February 10, 2017

Estonia and Estonians in the Strategic Confrontation of the Cold War, Part I

Western intelligence services’ impressions of the Baltic States during the Cold War also help us to understand the current situation.

In 2008, Edward Lucas, a popular journalist and author in Estonia, published the book The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West. When introducing the Estonian translation, Lucas stressed that the new Cold War was not military or ideological but based on values, with gas pipelines serving as the main weapons—notwithstanding the so-called five-day conventional war that had recently taken place between Georgia and Russia. As may be recalled, it was the war of August 2008 that ended the period of tranquillity in NATO’s as well as Estonia’s military planning, and for the first time it became clear that the organisation did not have an action plan for defending the Baltic States in the event of war.
Following events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, there has been ever more talk about a return to the Cold War, accompanied by the rumble and thunder of guns, including nuclear weapons.1 The latest issue of the Journal of Baltic Security considers the events of 2014 ground-breaking, because Russia, which had previously been a mere geopolitical “constant feature” for the Baltic States, was now an existential threat.2
The history of the Cold War has received increasing attention in the last two years, as people look for reference points to analyse the current international situation but also to sharpen the rhetoric. One interesting term that has been embedded in historical literature and the consciousness of strategic and military experts is the Fulda Gap, which was also adopted by former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who compared it to the almost 100-kilometre-wide area on the Lithuanian-Polish border between the Kaliningrad Oblast and Belarus known as the Suwałki Gap. With this, the president did a favour to Estonia, the other Baltic States and the whole of NATO by raising awareness of the threat the closure of the Suwałki Gap might pose.
Suwałki and Fulda are indeed very similar. The danger of the Fulda Gap, on the border between East and West Germany, lay not only in its location on a plain between uplands—favourable to Soviet tanks—but above all in the fact that by choosing this particular route across the German border, Warsaw Pact forces would only have to cover 100 kilometres to reach the Rhine and drive a wedge between the units of the Western allies. The distance between the borders of Belarus and Kaliningrad is roughly the same.
Despite the similarities, one must admit that the Suwałki Gap could constitute a bigger problem for NATO than the Fulda Gap because, unlike the latter, Suwałki is almost indefensible. Russia does not have to invade the territory to achieve its presumed strategic goals (the isolation of the Baltic States), because keeping the isthmus under cannon and missile fire would be enough to disrupt NATO communications (provided that Russia had access to Belarus’ territory and NATO did not attempt to besiege the besiegers). In Fulda, however, the Warsaw Pact allies would have to proceed through the advance of ground forces and the success of such attacks was never certain, despite the numerical superiority of the Eastern Bloc. An attack in the Fulda corridor would have required the Soviet Union to abandon its core principle—surprise—and this relatively narrow area was considerably easier to defend than the expanse of the North German Plain, for instance. In this context, it would be wise to recall the successful defence of Israel against the similarly overwhelming greater numbers of Syrian tanks in the Golan Heights in 1973.
