For Mother Russia’s Former States, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Amid heightened tensions between Russia and Estonia, Tallinn confirmed on Thursday that plans are in the works to build a fence between the two countries.

Estonian soldiers take part in a military parade to celebrate 97 years since first achieving independence in 1918 on February 24, 2015 in Narva, Estonia. The town, on Estonia's border with Russia, has been at the centre of discussion relating to the potential threat from Russia, which, since the annexation of Crimea and conflict in eastern Ukraine, has caused concern in both the Baltic states and NATO. AFP PHOTO / RAIGO PAJULA        (Photo credit should read RAIGO PAJULA/AFP/Getty Images)
Estonian soldiers take part in a military parade to celebrate 97 years since first achieving independence in 1918 on February 24, 2015 in Narva, Estonia. The town, on Estonia's border with Russia, has been at the centre of discussion relating to the potential threat from Russia, which, since the annexation of Crimea and conflict in eastern Ukraine, has caused concern in both the Baltic states and NATO. AFP PHOTO / RAIGO PAJULA (Photo credit should read RAIGO PAJULA/AFP/Getty Images)
Estonian soldiers take part in a military parade to celebrate 97 years since first achieving independence in 1918 on February 24, 2015 in Narva, Estonia. The town, on Estonia's border with Russia, has been at the centre of discussion relating to the potential threat from Russia, which, since the annexation of Crimea and conflict in eastern Ukraine, has caused concern in both the Baltic states and NATO. AFP PHOTO / RAIGO PAJULA (Photo credit should read RAIGO PAJULA/AFP/Getty Images)

Since the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Russia’s other neighbors have grown increasingly worried over what -- or where -- Moscow would try next. This fear has been particularly acute for the small Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, each of which maintain an ethnic Russian minority and view their time in the Soviet Union as part of an illegal occupation by Moscow.

Amid these rising tensions in Eastern Europe, Estonian Interior Minister spokesman Toomas Viks confirmed Thursday that his government plans to build a 70-mile fence on its eastern border with Russia.

Thursday's comments come after a series of incidents that sparked a diplomatic row between the already unfriendly neighbors, and shone a spotlight on their borders in particular. Last week, Estonian intelligence officer Eston Kohver was sentenced to 15 years in a Russian prison on controversial charges, including spying and illegal border crossing. In June, two Russian parliamentary deputies reportedly asked Moscow’s prosecutor-general to review the legality of all three Baltic countries’ independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Beyond that, Russia has also stepped up its presence along its border while increasing sorties into international airspace.

Since the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Russia’s other neighbors have grown increasingly worried over what — or where — Moscow would try next. This fear has been particularly acute for the small Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, each of which maintain an ethnic Russian minority and view their time in the Soviet Union as part of an illegal occupation by Moscow.

Amid these rising tensions in Eastern Europe, Estonian Interior Minister spokesman Toomas Viks confirmed Thursday that his government plans to build a 70-mile fence on its eastern border with Russia.

Thursday’s comments come after a series of incidents that sparked a diplomatic row between the already unfriendly neighbors, and shone a spotlight on their borders in particular. Last week, Estonian intelligence officer Eston Kohver was sentenced to 15 years in a Russian prison on controversial charges, including spying and illegal border crossing. In June, two Russian parliamentary deputies reportedly asked Moscow’s prosecutor-general to review the legality of all three Baltic countries’ independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Beyond that, Russia has also stepped up its presence along its border while increasing sorties into international airspace.

An 8-foot-high fence might sound like an extreme response, but given Estonia’s tense history with Russia, Tallinn isn’t willing to take any chances. Kohver’s case was particularly controversial because his arrest occurred right on the Estonian border with Russia. Russia claims he was on a spy mission in Russian territory, but Estonia has counter-accused Russia of kidnapping him from the Estonian side of the border while he was investigating a Russian smuggling ring. Kohver was taken into Russian custody in September 2014, and was sentenced Aug. 19 in what Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas called “a clear and grave violation of international law.”

Viks said the wall has been planned since last year, according to AFP. It will be built between 2018 and 2019.

“The aim of the construction is to cover the land border with 100 percent, around-the-clock technical surveillance to create ideal conditions for border guarding and to ensure the security of Estonia and the Schengen area,” he told AFP.

Since regaining independence in 1991, Estonia and its Baltic neighbors have taken repeated steps to ensure their sovereignty. All three countries joined the European Union and NATO in 2004, and have since been among the military alliance’s most engaged members. That wave of NATO enlargement, which also saw Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia join, is one of the strategic moves cited by Moscow as the military alliance encircling on its borders. Russia’s war in Georgia in 2008 and the Ukraine crisis have only seen tensions rise, with Kohver’s trial marking a new low in relations between Estonia and Russia.

This past January, Lithuanian Defense Minister Juozas Olekas told Reuters that crisis scenarios in Georgia and Ukraine “show us that we cannot rule out a similar kind of situation here, and that we should be ready.” The government in Vilnius also released a manual instructing Lithuanians how to behave in case of a Russian invasion, and later reinstated military service for young men.

The government’s advice? Stay calm, participate in strikes, and in the event of a more passive approach, do “your job worse than usual.”

RAIGO PAJULA/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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