Estonian Espionage is Far From an Embarrassment

By Edward Lucas (March 1, 2012)
The writer is central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist.

Estonia should view the attention of Russian spies as a badge of honour.

A public spy scandal normally counts as an embarrassment. It suggests treachery by individuals in positions of trust and severe failure by those who supervise them. So many in Estonia are wincing over the arrest of an officer in the Security Police (known as Kapo), Alexei Dressen.

In 2008, one of the country’s top national-security officials, Herman Simm, was arrested for treason. He is serving a 12-year prison sentence for spying for Russia, in what is often cited as one of the worst breaches of security in NATO’s history. It also dented Estonia’s highly polished image for clean, efficient government.

This new case threatens to be another embarrassment. Dressen was seeing off his wife as she was boarding a flight for Moscow at Tallinn airport. Prosecutors say he was carrying classified material, which she was going to take to Russia. Dressen was a 20-year veteran of Kapo, originally in a senior position but lately an investigator dealing with Russian-backed extremist groups in Estonia.

I am about to publish my new book about Russian espionage, largely focused on the Baltic states (details at, so I am selfishly delighted at the news, which is perfectly timed for my book launch next week. As Dressen and his wife are innocent until proven guilty, I will not give my detailed take on this particular case.

But two general points are worth making. Having real secrets that foreigners want to steal should be a matter of pride. Estonia, as is well known, is one of only a handful of NATO members that reaches the alliance’s threshold of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defence.

Less well known is that it has a serious foreign-intelligence service, the blandly named Information Board, which works closely with NATO partners. Kapo too has a robust reputation, fully deserved, for keeping an eye on Russian mischief-making. To see what I mean, read its annual reports at In unusually candid detail they outline the information warfare and other tactics being used to subvert and destabilise Estonia. Estonia is also a centre of cyber-warfare excellence in NATO.

This is unusual and commendable. Plenty of countries in NATO and the EU do not take defence, intelligence and security seriously. For that reason they would be unlikely to merit such direct attention from Russian spymasters.

That is not to say that such countries need not worry. Recruiting people from sloppily run states was a mainstay of both sides’ Cold War espionage (some Yugoslav diplomats, in particular, did very well out of this, cashing in on their ability to move relatively freely on either side of the Iron Curtain). Life has not changed that much; but when the Russians, Chinese or Americans recruit such officials now, it is to spy on other harder targets, not the home country.

This leads on to the other more serious point: it is a sign of a properly run country that spies get put on trial when caught. The temptation not to do so is huge. Sometimes the reason is operational: it may be better to ‘turn’ the traitor and run him as a double agent. But often the real reason is embarrassment. To admit publicly that the other side’s tradecraft was good (or, worse, that internal procedures for hiring and scrutinising people, and protecting secrets, were sloppy) is bad for the spy chiefs and their political masters.

So all too often the traitor gets only a grilling and is then shoved into early retirement or a non-job, perhaps on spurious grounds of ill-health. It should be some comfort to Estonians that nobody accuses them of that.