Just under a year ago, on November 4th, border guards asked Aleksei Vasilev to step out of the car. It was half past three in the afternoon.
Vasilev and his girlfriend were driving from his school in northeastern Estonia to their native St. Petersburg. From where they were standing, they could already see the Russian flag flying in the tower of a medieval castle on the other side of the Narva river that separates Estonia and Russia.
“The detection dog sniffed something,” the guard told Vasilev as he stepped out of his Mazda 3. Vasilev knew what was coming, as he didn’t use drugs. The real reason must be the task he was carrying out for the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), the principal intelligence agency of Russia.
He was right. A little later, people from the Estonian Internal Security Service (KAPO), the counterintelligence service, detained him under suspicion of spying.
Vasilev remained in detention for the next four months until the court convicted him, and sentenced to four years behind bars.
“I am waiting. Waiting for help to me, and to my close ones. But nothing changes,” Vasilev said in an interview inside the Viru prison in northeastern Estonia. “I have been sitting here in prison since March 21st… Unfortunately, no one has come.”
Vasilev, a slender figure in a brown prison uniform, sat on the other side of a glass wall in the prison’s meeting room, speaking over the internal phone line. He has had a lot of time to process what went wrong with him, and has prepared for the interview. Occasionally he glanced at a notebook where he had written thoughts and key points he wanted to stress.
He spoke slowly and expressed his thoughts clearly. “I feel that as long as I was useful [for the FSB], they were ready to find me no matter how far [away] I was. But now I am in the prison and they don’t need me anymore. No one needs me”.
He said he had been afraid to say “no” when the FSB approached and recruited him. “You know, they don’t give you the freedom to choose. I was scared it would bring some complications to me or my family.”
Shortly after Vasilev was arrested, a Russian embassy representative visited him twice. After the court returned the “Guilty” verdict, he asked for another visit. “To be honest, I expected that the embassy themselves would show their interest in how I am doing”.
The third visit did not occur until late this summer, after this interview with Vasilev had already taken place. The Russian embassy in Tallinn declined to comment for this story when approached by Re:Baltica.
Task: to hack internal network
Vasilev is one of at least 12 people convicted in Estonia over the last three years of knowingly collaborating either with the FSB or the Russian military intelligence agency, the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU).
The FSB and GRU – Russia’s main intelligence agencies together with the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR, the equivalent to the American CIA) – usually recruit people like Vasilev to carry out small tasks. The recruits take photos of military installations, exercises and troop movements, gather information about border guard patrol times and tactics or about the personnel of Estonian law enforcement agencies.
These people are easy targets. Some are smugglers who must choose between cooperating or facing time in prison. Others are students or small-time businessmen who have some connection to Estonia. Most are Russian citizens – like Vasilev – or have double citizenship which means visa-free travel between the two countries.
By the time Vasilev was caught, he had been working for the FSB for half a year. He didn’t want to disclose the specific tasks he was given, saying that it was all documented in the Estonian criminal investigation (KAPO refuses to disclose Vasilev’s full story). In addition to the so-called espionage paragraph of the penal code, he was also charged with “preparing a computer-related crime”. Re:Baltica has learned that the computer-crime was Vasilev’s first real job for the FSB.
According to Vasilev, the FSB asked him to write code to enable the FSB to hack into a government institution’s internal wi-fi network in Estonia (he refuses to say which institution).
A cyber security expert consulted by Re:Baltica said the potential damage could have been serious. “Getting through the perimeter of an internal network would have possibly allowed the intruders to silently monitor the network, escalate the privileges, create new backdoors and possibly harm other national institutions as well,” said Aare Reintam, the chief operations officer at CybExer Technologies.
Vasilev said he was on his way to Russia to hand over the code to his FSB contacts the day he was caught. “The day I was detained, I needed to take that data across the border and hand it over. The meeting was supposed to be either in Kingissepp or Ivangorod. They were supposed to contact me,” Vasilev told Re:Baltica.
“We were able to prevent any large-scale damage to national security by capturing him at this early stage,” said KAPO superintendent Harrys Puusepp. “This case exemplifies that the outcome of agreeing [to cooperate with the FSB] is likely to end [badly].”
“They say they never knew my Lyosha”
Vasilev, who is just 21 years old, grew up in St. Petersburg. He started working in a local photo studio at the age of 16 to help his mother, Jelena Pasovets, cover living costs. Soon he realized that he needed a proper education to earn a decent living. He wanted to go to Europe, but his mother wouldn’t allow him to go too far.
