With the sentencing of an Estonian intelligence agent to 15 years in a Russian prison, the Kremlin seems to be returning to its Cold War approach to state security.


Employee of the Tartu Department of Estonian Security Police (KAPO) Eston Kohver detained in the Pskov Region at the trial in Moscow's Lefortovo Court. Photo: RIA Novosti

On August 19, Russia’s Pskov Regional Court sentenced Estonian intelligence officer Eston Kohver, detained in September 2014, on cumulative charges of 15 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 rubles on suspicion of espionage and illegally crossing the border.

The “Kohver Affair” is one of the biggest spy scandals in recent years, both for the extremely negative reaction of the United States and the European Union to the verdict and for the circumstances of his capture.

Tallinn says that Kohver was seized on Estonian soil as a result of a military operation. However, Russian law enforcement agencies insist that the Estonian was seized inside Russian territory, and that there is sufficient evidence to prove that Kohver was engaged in espionage activity, including classified information and a service pistol found in his possession.

Against the backdrop of the downturn in Russia-West relations over Crimea and Ukraine, the “Kohver Affair” is just one more bone of contention between Moscow and Washington, which supports its Estonian NATO ally.

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However, Moscow’s firm stance and rejection of the demands issued by Tallinn, Brussels and Washington for Kohver’s immediate release show the Kremlin’s willingness to return to a Cold War-style approach to national security.

What will be the fate of the Estonian officer and what effect will the case have on the tacit rules of the “gentlemen’s game” of intelligence? Will the rules survive in today’s world?

The fine line between espionage and intelligence

The Russian mentality has a very reverential attitude to the difference between the words “espionage” and “intelligence.” The distinction is best explained at a petty-minded level: an “intelligence officer” is “our brave agent” working for the good of the Motherland; a “spy” is a foreigner trying to steal Russian secrets or harm the country’s national security.

This approach harks back to the traditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when a wartime spy was an individual who gathered intelligence on enemy soil, whereupon he (or she) was not dressed in military uniform and could be executed without trial. At the same time, a soldier in uniform, no matter how far into enemy territory he penetrated to fulfill his mission, was considered a prisoner of war.

This approach has an American parallel as well. During the U.S. Civil War, the Union in the north actively employed this rule. The Union army deployed intelligence officers dressed as soldiers. They were given the fastest horses on which to mingle with the rear of the Confederate forces and observe their movement. When they were captured, their chances of survival were better than average, since in accordance with the laws and rules of war in those days they were treated not as spies, but as military personnel who had not sought to conceal their affiliation. However, in peacetime such rules are impossible to follow.

The tacit rules of intelligence, or a short history guide to espionage

Not for nothing is espionage known as the world’s second oldest profession. No matter how brave the mounted officer prancing along enemy lines, his colleague who penetrated the enemy camp in foreign uniform was sure to gather more data. And information about the enemy is needed not only in peacetime.

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Even good neighbors need to be watched over. That is why at the end of the 19th century most countries established separate intelligence and counterintelligence units whose task was to gather intelligence about the plans and intentions of their neighbors. The methods they employ have always been highly diverse: from the interception and covert perusal of diplomatic mail to the bribing of high-ranking officials.

During the post-World War II standoff between the Soviet Union and the West, both sides upped their espionage activity to glean all they could about the enemy’s military and economic condition and to influence the situation inside target countries wherever possible.

Yet the lack of open hostilities between the two power blocs suggests that there were unspoken rules of the game.

The first rule was reciprocity. If the Soviet Union caught red-handed a U.S. diplomat working for the CIA, and during detention he received bodily injuries, there was no doubt that Washington would soon detain an employee of the Soviet Embassy under similar circumstances.

Second, there was a clear dividing line between “traitors” and “foreign spies.” Traitors who sold their country to foreign intelligence services could expect an unenviable fate. Spies, however, even if they did not admit to being enemy intelligence officers, were generally exchanged.

In this Feb. 11, 2015, file courtroom sketch, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Skotko, foreground left, addresses the court at the arraignment of Russian citizen Evgeny Buryakov, on charges that he participated in a Cold War-style Russian spy ring in New York. Photo: AP

For instance, Soviet resident spy Rudolf Abel (William Fisher), who gathered intelligence on the U.S. nuclear program and was sentenced in 1957 to 32 years in jail, was swapped in 1962 for Francis Gary Powers, shot down over the Soviet Union in a U-2 reconnaissance plane. And Konon Molody, convicted for espionage activity in Britain in 1961, was exchanged three years later for Greville Wynne, a British spy and former liaison for Oleg Penkovsky, a high-ranking Soviet officer recruited by British intelligence. Penkovsky was executed by firing squad as a traitor, despite trying to save himself by cooperating with the investigation.

The tacit principle of “pull your own guys out first” was in force. As a rule, those convicted of treason remained in prison, although all intelligence agencies did their best to rescue agents on the brink of failure. Suffice it to recall the flight from the Soviet Union of KBG officer Oleg Gordievsky, who had passed information to British intelligence about dozens of Soviet illegal agents in the West.

