Intelligence cannot remain fully hidden

An utterance by head of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service Mikk Marran, where he said a network of politicians, journalists, diplomats and businessmen that operate as agents of Russian influence and do what the Kremlin orders has been found, sparked a lot of attention in Estonia at the end of July.

Marran agreed to answer Postimees’ questions – including follow-up questions – in writing and explain why he made the statement and why the identities of these agents of influence will not be revealed.

What did you mean exactly when you said a network of agents of Russian influence has been uncovered?

I gave a talk at the Aspen Security Forum in July that brought together the shapers of U.S. security policy. My core message was that the Kremlin is pursuing systematic influence activity to split the West and make its policy friendlier toward Russia; for example, by seeking the lifting of sanctions over East Ukraine and Crimea.

I said that the foreign intelligence service has identified Western European politicians who take part in these Kremlin influence activities and work to channel European policy in a desired way. My words took on a different meaning in the Estonian press – as if I had been speaking about agents of influence in Estonia. I was not.

Where is this network active? Also in Estonia?

Russia is trying to sway all EU and NATO members. A custom approach has been developed for every country. The Kremlin’s attention is first and foremost concentrated on major countries, but efforts are made to also influence the policy of smaller states.

Who are the members of that network in Estonia?

As head of the foreign intelligence service, I cannot go into Russian influence activity in Estonia. We do not collect information on Estonians, we look beyond Estonia’s borders. Identifying hostile influence activity in Estonia is the task of the internal security service.

If we know the people who make up this network, why is nothing being done to stop them?

Influence activity can be combated by dragging it into the light. Russia is trying to proceed covertly, which is why publication is the best weapon against influence efforts. It also helps raise awareness, helping people recognize hostile activity.

Why aren’t you or your colleagues from other countries disclosing these names?

If we have information on an allied country’s citizen’s involvement in Russian influence activity, we share it with our partners in that country. It is up to them to decide what to do with the information. Countries have different approaches and laws.

Are members of the network even aware they belong to it?

I can only talk about influence activity outside Estonia. Agents of Russian influence in European countries include politicians, businessmen and opinion leaders who are pursuing these activities knowingly. They are given tasks by the Kremlin and paid for performing them – either in the form of services or money.

Do they know one another and that they belong to the same network?

Some attend common events; for example, visit occupied Crimea on the Kremlin’s dime.

How are they managed?

We have described and visualized it quite thoroughly in our 2018 public report. Agents are usually recruited in Russia, usually following an invitation from a Russian politician or businessman. Active agents often travel to Russia and sometimes get paid.

How are the orders relayed?

The Kremlin uses contacts in Europe who might not be Russian citizens but have earned Moscow’s trust. The contact relays the message and pay.

What is the aim of this network?

The aim of the Kremlin is to influence the decisions of EU countries and institutions. Lifting of sanctions is their priority. While the Kremlin claims sanctions are powerless, the truth is they take a percentage point off Russia’s economic growth.

Could this network influence or try to influence elections in Estonia?

Russia is looking for ways to influence the policy of all EU countries, including Estonia. I’m sure elections in Estonia are interesting for Russia in this context. However, that is the internal security service’s field.

What kind of damage could they do to Estonia?

Russia is trying to dismantle EU and NATO unity. Success in that regard would be a direct threat for Estonia. It is in the interests of national security that the Kremlin would not be successful in influencing our allies. We need to draw the attention of security agencies and the public in the West to this matter.

How to spot people who spread views that coincide with those of the Kremlin and who belong to that network versus those whose views simply coincide with Russia’s?

There is a great difference between someone who is an agent of influence run and paid by the Kremlin and someone who is simply voicing their personal convictions.

How should an ordinary person tell the difference?

One needs to keep a critical mind and ask whether activities are sincere or whether they hide a different motive and someone else’s interests.

Couldn’t voicing one’s convictions produce the same results as influence activity?

We cannot take away anyone’s right to voice their convictions. It’s freedom of speech.

Where is the line between informing the Estonian public of Russia’s positions and promoting their interests?

We have to look at motive. If it is being done by order of the Kremlin in exchange for pay or services, it is not just informing the public but conscious influence activity in Russia’s interests.

But if the result is the same – success in changing people’s views and convictions?

I have already answered that question.

Why did you believe your statement would not produce a political storm in Estonia?

The Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service has repeatedly drawn attention to Russian influence activity in Europe. We have talked about it in two recent public reports. We described in detail how Russia uses European politicians as agents of influence. I’m glad this matter is sparking debate as, like I said, publication is the best way to fight influence activity.

As your words drew comments and explanations from politicians, we could say you meddled in shaping public policy. Is that a task of the service?

My tasks are clear: to gather intelligence on foreign security threats. The foreign intelligence service does not meddle in politics. The service regularly informs members of the government. However, if our sporadic public statements spark debates and reactions, it is only welcome. It could be no other way in a democratic country.

Because you emphasized the existence of the network of agents of influence, your goal was to draw attention to it. Why aren’t allies paying enough attention to these kinds of networks that they need to be reminded?

Participation of politicians from the West in Russia’s influence activities has been paid less attention that Russia’s information operations or hostile cyber activities. It is our task to draw our allies’ attention to all facets of influence activity.

Considering the peculiarity of your agency, why do you need to be so visible – through statements and yearbooks – in the first place?

Intelligence agencies have started to talk more to the public in all Western countries in the past decade. Intelligence services publish public reports in many countries: Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, Australia. U.S. and UK security services are active on social media and their heads give public speeches. It serves the goals of raising awareness and threat prevention. Intelligence agencies cannot remain fully hidden in the modern world.
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