Expert: FSB likely fearing capture of vital agent in Estonia

Argo Ideon
, Postimees
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Photo: Mihkel Maripuu / Postimees

There’s no link between kidnapping of Estonian security police officer Eston Kohver and the Russian security service FSB propaganda video starring former Kapo employee Uno Puusepp, thinks Vladimir Yushkin, director of the Baltic Centre for Russian Studies in Tallinn, Estonia. The aim of the video may rather be distracting Estonian counterintelligence from stuff more important.

How do you assess the «disclosing of Estonian spies» aired in Russian TV?

You know what is unexpected, in this video? The film masquerades as a disclosure-propaganda movie against Estonian intelligence. Exactly, this is a masquerade. Why? Because there are three facts totally unbelievable with the film.

Firstly, they disclose an illegal agent, and a successful one at that. I do not remember any earlier such occasions.

Secondly, they are disclosing the operations where the illegal agent participated. Totally possible that, partly, the operations are fiction, but part of it has probably actually happened.

And what’s most unexpected – they also disclose the communication system of that agent with the centre, which was via a communications guy. And they publish who the communications guy was. Meaning, they disclose the whole study material for Estonian counterintelligence.

Summing it up – such things just aren’t done. This is the Russian intelligence, among the best in its kind, having vast experience, which keeps and protects its agents till the last moment and only announces the greatest success stories – and even that only before the agent is about to die. And now this here happens, all of a sudden.

Why should Russia do a thing like this?

Based on the impressions of the film, I would call the case «FSB Estonia gambit». They risk a very minor piece, a technical «mole», with the obvious intention to draw the Kapo [Estonian Security Service – edit] eyes away from some very serious agent who Kapo has come very close to.

It is absolutely obvious that even the documents shown at the background of the video, secret documents, are such as have nothing to do with a technical specialist. These documents needed to be shown so as to detract Estonian counterintelligence from the tracks.

The case described about the attempt to eavesdrop on a cable is, basically, a very routine operation. These were already known from 1945 when there was the well-known case with Berlin tunnels – Americans linking themselves to a Soviet army cable in Germany. Afterwards, there have been many such operations, of the most varied kind.

In a word: they sacrifice a piece which, according to all the rules, Russian intelligence was not supposed to sacrifice. This means that they are reckoning with Estonian counterintelligence. They are worried: are they reaching our agent? Whereas, two earlier «moles» have been caught. This is not about failures of Estonian counterintelligence, but its successes. In 99 cases in a 100, the discovery of a «mole» is the result of the other «mole» having been a traitor. If our counterintelligence succeeds in pulling this off, this is quite an achievement.

I have a feeling they are trying to divert our attention here, that the work with some vital illegal agent would be disrupted and the energy would go towards clarifying an inside situation. In a case like this, any counterintelligence organisation will go into high gear trying to understand the extent of the damage caused by the «mole». They are checking his connections, what he knew etc. These capacities will be drawn from elsewhere.

What do you think, is there a link between the Eston Kohver case and the Uno Puusepp film?

I don’t think so. For what sense would that make – why, after that, disclose a «mole» who was not caught?

It’s still surprising that during a comparatively short time there’s two such resounding cases with Estonian and Russian intelligence confronted like that.

It’s just a totally different issue with Mr Kohver. An intelligence officer is only kidnapped to be swapped for another such officer. Probably for Mr Dressen (Aleksei Dressen, convicted in treason and jailed in Estonia – edit).

Why Mr Dressen, and not the other traitor Vladimir Veitman? Or Herman Simm?

The thing is, Mr Dressen still has his life before him. Here, it really does not matter who you swap one for. In Soviet and later the Russian intelligence, a principle was that always, no matter the circumstances, an agent who gets caught is helped out. But here: one gets caught, another one gets caught – the agency network sees these captures, you know.

