Staunton, August 21 – The arrest on foreign territory, trial in a closed court with a government-supplied lawyer who considered him guilty, and the sentencing of Eston Kohver to 15 years in Russian prisons on trumped up charges of espionage is part and parcel of Vladimir Putin’s “hybrid war” against the West, according to Moscow commentator Yuliya Latynina.
This particular case, of course, is only the latest in a long line of such actions extending back to the 1920s. (On one of the most notorious of those cases, see the new discussion of the kidnapping of White General Kutepov in Paris by Soviet intelligence agents, at artpolitinfo.ru/pustaya-mogila-a-p-kutepova/.)
Many, perhaps most, had thought such actions were a thing of the Soviet past, but Putin has revived them; and in many ways, the most disturbing case is that of Kohver because it represents a direct challenge not only to Estonia but to the EU and NATO and to the US as well, Latynina says (novayagazeta.ru/columns/69611.html).
In September 2014, President Barack Obama declared in Tallinn that NATO and the US would defend Estonia in the event of an attack, she writes in “Novaya gazeta,” but “less than 48 hours” after he did so, the seizure of Kohver on Estonian soil by Russian agents and his illegal transfer to Russia and Russian “justice” called that commitment into question.
By its kidnapping of an Estonian citizen on the territory of his own country, Moscow “demonstrated,” she says, “that Russia can seize an EU citizen on the territory of the EU [and of NATO] and that this will not have any consequences for [Moscow].” Thus it is an act of intimidation and so far at least in part an effective one, she argues.
Estonia has stated that Kohver was near the Russian border because he was investigating smuggling, but Russia has claimed that he was planning to meet with Estonian agents operating inside Russia. But “it is difficult to consider these ‘narratives of equal value,’” despite the tendency of the media to do just that, Latynina says.
She gives four reasons for her conclusions:
First, “immediately after Kohver’s arrest, Russian and Estonian border guards composed an initial protocol of the place where this happened.” The Russian side then refused to sign it because that document made clear that what Tallinn had said was true and what Moscow was claiming was false.
Second, “the Estonian explanation is logical and understandable, but the Chekist one borders on the fantastic.” It strains credibility that some Estonian “spy” would act in the way that Moscow has accused Kohver of acting. No real spy would, and consequently, one must conclude that Kohver wasn’t one, Latynina says.
Third, the Putin government “has a long history of actions which it is difficult to interpret other than the kidnapping of citizens from the territories of neighboring states and then accusing them of illegal crossing of the border,” she points out. Among the other prominent victims of this policy are Leonid Ravozzhayev and Nadezhda Savchenko.
And fourth, Moscow tried Kohver in secret. If it was so confident in its own version of events, it wouldn’t have done so. But even more than that, the Russian authorities allowed Kohver access to only a single attorney who openly suggested that his “client” was in fact “obviously guilty,” an echo of Stalinist times.
Countries can be divided in many ways, Latynina says, “between the developed and underdeveloped, between democracies and dictatorships, and between countries of the third world and those of the first. But countries can also be divided into two categories: those who take as hostages citizens of other countries, and those who don’t do that.”
Among the countries notorious for taking hostages are the Libya of Muammar Qadaffi and the Belarus of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, she writes; and one would assume that such regimes who treat Russian citizens in that way “ought to be our most evil enemies, but in practice things have worked out just the opposite.”
Instead, she continues, “the regimes which take our citizens as hostages are somehow our friends and those who don’t are our enemies.”
“The reason is very simple,” she suggests. “The Kremlin and the hostage-taking regimes live in one world, they have a common understanding of law” as something they can use “and of international politics” as a process in which two leaders can come together and reach agreement regardless of the rules. That is something the West must come to understand.
Latynina concludes with what she says is “one small but important detail.” Many think that the Kremlin has shown its strength by such actions and that the West has time after time shown its “weakness in the face of hybrid war.” But in fact, “hybrid war is precisely a sign of the powerlessness” of those who conduct it.
Whatever people in the Kremlin think about “the importance of ‘a short victorious war,’” in the West, “let us hope,” people understand that in a conventional war, the advantages would all be on the side of the West and Russia would suffer a rapid and crushing defeat.
“To put it crudely,” the Russian analyst says, if Moscow sent tanks into Estonia, they would be destroyed. But “if one seizes Kohver or organizes in Narva the next spontaneous expression of the will of the Russian-language majority mistreated by Estonian fascists, then “these Western wimps will be confused and not know where to shoot.”
Thus, Latynina concludes, “’hybrid war’ translated from geopolitics into ordinary language is simple hooliganism,” a set of actions committed by rulers who care nothing for their own people but only feel the need to make themselves feel important by sowing disorder among others.
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