Spies In The Baltics. Are They Still Active?

There was a time when the KGB was blamed for everything from the bad weather to sinking ships. But as time has passed since independence, Balts have become less wary of the once-powerful Russian secret service. In a recent interview, however, former KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky told journalists Toomas Sildam and Toomas Mattson that the successors to the KGB are more active in the Baltic states than previously thought.

If anyone can make an educated guess about what Russian secret services are up to, it’s Gordievsky. The 58-year-old Russian spent 25 years working for the feared Soviet secret service, eventually rising to the rank of KGB colonel. But after a decade in the KGB with assignments from London to Copenhagen Gordievsky switched to the other side. Disgusted, he says, with what he saw of the internal working of the KGB, he made contact with the British MI-6 in 1974 and began working for them as a double agent. When it appeared he was about to be found out in 1985, he fled Russia for the West; after his escape, Soviet authorities sentenced Gordievsky to death for treason. In 1991, Gordievsky co-wrote The KGB: The Inside Story of It’s Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev, regarded as one of the most authoritative books ever written on the workings of Soviet intelligence.

Toomas Sildam and Toomas Mattson talked to Gordievsky at his home outside London.

How much interest have the Russian intelligence services taken in the Baltic states since they regained independence in 1991?

More than you might expect. The reason for this is both political and geopolitical. Russian intelligence hasn’t given up the dream of making these countries dependent on Russia again to include them in a Russian sphere of influence. If they are going to achieve this, they need to know the place inside out. They need to know who to put their stakes on. That means the activities of Baltic governments, political parties and foreign ministries are of great interest to them.

From a psychological point of view, the Baltic states are regarded as the former Soviet Union. The fact that they have turned so completely away from Russia and exercised fully independent policies clearly provokes Moscow’s anger. There is a belief in Moscow that the Balts are somehow against Russia. By agreement, the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States [made up of most of the former Soviet republics, minus the Baltics] do not to spy against each other. The Baltic states have not signed these agreements and, as a result, Moscow would view them as being hostile. Moreover, Balts have been speaking about integration into Europe and also about joining NATO. For Russian chauvinists, this is a blow below the belt. Moscow certainly sees all this as a strategic threat. Hysterical opposition to NATO is not really inspired by any pragmatic considerations, but rather, again, by ideology and psychology. The Russian foreign intelligence agency (the SVR) is simply against democracy and the West, in general. And they want to have an image of an enemy. The enlargement of NATO hurts their pride.

Last but not least, Russian services are convinced the Baltic states are a launching pad for Western intelligence in their secret war against Moscow. But if any representatives of Western intelligence are present, that gets magnified in Moscow. They would conclude that if Western espionage is present at all in the Baltics, then they also have to be.

I’d say this: the Baltic states are as interesting for Russia from an intelligence point of view as any other nation in Europe even more so. Since St. Petersburg, Moscow and Pskov are nearby, they take the Baltics very seriously, indeed. For Moscow, I believe that the Baltic states are now certainly a higher priority than, say, Finland.

Do you think the Baltic states, in and of themselves, would be targets of Western intelligence, or would they just be in the Baltics because the Russians are?

I’m telling you and please don’t take offense but there is just not a heavy presence of Western intelligence in the Baltic states. I know that Great Britain, the No. 2 Western nation in terms of its power and influence, has not sent anybody to the Baltics. Absolutely nobody. Neither are their any operatives for the French or Italians. Okay, maybe a lone German would be sitting there somewhere because of their historic links to the Baltics. And there might be some Americans. But that’s about it. The Russians are present, yes. But it is absurd to talk about Western intelligence having a big presence in the Baltics.

If Russian intelligence becomes entrenched, do you think there is the danger the Baltics could be slowly Finlandized, that their sovereignty would be significantly eroded?

During the Cold War, we know the KGB penetrated deep into Finnish society, including the government.
Moscow would definitely like this to happen in the Baltics. But Moscow also understands this won’t be easy to achieve. Finland could be Finlandized fifty years ago because it was on its knees after two devastating wars [the Winter War against Russia and World War II]. It was ready to do anything, including giving up some sovereignty, to avoid being occupied by the Soviet Union. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were so tormented during 50 years of Soviet rule that they feel they have absolutely nothing left to lose anymore. The Balts are spiritually strong and are certainly not willing to give up sovereignty and be Finlandized.