As soon as an agent gets caught, the entire network linked to him is conserved. Everybody lies low, until new guidelines come from the headquarters. A committee is created to investigate the reasons for the capture. With its methods and means. All such persons who may have come under suspicion as related to the capture of one will be taken out of the country or «frozen» for a long time. And only when the committee finds out that the capture happened for such and such reason, a decision will be taken to «unfreeze» the agency.

According to sources available to me – these being just the memoirs of former spies which begun to be published in the 1990ies – a serious agent has the right to say he is afraid. «Explain to me why they got caught? Am I outside the danger? I have a family, another, a third, a position in the society, I’d rather not risk,» he may say.

Some other serious person arrives from the headquarters, has a conversation with him: «Okay, if you are afraid, rest some more. Be frozen for one more year. Let’s see what happens.»

At any rate, it must be shown that we are involved, we will not forsake you if something should suddenly change.

Now, for the sake of that important person, I think, Mr Kohver is kidnapped and talks are initiated to swap him – so that the important person would see: we will even go this far, we are caring for out agent that gets caught. I think this is the situation with Mr Kohver.

Thus, the things going on serve to show that the Russian intelligence has yet another important person in Estonia?

By all means. Let me bring you an example. KGB had its network of agencies in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, in the Latvian SSR. The KGB had a railway department in Estonia, the agency of which was mostly made up of railway workers and the people who dwelt close to the railway. In 1958, this department had 256 agents listed, five residents, 30 owners of apartments to meet. Their structure was similar to foreign intelligence.

In 1990–1991, some were told: you are leaving, find a new place in life. If we need you, we will find you.

But some were told: we are freezing you right now; but once in a year or in two years you will need to show up at a certain place. You will be approached by a person, he will say such and such a password, this is what you will reply. After that, he will tell you what you shall do next.

The former KGB had a broad agency all over the Soviet Union. FSB was thinking what to do with them. Then Vladimir Putin appeared, large money became available. In Russia, the problems of the post-Soviet space were declared an actual foreign-political task.

Thus, FSB takes the decision to unfreeze the agents. I think Mr Dressen was in such a network. He used to be a militiaman and I read some memoirs where they were talking about a former militiaman in Latvia who was recruited into the agency straight from the militia school. These people were «sleeping» till they were told that now it’s time to act.

Now, that network has been awakened. Who is dead, is dead. Who is old, is thanked. But those that were young while recruited are fit for use. Let’s take the youngest who were recruited at the end of the Soviet time, add the years in between – this is the bunch that our Kapo needs to deal with.

But still: why would Russian intelligence hold such an interest towards Estonia?

This is because of the successful work by Estonian counterintelligence. Look – no such capture in Latvia or Lithuania. I am convinced that in Latvia the Russian agency network is more professional and broader-based than in Estonia. It is there that the Baltic military circuit headquarters used to be. There, they had mighty military intelligence. 

Estonian counterintelligence has discovered methods how to find «moles». Hence the interest towards us. Not that we are so very attractive. We are attractive as a region of political interests of Russian Federation.

Where lies the danger? Look: what are Sergei Lavrov (Russian foreign minister – edit) and Konstantin Kossatchev (Russian State Duma foreign committee head – edit) saying currently? They are saying that in Novorossiya the work with Russian «compatriots» has failed. Why? They pictured Novorossiya as a region with six-eight oblasts. In reality, they only got a little bite of a part of Donbas. There, people who speak Russian at home and at work voted for Ukraine.

Mr Kossatchev thinks that soft power is an important instrument to further Russian interests in the post-Soviet space. But, as we saw in Ukraine, a result is only achieved by the combination of soft and hard power.

The agency network is awakened in order to destabilise the situation in the Baltics. Not just to collect information about NATO, that’s a different game. The other game is to create the force to, for instance, organise something in Narva if they so choose. With 30 guys like «Strelok» (Igor Girkin (Strelkov), a leader of Ukrainian separatists – edit), then those who say they do not want to live in Estonia will follow them. In this lies the danger.