Ukraine is going to win’: Estonia’s departing spy chief opens up on Putin’s war

Ukraine is going to win’: Estonia’s departing spy chief opens up on Putin’s war

Mikk Marran, Estonia’s spymaster, describes his acceptance of a new government position as “early retirement,” which is an odd way to describe it for a 44-year-old.

The foreign intelligence agency of the Baltic state, Välisluureamet, was at the forefront of analyzing the risks and capabilities of a resurgent and revanchist Russia well before Vladimir Putin’s bungled invasion of Ukraine. He will no longer lead it as of the beginning of next month.

Marran, who works out of a small office in a brand-new structure housed inside a compact fortress complex in Tallinn’s Rahumäe neighborhood, tells me, “Seven years, it’s a long time. “I recently counted how many CIA directors I have interacted with over my tenure as director: four, plus two MI6 directors.

I currently hold the position of most senior foreign intelligence chief in the group. And I remain the youngest, probably.

Russia and Estonia are separated by 183 miles of the border. It has long held a frontline role in the West’s new Cold War with Moscow despite being barely 1.3 million people in size, almost twice the population of New Jersey, and having only a quarter of Russian ancestry.


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It either captures and convictions Russian spies every year or foils Russian-planned operations on its territory. Kaja Kallas, the prime minister of Estonia, has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine’s military triumph ever since the new Cold War heated up in February, and her government has backed up her words with actions: security assistance to Kiev in the form of Javelin anti-tank missiles, howitzers, and other equipment has cost close to 1% of Estonia’s gross domestic product.

Less widely known is how crucial Estonian intelligence has been in assisting Ukraine in outwitting Russia on the battlefield in both visible and covert ways. Moscow.

Ukraine is going to win’: Estonia’s departing spy chief opens up on Putin’s war

One former senior U.S. intelligence official claimed that Estonia “punches much above its weight on Russian matters.” Marran is held in high regard within the American intelligence community, and this esteem is evident.

When visiting the United States, he is frequently welcomed to officials’ residences, a benefit rarely given to directors of other associated services.

Marran, a 37-year-old director, had previously served in nearly every defense-related position in Estonia, including desk officer, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defense (to which the Välisluureamet is subject), and chief of international espionage.

This has required a narrow concentration on spying on a specific foe because of the area Estonia is in. The larger intelligence services all have residences in Russia, according to Marran. “Our home is in Russia. Between 85 and 90 percent of our monitored activity is our neighbor.

Marran barely shows the wear and tear of a volatile career that has seen successive Russian wars in the Middle East, North Africa, and now Europe. This tenure has also witnessed a number of Russian assassinations and sabotage operations on NATO territory.

Ukraine is going to win’: Estonia’s departing spy chief opens up on Putin’s war

He stands out from his more experienced rivals, especially the Americans, who are more likely to be hedge fund managers than intelligence chiefs because he is clean-shaven, well-groomed, and impeccably maintained.

Recent notable CIA directors have included David Petraeus, the gaunt four-star general who gets by on one meal and little sleep; Leon Panetta, the jowly, bespectacled egghead and walnut farmer; and now Bill Burns, who almost embodies a recovering matinee idol—a wintry Errol Flynn—with his wispy pencil mustache.

I realize that despite periodically running into Marran over the past seven years, this is the first time I’ve ever seen him without a tie.

He is leaving his position as chairman of the board of the State Forest Management Center of Estonia, a state-owned, for-profit environmental firm, three years short of the end of his permitted ten-year term.

When Marran applied for the corporate job, he believed he would never get it but would place second or third. He knew if he didn’t take the job when he was offered it, he’d later regret it.

The majority of people in the second-oldest profession in the world typically continue along similar lines in the private sector, taking advantage of the relationships and knowledge they have built up.

They work for famous law firms, secret service agencies, or business due diligence companies. Even if a flat woodland nation needs plenty of maintenance in that area, forestry looks to be an odd off-ramp.

As most of Estonia is covered in forests, I shall be in charge of a third of the nation’s land area and more than half of its forests.

Given that Marran has been in charge of keeping eyes on every location but Estonia for such a long time, I wonder if there isn’t a metaphor hidden somewhere in this professional homecoming.

Ukraine is going to win’: Estonia’s departing spy chief opens up on Putin’s war

After warning the West about Putin’s sinister plans for Europe for a career, perhaps he believes his purpose has been achieved. He acknowledges that he feels somewhat vindicated in light of recent events.

Many years ago, he continues, “we sought to enlighten our partners and different leaders.” However, some of them undoubtedly believed that we are typical crazy Balts who only yell about Russia.

