A Russian operative who was part of a "spy swap" on the Estonian border in 2018 has returned to Estonia, claiming political asylum, daily Eesti Päevaleht (EPL) reports.
Artjom Zinchenko had worked for the GRU, the Russian foreign military intelligence agency, but was arrested in Estonia on spying charges in January 2017, EPL reports (link in Estonian).
EPL writes that Zinchenko was subsequently exchanged for Estonian businessman Raivo Susi, on the Piusa bridge in in Võru County, southeastern Estonia, in 2018, but Russia's invasion of Ukraine starting February 24 changed the situation for him.
Zinchenko, 35, told EPL that: "On February 24, everything that stood between me and my country was destroyed," said 35-year-old Zinchenko.
"When I returned to Russia in 2018, everything here had changed significantly," he went on, adding that things deteriorated even from that low starting point.
"I could see that a regime which exhibits all the aspects of totalitarianism rules here," he told EPL, in a conversation which took place in the Internal Security Services (ISS) building in Tallinn.
In May 2017, a court sentenced Zinchenko to five years' jail time, but the following year, then President Kersti Kaljulaid issued a pardon, ahead of the exchange with Raivo Susi.
Susi had been sentenced to 12 years in a penal colony in likely far more severe conditions than those that Zinchenko, whose family has a pedigree of working for GRU antecedent bodies including the Stalinist-era NKVD, would have been held under in a democratic state.
Zinchenko told EPL the ISS, known in Estonia by its acronym Kapo, had not attempted to recruit him as a double agent during his incarceration and ahead of the Piusa bridge operation, and declined to speak on his debrief or subsequent treatment by the GRU and Russian authorities, once he had been handed over.
While he had been left to his own devices once settled back in Russia, he said, there were still plenty of issues needed to be resolved in starting his life all over again, on top of the situation starting February 24 this year.
The original EPL piece (in Estonian) is here.
Editor: Andrew Whyte