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 Soviet-era 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 documenting 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 some 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.
Then, on Oct. 4, the British and Dutch governments forcefully condemned what they said were hacking and disinformation operations by GRU agents.
Capping off that day were charges by the U.S. Justice Department against seven GRU officers accused of leaking athletes’ drug-test data, as well as efforts to steal information from organizations investigating Russia’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
Photos and names were released, leading Western and Russian journalists to uncover new details about the agents.
The flurry of activity followed indictments this year by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, accusing 12 GRU members of hacking and leaking the emails of Democratic officials and organizations. The indictments were part of Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
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.”
Galeotti said that some of the operational security blunders by the GRU could be linked to the “high tempo” of operations.
“It means they’re having to spend less time on preparation,” he said. “Also, they aren’t able to rely simply on the A-team. This [exposure of their operations] is kind of a byproduct.”
Former and current Estonian officials said that the GRU quickly regroups after its agents are exposed.
“GRU is characterized by their distinct robustness; they’re not too sophisticated,” said Lauri Lepik, formerly Estonia’s ambassador to the United States and NATO.
Lepik is no stranger to high-profile espionage. He said he had the “unfortunate privilege” in 2008 of facing the diplomatic backlash that followed the arrest of Herman Simm, former head of a security unit inside Estonia’s Defense Ministry who kept his intelligence ties with Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Simm leaked sensitive NATO intelligence and the names of Western spies to Russia’s foreign intelligence service. He is serving a 12-year sentence for treason.
“They don’t care about operational security,” Lepik said. “They would just try, and if they fail, try again.”
Estonians decided the best strategy was to expose suspected agents and send a clear message to Moscow. When a father-and-son pair were arrested in September in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, on suspicion of passing military secrets to the GRU, Estonian authorities sprang into action.
Deniss Metsavas, 38 — a major in the Estonian Defense Forces — and his father, Pjotr Volin, 65, were taken into custody separately. Video footage of the son’s arrest, and the men’s names, were released to the media two days later.
Their trial is scheduled to begin late this year or early 2019.
Their arrests were a particularly major blow for Russia.
Metsavas had access to plans on how Estonia’s military would respond in times of crisis. Working in headquarters, he also had access to classified documents related to NATO coordination, Estonian officials said. “The damage was not only to Estonian secrets but also to international cooperation,” said Harrys Puusepp, a press officer for the Estonian Internal Security Service.
Metsavas had been spying for the GRU for more than five years in exchange for an undisclosed amount of money, officials say.
When he was unable to deliver information to his handlers in Russia, his father would serve as a courier, Estonian officials said.
“This is not something that is going to disappear,” said Hanso, the chairman of the national defense committee. “As long as Putin is there, then the game will continue.”
Nakashima reported from Washington.