"I don’t think it’s 1940,” the woman in Riga told me in June, referring to the year the Soviets brought their own variety of hell to Latvia. “But then, I wouldn’t have expected 1940 in 1940 either.” And then she laughed, nervously. With Russia’s ambitions spilling across the borders that the breakup of the Soviet Union left behind, and talk from Vladimir Putin of a broader Russian World (Russkiy Mir), in which the Kremlin has the right to intervene to “protect” ethnic Russian “compatriots” in former Soviet republics, the once bright line that had cut the Baltic states off from the horrors of their past now seems fuzzy.
And in a more literal sense the borders that separated the Baltics from their old oppressor have lately appeared more vulnerable than once believed. Moscow has been pressing and provoking in the Pribaltika for years—some subversion here, some denial of history there. There have been maliciously random trade bans (Lithuanian cheese, Latvian sprats, and quite a bit more besides) and carefully planned cyberattacks. But the bullying has been stepped up sharply this year. The saber-rattling has evolved from menacing “training exercises,” such as last year’s Zapad-13 (70,000 Russian and Belarusian troops war-gaming their way through a fight against “Baltic terrorists”), to include too many flights by Russian fighters near or even in Baltic airspace to be anything other than part of a significantly more aggressive strategy.
On September 3, Barack Obama traveled to Tallinn, the Estonian capital, to reaffirm NATO’s commitment to the three Baltic states, all of which have been members of the alliance since 2004. Two days later Eston Kohver, an Estonian intelligence officer investigating smuggling across Estonia’s remote and poorly defended southeastern frontier, was, claims Tallinn, grabbed by a group of gunmen and dragged across the border into Russia. His support team at the Luhamaa frontier post nearby were distracted and disoriented by flash grenades and their communications were jammed: They were in no position to help.
Shortly afterwards, Kohver turned up in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison. According to Russia’s rather different version of events, the Estonian was captured while on a mission on the Russian side of the border. Kohver faces espionage charges that could mean decades behind bars. He has “decided” to drop the lawyer that the Estonian government had arranged for him. Court-appointed lawyers will fill the gap. The stage is being set for a show trial, complete, I would imagine, with confession.
After a year of Russian lies over Ukraine, I’m inclined to believe democratic Estonia over Putin’s Russia. The timing was just too good. Barack Obama descends on Tallinn with fine words and a welcome promise of increased support, and Russia promptly trumps that with a move clearly designed to demonstrate who really rules the Baltic roost. In the immediate aftermath of Kohver’s kidnapping the Estonians signaled that they were prepared to treat the whole incident as an unfortunate misunderstanding. No deal. The power play stands, made all the more pointed by the way that it breaks the conventions of Spy vs. Spy, a breach that comes with the implication that Estonia is not enough of a country to merit such courtesies.
If anything could make this outrage worse, it is the historical resonances that come with it. There are the obvious ones, the memories of half a century of brutal Soviet occupation, the slaughter, the deportations, the Gulag, and all the rest. But there are also the echoes of a prelude to that: the kidnapping of a number of Estonians in the border region by the Soviets in the days of the country’s interwar independence, intelligence-gathering operations of the crudest type. These days Russia prefers more sophisticated techniques: Earlier this year, it polled people in largely Russian-speaking eastern Latvia for their views of a potential Crimean-type operation there (as it happens, they weren’t too keen).
But whatever the (pretended) ambiguities of the Kohver case, there were none about what came next. Moscow reopened decades-old criminal cases against Lithuanians who acted on their government’s instructions and declined to serve in the Red Army after Lithuania’s unilateral declaration of independence in March 1990. That government may not have won international recognition at that time, but recognition—including from Moscow—followed within 18 months. To attempt to overturn now what it approved in the interim comes very close to questioning the legitimacy of Lithuanian independence today.