Marran: Success in intelligence is classified info resulting in good calls

Mihkel Kärmas interviewing Mikk Marran.
Mihkel Kärmas interviewing Mikk Marran. Source: ERR

Estonia's outgoing spymaster and incoming State Forest Management Center (RMK) director Mikk Marran sheds light on speculations that have been rife surrounding his decision to quit and takes a look back at the last seven years in an interview with ETV's "Pealtnägija."

The reason we are sitting down for this interview is that your time with the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (EFIS) will come to an end in roughly a week's time. It is happening in the middle of the greatest security crisis of our lifetime and before the end of your official term. Leaving in such a situation means that something is wrong, someone is not satisfied?

I can assure you that nothing is wrong. It is simply that I have been heading up the agency for almost seven years. And I have spent the last 23 years working in national defense.

Thinking back to my colleagues in the West, during those seven years, I have seen four CIA directors, two British intelligence chiefs, three Lithuanian military intelligence commanders etc. come and go. I'm the longest-serving Western intelligence chief in the community. Perhaps the youngest, but also the one with the longest service. And I'll be frank in telling you that there is never a good time to replace the head of intelligence. Thinking back to my term, there was never a moment I could have said we're not in a crisis or on the verge of one.

Therefore, loud and clear this time, Mikk Marran has no skeletons?

No! There are no skeletons. It is simply that seven years is a very long time for any executive. Toward the beginning of summer, I looked back at my energy levels, temperature as a leader and found that it was time to start looking for new challenges. Seven years should be enough time for any executive to realize the ideas they've had. I remember that when I applied for a second term two years ago, I did it because the service had just implemented major reforms, in terms of structure and work organization. I wanted to make sure the changes would be maximally utilized. And I can say today that work is coming along very smoothly at EFIS.

And yet, a measure of skepticism and question marks remain, largely because of [former Ministry of Defense undersecretary] Meelis Oidsalu who, in a rather lengthy opinion piece, came out with in places less than diplomatic criticism that the public at large perhaps finds difficult to understand. In short, his message was that you were running for the hills in the middle of the battle.

That is not the case! But I would like to emphasize that the agency, the Foreign Intelligence Service, has been given very special rights and powers, meaning that precision and correctness are hard-coded into its DNA. And I can assure you with full confidence that we have been precise and correct as concerns the government's intelligence expectations. We have performed all of our tasks. We have been diligent when it comes to our agreements with the Ministry of Defense. Various goals and agreements we have laid down together over the years have been met 100 percent. This includes the targets we agreed on with the ministry's brass at the end of last year. Thirdly, EFIS is subject to constant supervision by various Estonian agencies and institutions, starting with the Riigikogu Security Agencies Monitoring Committee, through to the justice chancellor and National Audit Office and finally the ministry itself. All of these institutions have always been given all the necessary information, answers to all of their questions and been convinced that we are doing the right things [at EFIS]. And while we're on the subject of my former classmate's infamous article, I would once again take the opportunity to correct a crucial mistake made by the author. The Foreign Intelligence Service does not have a million-euro skylight. It didn't even cost a quarter that. Some of our employees were simply given modern working conditions through the construction of a new office wing.

Well-informed journalists have written a context piece that suggests the security situation was nervous in the summer of 2021. The Belarus migrant crisis, concentration of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border and Russia's Zapad training exercise coincided, and the perception at the ministry was that your house, EFIS, was slow to react.

No. The Foreign Intelligence Service was not slow, it was always there. The people, analysts and assessments were there. And we stuck to those assessments. That the three incidents you listed were not connected. That their combination posed no military threat to Estonia. We stuck to our guns and were proven right.

You were on vacation when it all happened. It was July if memory serves. You were on vacation, so was the assistant director, and the defense minister had to call you where you were vacationing and tell you to return to work. Meelis Oidsalu later recalled that he promised to thrash you if you did not return.

The service always works, even if the director and one of the assistant directors are off. I have several very capable deputies who are always in control of the situation and make sure information and assessments are available.

What was the reason for this settling of scores and airing of dirty laundry then, in your opinion?

I honestly do not know. It is a mystery I have yet to solve. Meelis Oidsalu and I have been colleagues, friends even, for years. I introduced Meelis Oidsalu to the ministry back in 2000. He is my good classmate, a very wise person. Of course, emotions flared last year, everyone had their own idea and visions of what could transpire. We had our own vision, and we stand by it. That is how it should be. Intelligence assessments should always be independent.

