Russia and Estonia exchanged two men accused of espionage at a remote border post, in an episode reminiscent of a Cold War spy thriller.
Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said it handed over Eston Kohver, an Estonian security officer detained by Russia last year, in exchange for Alexei Dressen – a former Estonian official serving a jail term for being a Russian spy.
Estonian officials confirmed the swap, which took place at a bridge over the Piusa river in a forested border region a few miles south of Lake Peipus. “Both sides found a suitable solution,” the director of Estonia’s Internal Security Service, Arnold Sinisalu, told a televised news conference, adding that the exchange came after “long-term negotiations”.
He sat alongside Kohver, who said it was “good to be back in my homeland”. The Estonian agent also thanked “all the authorities who helped me get back to Estonia, who helped me to, so to say, endure in prison”.
Kohver’s arrest last September provoked a dispute between the neighbouring countries. Estonia said he was abducted on its side of the frontier but Russia alleged that he had been caught on its territory carrying a pistol and ammunition, €5,000 (£3,690) in cash and spying equipment. Russia sentenced him last month to 15 years’ hard labour, provoking condemnation from Western governments as well as Estonia.
Dressen, the other alleged spy, was convicted by Estonia in 2012 of treason and divulging state secrets. He was detained at Tallinn airport with his wife in February 2012, just before she was due to board a flight to Moscow carrying what Estonian prosecutors said were classified documents.
Russian news agency RIA cited a source in the FSB as claiming Dressen had allegedly worked for Russian counter-intelligence since the 1990s, transferring information about spies working in the Baltic countries, although this could not be verified.
The swap follows a deterioration of relations between the two countries, which have also been strained by Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea last year.