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EU's Borrell asks Russia for 'explanation' after Estonian border river incident

The EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell
The EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell Copyright Alexandros Michailidis/Alexandros Michailidis
Copyright Alexandros Michailidis/Alexandros Michailidis
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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The removal of the navigation buoys is part of a 'broader pattern of provocative behaviour' by the Kremlin, the EU's chief diplomat says.

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The EU's foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, has asked Moscow for an "explanation" after buoys on the Narva River demarcating Estonia's border with Russia were removed in the early hours of Thursday.

According to Estonian border guards, their Russian counterparts confiscated 24 of 50 buoys intended to mark sailing routes on the border waterway, an act which Borrell described as "unacceptable."

"This border incident is part of a broader pattern of provocative behaviour and hybrid actions by Russia, including on its maritime and land borders in the Baltic Sea region," the EU's chief diplomat said in a statement published Friday.

"The European Union expects an explanation by Russia about the removal of the buoys, and their immediate return," he added.

In its response to Thursday's incident, Estonia's foreign affairs ministry said it would remain "calm and clear-eyed," adding that it intended to use its border representatives and diplomatic channels to demand a formal explanation and the swift return of the buoys.

Speaking with reporters on Thursday, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said that "Russia uses tools related to the border to create fear and anxiety, with which to sow insecurity in our societies."

"We see a broader pattern of this," Kallas, one of the EU's sharpest critics of the Russian regime, added.

Tallinn says Moscow has been contesting the buoys' positioning since it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. 

Men are seen fishing near the fortresses of Narva, left, and Ivangorod, Russia, right, in Narva, Estonia, on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.
Men are seen fishing near the fortresses of Narva, left, and Ivangorod, Russia, right, in Narva, Estonia, on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.James Heintz/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

Estonia has summoned its Russian representative in response to the incident.

It comes amid increasing concern over Moscow's use of so-called hybrid warfare designed to destabilise its European neighbours, particularly in the Baltics.

'Provocation'

The removal of the buoys came just two days after Russia's TASS news agency reported on a leaked Russian decree outlining plans to redraw its territorial waters according to Soviet-era borders, demarcated in 1985. 

The proposal appeared on an official government portal, but was abruptly deleted on Wednesday, 24 hours after publication, without any official explanation from the Kremlin.

It sparked fears and speculation Russia could be planning to impinge on the territorial waters of Lithuania in the waters around the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, as well as in the Gulf of Finland.

Whilst Finnish President Alexanders Stubb, who is responsible for the country's foreign relations, vowed to respond "calmly and based on facts," Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis delivered a more stinging response.

"Another Russian hybrid operation is underway, this time attempting to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about their intentions in the Baltic Sea," Landsbergis said on social media platform X.

"This is an obvious escalation against NATO and the EU, and must be met with an appropriately firm response."

Lithuania has also summoned its Russian representative to explain the media reports, with its foreign ministry directly calling on Russia to abide by "universally recognised principles and norms of international law."

Speaking on Friday, a high-ranking EU official firmly condemned the Narva River incident and the leaked decree proposing to redraw the maritime borders. "These are Russian provocations, full stop. They are trying to test our response and our resolve," the official said.

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The issue is set to be discussed when EU foreign ministers gather in Brussels next Monday. The German, French and Belgian foreign ministers have already expressed their solidarity with Estonia, Lithuania and Finland.

Germany's foreign minister Annalena Baerbock slammed Russia for what she described as attempts to "stir trouble at the borders of the European Union."

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