Estonia Kidnapping Claim Puts NATO on the Hot Seat

Photograph by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Taavi Roivas of Estonia speak in Tallinn, Estonia on Sep. 3, 2014

In what has become an almost daily escalation in Russia’s confrontation with its neighbors, Estonia is reporting that one of its security officers was abducted at gunpoint near the border with Russia and taken into custody by Russian agents. Russia, on the other hand claims that the officer, identified as Eston Kohver, was on an undercover mission inside Russian territory and that he was arrested, not abducted—the difference being a matter of a few hundred feet, it seems, raising the question of whether Kohver was in Estonia or Russia.

Russia’s Federal Security Service said Kohver was carrying a pistol, €;5,000 in cash, and surveillance equipment. Estonia claims that Kohver was grabbed at about 9 a.m. and that his assailants used smoke grenades and jammed radio communication in the area.

The incident comes just two days after President Obama visited the Estonian capital of  Tallinn and pledged that NATO would defend Estonia—a member of the Western alliance since 2004—and other Eastern Europe countries in the face of potential Russian aggression. Is Russia calling his and NATO’s bluff? The full details of what happened and motivations on both sides remain murky. But the abduction/arrest took place in the context of Russia’s shadowy strategy over the past five months in Eastern Ukraine.

The question is what, if anything, will NATO do about the Estonian incident? The point of the alliance is that it will mobilize in defense of any of its members. Will all of NATO, including the U.S., go to war with Vladimir Putin in the event of hostilities between Estonia and Russia? The event broadens the potential conflict zone with Russian from Eastern Ukraine and Crimea to a long swath of Eastern Europe.

NATO had only started to respond to Russian incursions into Ukraine. This week it announced plans for a force of up to 5,000 troops that could mobilize within 48 hours, much faster than the months it now takes its “rapid” response team to jump to action. Will those shock troops be sent to Estonia?

“This is not the kind of thing to trigger NATO to move toward the use of force,” says Sarah Mendelson, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But it does make clear the need to reassure Estonia what the NATO commitment means.”

Indeed, especially since Estonia is the rare country that has lived up to its NATO commitment to spend at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. As everyone wonders if there is a threshold by which aggression would trigger NATO deployment, it seems that Russia is poking around to see where that threshold lies. If NATO won’t stand up for Estonia, what country would it stand up for? If some NATO members are more equal than others, can the alliance stand at all?

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