Estonia was still in the afterglow of President Obama’s visit – and his promises of unwavering Western support against possible Russian threats – when a security services agent named Eston Kohver headed toward the borderlands near Russia.
His bosses say Kohver was investigating a suspected smuggling ring with top-level Russian links. Russia claims he crossed into Moscow’s territory on Sept. 5 in an alleged covert operation.
Kohver is now behind bars in Moscow’s high-security Lefortovo prison with possible espionage charges awaiting, the Associated Press reports.
As the political battle over his fate escalates, so do the chances that he could become the latest flashpoint between the West and Russia with tensions already high over the Ukraine conflict and widening U.S. and European sanctions.
On Friday, nine European countries demanded Kohver’s immediate release. Among them were the three former Soviet republics in the Baltics – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – whose worries about the Kremlin have never fully eased.
Each country has significant Russian-speaking minorities who look eastward for security and cultural kinship. Some of the Russian families arrived after World War II under a Soviet program to reorder the ethnic balance in the Baltic region.
Last week, Obama told Baltic leaders that America and its NATO partners would always have their back against any aggression by Russia. He kept up the Cold War-style rhetoric by announcing more U.S. warplanes would be stationed on Russia’s doorstep in the Baltics.
“You lost your independence before. With NATO you will never lose it again,” Obama told a group of mostly students during a speech Sept. 3 at a concert hall in Estonia’s capital Tallinn.
Two days later, Kohver was abducted at gunpoint and taken into Russian custody, according to Estonian officials. Estonia’s police chief, Elmar Vaher, told the national broadcaster ERR that Kohver was probing an alleged smuggling operation with possible links to Russian government agents. Estonian authorities describe the 44-year-old Kohver as a decorated security official and a highly experienced investigator.
Two lawyers hired by Estonia’s government have met with Kohver in Moscow and said they believe he will be charged with espionage, the AP reported. Another hearing is scheduled for next week. He could face up to 20 years in jail if convicted of spying, the AP said.
In Brussels, the European Union said the abduction on Estonian territory “runs against international law and the principle of inviolability of borders.”
Russian media reports portrayed Kohver’s possessions as suspicious. But the cache also seemed in line with a special investigator on a case: a pistol, ammunition, 5,000 euros, recording equipment and, according to state-run Itar-Tass, “materials indicative of an intelligence mission."
Earlier this week, Russian television broadcast video provided by the FSB, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB, showing Kohver being led into a Moscow courtroom by operatives wearing black masks.