6 Nov 2015

The Russo-Estonian “spy war”

“Eston Kohver was arrested by the FSB on 5 September 2014 in the Pskov region on the border with Estonia. Representatives of the FSB declared that he was conducting intelligence activity on the territory of Russia and that they had found a pistol with ammunition, special equipment and  5000 euros cash at him. At the same time the Estonian side insisted that Mr. Kohver was abducted by Russian special services from the territory of their country, when he was investigating the case of smuggling.” (source: Kommersant)

Russia insists that Kohver was engaged in intelligence activity on Russian territory. If you want to spy on another country, you do not go into the forest near the border with a pistol in your hand. It is the easiest way to deconspire yourself, intelligence does not work like that. But if you do that, at least, you must have cover documents with you. It is much more likely that Kohver was indeed investigating a smuggling case (the money is a bit more difficult to explain, though).
So what could have been the intention of Russia with the kidnapping?
To prevent Estonian secret services to reveal the smuggling case that could have been sponsored by Russian secret services as Kadri Liik suggested? Well, in that case, it was the best way to bring to the limelight a case that otherwise would not have raised much attention worldwide... Extracting information about Estonian counter-intelligence? As several Russian spies were uncovered in Estonia, it is unlikely that Russia could extract any new and valuable information from an officer working on smuggling cases. Demonstrating that Estonia is aggressively spying on Russia? Moscow’s allegations were not very convincing. Demonstrating Russia’s determination and capabilities and sending a signal to Estonia? (it happened just two days after Obama’s visit in the Baltic states and the announcement of sending NATO troops to these countries) So far it seems the most likely motivation for me.

The swap of Eston Kohver and Alexei Dressen that took place on 26th of September this year was only one episode in a kind of “spy war” going on between Estonia and Russia since 2008, the arrest of Herman Simm.
According to Postimees [1], the timing was not accidental: it was just a couple of days before the Putin-Obama meeting where the two leaders discussed the situation on Syria and Ukraine.  However, the swap is not the only element in the spy war that was motivated by political considerations: in fact all the actions that were made public were driven by foreign policy goals and momentary interests on both sides.
Intelligence activity is going on all the time, irrespective of the current relations of countries. However, even though spies are being caught time to time, these cases are rarely revealed. First, it is much easier to keep an eye on someone who is already known to be a spy than a new person eventually sent to replace them. Second, if the country’s counter-intelligence is professional enough, they can start a game and use the revealed spy to spread disinformation and uncover his/her contacts or the whole network. And, probably the most important, revealing that someone managed to pass on a considerable amount of secret information is confessing that the counter-intelligence of the given country is not functioning properly.
Herman Simm was nabbed because his contact person, using Portugal nationality came to the attention of another NATO country’s counterintelligence. However, as we can see, this person who ran him was not arrested, but observed for some time, that is how Simm came under suspicion. Although it is possible that the decision on Simm’s arrest was made because he was considered to be one of the most damaging spies on NATO [2], thus constituting a serious security threat, his activity could have been stopped without the noisy arrest. Most probably, the decision was made not by Estonia alone but by the leaders of the alliance. The goal of bringing up the case was to score a point against Russia in the background of the Russo-Georgian war.
Aleksei Dressen, who was swapped for Kohver was arrested on the 22 February 2012. His arrest could perhaps be connected to the controversial Russian presidential elections in 2012 when popular protests against Vladimir Putin were repressed, but it is possible that it was part of Estonia’s strategy to discredit Russia with whom the relations severely deteriorated after the 2007 Bronze Soldier incident and the cyberattacks on Estonia.
The kidnapping of Kohver could have been a Russian answer as it perfectly suited actual Russian interests: first, having caught an ‘Estonian spy’ Russia could (or at least was trying to) demonstrate after these two Estonian spy fiascos that not only Russia is spying on Estonia, but also Estonia on Russia; second, bringing someone home who worked for Russia and who can be celebrated as a national hero is always a good way to secure popular support and raise patriotic feelings [3] (the latter also works for Estonia).
Such kind of events always have to be evaluated on the background of current foreign policy issues and foreign policy strategies, not on only the basis of the specific details of the espionage case, as the escalation of this cases is motivated by foreign policy considerations.

3 Feb 2015

A bad joke or copying the Russian method? The 'People's Republic of Vilnius/Wilno'

Yesterday, Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza reported about a Facebook group promoting the 'Peoples' Republic of Wilno/Vilnius' demanding the deployment of 'little green men' and organization of a referendum among the 'autochton population'  in Vilnius and its surroundings.

