Incoming ISS chief: Russian services not to be over- or underestimated
Margo Polloson, incoming director of the Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS or KAPO), said on the "Esimene stuudio" talk show that Russian special services should not be over- or underestimated in terms of their capacity, and that Russia is making considerable efforts to recruit people in Estonia.
Palloson said that while times are complicated, the ISS is constantly operating in crises or trying to prevent them.
Palloson has flown under the public' radar during a 20-year career at the ISS, both as a specialist and executive. "My prior assignments, primarily in the field of counterintelligence, required me not to be visible, which is the only way this job can be done," he said.
Set to take office a month from now, Palloson will have to regularly communicate with the public and politicians. He said that political pressure comes with the territory. "My plan for resisting that pressure is our own conviction that our actions are lawful, follow Estonia's national security interests, professional ethics and common sense," the new ISS head said.
According to Palloson, there is civil control of the ISS in Estonia, exercised by 11 different institutions. "Of course, they each monitor their own sector of our work. We are also interested in keeping our affairs in order. It sends a signal that the ISS is after the right things. It also ensures our credibility because it would be difficult to work without public support and trust," he said.
The Internal Security Service is doing everything in its power to protect the constitutional order. "Of course, Russia, its special services and various Kremlin organizations, are constantly looking for ways to influence and divide Estonia, project their influence here. We are there to stop them. All in all, I believe that while they have made considerable efforts, they've been unsuccessful in the broad strokes."
Russian organizations should neither be mystified nor underestimated, Palloson finds, not least because Russian special services have been prioritized and invested in during Putin's time.
"All intelligence services have their academies to give officers a double higher education in intelligence. A lot depends on a given service's professional style, which can vary a great deal. They are good when it comes to the operational side of things – finding and recruiting targets, sourcing information, while they also have fundamental problems with information distortion and bureaucracy, which is where things grind to a halt."
Estonian residents traveling to Russia most at risk
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has affected the Estonian Internal Security Service's tasks and made it the agency's priority to make operating in Estonia as difficult as possible for Russian agents. "For example, they have emptied their intelligence residencies in Estonia; travel restrictions make it impossible for them to travel to Estonia. I think we also know quite well the intelligence officers assigned to Estonia," Palloson added.
Estonians who visit Russia are most at risk, the ISS chief warned. "Most attempts to recruit people take place in the territory of the Russian Federation, which is complemented by technical surveillance. Cyber surveillance, signals intelligence, which is bound to become more intensive. Cooperation between European security services is key. It is possible to spy on Estonia from Brussels, Berlin or Oslo. If all European services pursue active cooperation, form a united front, it helps make Estonia bigger," he said.
Palloson said that 500 diplomat spies have been evicted from Europe in the last year. Over the last 15 years, 20 persons have been convicted in Estonia of cooperating with Russian intelligence services. The incoming ISS director said this illustrates the extent of Russia's efforts in Estonia.
"For us, another much larger figure, which I will not be revealing, is of more interest. People who come to tell us that Russian special services have tried to recruit them or those in whose case we have learned of such attempts ourselves and stopped it from happening. Our counterintelligence efforts are primarily aimed at prevention. While it is a win for us if we can catch a traitor who has been active for a decade, the damage has been done by then," he said.
"I would urge people who find themselves in such a predicament to contact us, and we'll help find a solution," Palloson said.
A new challenge for the ISS is working with masses of data to separate the important from the trivial. "This requires major IT investments," Palloson said, adding that attempts to recruit people are increasingly made online.
May 9 was relatively peaceful this year, following a year of preparations by authorities. The lion's share of the Russian community in Estonia poses no threat, he remarked. "We are talking about a small and vocal group in terms of those who do. I would not speculate as to a figure, but they are people who pose a real threat – organizers, provocateurs or people working directly for Kremlin organizations, Russian special services. Estonia is a democratic state based on the rule of law, we have freedom of opinion and whispering in the kitchen does not pose an automatic threat to national security."
People who disseminate the Kremlin's talking points on a daily basis pose a security threat in that the Kremlin keeps a close eye on Estonian domestic politics, and as soon as someone uses the same talking points, they will try to take advantage for propaganda purposes or establishing contact with the person.
"Regarding the Koos movement, we can also say there is fertile soil for the Kremlin's talking points in the Russian-speaking community. The movement tried to take advantage of the fertile soil, while the Kremlin took advantage of Koos in turn," Palloson said.
Fighting propaganda narratives is not easy and takes a long time. Palloson said that while May 9 used to be a day of mourning and commemoration in the 1980s, efforts to turn it into a symbol of Russian imperialism began when Vladimir Putin came to power, while it is now also tied to the Ukraine war, with soldiers perceived as fulfilling their ancestors' role.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski