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'AK. Nädal' investigates the relationship between academia and espionage

University of Tartu main building.
University of Tartu main building. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

A university professor in Estonia has been detained on suspicion of espionage. This time, the charges, relating to Viacheslav Morozov, professor of international political theory at the University of Tartu, concern allegations of espionage on behalf of the Russian Federation. ETV news show "AK.Nädal" explored just what it is about academia which makes it such a fertile recruiting ground for foreign intelligence agencies.

At the same time, the show pointed out that such individuals are a drop in the ocean among the wider populace. Very few people would be of interest to foreign intelligence services as potential recruits.

The current episode, on the other hand, is nothing new so far as Russian intelligence more broadly goes, "AK.Nädal" reported. Russia has always used espionage in this way, and history is crammed with examples of thousands of spies and double agents; thousands of traitors who have cooperated with Russia.

But why do people go along with it? Everyone has their reasons, yet these are not always obvious.

Former Internal Security Service (ISS) Director General Arnold Sinisalu, in a lengthy interview with ERR, said that the figure for suspects of espionage in Estonia, as against those who have been convicted of same, is hard to pin down. "Suffice to say there are more than a few," he said.

Arnold Sinisalu. Source: Patrik Tamm / ERR

"Whether there are hundreds or thousands would be pure conjecture, but they are out there."

Sinisalu was speaking merely as a former ISS director, and in addition to that agency, the Foreign Intelligence Service (Välisluureamet) and the Estonian Defense Forces intelligence unit (Kaitseväe luurekeskus) are among other relevant interested parties.

As for Russia, "Security officials say that a traditional major power's intelligence service collects information like a vacuum cleaner. It sucks in everything," Sinisalu noted. This "vacuum cleaner's" target area could range from the media, to cyber intelligence, phone tapping, hacking and more – all areas which Russia's foreign intelligence agencies are, at the very least "relatively good at."

Sinisalu also drew on the famous example of the Cambridge Five (Maclean, Burgess, Philby, Blunt, Cairncross), recruited by the NKVD while students in the 1930s (the full extent of their activities did not become public until the 1950s and 1960s).

In terms of recruitment, this is just one option out of several which foreign intelligence agencies might take. Others might include painting them in a negative light – the process is pragmatic, in other words.

Researcher Ivo Juurvee of the  International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS), who was previously acquainted with Morozov, told "AK.Nädal" that: "I don't know him well; I had only encountered him at conferences, so I'm not one of the many people who say they knew all along, or knew from the beginning, or at least had been aware for a long period of time [that he was someone who had been working for Russian intelligence]."

Ivo Juurvee Source: ERR

"In my opinion, he gave the [impression] of a relatively ordinary Russian specialist, working in the West," Juurvee added.

Foreign intelligence agents naturally do not have the word "spy" emblazoned on their forehead; in the wake of the news of Morozov's detention, a veritable social media storm broke out.

Viacheslav Morozov. Source: University of Tartu

Many foreign academics who had met him could scarcely believe that a professor who had been so outwardly critical of Putin could in fact be an agent.

Some were concerned that the Estonian security services had made a drastic error, in fact.

Sinisalu said that Estonian law enforcement agencies arrest people suspected of espionage or treason only if the evidence against them is overwhelming.

"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," he added.

Nonetheless in Morozov's case it is highly likely conviction and imprisonment will follow, "AK.Nädal" reported.

If Morozov was on the payroll of the Russian special services from the beginning, he can expect that outcome.

Former police chief and former interior minister Andres Anvelt noted that prisoner exchange also needs to be taken into consideration.

"One thing which can be used for an estimate is how quickly or regarding whom Russia is willing to launch the [prisoner] exchange process. This is not done for just anyone, rather those who or whose colleagues need to be sent the message that we will take care of you," Anvelt told "AK.Nädal."

Andres Anvelt Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

Academic cover, as a professor etc., is actually very effective for agents, "AK. Nädal" found.

Morozov is not the first academic to be apprehended for this reason in Estonia.

At the same time, background and security checks are not very rigid, while access to both information and people is excellent.

Of other possible covers, Ivo Juurvee said: "For instance, the position journalist also represents relatively good cover. There is nothing strange, in the case of a journalist, academic, or, for instance, a businessman, if they have to travel a lot, communicate with a lot of people and are interested in a wide variety of topics. Being a researcher myself – and I believe journalists have the same experience – people are happy to talk and to share their opinions," said Juurvee.

Arnold Sinisalu noted that Morozov had taken part in in various pan-European projects, which made him strategically interesting to Russian secret services – riven topics would include security policy decisions, and the individuals involved here, as well as international access.

Sinisalu also said it was unlikely Morozov was tasked with promoting Russian propaganda narratives in his work, though this is still a possibility.

"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," Sinisalu said, adding the ISS investigation will establish more.

None of this means we should start tightening the screws on universities.

Sinisalu noted that Estonia "is a democratic state that has rule of law."

So the principles such as the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, habeas corpus, quo warranto etc. apply in a way that they would not do in totalitarian states such as Russia.

At the same time, "AK.Nädal" reported, very few people would fit the bill so far as being an attractive recruit goes in any case.

In other words, not everyone with a Russian passport or who speaks Russiain is a potential spy.

"That is definitely not the case. A very small part of them are of interest," he added.

Still, traveling to Russia brings with it some risks, for that person, and beyond.

Compared with other countries, Estonia's track record in apprehending foreign agents and turncoats is quite good, "AK.Nädal" reported. Part of the reason for this may be the decision to make information public.

"Estonia certainly publishes this information, and since last year it has also been incorporated into the foundations of our security policy. In actual fact, Estonia has had a policy in this direction since 2008, when we had the Herman Simm case," Jurvee said.

In 2009, Herman Simm, a former head of security at the defense ministry, was found guilty of having sold thousands of confidential documents to Russian foreign intelligence service the SVR. He was released on probation a decade later.

Naturally, it cannot be certain that all suspicions of espionage or treason are made public, in part if the security services choose to counter recruit a foreign agent.

Andres Anvelt said: "There can also be counter-recruitment. This is a completely normal activity. Of course, that is never stated publicly, but it is one way to take advantage of a situation like this."

"Another option in the state of Estonia, and in the wider European world, is that if a person works in an important position, the degrees of burden of proof are different, be it proving actions against the state in criminal procedure, or be it proving that you are taking about having trouble with security clearance. You can't get state security clearance, so you can't continue to work in a certain position, and so on," Anvelt added.

Ultimately, Sinisalu said: "We need to admit it. It would be naive to believe we can catch 100 percent of traitors or spies."


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Marko Tooming

Source: 'AK.Nädal,' reporter Huko Aaspõllu.

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