The parallel between Fulda and Suwałki may work in terms of rhetoric, but concentrating on the military defence of Suwałki is not very reasonable, because it is simply too difficult—if not impossible. German military historian Bernd Lemke has compared the Baltic States to Cold War-era Berlin in the heart of the GDR. At the same time, he raises a warning about this comparison, noting that the waters of the Baltic Sea are not closed to NATO and Russia has lost its status as a great maritime power. Lemke believes that the Baltic States are not an enclave, but rather something akin to a military outpost.3 However, one could argue that coastal missile systems would be enough for Russia to successfully oust the enemy fleet from these narrow inland waters and there would be no need for a classic maritime confrontation.4 One therefore has to admit that there is no way for us to receive aid should the Suwałki corridor close.5
Be that as it may (public information on these matters is naturally scarce), mentions of Cold War parallels, examples and role models are becoming frequent and call for the study of Estonian Cold War history from the military perspective. Why do we need this? The geographical location of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is constant. The terrain changes, as do its features due to technological advances. Consequently, the notion that lies behind the vague term “geopolitics” is likely to change as well.6 Estonian examples of elements that alter the landscape from the military perspective include the Narva Reservoir, mines in the north-east and the development of the road network. However, Estonian land is probably just as unsuitable for tanks as it was almost exactly 100 years ago when these armoured vehicles were first used in battle. Warm winters have not improved the situation and, consequently, one can probably agree with the 1955CIA report that states that in poor weather conditions “any cross country traffic is out of the question … during the war the Germans always kept to the roads for the same reasons.” 7 This also justifies the concern about the performance of contemporary tanks, as they are three times heavier than the T-34, which was once considered the most successful model on the Eastern Front of World War II.8
Even if we accept that nothing can be learnt word for word from the history of war, we still need to study Estonian military history of the Cold War era from this perspective. Firstly, by analysing the military infrastructure of the USSR in the Baltic States, we may begin to understand modern Russia’s military and strategic interest in this territory and towards its population. Naturally, this interest does not stem directly from geography, but it should be noted that Russia’s military line of thought has been quite consistent despite regime changes and political breakthroughs, and described as scientific.9 Secondly, the release of NATO’s war plans for the Baltic Sea region during the Cold War period would help us theorise about the organisation’s current action plans for defending the Baltic States. Thirdly, from NATO’s perspective, the Cold War gives us the opportunity to analyse the threats the West may face if Russia manages to reinstate this region as its military lodgement.
Having selected the end of World War II as the starting point, it is worth noting that the Western countries saw the newly annexed Baltic States as a valuable region for obtaining information about the activities and objectives of their former ally. Here the contact with the Soviet Union was more immediate, unlike in Eastern Europe occupied by the Red Army. Only recently, the media published a news story about declassified CIA intelligence documents on the Soviet Union. In reality, this is not unusual, as the CIA has declassified documents before and the archive containing the material of its wartime predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), has been available to researchers for years. To be fair, in the case of the latter, one has to visit the archive in person to access printed copies. The author of this article visited the US National Archives in Washington in July 2007 and photographed the OSS material concerning the Baltic States in the 1940s. The documents available on the CIA website are a welcome addition, but feature more redacted data than the OSS material.
The following is a brief summary of the OSS material on the Baltic States in the middle and the second half of the 1940s. So far, historical literature has extensively discussed the operations of Western intelligence services in the Baltics10 but has failed to elaborate on the information they managed to obtain.
The United Kingdom and the US were slow to build up even the slightest defence capability with regard to their Soviet ally. The US president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, got personally involved by prohibiting any counterintelligence activity towards suspected Soviet agents, who had established an extensive network in his administration in the 1930s.11 Soviet agent Whittaker Chambers switched sides and, motivated by guilt, attempted to get his story off his chest right after the start of the war on 2 September 1939 and to warn the state authorities about other Soviet agents. Roosevelt’s defence adviser, Adolf Berle, wrote the president a four-page memo about Chambers and his former associates, including Alger Hiss. Unfortunately, the president was not interested and considered the existence of an agent network an absurd fabrication.12 Roosevelt’s reaction to the purchase of a partially burned 1,500-page NKVD codebook from the Finns in November 1944 was also noteworthy. An information leak from the OSS to the State Department resulted in Secretary of State Edward Stettinius Jr. convincing Roosevelt that gentlemen do not read their allies’ correspondence. Roosevelt ordered the Director of the OSS, William J. Donovan, to return the codebooks to the Russians. This sort of utter negligence was also characteristic of the first days of Harry S. Truman’s presidency. For instance, in 1946, the Senate approved Truman’s nominee for the position of director of the IMF, whose activities as a Soviet agent had been recorded in a 28-page FBI report. This man was Harry Dexter White (1892–1948), who got away with passing the most important state documents over to Soviet agents for years. He was a senior official at the Treasury Department, helped to found the IMF and the World Bank, and died before he could be brought to trial.
The naiveté and ignorance of US presidents in intelligence matters is worth recalling now that the new millennium has bestowed on us another president who questions the competence and integrity of intelligence agencies. However, the problem does not lie in the president’s personality but in the weakness of the US government system, which gives him free reign to execute his power.