According to Gazeta Wyborcza, a similar site had already been blocked by Facebook earlier, it is now the second attempt. The Internet address given on the site is zs.mil.pl, a rifleman association cooperating with the Ministry of Defense of Poland. Asked by Wyborcza, the Chief Commander or the association commented that they are a non-political organization, they have definitely no connection to the Facebook site and will inform the prosecutor's office about the issue which he called a provocation. 

profile picture of the Facebook site of the group

There are a lot of controversial materials on the site. For example, photos of street signs from Poland in Polish and Lithuanian, where the Lithuanian name is covered with red paint (allusion to the Lithuanian ban of street signs in languages other than Lithuanian), a photo of the tower of Gediminas in Vilnius with a photoshopped Polish flag on the top, a picture of Polish tanks with the inscription: 'Where is the Seimas?' (the Lithuanian parliament) or a video about alleged Polish volunteers fighting in Donetsk and Lugansk on the side of the separatists. The most concerning are the instructions to people living in the Vilnius area who want to take part in separatist activity. They suggest them to form small groupings (3-4 people) and carry out provocations.

Xportal, a Polish rightwing-nationalist website also writes about the initiative and says that it is supported not only by the Poles, but also the Russians and Belarussians living in the Vilnius region and suffering discrimination by the Lithuanian state. Former vice-minister of culture of Lithuania and secretary of the Association of Poles in Lithuania Edward Trusewicz called the action a 'cheap provocation'. 

Lithuanian news portal delfi.lt reported about the Facebook site already in the end of January and drew attention to the fact that it equally criticizes the Lithuanian and the Polish governments.  Delfi adds that inciting national hatred can be punished up to 3 years of imprisonment. 

The title of the page is given in Polish and Russian as well. The page has now over 1600 likes. 

Poles make up about 7% of the population of Lithuania (there are 6% of Russians). The Polish minority lives in a compact area around Vilnius where they are the majority. Poles are dissatisfied with current Lithuanian legislation which bans the use of non-Lithuanian street signs and non-Lithuanian spelling of names. The leader of the Polish minority party Polish Electoral Action and MEP Waldemar Tomaszewski was accused by the head of the Polish senate with pro-Russian sentiments when he wore the Saint George ribbon on the commemoration of 9 May last year. 





29 Jan 2015

People's Republic of Latgale?

photo by antiglobalisti.org

In an earlier post, I have already written on the problem of Daugavpils and the Latgale region. Yesterday, a Facebook comment about the possible flag of a breakaway Latgale with a name inspired by the People's Republic of Donetsk and Lugansk, provoked public scandal in Latvia. Investigation is being carried out by the Security Police (Drošības polīcija) on the issue as an attempt to undermine Latvia's territorial integrity. The comment was posted in a discussion started by Russian minority activist Vladimir Linderman.
Another person published a map of the possible territory of the new republic with a comment: 'I am Latgalian' ('Я латгалец') and that the majority of Latgalians are dreaming about it. The picture with the map is circulating on the Internet in recent days and the flag was originally designed by a Latgalian ethnographer and now overlaid by the text in Russian: 'Latgale's People's Republic'.
In 2013, a criminal process had been started against  Linderman on the basis of his organizational activities and utterances on the idea of Latgale's autonomy.

by nra.lv

Clearly, the separatists appeal to the regional identity of the minority (mainly Russian speaking) population of the region. It may indicate that an eventual fusion with Russia would not be enticing for the Russian speakers of Latvia (especially having in mind the differences of living standards in the Russian Federation and Latvia). But is is very likely, that such initiatives are coming from Russia, as they are in line with Russia's geopolitical interests. Russian influence also appears to be more acceptable wrapped in local identity, which is usually associated with civic movements.  In this case, separatists try to make use of a distinctive cultural-territorial identity, which already exists for several hundred years.
Latgale is a historically-culturally distinct region of Latvia. Latvians living there speak a special dialect of Latvian, often characterised as a distinct language. Latgale was under Polish rule from the 17th century until 1918. That is the reason why most Latvians living there are Catholics (in contrast with the Lutheran Latvians in other regions of the country). Besides that, Latgale always experienced stronger Lithuanian and Eastern Slavic cultural influence than the rest of Latvia. Serfdom was abolished in 1861, a couple of decades later than in other Latvian territories, which also resulted in the economic backwardness of the region. After becoming part of the independent Latvia in 1918, Latgale received wide autonomy (including the recognition of Latgalian as an official language besides Latvian.) After the Ulmanis-coup in 1934, the autonomy of Latgale was curtailed. Under Soviet rule, Latgalian identity and culture were banned. Latgalian language as a dialect of Latvian is now protected by the state, e. g. in Latvian state radio there is a radio programme in Latgalian.
According to deputies of the Saeima, separatist tendencies are not even nearly as prevalent as they are sometimes pictured, but economic problems in the region raise most concerns of the inhabitants and therefore must receive more attention.