Therefore, everything is now on the table, whether they didn’t believe us or didn’t want to trust us.

Since Estonia regained independence following the fall of the Soviet Union, which invaded the Baltics in 1940 as part of a deal between Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler to carve up Eastern Europe, Marran has been in charge of people who have been in Välisluureamet for almost 30 years, nearly its entire existence.

I have never encountered an Estonian who does not in some way identify with the collective trauma of the recent past, including the Stalinist deportations of their grandparents or parents, the suppression of Estonian culture, and the constant worry that if they are not careful, it could all return one day. Estonian spying is existential, just as the conflict in Ukraine is.

Marran tells me, “Our people understand the [Russian] mindset, they still have the language skills, and I think they can fit the puzzle pieces together in a better way than anyone else in the world.” “We also re-educated, or educated, some of our partners, I would say. Now, there is greater dialogue and note-taking among the many services. It’s a wonderful feeling, then.

The West is “more united than it has ever been in the last 30 or so years,” which is also true. And the Kremlin is home to the man we should thank for it. According to Marran, “Putin has assisted us by proposing fresh incentives or concepts that are completely absurd from the European point of view.”

This is undoubtedly true up to a point, but Putin continues to cultivate relationships with European far-right ideologues like Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary.

And Europe still relies heavily on Russian gas and oil. Putin wants to impose unreasonably high costs for sanctions in order to weaken European support for them and increase his own geopolitical isolation. It’s the only attrition conflict he might still be able to win.

This winter, energy costs are expected to increase even further since OPEC and Russia have agreed to reduce daily output levels by 2 million barrels.

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Marran, however, is upbeat. He thinks that Europe will survive a particularly harsh winter. “Our folks have already been informed that it would be challenging and expensive, but we must endure because this is a war situation.”

He enjoys repeating the adage that every Russian tank lost in Ukraine means that there will be fewer Russian tanks available to invade Estonia in the future.

Additionally, Välisluureamet offers actionable intelligence in real-time on Russia’s military apparatus with what appears to be less hesitancy than other Western services. “We just provide Ukraine anything we can that might be of use to them.”

The moral imperative tethered to utilitarianism tethered to a certain type of survivor’s guilt lays behind this reflexive aid: Estonia’s security has accidentally been strengthened by Ukraine’s great misfortune and dramatic war success.

Few experts believe that Putin would invade another neighbour anytime soon, much less a NATO member, because of how badly his war is floundering.

To make up for severe manpower losses in Ukraine, which Kiev estimates to be in excess of 60,000, he recently pulled as many as 24,000 of the 30,000 soldiers who had been stationed along Russia’s western flank. Additionally, NATO is much more aware than in the past of the day-one requirements of any invocation of its Article V collective security provision.

The United States military would protect “every inch” of NATO territory, President Biden recently reaffirmed. This includes Estonia, a member since 2004 and, given its proximity to Russia, long regarded as a “tripwire” state in any potential Russian strike.

According to Marran, the greatest military alliance in the world is “in good health in the region,” noting that Western and Baltic troops now regularly train together.

With the planned addition of Sweden and Finland to NATO, the alliance is also expected to grow, once again owing to Putin. He refers to this double membership as turning the Gulf of Finland into “an internal NATO lake.” NATO countries are slated to completely encircle the larger Baltic Sea, which is home to some of Russia’s most important ports and sealanes.

Since a devastating cyberattack in 2007 that was generally believed to have been carried out by Russian hackers, Välisluureamet has published an annual unclassified report containing insights on Russian military actions, intelligence services, and cybersecurity operations.

According to reports, the CIA “reads these reviews obsessively.” Russia is Ready for War was the title of Chapter 1 of the 2022 version, which was released on February 15—less than two weeks before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Compared to many other NATO intelligence agencies, Välisluureamet has been more optimistic about Ukraine’s ability to endure a Russian war of conquest. These services had predicted the demise of Ukraine’s regular army, the loss of its air force, and the use of partisan warfare.

The Biden administration was reluctant to provide Ukraine with the powerful offensive Western weapons it now deploys in waves of billion-dollar security assistance packages, as a result of this assessment’s direct influence on policymaking.

The White House has its limitations, too, and has refrained from sending long-range artillery missiles directly out of concern that they would be used to hit targets within Russian territory, escalating the conflict.

This American barrier, in Marran’s opinion, is wrong. “I believe the West needs to sort of let go of the idea that we should keep our arsenal’s range of fire at 80 or 40 kilometres.


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Remember that the whole arsenal of NATO weapons there is currently undergoing combat testing. Therefore, it is in our own self-interest to grant Ukraine’s requests. But I’m confident that eventually, we’ll succeed. Since the 24th of February, we have advanced by light years.

