Estonia: The Little Spycatcher Who Could
Nobody does it better, but sometimes I wish someone would.
Every year for the past 18 years, the Kaitsepolitseiamet, Estonia’s domestic security service, the unfortunately acronym-ed KAPO, publishes its annual review of the country’s most attention-grabbing incidents in counterintelligence, terrorism, and corruption, categories that very often overlap.
And most of the 45-page document is devoted to a subject with which this small but formidable Baltic power has had ample experience: Russian operatives and disinformation campaigns, now better known as “fake news.”
Estonia is Europe’s leading catcher of Vladimir Putin’s spies as well as Europe’s leading unmasker of his manifold agents of influence. It is uncharacteristically unafraid to advertise its own national security threats by naming and shaming its yearly haul of enemy operatives, at least in comparison to other Western NATO democracies, which tend to hush up such bilateral embarrassments, preferring the discreet expulsion of spooks or “PNGing” of diplomats who glad-hand by day and engage in dead-letter drops by night.
In the American example, at least before the hacking of the Democratic Party’s correspondence and Rachel Maddow’s late conversion into Whitaker Chambers, the M.O. was to downplay Russian penetration and sabotage efforts. The Obama administration famously spun the FBI’s 2010 bust-up of a dangerous 11-person ring of Russian “illegals” into a bumbling Leslie Nielsen spoof, complete with a pouty and buxom pinup in the shape of Anna Chapman. To do otherwise risked rattling the easily upset “reset” with the Kremlin, then headed by Putin’s placeholder president Dmitry Medvedev. (U.S. intelligence officials with intimate knowledge of Operation Ghost Stories, as the years-long FBI investigation was known, had a different assessment of the danger posed by this well-established spy network.)
KAPO has had to learn by necessity.
Estonia regained its independence in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and had no time at all to reconstitute its security services from scratch; it took a calculated gamble that grandfathering in many old hands from the ancien régime, the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, wouldn’t result in Swiss cheesing its service with loyalists to the former occupying superpower.
One such transitional figure, a former Soviet policeman named Herman Simm, who reinvented himself as a champion of Estonian self-determination, worked his way up to the head of security at the Estonian Defense Ministry. In 2004, when the country joined NATO, Simm established the National Security Authority, a department in the Defense Ministry which gave him access to whatever classified intelligence was shared among the 26 allied countries. Two years later, Simm was awarded two medals: one from Estonia’s president for “service to the Estonian nation,” and the other from his Russian handler announcing Simm’s promotion to the rank of major-general in the SVR, the branch of Moscow’s own reconstituted KGB in charge of foreign intelligence.
Simm had been a spy who fed reams of sensitive NATO secrets back to Moscow Center. Funnily enough, the one secret that he kept being asked to uncover was the one he was unable to because it didn’t exist: NATO’s invasion plan for Russia.
He was finally arrested in 2008, a year after Russian cyber hackers shut down Estonia’s e-government and digital banking sector for the better part of 24 hours in retaliation for the relocation of a Red Army World War II monument, which precipitated drunken riots in central Tallinn.
NATO subsequently named Simm the “most damaging” foreign operative in Alliance history. It was a grave national embarrassment for a new member-state that had sought membership to protect itself from exactly this type of Kremlin subversion and interference but which had hitherto spent the bulk of the ’90s and early aughts trying to root out the seemingly more urgent threats of gangsterism and organized crime—much of that also emanating from its eastern neighbor.
Well, that was then.
To quote from the new KAPO report:
“Moscow’s stance was also conveyed by a handful of extremists active in Estonia, who organized an anti-NATO picket and a so-called peace march. They did not find much of a following in society, but they met the goal of providing the Kremlin propaganda channels with verbal and photographic material to demonstrate ‘anti-NATO sentiment in Estonia’. The slightly confused extremists did not even know the precise date of the NATO summit, which is why they picketed the streets on two occasions, while the emergence of a new motivation for peace also deserves special mention. This is yet another re-use of Cold War methods, by which a handful of paid activists attempted to stage the spontaneous support of the people for the Soviet Union and undermine the defense ability of the free world, under the slogan ‘the fight for peace’ in western societies, from the 1960s to the 1980s. It is especially oxymoronic to see the belligerent rightist Allan Hantsom as a speaker for ‘peace’—years ago our annual review described his instigation of ethnic and racist hate as being in the ranks of the Barkashovists.”
