November 14, 2012

Russia Does Not Just Keep an Eye on Estonia – It Keeps Three

The ever strengthening Russian intelligence services have clearly stepped up their efforts on the Estonian front during the last 20 years.

27.09.2012, Kaarel Kaas
The ever strengthening Russian intelligence services have clearly stepped up their efforts on the Estonian front during the last 20 years.
Ants Laaneots was not in the military anymore. He was a private person which is why he could speak freely and frankly to the press. “My advice to General would be: sir, get an appointment with a shrink and get it fast!” bellowed Laaneots.
It was 1995 and yet another scandal had rocked the Estonian public – illegal arms trade had been flourishing for a long time in the General Staff of the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) right under the nose of General Aleksander Einseln.
Moreover, Einseln, Commander of the EDF, had just dropped a bombshell, stating that all this was “deliberate provocation by the Russian intelligence agencies.” This very line of thought, suggested by Einseln, was what elicited the above comment from Laaneots who had only recently been the Chief of Staff of the EDF and, as such, must have been quite familiar with what the Russian special services were, and were not, capable of.
Indeed, the affair which later became known as the ‘General Staff’s arms trading scandal’ had nothing to do with the Russian intelligence agencies and everything to do with shady deals, dirty money and a lack of order. Still, Einseln’s remark was significant in several ways.
Two stereotypical approaches
It seems that the Estonian public favours two stereotypical approaches: either the ‘Russian intelligence services’ form an almost all-seeing, all-knowing and all-powerful force whose poisonous tentacles can wrap around much greater states than small Estonia, e.g. the USA (this stereotype seems to feed on the remnants of the KGB’s former glory), or alternatively these organisations are staffed by inadequate, harmless and comical rather than really dangerous people.
Neither of the stereotypes corresponds to reality – the truth lies somewhere in a gray area between the two clichés.
In actual fact, the Russian special services have been highly active in and around Estonia all through the last 20 years. Sometimes their efforts have been more energetic and intensive; at other times they have been of a more routine nature with less initiative. However, there have not been any crucial breakthroughs or spectacular successes in any fields during the 20 years.
Generally speaking, the fields can be divided into two: first, there is classic intelligence, i.e. information gathering and analysis (this is the world of spies and espionage which writers and the public are so fond of); second, there are instruments to increase Russian influence on Estonian target audiences, together with the so-called active measures (these include influence operations carried out by intelligence services to shape and guide public opinion, social attitudes, and political and economic decisions).
One of the first cases of the public becoming aware of Russia’s intelligence activities directed against Estonia emerged in spring 1996. The Estonian Security Police had gathered data on the basis of which Estonia declared that a Russian intelligence officer working at the Russian Embassy in Estonia under the cover of a ‘diplomat’ was a persona non grata and asked him to leave the country.
In the 1990s, official cover was one of the favourite methods used by the Russian special services, the more so as it is common practice worldwide to have diplomats/intelligence officers work at embassies in host nations. The plus side of this modus operandi is the relatively low risk level – the personal safety of intelligence officials is guaranteed by diplomatic immunity. The downside is, however, their limited freedom of action – counterintelligence services in host nations are usually aware of the identity of ‘spy’ diplomats and they are therefore watched more closely.
In those days, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the military intelligence agency (GRU) showed the most interest in Estonian affairs. Their primary goal was to gather information about Estonia’s defence capability, military cooperation with Western nations, foreign policy and also internal politics. For the purposes of obtaining data, attempts were made to recruit Estonian officials who worked in their homeland or abroad.
Information of greater import
Back then, unclassified and even non-confidential information about Estonia’s internal politics was gathered. Moreover, it still continues to be gathered. For example, the information on Estonian parties, their internal power relations, operating principles and intrigues, exchanged during conversations in the corridors of power, could illuminate the operating mechanisms of internal politics and this newly acquired knowledge could, in its turn, create the preconditions for rendering Estonia’s internal processes susceptible to outside influences, so that they could be directed towards one objective or another.
In the 1990s, the influence operations in Estonia were driven by a desire to contribute to the establishment of a strong united Russian-speaking pro-Russian political force in the country. However, this desire could not be fulfilled at the time because parties formed by ethnic Russians did not draw wide political support.
The Russian special services became significantly more active on the Estonian front in the previous decade. This was largely motivated by both Vladimir Putin’s rise to power and an overall solidification of Russian foreign policy. Their efforts did not only intensify and strengthen in terms of quantity, but the special services also reached a new level of quality as they mounted more refined, more professional, more thought-through and more technologically advanced intelligence operations.
There was a substantial shift in Russia’s anti-Estonian intelligence offensive when the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) began to effectively contribute to it, despite the fact that the formal scope of action for the FSB does not exceed Russian borders.
The gathering of information on Estonia’s defence capability and political processes continued, but that was not all. Estonia’s accession to NATO and the European Union prompted new interest not only in the country itself, but in its role as a potential gateway to confidential material generated by other Western nations. For example, a large part of the more than 3,000 documents handed over by an Estonian agent Hermann Simm to the Russian special services did not detail Estonia’s national specifics concerning the exchange of classified information, but those of NATO as an alliance. Tallinn has now been incorporated into the West’s circulatory system for military and political information, transforming it into a valuable target.
