“The Russians have no idea,” Alexander Toots, the head of Estonian counterintelligence, tells me, laughing.
“They have absolutely no idea he is here. You can be the one to tell them.”
Toots was referring to the defection of a Russian spy to Estonia. But Artem Zinchenko isn’t just any spy. He was the first agent of Russia’s military intelligence arrested by Estonia, in 2017, then traded back to Moscow a year later for an Estonian citizen in Russian custody. Zinchenko has now sought asylum from the very NATO country that unmasked and imprisoned him for spying against it.
Zinchenko’s defection has not been publicly disclosed by either side until now, in what must count as a humiliating blow not only to the Kremlin but also to his onetime masters in the GRU, as the former Soviet military intelligence service is still known.
In early October, the Estonian government granted Yahoo News unprecedented access to Zinchenko. Over the course of four hours he offered up his autobiography, reflective and remorseless, detailing his supporting role in the mostly unseen shadow play between Russian espionage and Western efforts to thwart it. Estonia, once occupied by the Soviets, is now at the forefront of countering Russian intelligence gathering and provocations on NATO soil.
As Zinchenko told it, his decision to defect was as much motivated by the Kremlin’s brutality at home and abroad as it was by what he saw as Estonia’s humanity toward him, an enemy agent. His cautionary tale is also an indictment of the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB case officer whose own spy apparatus has been weakened amid his Ukraine war, according to British intelligence. [Continue reading…]