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Former ISS chief: Hundreds in Russia engaged in intelligence efforts against Estonia

Arnold Sinisalu.
Arnold Sinisalu. Source: Patrik Tamm / ERR

Former Internal Security Service (ISS) Director General Arnold Sinisalu (2013-2023) tells ERR in an interview that Russian intelligence takes a considerable interest in Estonia and talks about the recent arrest of a university professor on suspicions of working for Russian special services.

How motivated is Russia to recruit spies in Estonia or pursue more covert intelligence activity here? What are its rulers trying to achieve?

It starts with realizing that as Russia has positioned itself as an enemy of NATO and the EU, you need to collect as much information as possible to make political decisions regarding your enemies. And because Estonia has been a NATO and EU member for a long time now, its domestic processes also influence the decision-making processes in the EU and NATO to some extent.

All manner of information that may not be available through official channels but that you can access through having human sources – relationships, who are considered de facto opinion leaders, behind-the-scenes decision-makers. These kinds of personal bits of information are an important part of the intelligence cycle, in terms of who to try and recruit next or what type of information to pursue. /.../ Whether public information is accurate of whether there is a hidden agenda somewhere.. /.../ Everything that helps make decisions regarding specific targets, whether to collect information on a particular top politician and who might be the easiest to access.

It can vary to a great degree. There are no black and white rules. Russia's [special] services are very active globally, and Estonia is of considerable interest on all levels as a neighboring country. In summary, it's one thing what you can gather from public sources, while Russia's traditionally paranoid rulers are also interested in double checking it through covert sources. To make sure what they can see corresponds with reality.

How big of a file do you think Russian special services have on you?

I have never wished to dwell on it. I think they have quite a bit. Every tidbit of information from when I was in office (as director general of the Estonian Internal Security Service – ed.) and perhaps later too. Collecting that kind of background information is part of the job, while I do not let it bother me.

How is this background information used? What steps might be taken based on such information?

There are plenty of examples from the history of intelligence. For instance, how communist mentality helped the former Soviet Union get its hands on a nuclear weapon. It happened through helpers, people who were influenced by communist ideas. They succeeded in establishing contact, building a bridge and recruiting the person they needed through these convictions.

Security officials say that a traditional major power's intelligence service collects information like a vacuum cleaner. It sucks in everything. How the information is used or processed makes for another matter. It could often be what's reported by Delfi (Estonian online news portal – ed.), while this is then tied to other pieces of information from cyber intelligence, breaking into computers, tapping phones, which the Russians are relatively good at. It comes together as a mosaic based on which a decision is made whether to recruit someone or whether to simply take advantage of someone to make people look foolish. There are dozens of possibilities, while it starts with a specific goal and operation. It works on a case-by-case basis.

How much is Russia putting toward Estonia in terms of resources? How many intelligence operatives are busying themselves with Estonia and its people?

I do not have exact figures for you, but those resources are enough to have an overview for making decisions. We can say that hundreds of people are working against Estonia, while it may be closer to a thousand if we factor in people who organize cyberattacks or wiretapping. But I do not have exact figures. They are likely available to my former colleagues in the ISS, Foreign Intelligence Service (EFIS) and the EDF Intelligence Center.

Talking about recent news of a University of Tartu researcher being arrested on suspicions of working with Russian intelligence, why would special services seek to recruit a scientist?

I only know what's available from public sources, while I would once more turn to the history of intelligence. Perhaps you've heard of the Cambridge Five. Five young British students were recruited to work for Soviet intelligence in the 1930s, before World War II. They sported liberal, at times communist views, while some also had problems in their personal life etc. They were recruited because it was seen that many people from top universities – Cambridge and Oxford and a few others – often end up working for the Foreign Office and in other key government positions. Therefore, it sports a long perspective. That is one thing.

Secondly, public sources tell us that citizen Morozov participated in various pan-European projects. I think Russia is strategically interested in persons who put together such analyses, write papers based on which security policy decisions might be made in capitals. And indeed the researchers involved in these projects... To perhaps gain access in relevant countries.

Thirdly, we cannot rule out the possibility that Morozov was tasked with promoting Russian propaganda narratives in his work. A scientist can afford to talk about pros and cons. I have not read his works for lack of both time and interest, while promoting Russia's narrative through scientific papers is a possibility. But his concrete tasks will need to be determined in the course of the investigation. I suppose they [ISS] know. Morozov probably knows best what was expected of him. /.../ Public sources suggest Morozov may have trained certain Foreign Ministry officials. I would imagine that Russian services were quite interested in who attended and what they were told, also in terms of tonality.

