Real danger is when Putin goes after the Baltics
A little-heralded operation carried out by the FSB in Estonia shows exactly how Russia regards the Baltic states - and the threat posed by Nato.
The trap was laid with meticulous precision. The target was a senior officer in Estonia's version of MI5 and the bait was supposedly vital information about organised crime. Eston Kohver was lured to a meeting in a lonely woodland at 9am on a Friday. However, his erstwhile contact was accompanied by an armed snatch squad from Russia's FSB intelligence service. Mr Kohver's bodyguard was swiftly neutralised with stun grenades; for good measure, their communications were also jammed. Then the spy was spirited at gunpoint across the Russian border five miles away.
This brazen abduction of an intelligence officer from his homeland took place on September 5 last year, only two days after US President Barack Obama had visited Estonia to offer reassurance about America's commitment to its security. Mr Kohver was later paraded on Russian television and charged with subverting the very state that had carried out his kidnapping.
This incident passed largely unnoticed in the West, but Estonia and its Baltic neighbours, Latvia and Lithuania, drew a stark conclusion. Instead of observing the normal rules, Russia was prepared to do exactly what it wished on their territory. All three countries fall into the uniquely sensitive category of being former Soviet republics that are now members of Nato and the EU. For over a decade, the Baltic states have been paid-up members of the Atlantic Alliance, but they take incidents like Mr Kohver's kidnapping as proof that, deep down, Russia still views them as vassals. And the fate of Ukraine makes them feel acutely vulnerable. Day by day, Russian President Putin is dismembering his neighbour. If he concludes that his adventure in Ukraine has served Russia's interests, then he will turn on new targets - and the trio of countries along the Baltic coast would probably be next. Michael Fallon, the British Defence Secretary, describes a "real and present danger". If Russia were to threaten Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, there is one simple reason why the ensuing crisis would dwarf everything in Ukraine. As members of Nato, all three countries are protected by the North Atlantic Treaty. Article V of this agreement states that "an armed attack" against any signatory "shall be considered an attack against them all", requiring any counter-measures "including the use of armed force".
Put bluntly, members are legally obliged to defend Estonia's 203-mile border with Russia. In case this needs to be spelt out any further, this would entail going to war with a country that possesses the world's biggest arsenal of nuclear weapons. So conflict that begins on the shores of the Baltic could, in extremis, escalate into one that threatens the survival of humanity. For this reason, a Russian invasion remains highly unlikely. The greatest danger is that Mr Putin would use methods that fall short of classic invasion. Look no further than Ukraine, which provides vivid proof of Russia's mastery of "hybrid warfare", namely the use of every method of force and coercion except full-scale conflict. The crisis in eastern Ukraine began with the occupation of public buildings by people who proclaimed their loyalty to Russia. At first, these masked men were armed with sticks and baseball bats. When they took over City Hall in Donetsk, everything continued around them, with officials holding a meeting on the municipal drains as the first barricade went up.
But these occupations spread like wildfire, leading to the birth of the "Donetsk People's Republic". From the beginning, Russian special forces and military intelligence were providing the planning, muscle and logistics. Soon, Russia was supplying the weapons and volunteers that allowed the "People's Republic" to wage war on Ukraine. And all the while, the Kremlin's media mounted a furious propaganda campaign, labelling the government in Kiev a "fascist junta" bent on murdering Russians and creating a "Western colony for gays and paedophiles".
(© Daily Telegraph, London)