
"After that, we will see how their [Russia's] modus operandi or activities will change and in which way and which direction it will go," he said.
Officials have already pointed out that the closure of the Finnish border could see the migration flow redirected to Estonia. If this happens, it's down to the PPA to understand the threat and call an emergency. Kommusaar has previously said closing Estonia's border cannot be ruled out and the decision can be made in "minutes."
Asked what criteria would have to be met, Kommusaar said one scenario is if a large number of people without the legal right to enter the European Union attempts to cross the border illegally.
"Then we are allowed to activate such instruments," the official said. "Another reason why we might do that is if we don't have enough resources to deal with the situation. If we need extra resources from other agencies, from Estonian partners, or we need assistance from our friendly neighboring countries or international or European agencies."
Finland has already requested help from the EU's Border and Coast Guard agency, known as Frontex. Estonia also has the right to do so if necessary and it can ask for backup from Latvia and Lithuania. Legislation passed last year also allows the PPA to call in reservists from the Estonian Defense League.
So far, two groups of migrants have attempted to enter Estonia at Narva, approximately 30 people in total since last Thursday (November 16). All of them were denied entry and sent back to Russia, Kommusaar said.
"They didn't have any legal grounds to enter the Estonian and European territory," he said. The second attempt on Monday (November 20) was filmed by the Russian border guards and then uploaded online. The PPA has previously called these people "economic migrants."
Asked how it is possible to know this is a "hybrid attack," as described by Minister of Interior Lauri Läänemets (SDE), and not a natural migration flow, Kommusaar said the authorities are involved, which is also reported in Finland.
"Nothing is happening spontaneously because what we see is that the officials from the Belarusian side and the Russian side are involved," he said.
Travelers are not permitted to leave a country if they do not have the right documents for their next country. For example, if a person needs a visa to enter Russia but does not have one, the PPA would not let them pass. The Russian border guards are obliged to act the same way with EU and Schengen visas.
"Usually, when there is a normal relationship between countries, then both border guards are actually looking and making the decisions and telling the people who want to cross the border that they need to have legal grounds to do so," he said. "And what we see right now, is that the same rules which have been in place for a long time, now do not apply on the other side."
Most people who have arrived at the Estonian border are from Somalia or Syria. "Many of those people actually have Russian visas allowing them to stay in Russia," the official said. This means they are unlikely to be able to file an asylum claim.
Describing the route, he said, people legally and voluntarily travel to Russia or Belarus and then seek an illegal way to enter the European Union. "Which is the part supported by state authorities," Kommusaar said. "It's basically a way to attack democratic countries and their values."
The majority of people usually denied entry to Estonia are Russians, Ukrainians, and Moldovans. This year, there has been a big increase in Moldovans, from over 639 in 2022 to over 2,100, but Kommusaar said this is not related. These people are migrant workers in Russia who need exit stamps for bureaucratic reasons. Data shows travelers from African or Middle Eastern countries are not among the top 10 countries.
Southern Estonia is "calm" but the PPA is currently monitoring the whole border. It is also in daily communication with its counterparts in Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.
"We are all in the same situation and we have to be aware of which direction the next attempts are happening or might happen," Kommusaar said.
Asked if the Russians are bringing migrants to the border city, Ivangorod, as they are in Finland, Kommusaar said: "From what we saw, the officials are aware of what's going on in the territory and they are somehow supporting this kind of activities.
"Today we don't see large numbers of people on our borders, but it might change drastically at any moment. Of course, we are prepared for such situations and we will handle them one by one and see how they play out for us."
Estonian citizens and residents are advised not to travel to Russia at the current time, in case circumstances change suddenly and it is difficult to return to the country.
Correction: The number of migrants attempting to enter Narva is 30 in total, PPA data shows. Two groups of 19 and 11.
Editor: Marcus Turovski