Russia has been making considerable efforts to influence the political decision-making process in Europe regarding Ukraine. There may have been indirect propaganda considerations. But it is pure speculation.

How are agents recruited in modern Russia? Are there preferred ways of going about it?

It would be quite pointless to try and generalize here. Why people decide to cooperate has a decidedly case-by-case nature. I'm sure Russia often treats its own citizens quite resolutely or robustly, uses coercion. They likely place people in a situation where they have no choice, whether through loved ones, children or work. There are dozens of options.

But usually, initial contact is made along positive lines. Public sources hold that Russian military intelligence has historically relied on patriotism /.../ While in some cases it's just money. It can also be fame and glory and recognition for others. Helping people's political careers, getting them on television, giving people something they lack access to themselves.

There may be a lot of different approaches, while it is first and foremost psychological work. A matter of convincing people which is always preceded by homework. They start by determining whether the person is recruitable in the first place. Some are considered so ideologically entrenched as to be impossible to convert. People can also be approached through another country, told to help in the name of Cuba, for example. There are dozens of possibilities. We must admit that Russia has done a good job recruiting people, historically. They are good at it, want to work with people and are plenty creative. They should not be underestimated in this area.

How many people could be susceptible to recruitment?

It's quite individual. There is also a difference in whether we're talking about recruitment efforts in Russia and among Russian citizens and those abroad. I dare say three-quarters of citizens in Russia would allow themselves to be recruited. They understand that they have no way out or that their lives might be made quite complicated. It would be less in other countries. Perhaps a third of those who are approached, while it's still a considerable figure.

But among Russian citizens with a Russian background, people who still have ties in Russia?

People traveling to Russia are always putting themselves at considerable risk. It is always possible to put a person in a situation where they have to choose between bad and worse. Whether to rot in jail or agree to cooperate. It came up in the case of Deniss Metsavas a few years ago and has been described in the ISS yearbook. Those who interest Russian special services for one reason or another are placing themselves at risk when traveling to Russia.

One does not have to physically go to Russia and can just have relatives, acquaintances or some other kind of interest there...

Relatives can be used for manipulation, while a smart enough person can avoid it. But it is my firm recommendation to contact the ISS, describe the situation and seek help when feeling other countries' special services are taking an unhealthy interest in you.

Firstly, if there is such interest, it means homework has already been done. Such contact is never random. If someone is in hot water with the ISS, they can also turn to the Foreign Intelligence Service that also has specialists who can help.

Also, know your rights. If you have to go to Russia, you should register with the Foreign Ministry. You need to be aware of your rights, what you can demand and whether you should expect to see the consul. Rule of law does not work in Russia as it does here. You may know your rights theoretically, but that does not mean they will be honored.

Thinking about when Russian special services approach someone or take an interest, is it likely the person has already done something they want to hide or is somehow malleable? People are reluctant to publicly speak about such things, much less to security services.

What matters is that failing to take that first step puts one at even greater risk. They will implicate themselves further. Contact is not punishable as such. Knowingly cooperating with Russian special services is. It is not punishable when someone takes an interest but the person has not reciprocated.

How often do people come to security services to say that Russian security services have taken an interest or that they've developed suspicious contacts?

There have been enough cases and their number started growing after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The ISS set up relevant notices at border crossings when the full-scale conflict started in 2022. There have been more than a few cases annually.

What happens next? Will there be efforts to corroborate the information, run checks on people who have tried to establish contact?

Unfortunately, I cannot share the specifics. There are efforts to help the person avoid any more trouble, as well as to understand why they were contacted. That is all I can say.

Morozov visited Russia with a certain regularity. He had relatives there. It seems there are so many ways of staying in touch these days, including those that are not the easiest to monitor. Why risk going to Russia?

As far as I've been able to tell from public sources, he has relatives in Russia and is a Russian citizen. It makes sense for him to visit the country. If he was an Estonian citizen, perhaps it would have raised more questions. Perhaps he felt it had not been noticed, or that it paid not to alter his recent behavior.

To what extent are face to face meetings preferred when recruiting someone?

Indeed, Russian special services usually want to meet in person. Electronic means alone are not enough. They want to meet after a certain time to check activities, hear explanations that you might not be able to get through electronic channels.

How is life for someone who has been recruited to work as a spy? Is it a case of going about your daily life and perhaps only following orders from Russian special services 0.1 percent of the time?

Once again, it depends. But those people are put under quite a lot of stress. Life has shown that traitors are not at ease, even if they end up going to Russia. Many drink themselves to death. It is no walk in the park. Many initially believe that things will pass, especially if they were recruited based on blackmail, while it's impossible to get off the hook. They will be sucked dry and discarded like trash. We do see propagandist tricks every now and again to try and make it look like they have a good life there, but it is a classic case of being taken advantage of.

