Mikk Marran: 2021 to be more violent than usual in Russia

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Mikk Marran. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (EFIS) finds in its yearbook that the six months left until State Duma elections in Russia will be politically hot and more violent than usual, Director Mikk Marran tells ERR in an interview.

You wrote in your 2019 yearbook that Russia could influence European Parliament elections. That a group of pro-Russian MEPs would constitute a risk for Estonia. Has that risk materialized?

The risk is still there as Russia's principal interests have not changed. They are to sow confusion in the European Union, find and exploit division in EU agencies, in and between member states. Russia is till looking for European politicians who could promote its interests. On both sides of the political spectrum.

Did they succeed in getting their preferred candidates elected to the European Parliament?

Russia saw and still sees interesting people with whom to cooperate there. I would not go into any more detail.

Can Russian special services chalk it up as a success that some people in Estonia want to be inoculated with the Sputnik V vaccine as opposed to the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines?

The decision is up to individuals. We look at Russia's influence activities. We can see Russia using the vaccine as an influence tool. We see active attempts to badmouth Western vaccines and advertise the Russian alternative.

Adopting the Sputnik V vaccine in Estonia could mean allowing Russia to uphold its narrative. If we can manage that risk, the decision of whether to use the vaccine or not is ours to make.

Why does it pay to badmouth Western vaccines and highlight Russia's?

It is part of a broader global struggle where Russia wants to paint itself as a major player in medicine, in terms of military might and special services capacity. The question we need to ask is whether all international standards have been upheld in its development. It sends a message that Russia is a major power and one capable of developing such a vaccine.

The yearbook suggests that the Russian economy is ailing. Where do they get the money needed to keep the economy going?

As we have said before, oil and gas are the primary source of oxygen for the Russian economy. If the price is good, the Russian economy can breathe more easily.

The price of oil is not high right now. How long will reserves last Russia?

Russia has been setting aside remarkable reserves in recent years. They have around $600 billion in reserve of which $180 million are National Wealth Fund resources. There are no plans to utilize these reserves right now as far as I am aware. Russia's state budget has a deficit this year. They will be able to set aside reserves if the price of Brent crude reaches $55 again, while they will make ends meet if it is below that.

Which would serve Estonia's interests better, a prosperous or broke Russia?

Estonian interests would be best served by a democratic Russia that guarantees human rights and complies with international law.

Is growing dissatisfaction with rulers in Russia something we keep a keen eye on?

It is an interesting year in Russia moving closer to State Duma elections in September. We believe the next six months will be quite hot in Russia, more violent than usual, I dare say.

Could Russia see a party capable of uniting the opposition following Navalny's imprisonment?

It is hard to say because elections are still some way away. The Kremlin has worked toward having a more fragmented opposition in recent years, created new parties to channel protest votes.

As concerns a new political leader – despite Navalny's imprisonment, several members of his team are active and perfectly capable of communicating his messages.

Have you an idea of Vladimir Putin's health?

What I know is that Putin will turn 69 this year – he is not exactly a young person, meaning that health problems are likely. However, I would not go along with all manner of speculation as to illness. We believe that if Putin does not develop a very serious health problem or barring unforeseen events in Russia, he will very likely be president beyond 2024.

How free is Putin in his decisions?

Putin is an instrumental part of his system and its head. He is the guarantor of the system and his decisions affect the prosperity of the Russian elite, oligarchs, special services operatives and executives. It is in the interests of the current elite to keep the system in place. I dare not say Putin is a hostage, while he is a part of an established system.

I do not believe he wants to reform the system. I cannot see Putin toppling a system that ensures his well-being and that of his close circle.

When will Russia find a new leader for Belarus?

We hope that Belarus will find its own leader through democratic processes. But Belarus is a key country for Russia and I'm sure the Kremlin is busy looking for someone to succeed Lukashenko. However, because Lukashenko has been monopolizing Russia relations in recent years, it is clearly not easy to find a suitable candidate. The Kremlin wants to see someone who is weak enough to follow advice or guidelines from Russia.

Please describe the process of finding a new leader. How to make them palatable for the people in the street in Minsk?

It is not in Russia's interest to show itself behind the candidate. Russia wants to work behind the scenes and through covert processes to secure the right partner.