The UK and the US were not preparing for a Cold War but, rather, for peaceful post-war cooperation. As part of general demobilisation, President Truman dissolved the OSS in 1945 and the UK did the same with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) the following year. Luckily, these steps also shut down a great part of the Soviet agent network, as operatives were sent into retirement. This is also the reason the newly established CIA was initially free of any Soviet agents.
The intelligence clash between the Western countries and the Soviets at the beginning of the Cold War was unilateral. The West did not have any kind of agent network in Moscow, which forced the British SIS (MI6) and later the American CIA to concentrate on Soviet border regions and local partisan groups.13 As we know, all British and US missions fell victim to decoy operations by Moscow’s counterintelligence. These began with a radio broadcast under the command of Latvian NKGB officer Janis Lukasevics in March 1946, which simulated the activities of a resistance organisation on Latvian territory and immediately managed to trick Latvian refugees in Sweden and, after some hesitation, the SIS too.14 Intelligence historians agree that the results were catastrophic: up to 20 agents planted in the Baltics were lost, along with a great amount of equipment, time and money. However, it should be said that Moscow was too cautious to make use of its advantage and refrained from causing too much confusion among Western intelligence organisations with false information.
The US archival documents indicate that the Baltic States were probably one of the best places to gather intelligence. The reason lay in the mass influx of Estonian refugees to Sweden, which decreased slightly in the following years but continued. There was also some traffic from Sweden to Estonia, usually connected to intelligence assignments or the transport of relatives left behind in Estonia. Swedish military historian Lars Ericson Wolke has studied Swedish intelligence operations in the Baltic States during World War II and at the beginning of the Cold War. According to Wolke, Finnish military intelligence was considerably better informed than its Swedish counterpart but, in September 1944, the majority of Finnish officials were evacuated, together with the archive and codebooks, to Sweden to avoid the advancing Red Army.15 The C bureau (C-byrån) of the Swedish Army also had close ties with the German Abwehr, which is why most of its documents were destroyed immediately after the war.
Nevertheless, the remaining documentary fragments reveal that the C bureau set out to establish an agent network in Estonia, Latvia and part of Lithuania in relation to the evacuation of Estonian Swedes in 1943–4 before the expected arrival of the Red Army. According to Wolke, the Swedish agency collaborated with both the British SIS and the American OSS in despatching agents (the Americans were treated with caution because information got back to their Soviet ally, which Sweden feared). The Gotland base was the starting point of no fewer than 64 missions to the coasts of the Baltic States between December 1943 and March 1945. In addition to these, there were also an unknown number of trips arranged by Estonian and Latvian refugee organisations. Most refugee journeys failed, but some missions to Estonia—especially those led by Colonel August Rattiste (1893–1961)—succeeded and provided Swedish intelligence with valuable information about the country’s situation.16 Sweden’s main interest was to determine whether the German armed forces were planning to evacuate to Sweden in the event of an attack by the Red Army. Swedish operations ceased in autumn 1944, possibly due to Soviet occupation making boat trips difficult but also because the Swedish authorities were already receiving sufficient information from the increasing number of refugees. Swedish intelligence infiltrated Baltic refugee camps and soon the missions continued, with refugees themselves embarking on sea journeys that were covertly funded and authorised by the Swedes.
The Soviet Union was aware of the Swedish operations, which is why the Swedes decided to put an official end to all sea crossings on 16 December 1944. However, Latvian and Estonian trips continued, as did some Swedish covert operations. These missions brought at least 155 new refugees to Sweden by the summer of 1945, but the actual number may have been close to 3,000.