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An interesting rule struck root in the Cold War years. As the cases of Abel and Molody clearly illustrate, agents were exchanged only after being convicted. The message to the world was clear: this person is guilty of espionage, we have proof and we did not grab an innocent simply to get our own agent back.

Furthermore, any proof of illegal activity by foreign intelligence services obtained during an investigation could always be used to exert diplomatic pressure on opponents. For example, in the popular Soviet TV series “TASS Is Authorized To Declare,” Soviet intelligence officers and diplomats, having exposed the CIA’s resident spy in Moscow, try to prevent a US coup d'état in Africa.

Perestroika and the end of the Cold War served to reduce the tension. In any case, in the 1990s an economically weakened Russia could not effectively counteract the world’s top foreign intelligence agencies. In the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, very many state secrets flowed to the West and people with vital intelligence could emigrate freely.

Nevertheless, even in such circumstances, the Russian security services made an effort to protect the interests of their country. For instance, in 1996 Swedish national Hans Peter Nordstrom was detained in St. Petersburg by counterintelligence for possession of Russian military secrets.

Tellingly, although the Swede did not have diplomatic immunity, the Russian government merely expelled him from the country — unimaginable in Soviet times. At the same time Russian traitors have faced even stiffer penalties.

For example, in 2000 Russian Foreign Ministry employee Platon Obukhov was sentenced to 11 years in prison on charges of state treason. Not only that, the FSB compared him to Oleg Penkovsky in terms of the damage caused.

The situation changed somewhat in the 2000s, whereupon detained foreign agents began to receive harsher treatment. In particular, in December 2000 U.S. national Edmond Pope was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly attempting to gain access to classified information about Soviet-era naval developments, but was pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin on the very next day.

That was logical in its own way, since a compromised agent whose guilt is proven can hardly pose a serious threat, while relations between Moscow and Washington at that time were quite amicable. Meanwhile, when a large U.S.-based Russian spy ring was exposed in June 2010 (ten members of which were detained, one managed to escape) Moscow had to exchange them for four of its own citizens sentenced to lengthy prison terms for state treason.

There were no foreign intelligence employees in Russian jails at the time. Tellingly, the Russian side was forced to admit that the detained spies were “friendlies,” which ultimately helped to avoid legal proceedings.

Espionage in today’s geopolitical environment

The appearance of new 21st century technologies that seemingly allow information to be obtained by remotely hacking enemy computer servers has not done away with the centuries-old techniques of espionage, but merely complemented them.

Secret information is too well guarded, the chances of recruiting a politician or public figure online are slight, and many intelligence operations and mass protests, for example, the “color revolutions,” require the personal involvement of the coordinators.

Therefore, spies in the classic sense of the word are here to stay, which means there will continue to be high-profile detentions, trials and exchanges at border bridges and airports.

The Taurus pistol with bullets confiscated from employee of the Estonian Security Police (KAPO) Eston Kohver who was detained in the Pskov Region. Photo: RIA Novosti

It is logical that the deterioration of Russia-West relations in 2014 should have led to a new surge of spy scandals and a change in attitude to compromised agents. The detention of Estonian security officer Eston Kohver is a case in point.

According to Russian intelligence, he was detained on Russian soil, while Tallinn maintains that he was abducted from inside Estonia. However, despite numerous protests the Russian law enforcement and judicial authorities were clearly minded to pursue the matter to the bitter end.

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Interestingly, officially Kohver cannot be described as an agent. As per its brief, the Estonian Internal Security Service is a counterintelligence organization. But given Estonia’s proximity to Russia and its large number of Russian speakers loyal to Moscow, it is natural that the Estonian secret services should actively investigate everything that goes on in the Russian border area.

Immediately after Kohver’s arrest, there was much speculation about his fate. Many activists inside Estonia's Russian community and the Russian security forces themselves were convinced that he would be exchanged for Alexei Dressen, a high-ranking officer in the Estonian Internal Security Service convicted in Estonia in 2012 to 16 years’ imprisonment for spying for Russia.

However, in the finest traditions of the Cold War, there were no official statements from the Russian side until the end of Kohver’s trial. However, as dictated by Cold War practice, it is highly likely that with a guilty verdict in hand, negotiations on his exchange or release will now begin.

The “Kohver Affair” — in which the West accepts neither the ruling nor the fact of his detention inside Russia — has been compared by many Estonian supporters to the Venlo incident (when two British intelligence officers were abducted and transported to Germany from the neutral Netherlands in November 1939).

Moreover, it shows that the rules of the “gentlemen’s game” have changed once again, becoming less benign in the process. The fact is that the West could now use this precedent to detain and accuse any Russian security chief of espionage with a view to embarrassing the Kremlin internationally and securing an exchange for its own washed-up spy.

There will be no softening of the unspoken rules until Russia-West relations begin to thaw. In the meantime, the “Kohver Affair” graphically demonstrates Moscow’s readiness to take tough measures to guard its state secrets and shows that the leniency afforded to spies in the 1990s is gone for good.