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The Russia-Estonia border, a site of heavy security and black market activity The Russia-Estonia border, a site of heavy security and black market activity Karasev Victor
04 Jan
Klaus Dodds considers a national border which has become a central site for underhand activity: between Estonia and Russia

Cross-border smuggling is a challenge for many states. Whether its people smuggling or contraband such as drugs and weapons, border security infrastructure is integral to how national governments seek to disrupt, detain and deny illicit flows across international boundaries. One intriguing case of cross-border movement concerns the Estonian Border Guard (EBG), which has responsibility for border security, the major area of focus being the shared border with Russia. Established in 1991, after independence, the EBG is managed by the Ministry of the Interior. Over the last decade, donations from other EU countries has enabled it to acquire helicopters and planes to supplement land and water-based patrolling.

Recently, cigarette smugglers have been crossing at various points on the Estonian-Russian border. Russian cigarettes are carried into Estonia and then sold for profit on the black market. What makes this business geopolitically intriguing is what Russia is doing with this illicit trade. Smugglers, especially the ones that don’t get caught, provide ideal opportunities to harvest intelligence on the readiness of the EBG and the state of border security infrastructure.

Estonia lies in what Russia considers its ‘near abroad’ and there is a substantial Russian-speaking minority living in the country. Estonian officials are well aware that Russia is perfectly capable, through its intelligence service (the FSB), of interfering with a small Baltic state country which is both a member of the EU and NATO. The EBG, in combination with the Estonian Internal Security Service, is routinely discovering more about this partnership with the FSB as smugglers are arrested and interrogated in Estonia.

Russia’s relationship with criminal gangs and smuggling networks is indicative of ongoing FSB operations designed to destabilise and even undermine the authority of neighbouring states, including Ukraine and Georgia. The term ‘hybrid warfare’ is now routinely used to characterise Russian behaviour towards near neighbours with due emphasis given to an array of activities including cyber-hacking and criminal activity.

The smuggling operations in Estonia are a timely reminder that Russian intelligence operations are diversifying from widely publicised cyber-attacks in 2007 to something that is deliberately forcing the Estonians to be ever more vigilant at their border. As seen in Ukraine, the covert relationships with smugglers, although not subtle, are also deliberately intended to obscure FSB involvement and investment. 

If Estonia has its own border challenges, then near-neighbour Lithuania is arguably even more challenged by criminal cross-border activity. In cumulative terms, the EU estimates that the evasion of custom duties and taxes costs individual countries such as Estonia and Lithuania billions of Euros in revenue. But the real cost is more than simply tax and revenue. As with drug smuggling in other parts of the world, border security can be undermined by bribery or can be recruited by hostile intelligence agencies to act as spies and enablers.

The Estonian authorities have had some success in resisting cross-border flows of smuggled cigarettes originating from Russia. However, there are other flows to contend with as well – Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus are also engaged in this trafficking. The scale of trade is breathtaking with some estimates pointing to around 250-300 million cigarettes arriving illegally into Estonia and with no tax and duty being paid on those products, losses for the country runs into millions of Euros.

The stakes remain high for Estonia. Russia will continue to recruit smugglers for its own geopolitical purposes. Hybrid warfare is multifarious and it is important to recognise that it encompasses so much more than ‘fake news’ and dodgy social media accounts. What should also be of concern is that places such as Estonia and Ukraine are in effect ‘testing spaces’ for Russian destabilisation. Whatever further revelations might emerge in the US about the 2016 presidential election, countries such as Estonia have been in the front line for much longer – and as a consequence Estonia has become a world leader in cyber-security. 

Estonia might also be concerned about support from the US. President Obama visited in September 2014 and spoke of his determination to support the country. The deployment of NATO troops to Estonia in 2017 was a clear sign that it recognises the stakes are very high indeed. But as Trump continues to preoccupy himself with North Korea and China, Estonia continues to glance anxiously eastwards towards a neighbour that is hell-bent on restoring its sphere of influence. Having NATO and EU support is going to be crucial for a long time to come. 

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction

This was published in the January 2018 edition of Geographical magazine.

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