As is common in intelligence affairs, the people who know cannot comment. But even the public coverage of recent spy swaps between Estonia and Russia provides some insight into a change of paradigm in post-Cold War “intelligence culture”.
Espionage is a lonely and dangerous profession. Capture may mean a long prison sentence or even, in some countries, the death penalty. The possibility of being exchanged for another spy is an option that makes the continuous stress more tolerable.
While espionage rarely provides impressive press images—usually only passport photos or mugshots of an alleged spy, a pale person in the dock at his or her conviction, low-quality surveillance video or, at best, some mysterious small piece of equipment—the swap on the bridge is dramatic and telling. In the Cold War era, such photos or videos were not published and we only learnt of them from movies or documentaries years later. The 1968 Soviet film Dead Season (shot mostly in Tallinn, by the way) was probably the first to make a spy swap iconic. And the Glienicke Bridge between West Berlin and Potsdam became well known through the 2015 Hollywood film Bridge of Spies.
Although we cannot completely rule out the possibility of clandestine exchanges of detained or convicted spies, there have been three publicised such events between a NATO country and Russia over the last eight years. In 2010 there was a widely covered exchange between the US and Russia at Vienna airport, and in 2015 and 2018 instances involving Estonia and Russia on a small bridge over the River Piusa on the border between the two countries.
Although the image of these two last swaps may appear the same—Estonian and Russian security officials walk to the bridge, shake hands, show each other some papers, walk back to a minivan and return with the alleged spies to exchange them—there are many differences in the background.
Eston Kohver, an officer in the Estonian Internal Security Service (KAPO), was abducted from the Estonian border while meeting with a source from Russia on 5 September 2014. This was only two days after President Barack Obama’s speech in Tallinn, in which he promised:
And I say to the people of Estonia and the people of the Baltics, today we are bound by our treaty Alliance. We have a solemn duty to each other. Article 5 is crystal clear: An attack on one is an attack on all. So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, “who will come to help,” you’ll know the answer—the NATO Alliance, including the Armed Forces of the United States of America, “right here, [at] present, now!”
In this light, some saw the abduction as Russia sending a message. However, operations like this would probably take much longer than two days to prepare, and the action was not accompanied by an information campaign to clarify the supposed message.
The case caused a media uproar from the very beginning. KAPO was backed by both the people and leadership of Estonia, and there was considerable international support for Estonia’s efforts to get its officer back. When the exchange finally occurred on 26 September 2015, it came as a total surprise to the Estonian public. The broadcast coverage came only from the Russian side, providing high-quality footage. In exchange for the officer Estonia offered a well-known individual—a Russian source inside KAPO, Aleksei Dressen, detained in 2012.
By contrast, the central actors in the spy swap on the River Piusa on 10 February 2018 were almost unknown to the public. Estonian businessman Raivo Susi had been detained two years earlier in the transit zone of Moscow airport and Russian businessman Artjom Zintšenko a year ago in Estonia. Both were later convicted on espionage charges. Public coverage of these cases was almost non-existent, and there were no loud statements by politicians, let alone international pressure. Oddly enough, the spy swap already seemed so common for the Estonian public that even the media gave it somewhat limited attention compared to the previous occasion. Probably learning from the earlier exchange, KAPO released its own footage of the event.