You needn’t know who Hantsom or the Barkashovists are to understand that a domestic security service is here alerting a society already pretty well attuned to the style and substance of fifth columns that foreign agents don’t turn up wearing name-tags that read “KGB.” They turn up as protestors or non-governmental organizations bankrolled by Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s arm for dealing with “compatriots” abroad, or Russian-language media outlets, which often report on Estonian events that are sponsored or contrived outside of Estonia. This is one reason why Russia, ever paranoid of the West doing what it itself has pioneered, has increasingly eliminated foreign NGOs, foreign-sponsored journalism from its own territory, tout court.
The largely manufactured anti-NATO and anti-EU sentiment in Estonia competes with a favored trope of Kremlin revisionism about all the Baltic states: namely, that these sovereign democratic countries are in fact run by Nazi regimes seeking to subjugate their ethnic Russian or Russian-speaking populations. (If that sounds familiar, it is because Ukraine was sundered and Crimea annexed on precisely the same pretext.)
As ever, this disinformation campaign is founded on half-truths. While Estonia has legislative work to do on better incorporating its ethnic Russian minority population into society, the trend of Russian migration is into rather than out of the country including and especially by dissidents fleeing Putin’s regime. Even the border city of Narva, said to be the next flashpoint for “separatist” campaign and home to an 80 percent ethnic Russian population, is quite happy remaining in Estonia (and the European Union) and is in no rush to enlist a Stalinoid “people’s republic” underwritten by the Russian Defense Ministry.
As for the allegation of Estonian Nazism, where this does not exist, it is easily summoned into being. Take the example of Aleksei Maksimov, a skinhead from St. Petersburg, who was “sent to Estonia,” as KAPO notes, in order to be filmed as a “local Nazi activist.” Maksimov “crossed the border dressed in clothes that covered his arms and legs, but when going to the memorial event for those who fell in the Battle for the Tannenberg Line, he changed into clothes that revealed his neo-Nazi tattoos, including a swastika. The Kremlin-controlled media was naturally eager to pick this up as an example of events in Estonia. As they had to send in an activist from Saint Petersburg to play the role, it showed that the label was difficult to stick and the methods suggest desperation.”
Now compare this neat A-to-Z of a classic KGB “active measure” to our own National Intelligence Directorate’s pallid and factually flawed anatomy of how Putin TV misrepresents life in the United States. While the CIA and FBI play catchup to the use of Russian trolls, suspicious Facebook forums and dodgy “news” portals, KAPO has been studying the same for years, and with far fewer resources in a country of 1.3 million.
As Director-General Arnold Sinisalu puts it in his introduction to the 2016 review, “Perhaps it would be more correct to say that the growth of social media has not resulted in a post-truth world, but in the onslaught of stupidity,” a sentence that should be hung on a shingle outside Steve Bannon’s office in the White House, so long as he still has one.
Not that Estonia doesn’t resort to more conventional and compromised means of intelligence work. In 2014, KAPO’s Eston Kohver went undercover to investigate a smuggling network on Estonia soil, and found himself in a state-concocted bear strap: officers of the the FSB, Russia’s domestic security service, used guns, smoke grenades and radio-jamming equipment to kidnap him and smuggle him to Russia. (This was a mere two days after President Obama gave a major speech in Tallinn about the invioability of the Atlantic Charter and the “collective defense” covenant of Article V.) After being imprisoned in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison for over a year—he was sentenced to 15 in violation of international law—Kohver was exchanged, Bridge of Spies style, for Aleksei Dressen, a former KAPO man himself until he and his wife were also exposed as agents of Moscow in 2012 and tossed in the clink.
Estonia’s reputation travels well, especially now that it is no longer being condescended to by its Western allies as the cute little alarmist about Russian revanchism and aggression.
You may have read that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, warrant issued by the U.S. Justice Department to surveil two Russian banks thought to be meddling in the U.S. election and that this tip-off came from one of the services in the Baltic states. “This is believed to be Estonia,” as the Guardian observed in an exclusive about how British spies were warning their American counterparts about the Trump campaign’s serial contacts with Russian operatives as early as 2015.
One person who doubts this is true is none other than Estonia’s recently retired president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves. After reading the Guardian scoop, I emailed him my hearty congratulations only to be told credit was almost certainly due elsewhere. “Our reputation makes us immediately candidates,” he wrote back. “We’re a victim of our own success. Which I suppose is the only kind of victim to be.”