Russia’s intelligence agencies, although preoccupied with the Kremlin swamp in Ukraine, still pose a threat to Western nations, the former intelligence chief of a front-line NATO nation has said.
said Mikk Marran, who headed Estonia’s foreign intelligence service from January 2016 to October 2022 news week that Moscow’s spies will not abandon long-planned operations in the West even as their colleagues grapple with the fallout from President Vladimir Putin’s disastrous order to invade Ukraine for the second time in a decade.
“I would say that Russia is still looking for vulnerabilities in various Western countries,” said Marran, now CEO of the Estonian State Forest Management Center. “I am sure that Russian intelligence and services work in different countries. We have to be vigilant in Estonia and also in other western countries, but we haven’t seen anything big.”
“Right now, I think Russia and Russian intelligence are very busy in Ukraine,” Marran said. “This is a very big effort for Russia and also for the Russian secret services.”
“I would not say that they have left western countries, that they are doing nothing,” he added. “They’re still professionals. And I think there are orders to do different operations in different western countries and they continue to do that.”
Russia’s intelligence services have long been conducting covert operations in NATO countries. Agents have reportedly interfered in elections, assassinated exiled dissidents, infiltrated opposing governments, planned coups and stolen sensitive information.
But Russian covert operations in Ukraine have proved less effective than the Kremlin had hoped. Years of infiltration failed to fatally undermine Kiev’s institutions, paving the way for the quick military victory that many in Russia and abroad had been expecting.
Observers have suggested that Russian intelligence agencies, like many others in the country, have been hampered by the systemic corruption and rampant authoritarianism that characterized the country’s post-Soviet era.
“The Russian leadership and the military have miscalculated enormously,” Marran said. “One could also say that the Russian secret services have failed somewhat.”
“I wouldn’t say they totally failed because we have some information that some reports were available for leadership. But, most likely, the information that was sent to the top levels of intelligence services, and from there to the Kremlin, was fine-tuned. So the exact information was not relayed to the top.”
The flaws were clear from the first hours of the full-scale invasion that Marran and his team had been anticipating since late 2021. “We were kind of surprised the first few days by how bad they were,” he recalled.
“We knew from the start that it wasn’t going to be a three-day or three-week war, but especially when Russia was stuck north of Kiev, it showed that something was terribly wrong with the decision-makers, with the military commanders and also with the logistics, because they weren’t were able to move around, fuel their vehicles and so on.”
“We already knew that it would not be an easy mission for the Russian military,” Marran added. “We had no illusions about Russia’s capabilities because we’ve been gathering information about Russia’s military power for some time. We’ve seen that not everything is perfect.”
Putin’s rise to power arguably represents the seizure of the levers of power in the new Russia by the remnants of Soviet intelligence. Surrounding Putin are the so-called “siloviki,” the veterans of national security and intelligence agencies who dominate the president’s inner circle.
Among them are Nikolai Patrushev, Chairman of the Security Council; Sergei Naryshkin, who heads the SVR foreign intelligence agency; and FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov. All three are believed to have worked with Putin in the KGB of St. Petersburg – then Leningrad – during the Cold War. All are considered Putin loyalists and hawks, with Patrushev and Naryshkin seen as particularly tough influences on “the boss”.
But even the predominance of the “security crats” could not prevent Putin’s misstep into a full-blown war in Ukraine. Accordingly The Washington PostIn particular, the FSB bears “enormous responsibility” for the gap between Russian expectations and reality in Ukraine, where the collapse of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government was expected and Ukrainians were expected to welcome the invaders as liberators.
“Russia is not a democracy,” Marran said. “Every boss wants his boss to like him. There is no normal political decision-making process in Russia. The decisions are made by a very small group of people, and sometimes they don’t get the right intelligence, or the intelligence is made rosier by the peak levels of service.”
“I don’t think that will change until the lead changes,” Marran added. “Russia is still a completely undemocratic country with this imperialist thinking. Until that changes, I think the services will continue to fail to pass on the information they have gathered.”
“I’m sure they’ve made some corrections in the way they do business, but on a larger scale I wouldn’t say too much has changed in the intelligence system.”
news week emailed the Kremlin to solicit comment.