Have you been in touch since the articles?

Yes, of course. Our children attend the same folk dancing class. We go to see the shows.

And what do such meetings look like?

We shake hands and chat. Take pictures.

Mikk Marran. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The agency was still called the Information Board (Teabeamet) when you first joined. The name was changed to EFIS during your term. The tradition of public yearbooks was launched. Signs of growing confidence or...?

Absolutely. I still read from time to time that intelligence should be more open. But if we compare today to where we were in 2002 or 2014, I believe it is a lot more open. I believe that the Estonian taxpayer knows that such a service exists, and the citizens of the Republic of Estonia know what it does in broad strokes. I believe it is a universal trend in the Western intelligence community. It's a fact, and it made no sense for us to be left behind. As concerns the name change, I find that it helped the agency maintain this focus. What is our purpose? We exist to collect intelligence that is vital in terms of foreign threats the Republic of Estonia faces. While the Information Board is an elegant name for an agency, I found it a little vague.

Is is true that the agency's old name was so misleading that people called your assistant to ask what was on at the movies?

Yes, and my assistant eventually got tired of explaining it and grabbed the movie schedule instead to tell people what was showing and when. The other thing we were frequently asked is where to get headstones, how much they go for and how to handle engravings as the Rahumäe Cemetery is very close to our property. People were very cross when the Information Board failed to give them the information.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? I suppose you cannot divulge much in terms of detail?

I desperately want to, but I really cannot. Perhaps we can meet again and talk in 50 years.

But is is true that the greatest victories are major trouble you've managed to avoid?

Yes. Trouble one has managed to avoid is right. Activities that have hindered the efforts of hostile states or their desire to orchestrate certain things. In terms of victories, I would say that the greatest experience of success in the intelligence world is not when you obtain top secret material, but when the information you have matters to the decision-makers. When that information is used to make a forward-looking decision, a good call. That is a spy's greatest moment of success. Not getting top secret info, locking it up in a safe and feeling happy for the fact you have it.

It is no secret that your main focus and our main adversary is Russia. The Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS) has found a few traitors in its ranks in that time. You have not had such luck or misfortune?

We're working on it. But you're right in that we have not come across any. That said, security agencies' relevant structural units are constantly monitoring the situation, trying to detect patterns and activities that fall out of them. No security chief can be 100 percent sure nothing suspicious is going on in their agency. But again, we have been paying it a lot of attention over the decades. There are various measures, technologies that help these units in their work. And we should not underestimate the opposing side. We are dealing with extremely professional people who have their own professional goals. We are definitely not sitting idle.

However, no such person has been caught in your ranks?

You would probably know...

We would know, have heard about it?

You would have heard about it.

Much has been said on the history, capabilities and capacity of Russian intelligence, while there have also been curious cases, such as when the Bellingcat investigative reporters group caught Navalny's poisoners. What did that episode tell you, what's your take on it?

(Smiles) Half-jokingly, we could say that things happen to those that do. And looking at Russian special services, media attention shines on failures. Where the task was not executed to perfection. However, it pays to consider all the successes we do not hear about as it is part of special services DNA – you don't talk about your work, at least not when you succeed. Again, the other team, Russian special services are very capable and professional. I'm sure they have plenty of successes next to the failures. I would also point out that while we may see them as complete failures, the Russian side managed to send the message that members of the opposition, people who are against the administration can be found and targeted.

When did it become clear that Russia would really attack Ukraine?

The signs were there in late fall 2021. We exchanged information and analyses with our partners in the West. That is when the U.S. intelligence decided to publish their findings. If you read our recent threat assessment from early February, I believe it says that a Russian attack against Ukraine will become possible in the second half of February. Unfortunately, that is just what happened.

Mikk Marran. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

I understand that there were people even in Ukraine who didn't believe it before the first missiles fell?

Yes, there were different assessments also in Ukraine. But I believe that the Ukrainian leadership's decision of when to communicate it also played a part. Starting to talk about it in September would have effectively paralyzed the country. I believe that the government wanted to keep the country functional for as long as possible. I'm sure Ukrainian special services were doing good work on the background, and I believe that Ukrainian internal security forces, who managed to apprehend several dozen sabotage groups and even paralyze Russian activities during the first week of the war, played a major role in the latter's failure.