Of the two options his mother would consider – Finland or Estonia – Vasilev chose Estonia.
Once in northeastern Estonia, he studied IT at a vocational school in Sillamäe and later in Kohtla-Järve (both are small, mainly Russian-speaking towns). From there it is only a few hours to St. Petersburg. Vasilev says he freelanced as a web designer to help his mother and then two-year-old brother with expenses such as rent.
When Vasilev was arrested, he could no longer support the family and his mother and baby brother were forced out of their apartment. “For a while, they even needed to stay at their friends’ places. And there was no help [from the FSB] for my family whatsoever. The majority of my mother’s income goes for rent, but I can’t support her anymore.”
His mother told Re:Baltica that she was given just one day to move out of the previous apartment. “It happened in the middle of the winter,” she said. “The landlord said he didn’t want “people like us,” meaning people whose family members are in prison.”
She claimed that no one from the embassy or government agencies has contacted her or offered help. “I did go to see the law enforcement agency once, but they said they never knew my Lyosha. There is no point for me to try more,” she said. Pasovets refused to name the Russian agency she visited.
Left with legal bills
“Russia doesn’t have a brilliant record in looking after the people that get caught in other countries. Particularly it can be the case for budget agents [such as Vasilev],” said Edward Lucas, a British security-policy and espionage expert.
According to Lucas, reasons for the lack of concern over Vasilev could include: if it were his first job for the FSB; if he didn’t deliver on the task he was given; or if he had messed up in some other way. “If they didn’t negotiate on agent welfare in case he [was] caught, I wouldn’t be surprised if the FSB wouldn’t take it seriously now,” Lucas said.
Vasilev said he was assured he wouldn’t be left on his own if caught. “Please understand, at the point they recruited me, I didn’t know what to expect. They promised they’d help me and my family materially in case something happened with me. Unfortunately, it wasn’t true.”
Vasilev, who was barely 20 when he was recruited, said the FSB offered him money for the tasks he was asked to carry out and promised to send him on some trips and excursions. He hoped the job would be interesting to him and he would develop personally. “It didn’t happen.” He won’t say how much he was paid.
Instead, he must now find a way to cover the lawyer bills and an additional €1,250 that he needs to pay to the state to cover some of the expenses related to his trial. “I need to have a job to pay that, but the hourly pay for work in the prison is 60 euro cents. Half of that will be deducted to cover the court costs. I don’t think I will be able to work here enough to cover all my costs,” he said.
Ivo Juurvee, an intelligence researcher with a PhD in history from the University of Tartu, said it is always a complex issue for the intelligence agencies when a spy gets caught.
“When an intelligence agent is caught, his native country’s government should use plausible deniability to minimise negative political effects,” he explained. “They need to be able to say ‘we know nothing.’ On the other hand, they would also need to help the agents as much as possible so that possible future recruits would notice that. Otherwise it makes it impossible to recruit successfully.”
In Vasilev’s case, the key issue seems to be deniability. “Does it have to do with Vasilev’s low value for the FSB? I think so,” Juurvee said.
Vasilev still has three out of the four years of his sentence to serve. “There is nothing fun about being in prison,” he said through the glass wall.
His mother has visited him twice; they were allowed to talk through the wall for two hours. Additionally, they can talk on the phone for 10 minutes every month. His mother insists he has never told her what exactly he was doing for the FSB.
“Even when I visited him in prison, he didn’t want to tell me what exactly happened. I think he didn’t want to make me any sadder.”
Vasilev also misses his girlfriend. “She and my mother are the only persons who support me now,” Vasilev said. He confessed he is not sure she will wait for him. “You know, four years in prison is a long time. For now, she says she will stay. But I don’t know what time will bring.”
Asked if he felt like James Bond in his short spy-career, Vasilev did not mince words. “James Bond is a romanticised movie. Real life is much tougher. My every day is now prison. There is no happy end”.
This story is part of a series supported by the first EU-financed fund for investigative journalism IJ4EU and jointly developed by Re:Baltica, Postimees, Direkt36, 15min.lt and Respekt.cz
Written by Holger Roonemaa, Re:Baltica/Postimees
Additional reporting by Jelena Minkova (Estonia)
Edited by Sanita Jemberga (Re:Baltica) and Jody McPhillips (OCCRP)
Drawings by Artur Kuus