Sweden’s attempt to establish an agent network in the Baltic States failed. Most agents were evacuated to Sweden a few weeks after the arrival of the Red Army, while the rest were captured. In December 1944, Sweden decided to bring the last of the intelligence cells home, leaving only so-called “sleeper agents” out in the field. A radio station in Tallinn also remained active, but its unusual signal patterns made Swedish intelligence cautious and the contact with this supposedly NKVD-controlled radio transmitter was terminated at the end of 1945. Still, the National Committee of the Republic of Estonia maintained a maritime link to Saaremaa at least until the autumn of 1946. Swedish intelligence launched new operations in 1947. At the start of the year, several Estonian agents were sent to the Gulf of Keibu between Paldiski and Osmussaar. They inhabited the same farmhouse that had previously been used by men from C bureau. This lasted until 1957, when the Soviet Union exposed Sweden’s activities. At least 14 agents were lost.17
What kind of information did the refugees bring with them? The illustration shows a map drawn on squared paper,
depicting Soviet military strongholds as at September 1945. This was received from “refugees”, but it is not specified where or who. It is possible that they were not Estonian, as the informant has used German place names. This is military information concerning artillery strongholds, airfields, military bases, communication networks etc., but it also includes information about the deportation of the coastal population.
Another document preserved in the US archive states that the information was received from “an unmarried driver who escaped from Estonia to Sweden via Finland in January 1946”. It is possible that the information was obtained from Swedish intelligence via the US military attaché. The report of an Estonian refugee includes the addresses of Soviet military institutions, the names of leading commanders, and the locations and estimated size of Soviet units. Another piece of information, also obtained from a person from Saaremaa who had escaped through Finland, speaks of the Estonian Rifle Corps (which was by now mainly a labour battalion), construction of airfields, merging of military units, etc.
One of the Americans’ most valued informants was referred to as “our regular Polish source”. For instance, the “Polish source” bought this drawing of Lasnamäe airfield
for 100 dollars from Latvian refugees who were working for Swedish intelligence (and had probably got it from Estonians). CIA documents from the early 1950s reveal that Lasnamäe and other airfields were under surveillance, which means that US intelligence must have had its own informant in Tallinn or its immediate vicinity. It must be noted that a considerable amount, or even the majority, of data—e.g. the information on political processes in 1950 or the names of senior military officials (who had stood on the podium during parades)—originated from print media. For instance, one CIA report laments that, for some reason, the Russian embassy in the US had stopped receiving issues of the newspaper Sovetskaya Estonia at the time of the plenary session in March 1950.
Another important source was “Gustavus”. It is difficult to say who this was, but it is thought to have been a general codename for Swedish intelligence. One of the most interesting documents from this source is the Intelligence Situation Report on Russia and the Baltic region dating from November 1945, which not only offers unfiltered data but also analyses the strategic situation in the whole of Eastern Europe. Curiously, it states that the Soviet Union was most active in two regions: the Balkan Peninsula and the Baltic States. According to this document, the Russians had two infantry divisions and one motorised company in Estonia; the companies formed of Estonians included 7,000 men at most. Ten kilometres of the coastline was blocked; the coasts of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa were cleared of population, with the emptied areas ranging from a half to three kilometres in width. The Soviet Baltic Fleet had moved further: the ports of Liepāja and Šventoji near Memel were developed into submarine bases. The Gulf of Finland was yet to be swept for mines, and traffic between Estonia and Finland was conducted through Finnish coastal waters. According to the source, the Russians were building underground seaplane hangars in Paldiski. The general assessment stated that Estonian airfields were of great importance to the Russians, mainly due to the fleet being shifted towards the west.
