Estonia's attempts to build a new fence on its border with Russia might symbolically raise a new Iron Curtain between Russia and the West. But does Europe really want it - and can it afford it?
Estonia plans to build a metal mesh fence, reinforced with barbed wire, ostensibly to prevent illegal immigrants from Russia. Such wire is used by many countries to stop illegal migration. Pictured: A Hungarian soldier puts up razor wire on a fence on the border with Serbia. Photo: AP
This week, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued additional commentary on Estonia’s plans to build a security barrier more than 8 feet high and approximately 67 miles long on its border with Russia.
Russian diplomats describe the wall initiative as “quite politicized,” stressing that Moscow would consider “any unilateral action to construct surface facilities on the border as a temporary measure with no legal force,” since the relevant border treaty between Estonia and Russia has yet to take effect.
A “new Berlin wall" in Estonia
On August 25, the Estonian border agency issued a statement on its plans to construct a 108-kilometer (67-mile) fence on the border with Russia, which will cost EU and Estonian taxpayers $79.52 million.
The initiative is backed by Latvia, where Interior Minister Rihards Kozlovskis has repeatedly proposed similar schemes. The news was quickly picked up on by Russian media and politicians, who were harshly critical of the idea.
Moreover, Moscow perceives Riga and Tallinn’s steps to strengthen their state borders as a political move, drawing parallels with the Ukrainian government’s ideas for a wall and ditch on the border with Russia, mooted in spring of this year.
However, Estonian and Latvian leaders, when speaking about the need for more border infrastructure, tend not to refer to lukewarm bilateral relations with Russia. So why is a wall needed? And can one be put up just like that?
First of all, a proviso: It is not really a wall. The Estonian government plans to build something more like a metal mesh fence with a height of 8 feet, reinforced with barbed wire. Such fences are not uncommon in border areas.
For instance, the U.S.-Mexico border wall, dubbed the “Great American Wall” by TIME magazine, is more than 1,864 miles long and almost 15 feet high. Similar barriers exist on the Israeli-Gaza, Indian-Bangladeshi and other borders where there is a serious political tension or a high risk of illegal migration.
It is illegal migration from Russia that Kozlovskis cites above all. In March, he proposed strengthening the Latvian-Russian border with a concrete wall costing $16.8 million. By August the price had risen to $19.04 million.
Kozlovskis asserts that since the beginning of 2015 his department has detained more than 200 migrants caught illegally crossing the border. Yet he did not specify whether all had crossed the Russian-Latvian border in particular, and not on false documents at that, but in the classic sense of the word — with a guide through the forest.
Estonian and Latvian officials cite other reasons, too. For instance, Estonian Rural Affairs Minister Urmas Kruuse in an interview with Estonian newspaper Postimees on July 24 this year commented on the problem of boars carrying swine fever.
“Killing all wild pigs domestically does not solve the problem, since wild animals are free to roam across state borders,” he said.
An Estonian fence reinforced with additional obstructions for large animals could indeed solve the problem of protecting Baltic farm animals.
Latvia and Estonia have been looking to strengthen their state borders for a while now. Having joined the EU back in 2004, Riga and Tallinn made a commitment to reinforce the union’s external borders. That same year the Estonian leadership announced plans to spend more than $67.2 million on beefing up its eastern borders.
But as last year’s arrest of Estonian officer Eston Kohver in the Russian border area shows, there has been no substantial strengthening of the border away from official crossing points. The Estonian and Latvian borders can be traversed illegally through forest or swampland.
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Moreover, the border strip (which in Soviet times simply did not exist) passes through dense thickets and other places very difficult to patrol. Hence, the need for stronger borders, which (except for checkpoints) the Baltic countries have done little about, looks quite logical at first glance.
The view from Russia
According to Russian border guards, the “anti-Russia fence,” which Kiev and its Baltic allies like the look of, will not strengthen the border all that much. In the first half of 2015, for example, in the Pskov region alone the Border Service of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) detained 74 persons planning to illegally enter EU territory.
The vast majority of them were people from the Far East and Africa. The cost of detaining such people falls on Russia for having prevented their entry into Latvia and Estonia. It follows that Russian border guards are doing their job without various fences on the border.
Moreover, Russia’s border agency notes that border security involves a set of measures, including interaction with local communities and organizing patrols and checkpoints. It is no coincidence that most arrests take place in the border area, not on the actual border line itself.
A wall, no matter how high, would only raise illegal migrants’ outlays on guides. What’s more, neither Latvia nor Estonia intends to build a solid barrier. That cannot happen in forest and wetland areas.
But that is where most EU-bound migrants will risk their lives, which only creates additional problems for Russian border guards. The situation is similar in the United States, where Mexican immigrants try to enter through the desert, since the border there is not fortified, often perishing as a result.
In any case, building fences without Russia’s consent will render them ineffective and not help to significantly reduce the number of migrants attempting to cross into Latvia and Estonia. In addition, it will have no effect on smugglers and drug traffickers, since they generally carry their wares through existing checkpoints using a variety of contrivances.
Moreover, sooner or later the absence of an effective border treaty between Moscow and Tallinn will hinder Estonia’s plans to strengthen the border. The relevant document was signed on February 18, 2014, but has not yet been ratified. In the current political climate, when it will finally enter into force is anyone’s guess. Therefore, Tallinn does not have the right to unilaterally demarcate its border with Russia.
A fence against Russia’s "little green men"
As for strengthening the border against incursions by Russia’s “little green men,” which, unlike in the case of Latvian Interior Minister Kozlovskis, Tallinn has not specifically mentioned, the two Baltic countries’ plans are unlikely to prove effective.
Suffice it to recall the experience of the Soviet Union, which vigilantly guarded its borders against defectors fleeing to the West and enemy spies and saboteurs trying to sneak in. For many years the then Soviet Baltic beaches were closed at ten or eleven o’clock in summertime and special vehicles inspected the coastal areas. The most vulnerable were strengthened with border fences and barbed wire. And the Soviet Union had considerably more border posts and staff than modern Russia does.
However, spies entered the Soviet Union perfectly legally under the guise of diplomats, businessmen and journalists; Soviet citizens legitimately visited the West, but did not return. Besides, both Soviet and Western intelligence agencies could make illegal crossings if required.
A fence — even one wrapped with barbed wire — will not protect against tanks or saboteurs landing at Riga Airport under the guise of a harmless sports team. Moreover, unlike untrained migrants, Russia’s “little green men” are able to navigate swamps and overcome obstacles.
Given that Riga and Tallinn have been talking about the need to strengthen border security for more than a decade, there is unlikely to be any swift action, especially in light of the political tensions. What’s more, Estonia and Latvia’s aspirations are likely to be stymied by a more mundane issue – a lack of funding.
In the words of Latvian State Border Guard head Normunds Garbars, “This year about half a million euros has been allocated to demarcating the border with Russia, and one million in 2017. Financing in 2016 is still uncertain.”
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Both Riga and Tallinn clearly expect European funds to be forthcoming. But will Brussels comply? After all, such a barrier in the current climate would become a symbol of the new Iron Curtain, a second Berlin Wall, this time built by the West.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.