Sa, 28.01.2023

Tartu businessman served GRU for years

Oliver Kund
, reporter
Tartu businessman served GRU for years
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Photo: Erakogu

A family man who ran several modest small businesses in Tartu lived a double life for years, collecting information on Estonian military sites and communicating it to Russia’s military foreign intelligence.

Tartu IT-businessman Ilya Tihhanovski (40) is one of three people the Estonian Internal Security Service (KAPO) and the public prosecutor’s office have convicted of spying for Estonia’s eastern neighbor in the past six months. If the other two – FSB collaborators Mikhail Petrov and Albert Provornikov – fit into a familiar pattern for KAPO, Tihhanovski is an exception in several ways.

Having graduated from Narva’s 1st High School, the Estonian citizen has been running a small business of five employees for the past 15 years. The company sells and services its own accounting software.

The business is profitable: the company turned a profit of €14,000 at a turnover of more than €100,000 last year. Tihhanovski offered various services in South Estonia, from website building and logo design to renting out his company’s real estate. Tihhanovski moved into accounting and created another two companies in recent years.

Tihhanovski, who speaks Estonian, was active on social media and in programmers’ circles. He has organized trainings and often had to travel to Russia on business. This was the case until recently.

Suspect lays cards on the table

The security service apprehended Tihhanovski on December 10 of last year. By then, counterintelligence had enough evidence of the small business owner’s other affairs: he collected information on national defense and vital functions and performed other tasks given to him by Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU).

The man did not deny his actions and quickly told investigators everything. Tihhanovski’s job or the software his company developed had nothing to do with his spying. He was primarily expected to perform visual surveillance.

Tihhanovski did not have access to Estonian state secrets but was tasked mainly with collecting official information or personal data. The latter is used in planning for future intelligence operations or as source material for analyses by the Russian side. The data was delivered to the GRU using communications devices or during meetings in Russia. What is noteworthy is that Tihhanovski had operated for years before he was caught.

The court sentenced the man to four years in prison in agreement process on Tuesday last. The ruling will enter into force in the coming days. Even though the section based on which Tihhanovski was convicted describes creating or maintaining contact with a foreign intelligence agency, it was the intelligence directorate that took the first step to recruit Tihhanovski back in the day.

Whether the Estonian family man agreed to work for the GRU for money, because of blackmail, or following ideological considerations KAPO will not reveal.

“I’m not talking about Tihhanovski; however, things often start with the person’s relatives or other contacts in Russia. Sometimes people allow themselves to become compromised by offering bribes or accepting them,” said KAPO chief Arnold Sinisalu.

“Some have ideological reasons. Other times offers are made under false flags; helping research institutions or investigative organs for instance. The agency in charge is not even named. The reasons are always personal. Some see it as a life experience, believing the risk of getting caught is modest,” Sinisalu said.

Public Prosecutor Inna Ombler said that the exact nature of Tihhanovski’s crimes will not be disclosed because the trial was not public. The facts are that Tihhanovski willingly cooperated with the GRU, allowed himself to be recruited, and agreed to participate in fieldwork.

“He agreed to a sentence of four years. That also speaks a little about what he was accused of and on what scale,” Ombler said. The maximum punishment for Tihhanovski’s crime is six years.

The Tartu man’s tasks were not limited to observing the capacities of the Estonian Defense Forces and Estonia’s allies. “Missions to take photos of military installations are sometimes also given by the FSB: these are rather commonplace. In the case of the GRU, we see much more interesting and dangerous tasks in terms of national defense,” the prosecutor said.

Spy escapes to Estonia

The court sentenced Russian citizen Mikhail Petrov (born 1973) to five years in prison on October 17 last year.

Pskov Martial arts coach Petrov is a colorful figure as he crossed into Estonia from Russia in late June last year and asked for asylum here. The man later told a Pskov newspaper that he escaped from Russia after a training session with only a backpack that held a kimono, shorts, and a T-shirt.

Petrov claimed he was put on a list in Russia because he scribbled slogans of peace on the walls of the 76th Guards Air Assault Division in Pskov that, among other things, called for a free Ukraine.

“It is probable things really did take an unfortunate turn for him there, but because we knew he had worked with the FSB in the past, we had to bring him in,” Sinisalu said.

KAPO had evidence Petrov had collected information on the security service’s buildings, employees, vehicles, and persons with information of operatives when visiting Estonia with a visa some years before. He had also attempted to contact Estonian residents for the benefit of the FSB.

Petrov worked with the FSB since the 1990s, while episodes that concern Estonia came much later. The man was still in contact with the FSB when he escaped to Estonia last summer, but he probably did not think the authorities were on to him. Or perhaps he calculated that he would face an even worse fate in Russia.

Sinisalu said that while Petrov’s actions did some damage, it cannot be compared to the information leaked by Alexei Dressen and Vladimir Veitman.

Last October saw the conviction of a third man – Estonian and Russian citizen Albert Provornikov (born 1989). Provornikov was punished with a three-year prison sentence for conspiring against the Republic of Estonia. The man smuggled cigarettes before he was hired by the FSB to spy on border guard stations, the Kuperjanov Infantry Battalion, and KAPO buildings.

A total of ten people have been convicted of working with Russian special services in the past two and a half years. Sinisalu said that they will likely not be the last. “People who have had contact [with Russian special services] that we know of number more than those four or five names that have come out,” he said.