West takes cues from Es­to­nia in bat­tle against Rus­sian spies

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY AMIE FER­RIS-ROT­MAN AND ELLEN NAKASHIMA

When it comes to Rus­sian spies, this tiny Baltic coun­try has a piece of ad­vice for its Western part­ners: Name the agents, then shame them.

So when the United States and ma­jor Euro­pean al­lies did ex­actly that re­cently, Es­to­ni­ans felt a bit of quiet sat­is­fac­tion.

Af­ter all, this for­mer Soviet repub­lic for years has manned the front lines against covert spy op­er­a­tions and ap­par­ent in­fil­tra­tions by Moscow.

Since 2008, Es­to­nian of­fi­cials say, they have ar­rested at least 17 peo­ple on sus­pi­cion of spy­ing for Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence ser­vices – and, of­ten, the names of the sus­pects are given to the me­dia, along with video from the in­ves­ti­ga­tion or ar­rest.

Sus­pected agents from Moscow’s mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence agency – still widely known by its for­mer Sovi­etera ab­bre­vi­a­tion GRU – were linked to cy­ber­hack­ing at­tempts dur­ing the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cam­paign. More re­cently, they were im­pli­cated in the poi­son­ing in March of Sergei Skri­pal, a for­mer Rus­sian dou­ble agent, and his daugh­ter in Sal­is­bury, Eng­land. The Krem­lin de­nies any role.

But Es­to­nia’s ex­pe­ri­ence as Rus­sian spy hunter is now en­ter­ing the spot­light. Al­lies are pay­ing at­ten­tion to Es­to­nia’s ef­forts to pub­licly ex­pose al­leged es­pi­onage, as well as its dossiers doc­u­ment- ing the meth­ods ap­par­ently used by GRU agents.

“Es­to­nia’s ap­proach is, ‘Look, we catch you, we name you, we shame you, we send you out,’ ” said Toomas Hen­drik Ilves, who served as Es­to­nia’s pres­i­dent for a decade un­til 2016.

Un­til re­cently, he said, most coun­tries were not in­clined to make their spy busts pub­lic, to avoid diplo­matic fall­out.

But that lower-key ap­proach – what Ilves called “sweep­ing it un­der the car­pet” – has un­rav­eled amid more ag­gres­sive in­roads by Moscow’s in­tel­li­gence ser­vices and oth­ers in the West.

Hannes Hanso, chair­man of the Es­to­nian Par­lia­ment’s na­tional de­fense com­mit­tee, put it more bluntly: “We were right all along.”

Es­to­nia’s vast body of work on con­fronting the GRU can help shed light on how the se­cre­tive agency op­er­ates.

On al­leged GRU mis­sions this year in Europe – where it is ac­cused of poi­son­ing Skri­pal in Bri­tain and hack­ing the chem­i­cal weapons watch­dog in The Hague – a pic­ture emerged of meth­ods that were hap­less and slip­shod. A trail of damn­ing ev­i­dence was left, in­clud­ing a taxi re­ceipt show­ing the GRU’s Moscow head­quar­ters and al­leged agents trav­el­ing to­gether on con­sec­u­tively num­bered Rus­sian pass­ports.

Bob Seely, a law­maker on Bri­tain’s for­eign af­fairs com­mit­tee, de­scribed the ap­par­ent es­pi­onage as “very sloppy” and said it makes Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin “look fool­ish.”

But Es­to­nia sees it dif­fer­ently.

Es­to­nian of­fi­cials de­scribe the GRU, for­mally now called the GU, as oper­at­ing with a cer­tain mea­sure of bravado and machismo. “A gung-ho group in the sense of ‘We’ll do what we do, and to hell with it,’ ” ac­cord­ing to Ilves.

The GRU, one of Rus­sia’s three in­tel­li­gence ser­vices, has tra­di­tion­ally op­er­ated with­out the pub­lic pro­file or ac­co­lades be­stowed upon Rus­sia’s for­eign in­tel­li­gence agency, the SVR, or the FSB, its do­mes­tic se­cu­rity ser­vice and suc­ces­sor to the KGB.

Un­til Pres­i­dent Barack Obama called out the agency in 2016 for elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence, the GRU was rarely men­tioned by for­eign gov­ern­ments – let alone its in­di­vid­ual agents named.

The poi­son­ing of Skri­pal and his daugh­ter, Yu­lia, was a turn­ing point for the West, Es­to­nian of­fi­cials said.

As­sum­ing Moscow’s agents are in­com­pe­tent or am­a­teur­ish could prove dan­ger­ous, experts said. On the whole, GRU mem­bers carry out suc­cess­ful mis­sions, and those who are caught are largely seen as col­lat­eral dam­age for the Rus­sian state.

“The fear of get­ting caught doesn’t de­ter them from do­ing a nasty job,” said Kalev Sto­ic­escu, a fel­low at the In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for De­fense and Se­cu­rity in Es­to­nia and a for­mer De­fense Min­istry of­fi­cial. “It’s a win-win for Rus­sia. They get the in­for­ma­tion ei­ther way.”

Mark Ga­le­otti, a Rus­sia ex­pert at the In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions in Prague, said that the Es­to­ni­ans have “bril­liantly … played up their po­si­tion on the front line” with Rus­sia, giv­ing them “a lot louder voice for this fly­speck of a coun­try than would be ex­pected.”

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