Do Russian intelligence services use former KGB agents for their current operations or are they creating new resources?

They managed to take all important KGB files out of the Baltic states in good time, and so these are all accessible to Moscow. Therefore, if there is interest in recruiting one ex-KGB agent or another, they would take out his old file and, first of all, try to determine how loyal that person is likely to be to Russia. Then they would further investigate how easily the local authorities would be able to detect that person. If the local authorities know or can even guess about the agent’s past, they would give up the idea of using the person.

For two or three years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia was so wound up about Estonia that I heard stories about how Russia’s Helsinki-based intelligence service was devoting most of its time to Estonia rather than to Finland. By now, the situation’s changed. Russian intelligence has probably built up a sufficient enough representation in Estonia itself.

Would Russian intelligence draft new local agents, people who never had any connection with the Soviet-era KGB?

Certainly. Maybe Russian counter-intelligence, the successor to the KGB (the FSB), would tend to use old cadres. This is characteristic of them. All the other services believe it’s better not to have connections to the old agents, because they are all tainted one way or another. They would prefer to look for new people. In addition, time has moved on and it’s better to rely on younger people, those between 30 and 40 not those between 50 and 60.

Which branches of Russian intelligence are working in Estonia, for instance?

I would estimate that four branches of the secret service are present in Estonia foreign intelligence, the SVR; military intelligence, the GRU; Russian counter intelligence, the FSB [regarded as the main successor of the Soviet-era KGB], and surveillance, the FAPSI which bugs communication channels of countries from outer space and also from ground based stations.

As I said, Estonia is an important country for Russian foreign intelligence (the SRV). So as far as numbers, I’d estimate that they might have four people for political intelligence, three for counter-intelligence, two for technological intelligence and one for economic intelligence. There would also be one agent to service Russian spies who travel to the country incognito, on false papers. There would be one agent working with computers and one responsible for radio intelligence. Let’s also add a driver, a code decipherer and someone responsible for sending coded messages. So, what’s that make 16 agents. Russian military intelligence traditionally has smaller representations, so I’d estimate they would have some 11 to 12 people, tops. So, that’s almost 30 intelligence agents in Estonia.

The main base for intelligence operations would be the Russian Embassy. That’s obviously the safest place for them. But there wouldn’t be room for all the agents there. Those who don’t work at the embassy would come to the country under the guise of working for some business.

What would the goals and tactics of Russian intelligence in the Baltics be?

Well, in the case of the Baltic states, the goal would be to hamper European integration and to block their ascension into NATO. So, as a former employee of the KGB, I can easily picture what the orders to an agent in the Baltics might be. Mandate No. 1 would be to discredit politicians and public figures who advocate membership in the European Union and NATO. The second mandate would be to discredit politicians seen as having a hostile attitude in regard to cooperation with Russia. The third priority would be to organize a campaign that would decrease or even rule out possibilities for the Baltics to get favorable credits from the West because such credits would further diminish Russia’s influence in the Baltic states….One sphere of intelligence activity would address the fight against the so called discrimination of their fellow-countrymen in the Baltic states.

When you left the Soviet Union in 1985, did you believe that the Soviet Union would not exist in six years?

When I first came to Britain, I was often asked how much longer the Soviet Union would last. It was widely known that the Soviet Union was lagging further and further behind from a technological point of view. The West would inevitably gain more and more strength and would eventually dictate the democratization of the Soviet Union. I was always asked how much time all this would take. My answer was that the Soviet Union could keep going for another 20 to 25 years. The resources which it had at its disposal were just so enormous. But they elected a young leader and he started cautious reforms that he was ultimately unable to control. And what happened happened.

Why do you think the KGB could not stop the break-up of the Soviet Union?

The KGB was never ordered to use violent, para-military tactics in order to halt its breakup. In reforms implemented after Stalin’s death, the KGB was subordinated to the Communist Party in order to make sure that it could never again challenge the party’s power. It became a mere sub-division of the Communist Party. The year 1991 proved that the Communist Party apparatus had lost its desire and its nerve to engage in counter-intelligence activities. And since there was nobody there to give the KGB instructions about preventing the Soviet breakup, it couldn’t and didn’t do anything.