Russia has suffered massive losses in terms of troops and machinery, their economy is on the verge of disaster, with active people – not just men – leaving the country by their hundreds of thousands. How could Putin miscalculate so badly?

That is a good question. First, I believe that Ukraine makes for a religious of messianist topic for Putin. He wants to be the Russian ruler who does not lose Ukraine. And I believe that perhaps no price is too high for him on that road. The war was launched following incomprehensible reasons, with major miscalculations regarding moods in Ukraine, the ability of Russia's armed forces, as well as reactions in the West, also as concerns sanctions. They did not believe Ukraine would fight back. But Ukraine has fought back very effectively. The morale of Ukrainian troops is very high, especially when we compare it to that of Russian troops. It is a war of independence for Ukraine, as I have said on several occasions.

You suggested it was relatively clear back in the fall of 2021 that there would be war in Ukraine. Does that mean that February 24 did not constitute a major change of pace for you?

It was still a change of pace, as I must admit there were people also in this house who thought it might not happen until it did. That Russia might pull back its forces as it has done in the past, that it's just intimidation and that they will come back another time. But once it did happen the morning of February 24, the building automatically got to work. Everyone knew what they had to do. There were no Independence Day celebrations that day*, the next week or months. Work started immediately.

(*Estonia's independence day is Feburary 24.)

Could we say in hindsight that the Western intelligence community missed something before the war broke out?

I don't think so. The signs were there, the intelligence was there and it got shared between Western services. Rather, there may have been differences in how the information was interpreted. Some intelligence services or governments may have watched the troop buildup through rose-tinted glasses until the end. Others took it more seriously. But I dare say that it did not come as a massive surprise to anyone.

How has our foreign intelligence helped the Ukrainians, what is the nature of your cooperation?

We have been working with all Ukrainian security services for a long time. It has been a wartime rule for EFIS to share anything and everything we learn that could help Ukraine with the war effort, immediately!

Could it be true that the Ukrainians were told about the movement of troops that used to be stationed on the other side of our border before being sent to war there?

It absolutely could be true. (Smiles)

The focus is understandably on Ukraine, while there are other problems, ticking time bombs elsewhere in the world. What are the scenarios keeping you up at night?

I tend to be a sound sleeper, depending on what is happening in the world and our region. The greatest single irritant or thing that could keep me up is a potential Russian military attack on Estonia. That is the most drastic scenario we are working with. We have a very effective early warning system and are constantly monitoring dozens, even hundreds of indicators. As intelligence chief, you can't help but wonder if we're looking in the right place. Perhaps we are being fooled and there is something going on behind what we can see.

Mikk Marran. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Do I have it right then that there is no conventional army on the other side of Lake Peipus, while their ability to do harm persists? I don't know... to take a missile and hit the Ämari Air Base? Is that what you mean?

It is possible, theoretically. But we are trying to look at the bigger picture too. Aiming a single missile at Ämari makes little sense as it is a key piece of NATO infrastructure. This would immediately draw Russia into a war with NATO. It would make sense to fire those missiles once Russia has decided to pursue a full-scale conflict with NATO. We see no such desire today. The situation on the other side of our border is... (thinks for a moment) above average calm. Many units and weapons systems that used to be across from us have been moved to Ukraine. Yes, total troop numbers have started to grow again as a result of Russia's mobilization, but it is nowhere near what used to be stationed on the other side of the border. Secondly, the people who have been brought close to our borders are there to be trained and then sent to the front in Ukraine. The people of Estonia can sleep easy in the near future, while spies always sleep with one eye open.

An expression that gets thrown around lately is that a cornered animal is still dangerous. Kremlin propaganda, its masters have hinted at the use of nuclear weapons or other WMDs, adding that they're not bluffing. Are they or are they not bluffing in your view?

It is one part of Russia's war rhetoric. Threatening the use of nuclear weapons has always been a part of the Russian doctrine. It also suggests that Russia has played most of its other cards. It has indeed been cornered, and nuclear weapons are the one thing they still have, rhetorically. However, we believe that we would see several levels of escalation before Russia would be willing to use nuclear weapons. One would be more intense rhetoric, secondly, demonstrating these weapons, perhaps detonating a nuclear device in an uninhabited area to show that Russia is capable. Only then could more serious scenarios follow. But I am equally convinced that Russia is very seriously considering the possible consequences of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine. It would drastically change the entire situation! I believe it would cost Russia the few friends it still has in the world. I believe China would not be happy and would not support any such decision by Russia.