How is a spy usually caught?

Again, it differs. Sometimes it is the good work of security services, and it has to be to some extent. Cooperation between NATO and EU members that trust one another in these matters also helps. But the main thing is systematic effort. You do not stumble across these things by accident. It is not a case of being on a stakeout with a pair of binoculars and stumbling upon a spy.

In truth, you need to look at what people take an interest in, those who have access to certain kind of information and dozens of other things. There are a lot of specifics I cannot really talk about. You also get lucky from time to time. You may have a pretty good idea but no evidence whatsoever. You can spend months keeping tabs on someone without coming across anything damning.

It also depends on your level of access. Whether technical data turns up something, whether you can record a meeting or electronic contact with someone you know is working for the enemy. After that comes the question of how to make it stick in criminal proceedings.

How much work does it take to catch a spy?

It takes months, sometimes years of work. There is always so much of it that you must choose which things to pursue and which to let lie. But we are talking about long-term efforts.

How many people suspected of spying turn out to be spies?

It is one thing what my former colleagues at ISS, EFIS or the EDF Intelligence Center know about a suspect, while it's another entirely whether you have enough for public proceedings and to secure a conviction. Knowing something does not mean you can prove it. I would refrain from giving any relative indication. But not everyone security services look at turns out to be a spy.

How often has someone suspected of action against the state turned out not to be a spy or been acquitted in court?

There have been no such cases yet. In some cases, individual episodes have been dropped either because of the limitation period or interpretations of the law. But during the decade I served as director general, and I'm sure it's still the case, you only go public if you are completely sure of yourself. Yes, there is always the risk of things being different than what they seemed. But it makes no sense to chase the wind in a field in counterintelligence. You need to be sure and verify your evidence many times over.

Taking a shot in the dark in those matters would open you up to too much negative feedback. You come out with it if you are 90 percent sure of your evidence. There are efforts to rule out even that 10 percent chance of error.

Does this also mean that some spies will succeed in avoiding capture?

We need to admit it. It would be naive to believe we can catch 100 percent of traitors or spies.

How many do we catch?

Depending on the context. We have convicted well over 20 people for working with Russia and two for working with China. It's difficult to say whether that is a lot or not. It's considerable compared to some of our neighbors. So, I believe that while we have been successful, it's always possible to do better. We definitely have no reason to rest on our laurels.

We know there are more of them out there. It's always at the back of your mind, that there's more of them and work needs to continue. Every success is also a kind of failure here. Ideally, efforts at prevention should be able to nip these things in the bud. But that is the case in an ideal world, not the real one. It very seldom proves possible to stop someone after they've taken the initial steps.

How many active spies and traitors do we have in Estonia?

We have those who have been convicted and we have suspects. But it makes no sense for me to provide a figure for the latter since I have no way of proving it. Suffice to say there are more than a few. Whether there are hundreds or thousands would be pure conjecture, but they are out there.

What does a spy or traitor usually do when caught? Do they usually keep quiet, do they confess and seek to cooperate, cut a deal?

It is again quite individual. It is a moment of release for many. They are relieved of the stress. Most want to talk eventually.

Does no one insist on their right to stay silent and not say a word?

People say it from time to time, but no one can stay quiet forever. They tend to spill a few things. And we have also been very polite. Our operatives are pleasant and people want to talk to them.

What usually happens to a spy after being convicted? Will they be thrown in jail to wait for a prisoner swap?

Prisoner swaps are not everyday occurrences. Yes, it has been done a few times in Estonia. We also have a number of people who have already done their time. Herman Simm, who was the first person convicted of treason, was released early, as have some others. They are prisoners like any other, waiting to serve their time.

Are Russian citizens in Estonia who frequently go to Russia under closer scrutiny, in terms of working with Russian authorities?

That question should be put to the current ISS, while it's clear that Estonia is a democratic state that has rule of law. First, you cannot keep tabs on people en masse and at random. You need probable cause. Secondly, there aren't so many of those who might fit the bill. We should not get paranoid and think that everyone who has a Russian passport or speaks Russian is a potential enemy. That is definitely not the case. A very small part of them are of interest. That said, everyone who travels to Russia is putting themselves at risk and you never know how a person could prove useful.

Do Estonian universities and the people working there make for low-hanging fruit for Russian special services?

No, I don't think they differ from anyone else. But the academic body has different rules of procedure, a different idea of how the state functions as well as hostile special services. I think they know precious little of those things. It's different for certain state officials who have state secrets clearance, who need to be up to speed on certain laws and who are instructed in terms of how to conduct themselves. They make for more difficult targets. But in terms of lumping together people who work at universities... it's largely individual.

