„Human Life Has No Value There“: Baltic Counterintelligence Officers Speak Candidly About Russian Cruelty
by Eero Epner/Eesti Ekspress
The Estonian weekly Eesti Ekspress interviewed the heads and several employees of Estonia’s, Latvia’s, and Lithuania’s state security agencies. This is what they had to say regarding Russia.
The article was originally published on Eesti Ekspress
The photo on Aleksander Toots’s slightly tattered old work ID is faded and worn. He looks much younger than he does now: short-haired and sharp-featured. Next summer will be his 30th at the Estonian Internal Security Service (abbreviated KAPO in Estonian). How he plans to mark the occasion, I do not know. He spends most of his free time out in nature and working with his hands, though he won’t say where. „Let’s not try to profile me,“ he responds with a cool smirk when I ask what his favorite book is. „Let’s not make things easier for the adversary.“
Toots has been dealing with Russia for 15 of the last 30 years. He’s endeavored to predict its next steps, offered a surprise or two of his own, and uncovered Russian spies, several of whom were colleagues. He doesn’t reply at first when I ask what he felt the first time he interrogated Aleksei Dressen, a former superior and later subordinate. They greeted each other in the mornings, waved goodbye when they left for the day, and perhaps kicked the wheels of their vehicles while chatting in the parking lot. All until it was revealed that Dressen was a traitor working for Russia.
„Details,“ Toots says tersely when I ask what gave Dressen away. But when they were ultimately sitting across from each other and his recent colleague, maybe even somewhat of a friend, was in handcuffs, Toots says he felt no great emotion.
„There are no hot-headed decisions.“
He only displays irritation once in our meetings – when I ask if it might be possible to interview Eston Kohver, his colleague abducted by Russian intelligence. Reservation isn’t a mere character trait: it is Toots’s strategic weapon against Russia.
As Russian intelligence agents have confided in him: „[Estonians’] advantage is that you’re all levelheaded.“ Dressen also hoped that Toots would show emotion during his interrogation, and lost his footing when it failed to come to fruition. They don’t know how to keep it in check. Or they simply can’t. They become emotional, testy, irate, confused. At some point, Russian agents lose control and are unable to do anything about it – it’s just the way things are. As they admit: „You can’t beat Russia with reason.“
According to Toots, an intrinsic element of Russian society is pokazukha: pretending everything is fine while reality is anything but. It also applies, at least partly, to Russian intelligence, no matter that it’s a powerful system employing thousands.
„Chaos is a trait of Russian culture. There always needs to be a shepherd; otherwise, it’s anarchy,“ remarks Toots, who grew up in the Russian-majority eastern Estonian city of Kohtla-Järve. While discussing Russia, he purposefully uses the word „adversary“ instead of „enemy“, which he believes is unnecessarily charged. When engaged in a struggle with Russia, one can expect them to be excessively emotional, but also relentless. They are great, ambitious, merciless, and most of all, cruel.
Toots wasn’t surprised by the atrocities committed in Bucha. Nor were any other of the counterintelligence agents I interviewed in Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania. They’re aware of how Russians conducted themselves in the Baltics during the Second World War. Of how they conducted themselves before that. Of how they’ve always behaved. The West lacks such awareness.
„[The West is] fortunate,“ Toots remarks. „We’re a buffer between them and Russia. They’ve forgotten a lot and think Russia is just like them.“
It isn’t. And Putin isn’t the only issue.
„When the war began, we were worried about people saying it was only Putin’s war,“ says Director General of the Latvian State Security Service Normunds Mežviets as we speak in a soundproof office in a featureless building located in a suburb of Riga. His diction is soft, brisk, and punctilious, just like that of your favorite psychiatrist. Russians are no strangers to Mežviets. He grew up among many Russian-speakers and scuffles were an everyday occurrence.
„I witnessed Russian mentality every single day.“
Mežviets’s colleagues in the other Baltic states echo his sentiment.
„Obviously, you can’t abstractly accuse an entire nation,“ says long-time Director General of the Estonian Internal Security Service Arnold Sinisalu. „But a society and a nation constitute a whole. The state may brainwash, but the germ of chauvinism still springs from the people itself.“
When Director of the Lithuanian State Security Department Darius Jauniškis served in the Soviet military, he was constantly confronted by Russian soldiers with an intent to dominate.
„I fought them,“ he says, „because I knew that as soon as you submit to their will, you become their slave. But if you strike back, then you might even earn their trust.“
When I ask how many scuffles he was in, Jauniškis’s hand shifts to reveal a talisman on his wrist. There were many, he says. Very many. The subject isn’t incidental. He uses it as educational material for his younger colleagues, broadening the experience into an analysis of Russia as a whole: they recognize and respect strength alone.