6 Nov 2015

The Russo-Estonian “spy war”

“Eston Kohver was arrested by the FSB on 5 September 2014 in the Pskov region on the border with Estonia. Representatives of the FSB declared that he was conducting intelligence activity on the territory of Russia and that they had found a pistol with ammunition, special equipment and  5000 euros cash at him. At the same time the Estonian side insisted that Mr. Kohver was abducted by Russian special services from the territory of their country, when he was investigating the case of smuggling.” (source: Kommersant)

Russia insists that Kohver was engaged in intelligence activity on Russian territory. If you want to spy on another country, you do not go into the forest near the border with a pistol in your hand. It is the easiest way to deconspire yourself, intelligence does not work like that. But if you do that, at least, you must have cover documents with you. It is much more likely that Kohver was indeed investigating a smuggling case (the money is a bit more difficult to explain, though).
So what could have been the intention of Russia with the kidnapping?
To prevent Estonian secret services to reveal the smuggling case that could have been sponsored by Russian secret services as Kadri Liik suggested? Well, in that case, it was the best way to bring to the limelight a case that otherwise would not have raised much attention worldwide... Extracting information about Estonian counter-intelligence? As several Russian spies were uncovered in Estonia, it is unlikely that Russia could extract any new and valuable information from an officer working on smuggling cases. Demonstrating that Estonia is aggressively spying on Russia? Moscow’s allegations were not very convincing. Demonstrating Russia’s determination and capabilities and sending a signal to Estonia? (it happened just two days after Obama’s visit in the Baltic states and the announcement of sending NATO troops to these countries) So far it seems the most likely motivation for me.

The swap of Eston Kohver and Alexei Dressen that took place on 26th of September this year was only one episode in a kind of “spy war” going on between Estonia and Russia since 2008, the arrest of Herman Simm.
According to Postimees [1], the timing was not accidental: it was just a couple of days before the Putin-Obama meeting where the two leaders discussed the situation on Syria and Ukraine.  However, the swap is not the only element in the spy war that was motivated by political considerations: in fact all the actions that were made public were driven by foreign policy goals and momentary interests on both sides.
Intelligence activity is going on all the time, irrespective of the current relations of countries. However, even though spies are being caught time to time, these cases are rarely revealed. First, it is much easier to keep an eye on someone who is already known to be a spy than a new person eventually sent to replace them. Second, if the country’s counter-intelligence is professional enough, they can start a game and use the revealed spy to spread disinformation and uncover his/her contacts or the whole network. And, probably the most important, revealing that someone managed to pass on a considerable amount of secret information is confessing that the counter-intelligence of the given country is not functioning properly.
Herman Simm was nabbed because his contact person, using Portugal nationality came to the attention of another NATO country’s counterintelligence. However, as we can see, this person who ran him was not arrested, but observed for some time, that is how Simm came under suspicion. Although it is possible that the decision on Simm’s arrest was made because he was considered to be one of the most damaging spies on NATO [2], thus constituting a serious security threat, his activity could have been stopped without the noisy arrest. Most probably, the decision was made not by Estonia alone but by the leaders of the alliance. The goal of bringing up the case was to score a point against Russia in the background of the Russo-Georgian war.
Aleksei Dressen, who was swapped for Kohver was arrested on the 22 February 2012. His arrest could perhaps be connected to the controversial Russian presidential elections in 2012 when popular protests against Vladimir Putin were repressed, but it is possible that it was part of Estonia’s strategy to discredit Russia with whom the relations severely deteriorated after the 2007 Bronze Soldier incident and the cyberattacks on Estonia.
The kidnapping of Kohver could have been a Russian answer as it perfectly suited actual Russian interests: first, having caught an ‘Estonian spy’ Russia could (or at least was trying to) demonstrate after these two Estonian spy fiascos that not only Russia is spying on Estonia, but also Estonia on Russia; second, bringing someone home who worked for Russia and who can be celebrated as a national hero is always a good way to secure popular support and raise patriotic feelings [3] (the latter also works for Estonia).
Such kind of events always have to be evaluated on the background of current foreign policy issues and foreign policy strategies, not on only the basis of the specific details of the espionage case, as the escalation of this cases is motivated by foreign policy considerations.