Estonian intelligence service coping with the latest spy revelation
Uno Puusepp's broadcasted admission at the Russian TV-channel NTV that he worked for Russian FSB for 15 years, while being simultaneously employed at the Estonian equivalent, the Internal Security Service (ISS), took Estonian society by surprise, but the politicans and public have retained a united front.
The Russian media channel NTV claimed last week that Uno Puusepp, an Estonian and a former employee of the ISS, was in fact a Russian spy.
The former ISS chief Raivo Aeg who was in charge from 2008-2013 and will stand for the parliament next year, admitted to Estonian media that former KGB employees were indeed recruited after the country regained independence from the Soviet Union, but in technical positions only. It has been reported that 14 former KGB workers were employed at ISS in 1991, but all of them had either left the organisation or retired by 2013.
According to Aeg, no former KGB agents were employed and the technical operatives were recruited only because Estonia lacked people with relevant skills at the time when the Internal Security Service was created. Uno Puusepp was working in wiretapping, for example. Because of the technical position, he managed to keep a low profile and apparently slipped through any suspicion. Puusepp left ISS in 2011 and Estonia earlier this year, residing now in Moscow. He is married to a Russian.
Aeg said that the reason why the former KGB workers were allowed to continue working even after 20 years of regaining independence was because ISS did not see a reason to sack them after so long period of working for the independent Estonia, and without any concrete evidence.
Estonian politicians, including the Interior Minister Hanno Pevkur and a former Police Chief and MP Ain Seppik, have largely agreed that the objective of the spy revelation, which came from Russian media, is to discredit Estonia and its security services in the eyes of its partners, and create distrust among the public.
"This step was made with an objective to discredit the Estonian state. It's not made in the context of internal politics but with an eye to more global aims. It doubtlessly sows some uncertainty in relation to the enlargement of NATO. It could also have a destabilizing effect on the relationships within the EU and especially on that between Estonia and the US," Seppik said on Monday.
According to Russian media, Puusepp passed secrets from Estonia's NATO allies and particularly the United States, Britain and Germany to Russia's federal FSB, while working at the ISS for 20 years, from 1991 until 2011. The programme in which the revelation was made, went as far as to claim that „every paper that was on the table of the director of Estonian ISS, ended up also in Moscow“. Nikolai Ermakov, a businessman and a former KGB employee who was Uno Puusepp's contact person, claimed on the TV-programme that thanks to Puusepp, ISS's effectiveness with spying on Russian affairs was "decreased by 80%".
Edward Lucas, The Economist's senior editor and a long-time critic of Putin's regime, said in an interview with ERR's "Aktuaalne Kaamera" on Monday that ISS should have terminated employment contracts with former KGB workers earlier, but also stressed that the spy revelation came in the programme with clear propaganda objective, rather than independent journalism.
Lucas said that it is likely that the revelation was clearly directed against Estonia as part of info war, because it is unusual that a secret service would disclose their agent's identity so publicly, as FSB has done in this instance.
“It is possible that there is already an investigation against Puusepp going on in Estonia and the Russians thought that there is nothing to lose anymore. It is also possible that the programme was aimed at the Russian public to confirm the perception that Estonia and the Baltic states are hotbed for Western spies. And perhaps it was also aimed at Estonians, to create mistrust and show that their Internal Security Service is not as assured and efficient as thought. But I would be very careful to believe the Russian claims – all of them are designed to serve a certain political implication,” Lucas said.
But Lucas conceded that Estonians have a right to ask the question why the former KGB employees were kept on for so long at ISS.
“I think that it is a right question, especially from the point of view of Estonian taxpayers,” he said.
“If I was an Estonian taxpayer, I would wonder that in the circumstances where the ISS has had a substantial budget over the years, why did it not train and educate new people to take the technical positions the former KGB employees filled. Why was ISS relying on the people who were meant to just fill in after the country regained independence and lacked the skills, for so long? It should be possible to train new people who don't have the same risk factors, as the former KGB workers had,” Lucas said.