A major in the Estonian Army and his father were arrested earlier this month on suspicion of espionage for the Russian military intelligence service, GRU. The major, Deniss Metsavas, is an ethnic Russian who until his arrest on 3 September was regarded as a patriotic Estonian. He has appeared on TV and in books, where he performed in uniform as a poster child for successful integration of ethnic Russians into Estonian society.
I will not here repeat the whole story, though it is fascinating. Postimees has a thorough account in English here. But I do want to comment on the importance that the case has for the efforts to integrate ethnic Russians in the Estonian society.
The spying has apparently been going on for five years. During this time, Metsavas has worked in the General Staff of the Estonian Armed Forces. It seems likely that the areas of interest for the GRU have been Estonian mobilization plans and capabilities, general defense plans, and allied troop placement. Metsavas was scheduled to change positions to the Estonian Defense League (home guard) on the same day that he was arrested.
This timing is hardly coincidental. I’m not sure what it means, but I am sure that it means something. The Defense League is clearly a less interesting object for the GRU than the General Staff, so one reading is that either the GRU or the Estonian Internal Security Service (EISS) decided that the time had come to sacrifice their asset.
If EISS discovered Metsavas’ connection to the Russian intelligence without the GRU’s knowing, they will most likely have fed Metsavas with purposefully misleading information for a while. This means that the GRU now cannot be sure what part of Metsavas’ contribution was real, so it discredits the whole thing. This explanation is quite straightforward. EISS simply chose 3 September as the date when they had done enough damage control, and the time had come for Metsavas to see the inside of a prison cell.
A little more convoluted, perhaps, is the idea that the GRU could have decided to end the cooperation with Metsavas with a spectacular information operation. But thinking about it, the thought is not outlandish. The greatest threat to Russian influence in the Baltic states is actually successful integration of the Russian minorities. As long as there are large dissatisfied communities in the Baltic states, Russia has a societal divide to explore. And the story about Metsavas’ betrayal is perfect to polarize the Estonian society and sew suspicion toward the Russian part of the population.
All this is only speculation, of course. Perhaps the GRU is really sad to see their asset in prison. But it is reasonable to assume that Metsavas in his imprisonment has caused greater harm to the Estonian society than he ever managed to do as an active spy.