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Russia and its tiny neighbor Estonia are embroiled in an alleged spy controversy. Estonia says Russian agents kidnapped one of its intelligence officials in a cross-border raid. Russia says the man was caught spying on its territory. The affair began just days after President Obama gave a speech in Estonia promising to protect the NATO ally against foreign aggression. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Here's how the Russian TV Channel NTV reported the story when it first broke.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)
UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: (Through translator) The FSB has announced the discovery of an intelligence operation undertaken by an Estonian citizen.
FLINTOFF: The FSB is Russia's federal security service. The report showed video of items that the Estonian was allegedly carrying.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)
UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: (Through translator) He was found with a Taurus handgun, bullets, a large sum of money and special equipment for covert audio recording.
FLINTOFF: In other words, the Russians say he was packing classic spy gear. The video shows the Estonian suspect, Eston Kohver, being taken to a police station in handcuffs. He's a craggy, fit-looking man with close-cropped, blond hair. Estonia acknowledges that Kohver is one of their intelligence officers. But the resemblance to Russia's version of the story ends there.
This is Eerik Kross, a former Estonian national security adviser describing his country's story.
EERIK KROSS: Jammers were used, the communication was suppressed and smoke grenades are used. This is actually a standard procedure for a tactical operation like this.
FLINTOFF: Estonia says that Kohver was on the Estonian side of the border waiting to meet with someone he thought was an informer in a smuggling case that he was investigating. The Estonians say that a Russian team jammed communications in the area, fired smoke bombs to cover their moves, crossed the border, kidnapped Kohver and dragged him back into Russia.
Kross says there was some hope that whatever problem there was could be worked out quietly. But that hope was gone after the Russians made the incident public and charged Kohver with spying.
Mark Galeotti is a professor at New York University and a specialist in Russian security issues. He believes that Russia did snatch the Estonian agent in a cross-border raid. And he thinks Russia did it for several reasons. The first was to show that Russia is not intimidated by Obama's promise that NATO will defend Estonia.
MARK GALEOTTI: Secondly, it's sending a message to the smaller countries of NATO along its border that they should realize that NATO is a beast that is very good at doing one thing, which is responding to an overt military act. But it's not so good at dealing with the whole variety of other ways that Russia can bring pressure to bear.
FLINTOFF: Finally, Galeotti says, the affair is an effort by Russia to see if it can help divide the western alliance. Eerik Kross, the Estonian security analyst, says Estonia doesn't expect NATO to get involved.
KROSS: We consider this a bilateral issue. This is our guy, our border, our fight. And we have been dealing with the Russians for a very long time. And I think we are quite capable of dealing with this one too.
FLINTOFF: But Kross says it's important to view the incident in a wider context to consider what it would take to trigger the NATO promise that an attack on one of the alliance members is an attack on them all.
In the meantime, a Russian court has ordered Eston Kohver to be held for two months pending the investigation of his case. If he's convicted of spying, he could face as much as 20 years in a Russian prison. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moskow.
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