A spy scandal in Estonia
How many more?
From The Economist print edition
A senior Russian spy in NATO is convicted
WHY he did it is still unclear. But the “how” is leaking out. Hermann Simm, a former Estonian official who was one of Russia’s highest-placed spies in NATO, pleaded guilty to treason on February 25th and was jailed for 12½ years. The Estonian authorities have released some details of a case that has had the spook world buzzing for the past year.
Yakovlev, the man who ran Simm
Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, recruited Mr Simm on his holiday in Tunisia in 1995. He was a prime catch. He had finished a stint as a top policeman, and was starting a new security job at the defence ministry. The approach was made by Valery Zentsov, once a KGB officer in Soviet-occupied Estonia. Mr Simm was neither blackmailed nor, at first, bribed; he just wanted his Soviet-era rank of colonel back. At a third meeting he was put on the payroll, receiving just over $100,000 in all.
Mr Simm betrayed every secret that crossed his desk. There were plenty: as the man in charge of Estonia’s national security system, he organised the flow of all classified military documents in the country and abroad. Once Estonia joined NATO in 2004, he acted as the Kremlin’s eyes and ears on the alliance too (although his poor English, say some, may have limited his usefulness). He also tried but failed to get hold of secrets from Estonia’s security and intelligence services, which are separate from the defence ministry.
In 2002, say Estonian officials, Mr Zentsov was replaced by another Russian handler. Sergei Yakovlev worked for the SVR’s elite S-directorate, which runs “illegals”: spies who acquire a genuine identity in a foreign country. Mr Yakovlev, a near-native speaker of Portuguese, appears to have acquired Portuguese citizenship illegally, gaining a passport in the name of Antonio de Jesus Amurett Graf. Travelling as a business consultant, he met Mr Simm every three months or so, in at least 15 countries in the EU and elsewhere.
The plan came unstuck because of poor spycraft. According to spycatchers elsewhere, Mr “Graf” tried to recruit a senior official in another country, who reported the incident to his own counter-intelligence service. Under scrutiny, the Portuguese was seen meeting Mr Simm. That set alarm bells clanging across NATO. The difficulty was to observe Mr Simm closely enough to build a criminal case without sparking his suspicion. Estonia’s security service is getting many plaudits for this, which culminated in his arrest last September. In a separate prosecution, Mr Simm was ordered to pay 20m Estonian kroons ($1.7m) for the cost of new security systems. The SVR did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Mr Simm is not the only Russian spy at high level in NATO. Several other countries are apparently following up five leads arising out of Mr “Graf’s” activities. The results are unlikely to become public. The way in which Estonia put Mr Simm openly on trial is striking. In other countries, those caught spying for Russia tend to be eased out discreetly rather than being brought to justice in the painful light of day.