Russia frees Estonian officer in Cold War-style spy swap

Estonian security officer Eston Kohver arrives for a press conference in Tartu, Estonia, Sept 26, 2015. Kohver, who was convicted of espionage in Russia, has been exchanged for imprisoned Russian spy Aleksei Dressen.
Estonian security officer Eston Kohver arrives for a press conference in Tartu, Estonia, Sept 26, 2015. Kohver, who was convicted of espionage in Russia, has been exchanged for imprisoned Russian spy Aleksei Dressen. PHOTO: EPA

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russia on Saturday (Sept 26) freed an Estonian officer jailed for spying last month, exchanging him for a Russian spy in a Cold War-style bridge swap just days before President Vladimir Putin's visit to the United Nations.

Eston Kohver, who was sentenced in August to 15 years in a Russian jail on espionage and other charges, was exchanged for Aleksei Dressen, a former Estonian security official serving a 16-year sentence for spying for Moscow, Russia's FSB security service said in a statement.

The swap took place on Saturday on a bridge over the Piusa River that separates Russia's western Pskov region and Estonia's Polva county, after which Kohver was taken to Tallinn to make a statement before taking a "vacation" to reunite with family.

"I am happy to be home again," said Kohver, looking well and even cracking jokes after speaking with his wife on the phone. "I would like to thank everyone who helped my family cope."

Estonia had launched a high-profile campaign for Kohver's freedom, with President Toomas Hendrik Ilves calling on citizens to wear yellow ribbons and both the European Union and the United States urging Moscow to send him home.

Estonia's top officials welcomed the release with an outpouring of praise and support, with Ilves calling Kohver a "tough and loyal" officer in a statement to the press.

The exchange was made possible after Putin wrote a pardon for Kohver, while Ilves pardoned Dressen, Estonian Interior Minister Hanno Pevkur said, calling Kohver a "very strong man".

Dressen was convicted in 2012 together with his wife Victoria, who was given a suspended sentence. He was found guilty of treason for funnelling classified information to Russia for years after Estonia's 1991 independence.

Kohver's defence lawyer Mark Feigin said the swap was "organised on the political level" and was timed to boost Russia's image ahead of Putin's speech at the United Nations on Monday.

"It's all happening ahead of Putin's visit to the UN tomorrow. There are no other reasons," Feigin wrote on Twitter.

Putin is flying to New York to make a speech at the United Nations, for the first time in a decade, and to meet US President Barack Obama for their first formal talk since 2013.

Kohver's release was hailed by Estonia's Foreign Minister Marina Kaljurand as "good news for Estonia and the whole of Europe", as she thanked countries for pressuring Moscow to agree to the exchange.

Kohver's conviction on August 19 drew international fury after Tallinn said he was kidnapped at gunpoint from Estonian territory, with Washington demanding that Moscow set him free immediately.

The US embassy in Tallinn wrote on Twitter Saturday saying "we welcome Estonian-Russian agreement to swap Eston Kohver back to Estonia." Brussels also welcomed Kohver's release. "We are pleased that Eston Kohver returned home and was reunited with his family," the EU's diplomatic service said in a statement.

"A wrong has been made right," tweeted Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom.

The Kohver scandal was the latest in a series of spy cases involving Russia and the Baltic states, former Soviet republics turned NATO and EU members increasingly wary of Russia's intentions following the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Russia's relations with the West have hit their lowest point since the Cold War over the conflict in Ukraine, leading to a spike in spying claims.

Russia is still holding several other suspected spies in custody, including Lithuanian nationals.

A US court is meanwhile hearing the case of businessman Alexander Fishenko, who could face up to 20 years in prison for smuggling sensitive technology to Russia.

Exchanges of captured agents were a regular tactic across the Iron Curtain in the Cold War, sometimes on the Glienicke Bridge between East and West Germany.