As the significance of energy security increased in the second half of the previous decade, so did that of economic intelligence. The more Estonia integrates with the Western world, the greater the weight of economic intelligence and potential agents recruited here – both could provide access to information that could, for example, shed some light on EU plans concerning the oil and gas resources in the Caspian basin.
The final years of the past decade also put technological and research intelligence on a par with economic intelligence. Estonia’s research labs are working – as we speak – on solutions that are worth spying on, not to mention stealing, be it in the field of genetic engineering or computer programming. For example, the FSB or the SVR would probably pay quite handsomely to an agent who could supply them with detailed technical data on the goings-on in Skype’s development centre in Tallinn. As for influence operations, the Russian special services shifted gear in the past decade and focused on splitting Estonian society in two and on provoking confrontation over differing historical interpretations and language issues.
It seems at the moment that Russian leaders are well aware of domestic upheavals and have therefore taken a hard line both in internal politics and in foreign policy. As a result, tensions in Russian-Western relations will not be defused which, in its turn, means that the Russian special services will continue to be highly active in and around Estonia.
This article reflects the author’s personal views.
Three eyes
The SVR – the Foreign Intelligence Service (in Russian: ‘Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki’) – is Russia’s primary external intelligence agency.
The beginnings of the SVR date back to 1920 when the Cheka’s Foreign Department (‘Inostranny Otdel’, INO) was founded. It was established in its current form in December 1991 on the basis of the First Chief Directorate of the KGB. Its headquarters towers high above the forests in the Yasenovo District of Moscow.
The KGB used to be the Soviet Union’s only special service – a monstrous superstructure that incorporated all special-purpose functions and activities. It had numerous chief directorates, but the First Chief Directorate – specialising in foreign intelligence – was the most elitist and exclusive one as it engaged in espionage and special operations all over the world. There was a nondescript intelligence officer who served in the First Chief Directorate – Vladimir Putin, now President of Russia.
Today the SVR conducts political, strategic, economic and military espionage plus some signals intelligence activities. For example, the handlers of Hermann Simm were SVR officers. The service’s most famous agents – obviously, the ones who have been caught – include Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. The ten Russian ‘illegal’ intelligence agents arrested in the USA in June 2010 were also working for the SVR.
The SVR allegedly commands a paramilitary special operations group ‘Zaslon’ (in English: a ‘covering detachment’) which consists of 300–500 undercover operatives who carry out diversionary and special operations abroad, including assassinations, if necessary. It has been claimed that Alexander Litvinenko was ‘liquidated’ by members of Zaslon.
Mikhail Fradkov, former Russian Prime Minister in 2004–2007, has headed the SVR since 2007.
The FSB – the Federal Security Service (official name in Russian: ‘Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii’) – is Russia’s greatest and most influential special service. Its impact on Russia is most vividly exemplified in the following saying: “The KGB used to govern the Communist Party; now, the FSB governs the entire nation.”
The FSB was officially established in 1995 on the basis of the Federal Counterintelligence Service (‘Federalnaya Sluzhba Kontrrazvedki’, FSK) which, in its turn, was a successor organisation of the KGB.
In the present day, the FSB deals with counterintelligence, counterterrorism and economic security and to some extent with the fight against organised crime and drugs smuggling. The FSB’s powers and responsibilities have progressively been extended since Vladimir Putin’s rise to power. In 2003, the border guard service and troops were integrated into the FSB; in addition, a major part of the functions and assets of the liquidated signals and electronic intelligence agency FAPSI was assigned to the FSB.
The FSB’s scope of action, powers and functions are currently strongly reminiscent of those of the KGB. The organisation employs 160–200,000 border guards and thousands of special forces troops.
Although it is formally an internal security agency, the FSB conducts signals intelligence activities targeted against foreign nations and carries out intelligence operations in ‘near abroad’. For example, the counterintelligence department in the FSB Headquarters employed Aleksei Dressen who was convicted in Estonia for treason.
Alexander Bortnikov has been Director of the FSB since 2008.
The GRU – the military intelligence agency (official name: ‘Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff’; in Russian: ‘Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba’).
The Red Army’s Registration Directorate (Registrupravlenie), established in 1918 on orders from Lev Trotski, could be viewed as the predecessor of the GRU. Military intelligence in the Soviet Union was developed under the long-term leadership (1924–1935 and 1937–1938) of Latvian Communist Jānis Bērziņš (birth name: Pēteris Ķuzis) who also handled agents like the ultimate red superspy – Richard Sorge.
For a long time, the GRU was the Soviet Union’s most secret intelligence organisation which was characterised by harsh discipline and effectiveness – even as late as the 1980s many members of the Communist Party nomenklatura were not aware of its existence. Ever since its foundation, the Soviet – and later Russian – military intelligence service has constantly, and sometimes very bitterly, competed first with the Cheka and the NKVD and later with the KGB and the FSB.
Compared to its ‘rival’ KGB, the GRU survived the collapse of the Soviet Union remarkably well, retaining its former structure and staff.
Today, the GRU’s efforts cover almost the entire spectrum of intelligence activities – human intelligence, electronic intelligence, space intelligence – as it gathers military intelligence and also engages in political, strategic, economic and technological intelligence. In addition, the GRU commands Russia’s special forces brigades (spetsnaz).
Major General Igor Sergun has served as Director of the GRU since 2011.

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