The skinny Russian military intelligence agent called Artem Zinchenko (30) was shocked when he was surrounded by internal security service operatives in a Tallinn public transport vehicle on January 9 – Zinchenko had no idea the authorities were on to him.
The Estonian Internal Security Service (KAPO) says in hindsight that it was not necessary to catch the man red-handed. Evidence collected in cooperation with the public prosecutor's office was sufficient.
The latter reveals Zinchenko as a collaborator of Russian military intelligence GRU whose main task was to collect information on national defense objects and those ensuring vital services in Estonia. Zinchenko mainly operated in Tallinn but also visited other areas to collect information, take pictures, and collect items when ordered to by his handler.
Zinchenko did not always have to skulk around objects or take pictures from behind a fence – often he would simply visit Defense Forces events or visitors' days.
The GRU was equally interested in military constructions and troop movements and objects meant to ensure vital services: various junctions and communications centers. The aim was to determine the type of technology used, access routes, defense measures, and weak points.
„He would map operative environments that interested the GRU – where and how things were done,“ KAPO press representative Harrys Puusepp said.
Information Zinchenko collected was not protected by state secrets. He made no attempt to recruit accomplices, for example among Defense Forces members.
Zinchenko periodically forwarded information to GRU operatives both using communication channels and when visiting Saint Petersburg. He was controlled by several handlers the identities of whom have become apparent to KAPO. Zinchenko did not ask for payment for his efforts but acted in Russia's interests following different considerations.
„His activity was quite extensive. The number of objects he scouted was impressive,“ public prosecutor Inna Ombler said.
Regret in hindsight
The investigation revealed that GRU recruited Zinchenko, who has higher education, at the age of 22-23 after he had completed his compulsory military service in Russia in 2009. Even though Zinchenko did not become a GRU officer, he received proper intelligence training: which legends to use, how to avoid getting caught, and how to forward sensitive information.
The internal security service is convinced Zinchenko was a far more serious investment than other Russian spies caught in Estonia lately.
Zinchenko started visiting Estonia with a visa in 2009. He started a business selling baby products wholesale to Russia in 2012 and was issued a residence permit in 2013.
The considerable market in the St. Petersburg area helped his company grow. He sold €90,000 worth of baby carriages over the border in the first six months of being in business. Volumes quickly quadrupled. Zinchenko could afford to pay himself the average salary and expand his business. Today he owns an Estonian-language online store, a salesroom in Tallinn's Lasnamäe borough, and a house in Keila parish.