Bout between special services leads to Susi’s exchange

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Postimees’ Russian correspondent Jaanus Piirsalu sent a long-awaited message to Tallinn ten days ago: “I can feel an exchange coming soon.”

Piirsalu was referring to Estonian aviation businessman Raivo Susi who was sentenced to 12 years in prison for espionage in Russia. That Susi’s case would be more than a long and arduous sentence in Russia’s maximum-security prison was clear some time ago. The businessman was arrested in the transit area of the Moscow airport while on his way to Tajikistan in February of 2016 and convicted in December of last year.

The true aim of Russian special services seemed to be to put pressure on Estonia. The country’s security services had created a dangerous precedent for Moscow – following the arrest of Russian spies in Estonia, they had also put their recruiters and handlers on international most wanted lists.

The latter belong to the top echelons of the intelligence world. For instance, one of the handlers of Estonian traitor, former KAPO top official Aleksey Dressen was General Yevgeny Tyashkun, deputy head of the FSB in Moscow and Moscow oblast.

Sergei Yakovlev, known also as Antonio de Jesus Amurett Graf, is still wanted in connection with the case of Hermann Simm. Moscow had invested a lot of time and money into that near flawless legend abroad.

The list goes on. The conduct of Estonian agencies might have come off as having crossed the line. Or so it has been suggested.

Recent practice in the intelligence world had seen recruiters treated diplomatically – forced to leave the country that exposed them forever.

The true circumstances of Raivo Susi’s case will probably remain unclear for decades; however, the reasons for his arrest in Russia – where he had done business for over ten years – were clearly artificial.

Susi was to be turned into a tool with which to discipline “hostile Estonia”.

The Russians’ new tactic has a side-effect. Several Estonian entrepreneurs have given up trips to Russia as a result. They do not wish to see their names printed in this context. “It’s not just Russia,” one of them says, “I also do not dare travel to Belarus or Kazakhstan anymore.”

Worth a shot

Because Susi’s case lacked a political dimension, unlike the abduction of Estonian Internal Security Service (KAPO) operative Eston Kohver some time ago, the former was a game Russian services could not lose.

The matter could be served to Estonia as follows: we have an innocent Estonian family man who is looking at a long sentence, while you have several spies employed by Russian agencies serving time. We could make a trade.

While it might seem like a win-win situation, it entails a risk for Estonia. Russia could keep using the same modus operandi to try and trade all of its operatives held in Estonia that way. “We cannot rule out Susi’s case not being the last of its kind,” one high-ranking intelligence official says. They also refuse to give their name for this article.

Estonian authorities therefore had a complicated equation to solve.

When Susi was convicted in Moscow on December 11, his defender, Arkadi Tolpegin, promised to appeal the matter. Neither Tolpegin nor Susi had even considered the possibility of a trade. “I’m not Kohver… That is the point. I’m an ordinary businessman,” Susi told Piirsalu in Moscow a year ago.

However, things had changed by late December of last year. Susi was recommended by Estonia not to appeal his conviction. One of the main prerequisites for an exchange of prisoners is a valid court judgment. Without it, President Vladimir Putin could not have pardoned Raivo Susi.

So it happened that when Postimees asked Tolpegin what he intended to do next of January 11, the otherwise jovial lawyer was tight-lipped. “I do not want to seem rude for failure to answer you,” he said. “However, I will not answer your question or give any other comments as instructed by my client.”

By the middle of January, it had become clear Susi had not taken the opportunity to file an appeal. That was a clear sing a trade was being planned. However, prematurely revealing the development in the media would have done Susi a disservice.

Not to be left behind

Everything became clear on the morning of Saturday, February 10 when Susi crossed the Piusa river bridge at the Koidula border crossing to get into a KAPO van waiting on the other side. A meeting of KAPO Deputy Director Aleksander Toots and a leading FSB operative had taken place just minutes before. It was the second such meeting for the men as they were also the ones who traded Eston Kohver for Aleksey Dressen in September of 2016.

If long-time KAPO officer Dressen was a highly valuable asset for Russia, the spy Artyom Zinchenko, who was traded for Susi, is rather symbolic in value. While Moscow had invested time and money into the training of the baby goods salesman who worked for the foreign intelligence agency GRU, he is nevertheless just a pawn of the intelligence world.

Here we come to what is probably the primary consideration for Moscow in the recent trade – to show Zinchenko’s colleagues in Estonia and elsewhere that they will not be hung out to dry. Even though the punishment handed to Zinchenko in Estonia was relatively lenient – five years in prison – bringing him home had symbolic significance.

Director General of the Estonian Internal Security Service Arnold Sinisalu said that the sides reached a mutually satisfactory result in the trade. “Estonia helps its citizens whenever possible,” Sinisalu said. “Estonia expelled a Russian spy that allowed an Estonian businessman to be reunited with his loved ones after being detained in Russia for a long time.”

Raivo Susi’s lawyer Aivar Pilv said that his client is well and feels happy having returned home.