Is Estonia’s Russian counterintelligence program the world’s best?

Until not so long ago, the former Soviet Republic of Estonia was known as a playground for Russian intelligence. The tiny Baltic state, with a population of just under 1.4 million, a fourth of whom are ethnic Russians, struggled to build its security and intelligence infrastructure following its emergence from communism. Some of the country’s low points during that process include the infamous 2007 cyberattacks, which are believed to have been orchestrated by Moscow, and which kicked the entire country off the World Wide Web for over a week. A year later, authorities in Tallinn announced the arrest of Herman Simm, a senior official at the Estonian Ministry of Defense, who was apprehended along with his wife for spying on behalf of Russian intelligence for nearly 30 years. Since that time, however, Tallinn has been able to transform its Russian counterintelligence program into something resembling the envy of the world, according to Foreign Affairs columnist Michael Weiss. In an intriguing analysis published on Tuesday, Weiss argues that Estonia’s claim to fame in the counterintelligence world centers on its initiative in hosting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence, which was founded in response to the 2007 cyberattacks. But, says Weiss, much more quietly, the tiny Baltic state has become a global leader in “old-fashioned counterintelligence” directed against Russian spy operations on its territory. He quotes one observer as saying that Estonia’s Russian counterintelligence program “is now better by a long way than that of any other country in Europe”. John Schindler, a professor at the United States Naval War College and former analyst at the National Security Agency, tells Weiss that, unlike the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Estonia’s counterintelligence service, Kaitsepolitseiamet, known as KaPo, “intuitively understands Russian intelligence culture”. The agency, says Schindler, used the Simm case as an impetus to upgrade its offensive and defensive counterintelligence posture. This effort led to the well-publicized arrests of Aleksei and Viktoria Dressen, as well as Vladimir Veitman, all Estonian citizens who had been spying for Russia for many years. Another intelligence observer, British journalist Edward Lucas, tells Weiss that Estonia’s counterintelligence success rests on three principles: first, while many Western countries prefer to deal quietly with the arrest and deportation of captured Russian spies, KaPo does not, preferring instead to aggressively publicize its counterintelligence successes; second, the government in Tallinn seeks maximum legal penalties for those caught spying, instead of exchanging them with Estonian operatives in Russian prisons; and third, the Estonians maintain an assertive and multilingual psychological operations and information warfare program that constantly gives Moscow a run for its money.

7 Responses to Is Estonia’s Russian counterintelligence program the world’s best?

  1. Paul Beaumont says:

    Hermann Simm’s wife was later released with no charge to answer. As a result of Simm’s arrest a voice number station [E06] scheduled for Sunday nights at around 1830/1930z closed down.

  2. aivar says:

    “.. which kicked the entire country off the World Wide Web for over a week”

    – citation needed.

  3. intelNews says:

    @alivar: Too many sources to list; this is one example:

    After vainly attempting to fend off the waves of distributed denial-of-service attacks, the Estonian government blocked all international traffic. In doing so, the government effectively cut Estonia off from the rest of the world


  4. Henri says:

    This is innacurate – the 2007 ddos attacks did not do much except take down some banks and ministry sites for couple of hours. The outside traffic coming in was blocked also for couple of hours …

  5. intelNews says:

    @Henri: To clarify: are you suggesting that the information in George Washington University’s International Affairs Review, cited above, is inaccurate? If so, you might wish to contact them to let them know. [JF]

  6. Good article.

    Yes, Estonia is better at countering Russian intelligence ops because of the sheer Geography of it’s State. As the Roman poet Virgil says, “ab uno disce omnes” — From one, learn all. Russia is practicing the Art of War, according to Sun Tzu, and it is doing it rather well — especially if you consider the fact that Sun Tzu never mentions 4-year election cycles. Psychological operations and ideological subversion are tactics to achieve grand strategy, and the Estonians, Georgians, and Polish are much more adapted to waging counter-offensive tactical psy-ops against the Russians because of necessity, history, and geography.

    The West would do well to follow Estonia’s example.

    Adaequatio intellectus et rei: When the mind is reconciled with reality, there is truth.

    Veritas vos liberabit.



  7. R.P. says:

    @intelNews: I confirm what Henri wrote. I was working for an Estonian bank back then. We also experienced ddos attacks, but our IT security department could keep the banks internet services up and running at all times. Some other banks had to close their web banking services for a couple of hours at most. As far as I remember, the solution was to block all internet traffic from a certain country, not the entire world:-)

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