TALLINN, Estonia—Chinese military intelligence recruited an Estonian national working at a NATO research institution focused on maritime and submarine research, The Daily Beast has learned.
The spy, Tarmo Kõuts, renowned in the Estonian scientific community for his research, was convicted last week and sentenced to three years in prison. The Baltic country’s intelligence services had warned for years of the growing Chinese threat, but the conviction was the first of its kind. So far, Estonia’s counterintelligence service, known domestically by its acronym KAPO, has been praised for its success in catching spies recruited and run by Russia.
According to Aleksander Toots, the deputy director of KAPO and Tallinn’s top counterintelligence official, Kõuts was recruited in 2018 by China’s Intelligence Bureau of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission—as Beijing’s military intelligence agency is known—along with an alleged accomplice who is yet to be tried in court. Both were arrested on September 9, 2020, with no publicity or discussion of the case in the Estonian media.
Kõuts pleaded guilty to conducting intelligence activities against the Republic of Estonia on behalf of a foreign state. The charges were one stop short of treason. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
Kõuts was recruited on Chinese territory, said Toots, who spoke exclusively with The Daily Beast and Estonia’s Delfi newspaper: “He was motivated by traditional human weaknesses, such as money and need of recognition.”
Toots added that Kõuts received cash payments from his Chinese handlers as well as paid trips to various Asian countries, with luxury accommodations and dinners at Michelin star restaurants. The intelligence operatives handling him were operating under cover of a think tank. Inna Ombler, the prosecutor handling the case confirmed that Kõuts earned €17,000 -- a little over $20,000 -- for his espionage, which the Estonian government has since seized from him.
Kõuts, who earned his doctorate in environmental physics in 1999, had worked for years at Tallinn Technical University’s Maritime Institute where he specialized in geophysics and operational oceanography. His research led to marine scientists successfully predicting a damaging winter storm with rapidly rising sea levels in Estonia in 2005. Kõuts was also part of a scientific research group that was awarded the Estonian National Science Prize in 2002 for finding the best location for a seaport on the island of Saaremaa. Although officially designed to accept cruise ships, the port needed to be able to host NATO vessels.
From 2006, Kõuts became directly involved in the national defense sector. He was named a member of the Estonian Ministry of Defense’s Scientific Committee, which oversees the country’s military research and development initiatives. As part of that secondment he also became a member of the Scientific Committee of the NATO Undersea Research Center based in La Spezia, Italy and even served, from 2018 to 2020, as the vice president of that organization, which is now known as the Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE). According to its website, the CMRE “conducts relevant, state-of-the-art scientific research in ocean science, modelling and simulation, acoustics and other disciplines.”
Kõuts’s public Facebook account shows he checked-in at Lerici, Italy— from La Spezia—in April 2018, the year of his recruitment by China. His role at the NATO center gave Kõuts direct access to Estonia’s and NATO’s confidential military intelligence. At the time of his arrest, he had a state secret permit as well as NATO security clearance dating back fourteen years. In the three years Kõuts worked for Chinese military intelligence, confined his espionage to observations and anecdotes about his top-level work but did not, according to Toots, yet pass on any confidential military information.
“That he had such security clearances was one of the reasons we decided to put a stop to his collaboration [with the Chinese] so early,” Toots said. It might have saved him from a much stricter sentence that would have followed if he’d been charged with treason, which he would have been if Kõuts had passed on state or NATO secrets.
Indeed, the biggest espionage breach NATO ever had was an Estonian one, just four years after the Baltic state joined the military alliance. In 2008, KAPO arrested Herman Simm, the head of the Ministry of Defense’s Security Department. Simm’s job was to coordinate the protection of state secrets, issue security clearances and act as a liaison between the Estonian Ministry of Defense and NATO. He’d been working for Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, for the entirety of his tenure. Simm was sentenced to twelve and a half years imprisonment and he additionally needed to pay €1.3 million—$1.8 million in today’s dollar value—in damages. He was released from prison on Christmas 2019.
Since that scandal, Estonia has become one of the foremost Russian spy-catchers. “I'm continually amazed,” Toomas Henrik Ilves, Estonia’s former president, said. “We must be the only country the Kremlin seems to be interested in since we're the only ones catching all their agents. What makes us so special?”
Unlike other NATO members, this Baltic country has a tendency to name and shame those it captures. It also rarely trades spies for its own captured assets. A much publicized exception to this rule was the case of Eston Kohver, a KAPO officer who was captured in 2014 by the FSB, Russia’s domestic security service, on the Estonian side of the Estonian-Russian border while conducting an operation to interdict cross-border smuggling. Kohver was traded, Bridge of Spies-style, in 2015 for Aleksei Dressen, a Russian agent the FSB recruited from within KAPO’s own ranks years earlier.
Aleksander Toots oversaw both counterintelligence investigations that led to Simm’s and Dressen’s arrests. And despite his pedigree in snaring agents from Estonia’s next-door neighbor and former occupying power, Toots now sees a rising threat from farther east.
Over the last three years, KAPO and Välisluureamet, Estonia’s foreign intelligence service, have raised the alarm about the rising threat of Chinese espionage. Last year Välisluureamet warned that Estonians who traveled to China were susceptible to influence operations and recruitment. “To this end, Chinese special services may use various methods and pretexts, such as establishing first contact or job offers over the internet. At home, Chinese special services can operate almost risk-free,” Välisluureamet explained in their annual security environment assessment. Politicians, public servants and scientists who hold political or defense-related clearances were named as possible recruitment targets.
KAPO added that it first detected an increase in the interest of Chinese intelligence services after Estonia joined the EU and NATO in 2004 but lately that interest had intensified. The Chinese, Estonian counterintelligence concluded, are particularly interested in “decisions on global issues, be it the Arctic, climate or trade.”
Tarmo Kõuts’ recruitment fits that category exactly, as his scientific research concentrated heavily on the maritime impact of climate change and some of his scholarly papers focused squarely on the Arctic region.