March 13, 2019

Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service Yearbook 2019

Since 2016 the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (EFIS) has produced yearbooks that highlight the main risks and threats to Estonia’s security.

The books are produced for the public and focus primarily on Russia, for a very good reason: the Estonian people have the right and the need to know the security situation as seen by domestic experts in the field, and how our neighbour to the east challenges Estonia and the entire Western world by military, political, economic, cyber, (dis)information and other means.

In the 2019 yearbook, the EFIS states that the Russian threat is not only asymmetric, camouflaged and deceptive (maskirovka) and focused on the political, economic and societal subversion of Estonia (and its allies and partners), but it is also real in military terms. Annual strategic military exercises have shown that Russia is preparing to fight a large-scale war with NATO, for which it has rapidly and massively modernised its conventional forces. The scenarios of Zapad 2013 and Zapad 2017 leave no doubt of this.

Second, the Russian leadership seems to be convinced that the major goal of the US (and the Western world in general) is to topple the regime of the “collective Putin”. Furthermore, it believes that a kinetic conflict between Russia and NATO would start from a “coloured revolution” in a Russian “ally”, e.g. Belarus. The EFIS also suggests that the Baltic states are a convenient and likely military target for Russia in a wider crisis. A conflict between Russia and NATO would certainly spread beyond NATO’s Eastern Flank nations, as president Vladimir Putin has threatened with (missile) strikes against Western “decision-making centres” (NATO capitals) and as Russia develops—in contravention of the INF Treaty—intermediate-range nuclear-capable SSC-8 missiles, a sword of Damocles hanging above Europe’s head.

A rather interesting chapter touches on the use of Russian civilian shipping for military purposes. Russian scientific research vessels were always suspected of intelligence-gathering activities due to their secretive behaviour and interest in security-sensitive areas. But Russian commercial cargo shipping has now become equally important for the military. Civilian vessels often transport military hardware in the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and the eastern part of the Mediterranean, such as Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems or heavy armour for land forces, and also carry out various intelligence duties.

Russia’s internal situation is always tremendously important in understanding the Kremlin’s behaviour and its foreign and security policy. The yearbook brings out pictorially the chain of rising internal tensions in Russia. Since 2012, when the Russian economy began to degrade, the number of people who seek (positive) change has risen quickly and in 2017 surpassed those who prefer stability (tantamount to stagnation). Putin’s regime will therefore face increasing domestic pressure, but it is also forced to adopt unpopular measures (e.g. pensions reform). Domestic popular discontent and a sense of military might and high self-confidence in the Kremlin could result in a lethal cocktail (a possible new military adventure beyond Russia’s borders).

Russia’s foreign policy is very well (even graphically) explained by the EFIS. Russia is at war with the West, but the present confrontation is not (yet) kinetic, i.e. military. Instead, Moscow applies all other (non-military) forms of anti-Western malign influence and coercion: political manipulation, corruption, money laundering, organised crime, cyber-attacks, influence operations, disinformation campaigns and internet trolling, “soft influence” by the Russian Orthodox Church, “think-tanks” controlled by the Kremlin, agents of influence, etc. The list is very long.

Russia is very interested, according to the EFIS, in speeding up the “integration” of Belarus with Russia, using the mechanism of the Union State. On the other hand, Russia will certainly do its utmost to influence presidential (March 2019) and parliamentary (October 2019) elections in Ukraine, in order to turn Kyiv back into Moscow’s orbit. 2020 and 2021 will probably be decisive years for these two countries with respect to their (limited) sovereignty and independence from the Kremlin.

Finally, the EFIS draws attention to Russia’s interest in the May 2019 elections to the European Parliament and the growing influence of societally divisive and anti-EU parties in Europe that are overtly or covertly supported or sponsored by Moscow. There are also l a couple of brief sections about the rise of China and its relations with Russia. The EFIS points to the vigilance of the US and the EU over potential politically motivated Chinese investments. More comprehensive analysis of China in future yearbooks would certainly be welcome, given the fact that noteworthy Chinese investments are knocking on Estonia’s door—for example the pledge by Touchstone Capital Partners to invest in the proposed rail tunnel between Tallinn and Helsinki.