15 Jan 2015

Priorities of the Latvian EU Presidency

Latvia has taken over the presidency of the Council of the European Union by the beginning of this year. 
In the next semester, the most important tasks for the EU are to take step towards growth after the crisis and to overcome geopolitical challenges.

As the most important goals of the Latvian presidency, Jean-Claude Juncker highlighted the 'boosting of Europe's competitiveness by improving investment climate, delivering a borderless digital Europe and a strong energy union'. 

the European Commission in Riga

Latvia has summarized its priorities in three phrases: Competitive Europe, Digital Europe and Engaged Europe. 

Competitive Europe

In order to enhance competitiveness, Europe has to facilitate job creation and thus also promote social cohesion. It is possible to achieve through efficient structural reforms and growth-stimulating investment measures.
In order to achieve these aims, the main tasks which have to be completed are to continue to work on the single market, to enhance the competitiveness of industry by better regulation, launch discussion and start working on the Energy Union. 

Latvia was especially severely hit by the financial crisis, nevertheless, thanks to strict austerity measures it has overcome it so quickly that in 2014 euro could be introduced in the country. Therefore Latvia has some kind of authority in this aspect.

 Digital Europe

The main goals under this section are the advancement of data protection, progressing the work on the Telecommunications Market package and starting discussions on the Digital Single Market Strategy. 

In order to realize these goals, the Presidency plans to seek agreement on the General Data Protection Regualation and Directive; to implement the EU Cyber Security Strategy, finalise negotiations on the Network and Information Security Directive (NIS); to eliminate online borders, remove restrictions; find a balance between high-quality services and a reasonable cost for customers as well as to promote e-Government.

In Latvia, Internet coverage and speed are among the best of Europe. It can be explained by the fact that telecommunication infrastructure in the Baltic states was extremely underdeveloped in the beginning of the 1990s, and new technologies were implemented at once, skipping the older types of networks.

Engaged Europe

Engaged Europe means promoting Europe's role as a global player. It translates into the review of the Neighbourhood Policy, enhancing transatlantic partnership and focusing on post-2015 development goals. 

The Latvian Presidency emphasizes the importance of both the Eastern and the Southern relations, but plans to devote particular attention to the Eastern Partnership. The strengthening of transatlantic ties in practice involves concluding negotiation on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement, as well as advancing trade agreements with Canada and Japan. Latvia will promote the creation of an EU-Central Asia policy in order to enhance discussions on security, border management, energy supply and educational exchange. The post-2015 goals will focus mainly on sustainable development. Security policy issues are also emphasized, such as threats posed by foreign fighters, migration and containing ebola. The enlargement will stay on the agenda as well. 

Notes on the 2015 EaP Summit in Riga

There is a kind of competition between the presiding eastern member states of the EU in the field of Eastern Partnership Policy. Almost each of them is aspiring to hold an Eastern Partnership Summit during its presidency and accomplish something important in the process of integration of Eastern neighbours. The Summit in Vilnius brought unexpected outcomes, giving an impetus the crisis in Ukraine that changed the political situation in Europe. This year, there will also be an EaP Summit in Riga, where the negotiations with Ukraine will have probably the most attention. 
Latvian minister of foreign affairs Edgars Rinkēvičs in June called for a review of the Eastern partnership and argued for an individual approach for EaP countries, taking their specific interests into account, having in mind the elaboration o cooperation mechanisms for countries not wishing to join the EU (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus). 
Preparing for the presidency, Latvia was planning to focus on the Central Asian region, as so far it has received less attention in the EU, but energy resources and geopolitical location assign it ever greater importance. However, the Latvian Presidency will most probably have to deal with the consequences of the crisis in Ukraine and the deteriorating relation between the EU and Russia. 

Gaismas pils/Castle of Light
photo: Evija Trifanove / LETA

The meetings held in Riga are taking place in the new building of the National Library (also called Gaismas pils - The Castle of Light), the construction of which was finished last year. 






13 Jan 2015

EU taking up the fight against Russian propaganda?

