Is Swap a New Favourite Game of Russia?

In the middle of November so called “swap of spies” between Lithuania and Russia took place. Two convicted professional officers of the Russian Intelligence Service, namely Nikolai Filipchenko and Sergej Moiseenko were return…

In the middle of November so called “swap of spies” between Lithuania and Russia took place. Two convicted professional officers of the Russian Intelligence Service, namely Nikolai Filipchenko and Sergej Moiseenko were returned to the Russian side. For exchange Moscow returned Jevgenij Mataitis and Arstidas Tamošaitis, who were sentenced for spying, to Lithuania. This process of the swap involved Norway, too. Frode Berg, who was sentenced for spying was returned to Norway.   
We can have different opinions about the swap. Firstly, this is a plus to Lithuania, especially because of the fact that Vilnius managed to help Norway in this case. On the other hand, this kind of swap reminds of the Cold war situation when the Eastern Bloc and the Western Bloc used to swap the caught and sentenced spies. Again, today we can be happy that Lithuania already represents “the Western Bloc’, particularly since the current geopolitical situation in Europe can be definitely described as a new Cold war.   
Despite of all this, there is one more aspect that has to be analysed. Will such kind of a swap become a regular phenomenon first of all because it is very convenient to Russia? Another question that arises from this assumption is whether Moscow will start ‘taking hostages’ in order to form a certain ‘fund of swap’ for its purposes. Maybe this has already started?
Returned the main witness  
In revealing this topic it is worth talking a little bit more about histories of Russia and other countries. We should start from the aspect of Ukraine. A significant fact of a swap took place in the beginning of September of the current year. Then Russia returned a group of political prisoners to Ukraine, 24 sailors among them who were captured by Moscow in autumn 2018 during the incident in the Bay of Kerch. The Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and others were accused of terrorism.     
Ukraine returned to Russia persons, most of whom were imprisoned as a result of direct or indirect participation in the conflict in Donbas region. The most famous among them is Kirill Vyshynski, head of the Russian news agency RIA Novosti branch in Ukraine, who was charged with betrayal of the state.
It’s worth mentioning that this swap was planned to take place at the end of August, however Moscow stopped the process and insisted on inclusion of Volodymyr Cemach to the list of people who will returned to Russia. Probably we can say that he was the main figure in all this swap process.  
Ukrainian Special Intelligence Services caught V. Cemach in the territory occupied by separatists and took him to Kiev in June 2019. It was said that in summer 2014 he was the Chief of the Air Defence of Donetsk People’s Republic in Snezhno. Actually, V. Cemech is a very important witness in the investigation of a tragic MH17 plane crash over Donbas on 17 July 2014. The mentioned person has information that could help disclosure of circumstances of this tragic event and the role of Russia in it. It is likely that Moscow feared of this most of all, thus it sought V. Cemach to be included in this swap.
Actually, the Kremlin succeeded in this round. V. Cemach was returned to Moscow together with other prisoners. Prior to that Kiev allowed investigators from the Netherlands to examine a witness, however it is not clear whether they succeeded in getting significant information from him. The whole procedure of a swap at that time improved ratings of the new President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky to a certain extent, however Kiev lost a strong card in confrontation with Russia after return of V. Cemach.         
They exerted pressure on Israel, too
Talking about ’hostages’ and their ‘collection’ we should remember one more story. Naama Issachar, a national of Israel, was arrested at Moscow Sheremetyevo airport in spring of the current year. 9.6 grams of marihuana were found in her luggage. During the court proceedings in Moscow the court passed a judgment and sentenced N. Issachar to seven and a half years in prison. In this story, which seems rather ordinary, a few nuances are important.      
N. Issachar was travelling home transiting through Moscow. She was travelling from Delhi to Tel Aviv. Being in the area of transit she simply had no access to her luggage where the narcotic substance was hidden. Meanwhile the court of Moscow sentenced her on drug smuggling charges.     
We should mention one more thing. Some types of drugs are decriminalized in Israel, the country N. Issachar was flying to. In other words, the national of Israel did not think that she was committing a crime (of course, this does not release from liability) and was not planning any drug smuggling to Russia. However, people think that the arrest and further strict judgment is connected not as much with the violation itself but the politics.
It was mentioned that the fate of N. Issachar was discussed between Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel and Vladimir Putin, President of Russia during their meeting in Sochi in September. Information is available that during the meeting Moscow asked about possibility to exchange N. Issachar for Alexander Burkov, who was arrested in Israel in 2015 at the request of USA. They told that the latter was a top level programmer. Washington suspected him of hacking and cyberattacks directed against the USA. There are suspicions that A. Burkov could have useful information about hostile acts of Russia against the United States of America in the cyber environment.         
It is likely that Israel refused to discuss the exchange option and this resulted in a strict sentence judgment to N. Issachar.   
Are e-visas just like a carrot to the donkey?
Of course, we can interpret that extradition of V. Cemach and arrest of N. Issachar are coincidental or simply not related stories. However, if the assumption of the fact is true that the Kremlin attempts ‘to take hostages’ and thus form a fund for potential swap, then we can have a different view to certain processes sanctioned by Moscow.
It is a paradox that when the Cold war with the West is accelerating, Russia is likely to open up. In this case we talk about a possibility to get Russian e-visa that was suggested just recently, for entering Kaliningrad region and Saint Petersburg. Statistics show that naturally, population of the Baltic States and partly Poland are interested in such an option. In other words, of the states that Moscow usually calls ‘unfriendly’.     
On the other hand, filling an application for e-visa a person provides a lot of personal information to Russian officers. This information can be used for choosing potential candidates for ‘taking into hostage’ or selecting potential subjects for recruitment. All these assumptions might sound as a conspiracy theory; however both attempts of the Russian Special Intelligence Service to operate actively in the territory of the Baltic States and taking people into hostage are just the facts. Thus, it should be naïve to hope that e-visas to Russia is just a gesture of good will or attempts to increase flows of tourists in order to improve the troubled economic condition of the country.      
Of course, ‘taking into hostage’ first of all reminds of the tactics of terrorist groups. On the other hand, comparison of the contemporary Russia and terrorist attacks is not an original discovery. For example, this comparison was used by Israel press when they wrote about the story of N. Issachar mentioned hereinabove.
Viktor Denisenko

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