Su, 1.10.2023
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Arrests take romance out of spying

Oliver Kund
, reporter
Photo: Ekraanitõmmis portaalist

Of the last seven Russian special services agents captured in Estonia, most were recruited between the ages of 18 and 23. For the FSB, these young men are economy agents who will rarely be missed should they get caught. The market is running dry however.

They are simple material. Hardly distinctive-looking, good at thinking on their feet, in relatively good shape. They are motivated by patriotic rhetoric, blackmail if necessary, but most of all the romantic aspect. Some are trained, others merely receive instructions.

“There is very little you need to do. Risks are nonexistent,” the friendly handler says, hand on shoulder. The men are offered to make a little extra money, have the authorities turn a blind eye to violations, while simple patriotism sometimes suffices. Reality will strike home later – when recruits get caught.

“Initial cooperation is usually inspired by romantic inclinations. It ends when they get caught. They were promised something else,” Aleksander Toots, deputy director general of the Estonian Internal Security Service says.

He has been involved with half of the nearly seven cases of the past few years that have seen young men convicted of spying for the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) or military intelligence GRU.

Their sins are considerable. Agents have gathered information on border guard work methods and tactics, locations of checkpoints and surveillance cameras, as well as names of internal security operatives who have been sent over the border. They have taken pictures of allied units and vital services nodes. All have been found guilty in court.

Alexei Vassilyev (20), arrested at the Narva border crossing point on November 4 of this year and accused of planning a computer crime by the prosecution and the internal security service, is no exception. His background isn’t clean, despite attempts by the Russian media to paint an opposite picture using images of Vassilyev as an innocent schoolboy. FSB collaborator Artyom Malyshev was 18 when we was recruited in 2011. Alik Huchbarov was 20. Both are young men with double citizenship who engaged in smuggling and helped Russian special services.

These kinds of sources are perfect tools of visual surveillance for Russian special services. They know the landscape, can move in the dark, are familiar with the border regime, have contacts, and are willing to take risks. And what is paramount – they can be blackmailed.

“If you’re in illegal border trade, you’ll simply be told your business is done if you don’t cooperate. While if you do cooperate, things will go more smoothly,” Toots describes.

There is sharp competition in smuggling on the Russian side of the border. Risks are considerable, as are potential profits. Every vacancy on the market is quickly filled with new traffickers. Those on the FSB’s leash have a choice of whether to give up their spot or cooperate.

If in the past Russia could often spy on Estonia indirectly, the arrival of NATO units meant agents had to take to the field themselves.

As surprising as its sounds, classified documents and state secrets are often over-mystified in the surveillance world. The real question is access – an agent with necessary contacts and (ideally

repeated) access to important places, as well as a way out, is more valuable. Here is where young men – relatively primitive tools for gathering information in the eyes of special services – come into play.

One possible goal is to ascertain whether the claimed capacity of Estonia or its allies in the region is actual or just a bluff. Embellishing military capacity is a mainstay of the eastern neighbor’s own methods, which makes Russia suspicious of the West. If Estonia is said to have so and so many tanks, do they really work? It is possible to monitor their communication during trainings. Also, look at the capacity of airfields, like Ämari, to receive aircraft. All that is of special interest to Russian intelligence.

A lot of other so-called special platforms are employed. Cases known to the Estonian public can be divided into four categories.

Firstly, use of false identity. Estonia’s most infamous traitor Herman Simm was converted by Russian foreign intelligence operative Sergei Yakovlev, who used the identity of Portuguese citizen Antonia de Jesus Amorett Graf.

Business cover was employed by Nikolai Yermakov, who was the handler of traitor and former Estonian internal security service operative Vladimir Veitman.

Estonia has expelled several diplomats who used the cover of the foreign service to spy for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and GRU.

Russia has also made use of surveillance on territory – GRU hired Russian citizen Artem Zinchenko in Russia, who worked for military intelligence while posing as a baby carriage salesman in Estonia.

Toots says that the interest of the FSB, GRU, and SVR in Estonian politics, national defense, and special services is quite constant. The public has not witnessed cases of political and economic espionage, but that doesn’t mean it is not being pursued.

Secret collaborators of Russian special services are caught for several reasons. One possible cause is waning vigilance.

The goal of every counterintelligence service is to catch the spy when they least expect it. There are no ironmen among those arrested. Everyone gives something away. Cases where the accused cooperate with their detainers are not rare.

The FSB never admits that persons Estonian courts convict in camera are theirs. The latter might only happen in case of exchanges, or when agents have managed to escape to Russia. Russian special services do not see arrests of simple collaborators in Estonia as a major loss. Potential damage only concerns reputation – rumors that getting caught is likely in Estonia.

“One of the aims of counterintelligence, why we catch, prosecute, and convict spies, is keeping Estonia an unattractive and complicated territory for the other side. Otherwise we run the risk of being a special service that only manufactures threat assessments without doing any real damage to its adversary,” Toots says.

He believes the internal security service’s model is working. Estonian counterintelligence has several reasons to draw that conclusion. The number of people who notify the agency of attempts by Russia to recruit them is growing annually. “We can keep them out of prison,” Toots says. The deputy

director also says that people are increasingly aware of dangers associated with the activities of Russian special services.

The effect is also felt on the other side of the border. Information on captured Russian spies has spread like wildfire in certain areas in Russia. “It is no longer easy to recruit people. Collaborators in Estonia also become careful; agents become more passive or secretive,” Toots describes.