Sa, 2.12.2023

What Metsavas really knew?

Oliver Kund
, reporter
Please note that the article is more than five years old and belongs to our archive. We do not update the content of the archives, so it may be necessary to consult newer sources.
Photo: Tairo Lutter / Postimees

Treason of General Staff of the Defense Forces planning officer Deniss Metsavas (38), who, together with his father, leaked classified documents to GRU for years, could spell months of reorganization in a highly sensitive field for the armed forces.

According to the prosecution, Major Deniss Metsavas and his father Piotr Volin worked in tandem until they were arrested on September 3.

Only Metsavas had access to state secrets and classified foreign information, working at the general staff’s operations center.

Both men forwarded information to the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU). Information was leaked both using telecommunications and during meetings with contacts. The prosecution will not reveal where these meetings took place. Their motive for committing treason was not ideological, while there is information to suggest the men received benefits from the GRU in exchange for classified information.

Even though Director of the Estonian Internal Security Service (EISS) Arnold Sinisalu praised the Defense Forces for its contribution in catching Metsavas, the reality is different. Metsavas’ activities first caught the eye of the security service, not the general staff’s internal control unit.

«These persons have been caught courtesy of prior work and experience, as well as cooperation with other institutions,» Sinisalu said. The Estonian public will likely never know whether Metsavas’ activities were discovered during another counterintelligence operation or when keeping tabs on GRU agents.

Investigative organs did not say when Metsavas first appeared on EISS’ radar as this could give the GRU too much information on what the security service knows about Metsavas’ cooperation with the Russian agency.

Circumstances speak for themselves however. Metsavas served with the general staff until July of this year. He was scheduled to be rotated to the Headquarters of the Defense League from September 3 but was arrested based on a Harju County Court warrant before that.

Exemplary officer

Both Metsavas and his now retired father were given Estonian citizenship with a government decision in the 1990s. Volin is a former Soviet Union border guard and later worked for the Estonian prison service.

While originally from Lasnamäe, Metsavas commuted to work from his apartment in Viimsi in recent years. He pursued a dizzying career after completing master’s studies. Metsavas was one of only a few Russian-speaking officers to have reached the rank of major as recently as 2015.

«He was very much up to speed on general politics. He could have served as a bridge between the armed forces and the civilian population. There was no doubt he was very patriotic,» a source who knows Metsavas said.

Metsavas has taught national defense at the Tallinn Mustamäe Science School and represented the Defense Forces on television on numerous occasions.

The five-year period during which Metsavas is suspected of having leaked classified data started when he came to work for the general staff in 2013.

He initially served as a staff officer with the artillery inspectorate but was promoted half-incidentally before the year’s end.

The structure of the armed forces was changed in 2013. When the ground forces staff was abolished, Metsavas’ position was merged with that of the general staff’s battle support center that answers to the operations center.

If at first Metsavas was only in charge of development and supervision of artillery forces, he could have gained access to other state secrets in his new position. The operations center of the general staff also deals with national defense plans, trainings and foreign missions’ planning, allied cooperation and mobilization.

Rapid development

Metsavas’ position with the operations center was tied to development of fire support and use of firepower in defense plans. Development in the field has been rapid – during Metsavas’ term in office, the Defense Forces has procured CV90 IFVs and launched procurement of K9 Thunder mobile artillery. Postimees’ information suggests that while Metsavas was not part of the K9 workgroup, he had contact with 155 mm howitzers.

Experts consulted by Postimees said that weapon specifications were probably no the GRU’s main interest and that they were potentially much more interested in other documents Metsavas’ department had access to. One such area is mobilization that Estonia has repeatedly tested using short notice reservist trainings in recent years and information regarding which is considered priceless in intelligence circles. The same goes for general defense plans and allied troop placement.

Asked how much damage Metsavas could have done in five years, Commander of the Defense Forces Gen. Riho Terras said: «We need to expect the worst. The Defense Forces and Estonian national defense have suffered a grave wound,» he said.

Arnold Sinisalu said that a part of documents leaked is known. «We can say they were interested in allied troops in Estonia, all manner of military infrastructure and of course our cooperation with partners,» he said.

Minister of Defense Jüri Luik has put together a group of experts to ascertain the full extent of the leak and decide what kind of reorganization is needed in defense planning and allied operations in the coming months.

Metsavas was one of the main characters of a book called «Laigulised edulood» (Success stories in camouflage) where Russian officers told their life stories.

«Ahead of me is a long and interesting life full of change. The main thing is to be prepared for perspective, instead of looking on with cloudy eyes,» he said two years ago. «Additionally, an officer needs to keep in mind that condemnable conduct will also reflect poorly on his colleagues, friends and brothers in arms.»