Intelligence service's annual report highlights Russian and Chinese threats

The fifth edition of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service’s annual report, “International Security and Estonia”.
The fifth edition of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service’s annual report, “International Security and Estonia”. Source: Internal Security Service.

While the likelihood of an attack on Estonia is low, Russia is still the biggest threat to Estonia's security and more attention must be paid to China, the fifth edition of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service's annual report which was released on Wednesday said.

Director General of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service Mikk Marran wrote in the report's introduction: "The main external threats to Estonia's security remain the same. We are particularly threatened by neighbouring Russia, whose leadership is aggressively and actively opposed to the democratic world order."

Adding "The likelihood of a Russian military attack on Estonia is low, as Russia does not want a military conflict with NATO, but the escalation of Russia's confrontation with the West anywhere in the world could trigger a rapid change in Estonia's threat situation."  

Marran also said more attention must be paid to China in respect to Estonia's security. "The potential use of China's foreign investment for political purposes and the possible development of technological dependency are increasing threats to Estonia's security," he wrote. 

The full report, which focuses on Russia and China, can be read here. A summary can be read below.


The yearbook states "The only existential threat to Estonia's sovereignty is a potential Russian military operation against the Baltic states" and says Russia continued to increase its strength against Europe.

"Compared to NATO forces, the balance of power on the Baltic states' axis is clearly tilted in favour of Russia. Even discounting Kaliningrad, Russia has absolute supremacy in terms of offensive equipment – tanks, fighter aircraft and rocket artillery."

The report also mentions Russia's Iskander ballistic missiles which are positioned on the borders of Estonia and Lithuania, and says NATO has equivalent equipment in Europe. Russia also continues to train for a potential military conflict on the borders of the Baltic states, the report says.

Sanctions have been effective and have affected Russia's ability to buy military equipment from abroad. Due to this, it has switched to domestic production which has made equipment more expensive. It is also of "poor quality", the report says and the industry has a high level of corruption. Russian military companies have started working with third countries to get around sanctions, such as South Africa, Azerbaijan and Kazakstan.

Society is being militarised to support Russia's military ambition the yearbook reports. Saying this can be used for both international and domestic conflicts: "The Russian leadership hopes that by militarizing society they will be better prepared for a dreaded coup d'etat or revolution." Adding: "The constant reminders of the threat of war will also help mobilise society against a foreign enemy and thus distract from domestic political, rule of law, economic and social problems."

As part of the militarization of society, the paramilitary organisation DOSAAF (Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation, and Navy) is being integrated with the Russian armed forces, the report says. The Yunarmiya, an "all-Russia social movement for children and youth" which accepts children from eight years old was being promoted to reach one million members by 2020 and children are being encouraged to participate in military parades.

Russian cyber threats against the West have gone unpunished and will continue in 2020, the intelligence service predict. In 2019 Russian cyber operations were revealed that have been going on, undiscovered, for years and it is likely there are more of them. It is thought likely Russia will try and interfere with U.S. and Georgian elections later this year. "As long as the potential benefits outweigh the consequences, Russia is very likely to continue its use of cyber operations," the report says.

Regarding domestic policy the report says: "The keywords in Russian domestic politics in 2019 were the strengthening of political repression and increasingly forceful restrictions of freedom of expression." In the second half of last year "political repression intensified significantly" in response to elections. Press freedom has deteriorated and efforts to restrict freedom of expression are mainly focused on cyberspace. The Estonian Intelligence Service believes President Vladimir Putin will want to continue in power, but write "what is unknown is the office he will formally assume." In 2019, Russia's GDP grew much slower than expected and Russians' income has stagnated or decreased.

Regarding Foreign policy, Russia has limited resources and is unable to "compete geopolitically with the West or China, and is strategically trying to advocate for the creation of a multipolar world order". Russia intends to keep trying to influence the "near abroad" and prevent these countries from integrating with the west, one of its main focuses is on integration plans with Belarus. Russia is also trying to strengthen its influence in the Middle East, Africa and Asia to preserve its image as a geopolitical superpower, but in reality, cannot compete with the U.S. or China.

The situation with Ukraine is unchanged. "The Kremlin pressures Ukraine to make concessions in the Donbas conflict but is itself working against putting an end to the hostilities," the report says, adding "Russia has done nothing to stop the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine."

The report says Russia's engagement in the Middle East displays the characteristics of the country's foreign policy under Vladimir Putin – opportunism and willingness to take risks in the pursuit of strategic goals. It also supports the broader strategic goal of moving towards a multipolar world order and create leverage to influence international geopolitical trends. Selling weapons and influencing oil prices are also in Russia's interests in the region.

The Kremlin has started to look for more opportunities in Africa and is looking to boost its status, influence and act as a crisis manager. Russia also needs to adapt to a strong China. "Behind the pretty facade of the relations between the two authoritarian states, the situation is not so rosy for Russia. It has few real levers to influence China. China's economy is almost nine times larger than Russia's, and it is closing the already rather small gap in arms production with every year," the report says.

Russia is becoming stronger in the Arctic and the country's interests are primarily economic and connected to natural gas and oil deposits. The threat in the Arctic stems from Moscow's desire to control, through military presence, an area where the economic interests of several nations are intertwined. It has grown its military presence in the region and a "growing willingness" to increase its strategic position.


The Foreign Intelligence Agency warns lobbyists working for China are actively circling Europe and preaching on the shared views of China and Europe, purposefully undermining Western unity.

Last year in Estonia a number of propaganda articles written by the Chinese Embassy were published by local media. The report says Estonian was not singled out but these articles were part of a broader campaign aimed at changing people's minds.

The report says Chinese embassies are playing a stronger role and "Chinese ambassadors and other diplomatic representatives speak out more frequently on sensitive issues in the host country's media and even publicly make recommendations on what these countries' relations with China should be like" giving the examples of Lithuania and Sweden.

The report also warns of potential investment from the New Silk Road project and questions the use of Chinese-made technology, such as 5G networks, which upfront are cheaper and more advanced than western technology, but in the long-run may be less safe.

The report says: "For a digital nation like Estonia, communications networks are a vital piece of infrastructure and all the risks associated with the technology used need to be considered. Small countries are an easier target for China to build dependency and exert pressure later."


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Editor: Helen Wright

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