Fear Spreads In Eastern Europe As Russia Rises Again

Trouble over Klaipeda, Lithuania
Trouble over Klaipeda, Lithuania
Michael Stürmer

KLAIPEDA — The entrance to this Lithuanian city's port is a lesson in geopolitics. Klaipeda is the major transit hub for Russia on the Baltic Sea, but there’s no overlooking the huge semi-domes of the new terminals for LNG (liquefied natural gas) which Lithuania hopes will free the country from its energy-dependence on Moscow.

There is plenty of fear going around Eastern Europe right now. Whenever you get talking in any of the Baltic states you sense — also among young people — what’s known in psycho-jargon as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: disturbing memories of experiences and suffering, one’s own and others’.

Focus is presently fixed on the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, and the fighting in Novorossiya ("New Russia"). In the Baltic countries, the anxiety rises when word spreads that Russia is paying salaries of troops inside Ukraine, and that those who perish are buried on Russian soil while relatives are given a five-figure compensation.

A low-intensity war is in motion and nobody knows where it will lead.

The fate of the Baltic states has traditionally been in Russia’s hands. Today, hopes are pinned on the United States, NATO, and the European Union without whose help Baltic freedom could soon be just another episode in a longer history of foreign domination.

A new Russian empire?

However much NATO may have lacked consideration of the Russian bear since the 1990s — the list is long — nothing justifies Russia’s current brutal disregard of international law, neighboring countries and world peace. Particularly threatening is the talk of "frontline states," a clear reference to the Baltic states.

Until now the Russian claim to supervisory rights in foreign countries in its immediate vicinity has sounded ominous enough. Now the question poses itself as to whether Vladimir Putin is a player using favorable opportunities to regain control of Russia’s lost empire by freezing conflicts and using intimidation to bring neighboring countries into line; or, is he actually trying to reconstruct the Russian empire via the Eurasian Economic Union. Or both, if that suits him best.

Putin has so far not proven to be an adventurer, but rather a manipulator of calculated risk. Cold War is no longer unthinkable, and it may already have begun. In most cases however, the currencies of power are different than they were in the decades after World War II, and they need to be used and coordinated differently. The main issues are economic and financial power, energy, raw materials and cyberspace.

Though Russia boasts natural resources that the whole world needs, it is otherwise playing with a bad hand.

In dealing with this, the West is going to have to figure out more than just an escalation seesaw that already now leaves only losers. The European Union is facing a responsibility it’s not prepared to handle. More specifically, it will fall to Germany and the United States to lead on the West's response to Russia.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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