Vilnius TV tower (photo from www.flickr.com/photos/mindze/)
This week, the regulatory body for radio and television in Lithuania has launched a legal process to stop the translation of the programmes of Russian TV channel Ren TV Baltic for three months. According to the motivation, the station's programmes on the war in Ukraine spread one-sided information and were instigating war and hatred. The allegations were backed by the opinions of media experts from the University of Vilnius. 
The commission also decided to launch the banning procedure of two other Russian channels, RTR Planeta and NTV Mir Lithuania because  it  is lacking of journalistic objectivity, transmitting unproven information and propaganda. Broadcasting of these two channels has already been banned for three months last spring. The highest term for banning according to Lithuanian law is one year. The European Commission will also be informed about the process.

logo of REN TV

Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of Lithuania, Estonia, Denmark and Great Britain have turned to the European Commission to work out an action plan for fighting Russian propaganda, stating that 'Russia is rapidly increasing its disinformation and propaganda campaign' in order to support the 'political and military aims of the Russian government'. They suggested that Russian propaganda warfare should be discussed at the meeting of EU ministers and the European External Action Service should work out an action plan on this problem for 2015-2016. It should include the creation of information alternatives for the Russian speaking populations of the EU (ethnic Russians and Russian speakers are concentrated in the three Baltic states), whose main source of information at present is state-controlled Russian media. Lithuanian minister of foreign affairs, Linas Linkevičius who is the main initiator of the proposal says their aim is not to ban or censor Russian channels but to provide an alternative and impartial source of information, in order to increase 'the society's immunity to manipulations'. According to the proposal, the EU should support initiatives to create Russian-language television channels, Internet portals, radios and press.

Russia has already criticized the plan put forward by Lithuania, Estonia, Denmark and the UK to counter Russian propaganda, stating that creating a counterpropaganda channel goes against the freedom of press.

In the same time, there is a similar initiative to create a Russian-language European TV channel, backed by 15 member states (including the UK, Scandinavian and Eastern member states such as Poland). Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvičs told Buzz Feed News that the EU's Russian TV channel would translate 'very factually accurate news' as well as entertainment programmes.


The EU has lagged behind Russia in this field, as it is not oriented to geopolitics and understands soft power differently than Russia. NATO has already realized the significance of propaganda and created the Strategic Communication Centre of Excellence in Riga last year to provide an alternative to the official Russian narrative.


2 Jan 2015

New Lithuanian laws to prepare for hybrid and cyber warfare

From the 1st of January, besides joining the Eurozone, a couple of new regulations will enter into force in Lithuania which that can be understood as precautions in case of non-conventional military attacks.

photo by delfi.lv

According to the new law about the use of military force in time of peace, adopted in the end of last year, the military will be entitled to use weapons also in time of peace, and not only for self-defence as until now, if there would be turmoil in the country, provoked by terrorist acts and if the opponent would use heavy artillery. In state of emergency, liquidating a terrorist act or ordered by the president to react on a local conflict or border violation, soldiers will have the right to give instructions to physical or legal persons, persecute and arrest people, get into private territories and premises and examine them, stop and examine transport vehicles, restrict access to areas and premises, check personal documents and search through personal belongings.
The permission to use weapons in time of peace will be given by the president and step into power immediately, however, it can be recalled by the next session of the parliament. 

It also means that even if there is no war declared officially between Lithuania and another state, but terrorists, armed with heavy weapons appear on the territory of the country, uniformed soldiers would be entitled to seize food products from shops, vehicles from the citizens or occupy their private territory in order to carry out operations. In such cases, citizens will be obliged to obey soldiers just as until now they had to comply with the instructions of policemen. In case of failing to do so, citizens could be fined to 25-144 euros, officials - 144-289 euros.
The law was adopted in Seimas without negative votes.

As the chairman of the Defence Committee of the Lithuanian Parliament, Artūras Paulauskas commented, the new regulation was designed to react on the new geopolitical situation and to repel non-conventional attacks  and react on incidents not qualified as aggression.
(In the middle of December, higher alertness was introduced at some military units for a couple of days. According to military officials, it was not the first time, but now they decided to inform the public about it, as from 2014, Russia stopped to give notices to Lithuania about military exercises in the border areas.)

Another new measure in the field of security is the creation of Cybersecurity Centre (Kibernetinio saugumo centras). The task of the new institution is to protect state institutions and their information systems from cyberattacks. Until now, each institution was responsible for its own cybersecurity separately, but from now on, it will be coordinated by Cybersecurity centre, controlled by the Ministry of Defence. 

There will also be some changes affecting national minorities (especially the Poles). From this year on, it will not be possible to write surnames in documents with letters other than the Lithuanian alphabet, however, it will be allowed for every citizen to indicate their nationality in passports if they ask for it.