China was the first country to congratulate Lukashenko as president. China owns a fifth of Belarus' national debt. Is China buying a way into Europe?

That is a spot-on analysis. China has made great efforts in recent years to create dependencies in various countries. We can see preparedness to use these dependencies in the service of political goals.

Why is China a security threat for Estonia?

China has become a very ambitious country. Their goal is to become the world's leading economy by 2035 and leading military power by 2050. They are making progress and becoming more aggressive at promoting their messages and interests. We have felt as much in Estonia.

If the EU aims to have a common policy toward Russia, that does not seem to be working regarding China. Should our diplomats make efforts to render Europe as critical of China as USA already is?

Estonia's foreign policy priorities are up to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the foreign minister. China is somewhat mystical and far away and Estonia lacks strong expertise when it comes to the country. That said, I believe that different agencies are paying more attention to China and this expert knowledge is being created.

Which one of your partners gives you the best information on China?

That is not something an intelligence agency can comment on, while I can assure you that we have an intricate network and some very good partners when it comes to China.

Do I understand the yearbook correctly in that the global influence of the West is dwindling and China's growing?

It is Russia's interest for the world to have different centers of power one of which should be Moscow. Russia sees Beijing as another such center in addition to a few others.

Russia wants countries at the heart of a multipolar world order to have the right to govern regional decisions. This is a very dangerous trend from where Estonia stands. Russia is already shaping the policy of many Commonwealth of Independent States members and maintains controlled conflict hotbeds in many of them.

Chinese tech giant Huawei created a subsidiary in Estonia last year and is planning on opening a factory in France in 2023. Should we see that as a sign that we can trust their technology?

No, definitely not. It does not mean Huawei or Chinese technology becoming safer in any way. We need to keep in mind that Chinese tech companies are controlled by the Communist Party of China in Beijing.

What would be the risk of having Huawei hardware and software as part of our 5G and telecommunications networks?

First of all, China has the ambition of rendering other countries technologically dependent. We can see that Chinese technology cannot be trusted. The position is made more evident in developments inside China, such as massive levels of control exercised of the population, mass monitoring of people in and outside China.

We are dealing with a communist country run by a communist party. I would add that Huawei is more or less under the control of the party, meaning that it is not an independent private company. We believe that dependence on Chinese technology is a potential security threat for Estonia. The less technology in our systems that is controlled by the Communist Party of China, the better.

It is a political call and while EFIS will contribute, decisions will be made on the level of the government.

We are talking about a regulation governing security of communications networks that politicians have been bouncing from one place to another for almost a year now. No official or politician dares say that one aim of the regulation is to protect communications networks from Huawei technology. At the same time, efforts are made not to spark a conflict with the Chinese Embassy. Will we see cooler China relations and what would be the consequences?

Estonia's foreign policy is shaped based on Estonia's values. We need to consider that Chinese actions are aggressive, hostile and factious. There is no doubt that certain security-related decisions in Estonia anger China as they might not fit their strategic ambitions and interests. But I would stick to my position that if we feel something is wrong, we need to come out and say it.

The Chinese Embassy has the right to send letters and has as a reaction to EFIS and other agencies' reports and statements. However, Estonia is a free country the agencies of which are free to express their opinion. It has been very peculiar to see the embassy demand reports be rewritten and republished in ways considered proper by China. It has not happened.

How many years until China will be the first chapter of the yearbook as opposed to the last?

Our focus will be on Russia for a long time. We have kept it there for decades. Our interest is for Russia to become a completely democratic country. It could take some years. Until then, monitoring developments in Russia will remain the number one priority of EFIS. That said, we are already paying more attention to China.

Do you carry a service weapon?

The Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service has people and units in charge of the security of the building and employees, including the director general. Everything is under control.

Not every employee carries a weapon?

It depends on their function and position.

The University of Toronto discovered that the Circles phone tapping software was being used through the network of the Estonian Education and Youth Board. Did it cost EFIS an important signals intelligence tool or force you to move it?

As you well know, intelligence services do not comment on their methods and sources.

I can assure you that all Estonian security services are working in accordance with the law and are being closely monitored for what is legal and what is not.

The EFIS yearbook 2021 is available in full here.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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