“Early retirement” is a strange way to describe a 44-year-old’s acceptance of a new government role, but for Mikk Marran, Estonia’s spymaster, it feels a lot like that. As of next month he will no longer helm Välisluureamet, the Baltic state’s foreign intelligence service, which, long before Vladimir Putin’s faltering invasion of Ukraine, was at the forefront of assessing the threats and capabilities of a resurgent and revanchist Russia.
“Seven years, it’s a long time,” Marran tells me from his modest office in a modern new building contained within a small fortress complex in the Rahumäe district of Tallinn, the country’s capital. “The other day I calculated how many CIA directors I’ve met during my term as a director: four, plus two MI6 directors. I’m the most senior foreign intelligence chief in the circle right now. And I’m probably the youngest still.”
Estonia shares a 183-mile border with Russia. Roughly twice the size of New Jersey, with just 1.3 million people, a quarter of them ethnic Russians, it has long occupied a frontline position in the West’s new Cold War with Moscow. Every year it catches and convicts Russian spies or disrupts Russian-orchestrated operations on its soil. Since the new Cold War turned hot in February, Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has been an outspoken champion of Ukraine’s military victory, and her government has put its money where its mouth is: Nearly 1% of Estonia’s gross domestic product has been spent on security assistance to Kyiv in the form of Javelin anti-tank missiles, howitzers and more. Less well-advertised is how integral Estonian intelligence has been in helping Ukraine outmaneuver Russia on the battlefield, in ways seen and unseen.
According to one former high-ranking U.S. intelligence officer, “Estonia punches far above its weight on Russian affairs. The respect for Marran and his service in the U.S. intelligence community is quite palpable.” He is regularly invited to officials’ homes when he visits the United States, a privilege not accorded to directors of other allied services. [Continue reading…]