West takes cues from Estonia in battle against Russian spies
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.”