The interviews with Estonian refugees, which probably came from the Swedes, make fascinating but bleak reading, since they include direct impressions of the activities of the occupying army and security forces as well as the establishment of the Soviet regime during the first few years after the war. The violence they speak of is brutal, as can be seen from the following description:
At this point it may be concluded that the Baltic States were a valuable source of information for the British and US intelligence services. However, the great Western powers failed almost completely due to their lack of preparation and insufficient knowledge about the region, at least when it came to inserting agents in enemy territory. The Finns and Swedes, who had plenty of experience in the region, were more successful, but the main information flow was ensured by Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians themselves, who probably managed to maintain contact with their former homeland across the sea even in the most difficult circumstances. There is truth in the words of Yuriko Onodera—the wife of Japanese military attaché Makoto Onodera, who was stationed in Stockholm during the war—who writes in her memoirs that Estonian officers had the best information sources and “excellent training”. The former Estonian Director of Military Intelligence, Richard Maasing, had fled to Sweden, from where he continued to conduct secret operations in Europe and to collect information on both Germany and the Soviet Union with the help of his old network. Maasing had close ties to Swedish military intelligence, but joined the Abwehr in 1941 after the start of Operation Barbarossa.18
Returning to the Cold War era, the risks inherent in HUMINT (human intelligence) led to the rise of radio intelligence, followed by the increasing importance of aerial observation (U-2 flyovers) at the end of the 1950s and satellite intelligence at the beginning of the 1960s. The work with public sources should not be underestimated, either. The Baltic States undoubtedly still remain in the focus of Western intelligence services but, according to their (partly erroneous and exaggerated) reports, Estonia’s own Information Board is also held in high regard. The Baltic States as a whole have lost the status they had at the start of the Cold War. However, if Russia should force its way into Europe—which is something we all wish to avoid and currently appears unlikely—we can imagine what would happen in Estonia based on the intelligence reports presented above. The special services will proceed with their covert activities in the shadow of arrests, executions and probably deportations, of which we are likely to remain oblivious even in 50 years’ time.
To be continued…
1 See e.g. Marcel H. Van Herpen, “Russia’s Nuclear Threats and the Security of the Baltic States”, Cicero Foundation Great Debate Paper No. 16/05, The Cicero Foundation, 2016.
2 Dovile Jakniunaite, “Changes in Security Policy and Perceptions of the Baltic States 2014–2016”, Journal of Baltic Security 2:2, 2016, p. 8.
3 Bernd Lemke, presentation at the 7th Annual Baltic Military History Conference “From the Great War to the Post-Cold War Era: The Baltic Region as an International Crossroad from 1900 to 2020”, Tartu, 9–10 March 2016 (author’s notes).
4 Sigur Hess, “Intelligence Clash in the Baltic Sea During the Cold War”, in Olaf Mertelsmann and Kaarel Piirimäe (eds.), The Baltic Sea Region and the Cold War, Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2012, pp. 223–38.
5 Van Herpen, ibid., p. 10.
6 For example, the Baltic Sea used to be a stage for clashes between the fleets of the Great Powers in the 19th century (e.g. the Crimean War), but has now turned into an inconvenient puddle due to advances in aviation and missile technology.
7 Railroads and Roads in Estonia, CIA information report, 29 November 1955. https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/search/site/estonia military.
8 Endla Reintam and Andres Sauments (eds.), “Soil Trafficability—Challenges for Soils and Vehicles” in ENDC Proceedings 21 (2015). http://www.ksk.edu.ee/en/research/endc-proceedings-21/
9 General Michael Glemmesen, presentation at the conference “The Military Significance of Estonian Territory at the End of the Cold War Period”, 6–7 December 2016 (notes and presentation slides from the author’s collection).
10 Tom Bower, The Red Web: MI6 and the KGB Master Coup, London: Aurum Press, 1989; Peter Grose, Operation Rollback: America’s Secret War Behind the Iron Curtain, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001; Indrek Jürjo, “Operations of Western Intelligence Services and Estonian Refugees in Postwar Estonia and the Tactics of KGB Counterintelligence” in Arvydas Anušauskas (ed.), The Anti-Soviet Resistance in the Baltic States, Vilnius: Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania, 1999), pp. 242–68.
11 Christopher M. Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, KGB: The Inside Story of its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev, London: Hodder & Stoughton 1990, p. 184 et seq.
12 Ibid., p. 227.
13 Ibid., p. 316.
14 Bower.
15 Lars Ericson Wolke, “Exodus and Intelligence Operations: The Swedish Military and Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, 1943–45” in James S. Corum, Olaf Mertelsmann and Kaarel Piirimäe (eds.), The Second World War and the Baltic States, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2014, pp. 209–21. See also Yuriko Onodera, Kindral, kes ei soovinud sõda: Makoto Onodera–Jaapani sõjaväeatašee Riias, Tallinnas ja Stockhomis, Tallinn, 2007, p. 154.
16 Wolke, ibid.
17 Wolke, ibid.
18 Onodera, ibid., pp. 95–96.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.