What could be NATO's response should they detonate a tactical nuclear device in Ukraine?

I'm sure NATO and the International Atomic Energy Agency have considered these potential responses and have trained for them. Just as all nuclear powers have done separately – USA, UK, France etc.

As far as the question has been put to different world leaders, they have suggested the response would be devastating, without going into detail.

Precisely, and I find that to be very sensible. I would strongly advise leaders against stating what they are not prepared to do should such weapons or capacity be used.

Someone blowing an underwater gas pipeline, such as Nord Stream 2 in the Baltic, also seemed like something out of a Bond movie or an action novel until recently. Yet, someone did it. To the best of your knowledge, who was it?

We don't know who did it. It was definitely a major state-level player as not everyone, not even every small country has the capability. But it makes no sense to speculate. An investigation is ongoing and might arrive at a conclusion.

I take it you are not prepared to rule out the involvement of your... how to put it... partner services?

(Smiles) Let the investigation run its course, and I'm sure both intelligence agencies and the general public will be notified.

On the one hand, we are all waiting for Putin to leave the Kremlin, while it is also feared. What could the resulting domino effect bring? How much of a fear is it for you?

It is not a major fear. But what we have suggested is that there are no grounds to expect Russia to automatically become a state based on Western values after Putin disappears. I believe that putinism in Russia will survive Putin himself.

But would it cause an explosion that could also burn us?

We cannot rule out that it will happen with a bang. We cannot rule out the possibility of it happening sooner or later. Unfortunately, I do not have a crystal ball and I would not speculate. Right now, our business is with Russia's current leaders. And because they are partners in crime, the group tends to stick together.

Yes, we have now seen some cracks following the mobilization and state of war being declared. But I would refrain from drawing too far-reaching conclusions.

In short, how do you think the war will end?

Ukraine will win this war. There can be no other option for Ukraine and the collective West. Because Ukraine is currently fighting for our values.

Mikk Marran and Mihkel Kärmas. Source: ERR

November 1 will be your first day with the State Forest Management Center. It comes off as a perfect about-turn, a completely unexpected choice. Why?

As I said toward the start of the interview, it is a management challenge for me. I'm knowingly putting myself to the test, as I have a general overview but lack in-depth knowledge in the field. But I'm sure my new colleagues will bring me up to speed, and they already have. I'm getting help from people at the Estonian University of Life Sciences and the Luua Forestry School. My nightstand library has changed and now also includes books on forestry and the environment...

Can you tell the difference between regenerative cutting, cleaning, group selection cutting?

Yes, the Ministry of the Environment undersecretary handed me instruction written on a napkin two weeks ago. It said: pine – long needles, spruce – short needles.

Still, it has been suggested, not least by Meelis Oidsalu, that the competition was a smoke and mirrors show to find you a soft landing.

It was a very real competition for me. I knowingly put myself to the test as I wanted a serious contest. It was a lengthy processes in several stages where I was tested in terms of my writing, communication and negotiating skills, mental aptitude. Various interviews with individual supervisory board members and the entire board. All of it culminated in the decision. I never got the sense that Fontes, who advised the supervisory board in the process, or the board itself was somehow swayed in making the decision. I believe it is just silly speculation.

One theory is that the problem with people like you is that you have too many state secrets in your head to be sent on your way with no more than a warm handshake?

I very well could!


We are obligated to keep state secrets when no longer working, even when unemployed. I am not exempt from the obligation by Estonian law.

Still, a high-paid job makes sure you cannot be turned?

I believe that is a very far-fetched speculation. My goal is to do the best I can in my new job. Once again, the law applies to everyone in the Republic of Estonia, including the outgoing spymaster.

When we entered the building, we had to surrender our smart devices, and we cannot talk about specific cases. Once you start at RMK, the organization will be much bigger, much more transparent, with almost daily conflicts over felling in different parts of the country. Are you ready for that?

Yes, I absolutely am ready. I can't wait!

And now for the mother of all questions for the incoming RMK director. Do you believe there is excessive logging in Estonia?

That decision is made by the government based on the proposal of the environment minister. RMK will provide its recommendation, and I believe it has regarding current felling volumes. However, it is difficult for me to comment on as long as I remain the intelligence chief. I was not present when the recent evaluations or proposals were made. Perhaps we can return to this matter some other time.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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