Since 2014, the year of Russia’s initial invasion and occupation, Estonia has been closely advising Ukraine’s intelligence services, and the benefits of such assistance are now clearly visible on the battlefield. More than 4,000 square miles of land have been reclaimed by Ukraine in recent weeks, not only in the northeast but also, as of recently, in the south.

Kherson, whose provincial capital was the first significant population centre to fall to Moscow in the opening days of the war, is where Russian frontlines are falling.

Furthermore, despite Putin’s celebrated “annexation” of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson, his army is being overrun by simultaneous combined-arms of Ukrainian offensives in all four regions. Recently, Ukraine managed to partially collapse one of Putin’s prized constructions, the Kerch Bridge, which connects Russia to the annexed Crimea.

The clamour of those calling for Ukraine to negotiate the terms of its conditional surrender becomes louder the more Russia is defeated.

Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, has recently come under pressure from everyone, including Pope Francis and Elon Musk, to open dialogue with Moscow. However, the vast majority of Ukrainians are opposed to any peace agreement that calls for ceding their territory to an occupying force that they are steadily fighting back.

Marran warns that encouraging Ukraine to engage in peace talks is a tactical mistake. “As intelligence services, it is our duty to provide our leadership with accurate information assessments.

According to our opinion, we shouldn’t press Ukraine into any negotiations since doing so would signal to Putin that things would go his way and he would begin slicing the sausage.

What about the worst-case scenarios currently put forth in the West, such as Putin perhaps using a tactical nuclear bomb or another unconventional method to stop or reverse Ukraine’s advancements? “We have not faced the danger of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis,” Biden recently told the crowd at a Democratic fundraiser in New York.

It is a truism in American foreign policy rhetoric that a “cornered” Putin poses a greater threat. Marran views things differently. “I believe it is better for us to see him in the corner than outside of it, where he will have more options to deal with the West, where he will be more vulnerable.

I believe he is hoping for it. He could remain in the corner if I let him.

Marran isn’t in a panic over the nuclear option, a bleak possibility in which Estonia can easily experience more direct and indirect consequences than many other European nations. He actually exudes serenity. “First of all, I am confident that every major service is keeping track of the situation in Russia about the nuclear stockpiles.

Second, NATO is prepared to handle that scenario with its nuclear posture. Third, if Russia were to detonate a nuclear weapon, I believe that even China and India would respond fairly harshly, at least verbally. If Putin does that, he runs the risk of losing all of his friends.

Estonia’s evaluation of Ukraine’s defensive capacity and Ukraine’s own appraisal of itself were very similar. Many in Kyiv at senior levels of government refused to admit that Putin would act, even though in hindsight they were arguably incorrect for the right reasons, right up until the bombs began dropping nearly eight months ago.

They estimated that the Russians would suffer as a result. Rather than the other way around, could Kyiv one day become the hub of choice for Western intelligence agents looking to learn Ukrainian tradecraft?

Marran draws comparisons between Ukraine’s post-Soviet trajectory and Estonia’s, but believes Ukraine’s potential is stronger because of its more recent and valiant efforts.

Before Russia’s invasion and illegitimate annexation of Crimea in 2014, “Ukraine was still collaborating a little with the Russian agencies,” he claims. In other words, because they are still familiar with the people and the processes, it is much simpler for them to comprehend how the Russians gather intelligence.

They may even have a more positive experience than we do in that regard. There will likely be a long line of intelligence services waiting to learn from Ukraine once the war is over, in my opinion.

Ukraine is going to win’: Estonia’s departing spy chief opens up on Putin’s war

How will the conflict end?

Without hesitation, Marran states, “Ukraine will triumph.” “They must triumph because this is an independence struggle for Ukraine. They have a lot of motivation since it’s not just a local conflict. Although he is unsure of just when that victory will occur.

By putting untrained troops through the war’s meat grinder, Putin may drag out the conflict. Marran quotes a line from the popular Soviet comedy “Operation Y and Shurik’s Other Adventures” from 1965, saying “My father loved the expression Nado, Fedya, nado.

” Its literal meaning is “it’s necessary, Fedya, it’s necessary,” but it also conveys a sense of unyielding tenacity in the face of great hardship.

We shouldn’t underestimate the Russians’ ability to persevere when other people would give up because they are like this. The initial conscripts who enter or have entered the conflict zone are the Ukrainians’ most straightforward targets, but there will likely be a Darwinian cycle of events.

Because of Nado, Fedya, and nado, the soldiers who make it through the first few months will learn how to do their jobs and improve as warriors.

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