/.../ I believe that every person is capable of recognizing when they are asked inappropriate or quite specific questions. It's another matter that there have been few enough cases and that perhaps the scientific community has not realized [the danger]. Estonian marine scientist Tarmo Kõuts was convicted of spying for China. This [Morozov] makes for the second case. Acknowledging the fact helps, while I would not single out academic staff as a weak link.

Whether they are a weak link or not... but if a person goes to work at a ministry where they might come into contact with state secrets, they are probably briefed in terms of possible risks. At the same time, working at a research facility or university might also make one an important target, while academic institutions do not expect people to recognize attempts to establish contact by special services...

We are a democratic country and in a democratic country, security services do not have to see universities as a potential risk or as places where constant efforts should be made at prevention. /.../ This kind of total scrutinizing of universities is characteristic only of totalitarian states, and I also see no practical need for it.

The Soviet Union and Russia have been trying to use the West's freedoms against it all along. They have not found much success so far. What might we describe as a brilliant result for Russian special services in Estonia? What could be their dream achievement?

Looking at Russia's foreign policy rhetoric phrased in 2021, when they told NATO to pull back to its 1997 borders, the strategic aim is for Estonia to leave the EU and NATO and become a Russian satellite like Belarus. But it is clearly unrealistic today. It would mean the collapse of the entire Western system.

They may have such dreams and I'm sure the Russian empire still exists in the heads of great Russian chauvinists, while the Russians are also their own worst enemies. Let us take the example of Ukraine. I managed to visit Ukraine and talk to people there quite a few times before the annexation of Crimea. And they seemed to lack any indication that Russia somehow posed a threat. By now, Russia has made 40 million Ukrainians hate it for a very long time. Yes, it is true that they can continue their destruction and killing there for a long time, but what is the strategy? Taking over the whole country and killing every last Ukrainian? Would you call that a good strategy? I believe they have made very poor choices, and the level of self-deception and propaganda involved has made them blind. A misguided strategy cannot end in victory. And the Ukrainian matter remains very much unsolved.

They are paying Estonia plenty of attention, while we are nowhere near Ukraine's level on their radar.

Reading the "Mitrokhin Archive," it betrays a kind of inability or a series of failures. While there are also quite a few successes, generally speaking, the results are either incomplete or nonexistent. Is this somehow characteristic of Russia or is the field so complicated that it's generally difficult to achieve results?

I don't really agree. If you think back to events in Ukraine in 2014 or recently in 2022. There has been plenty of betrayal. I believe the Russians managed quite a few things courtesy of the preparatory effort of special services. But they have also engaged in self-deception. Billions spent on creating opposition moods and recruiting agents in Ukraine are a matter of public record. Most of it was pocketed by special services operatives. We have also seen it in the case of agents recruited from among smugglers. We have referred to them as discount agents. So, corruption has a role to play.

The Russian system is also different. Orders might often be deemed unrealistic and followed by mere imitation of efforts to carry them out. That said, we should not underestimate them. They have carried out brilliant operations, turned people in the FBI and CIA to their cause based on which dozens of people who worked for the Americans were caught and executed during the Cold War. The "Mitrokhin Archive" only treats with a small part of the work of Russian special services. We also need to look at global targets, which were often simply unrealistic. If only the political struggle. Or how the Soviet Union failed to realize that the Star Wars program (Strategic Defense Initiative) was largely a bluff and sacrificed its economy in an attempt to counter it. Much of it is mind games.

Why I say they must not be underestimated is that despite corruption and sometimes reckless operations, Russian special services simply employ so many people. Even if just ten out of 100 men do good work, they'll still bring home the bacon.

The other thing is that success stories do not get published. There have also been successes where the recruiting has not been done by the special services. We could say, half-jokingly, that former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder going to work for Gazprom was a successful recruitment by the Russian president. Having the former chancellor working for Russia is an excellent outcome.

If we were to compare Russia today to the Soviet Union, the latter at least had an ideology, which resonated with some people in the West. Modern Russia doesn't really have an ideology. What it has is an autocratic regime trying to dress itself in some of its predecessor's trappings. Looking at Estonia, the only people you could recruit ideologically are great Russian chauvinists, while it would have to be money of blackmail for the others. This might make things a little more difficult for Russia in Estonia compared to some other countries and times...

It has been Estonia's goal to operate in a way that would not give people cause to work for Russia. Whether we're always successful at it makes for another matter.


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Editor: Aleksander Krjukov, Marcus Turovski

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