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Russia waging shadow war on West: Estonia PM

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas speaks to Brig. Charles Harris, commander of British forces in Estonia and Ross Allen, British ambassador to Estonia, May 15, 2024.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas speaks to Brig. Charles Harris, commander of British forces in Estonia and Ross Allen, British ambassador to Estonia, May 15, 2024. Copyright AP
Copyright AP
By Euronews with AP
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Kaja Kallas said the West needs a "coordinated approach" against Moscow's threats, amid rising cases of alleged sabotage, electronic warfare and spying.

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Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has left the annual Spring Storm military exercises showcasing  NATO cooperation. 

Yet, other types of warfare were on her mind.

Estonia, which borders Russia, has seen a rise in sabotage, electronic warfare and spying — all allegedly provoked by Moscow.

As the war in Ukraine looks like it is turning in Russia’s favour, defences are being bolstered in the front-line nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as in Finland and Poland.

Flying away from the exercise on 16 May, Kallas said Russia is carrying out a “shadow war” against the West.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and British Ambassador to Estonia Ross Allen, left, fly back together from NATO exercises in southern Estonia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and British Ambassador to Estonia Ross Allen, left, fly back together from NATO exercises in southern Estonia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024.AP

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda urged vigilance, saying Tuesday he had information that “acts of sabotage can happen again.”

"Reports of Russia's intent to unilaterally redraw maritime borders in the Baltic Sea is a provocation aimed at escalation," he wrote on X.

"We are closely monitoring [the] situation together with our NATO allies." 

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said at least nine people were recently arrested on suspicion of beatings and arson, allegedly directed by Russia’s secret services.

Not everyone sees the attacks as interconnected, Kallas told The Associated Press, despite NATO's assertion this month that Moscow is intensifying its campaign against the alliance. Russia denies the allegation.

Amid sanctions against several Russian intelligence operatives, Western officials and experts say the Kremlin is shifting tactics — non-military strategies including cyberattacks, election interference and disinformation, and attacks on foes of President Vladimir Putin.

With crucial elections in the West, officials say they believe the tempo of such activities will only increase, and some want tougher countermeasures.

Estonia has taken the challenge of finding Russian agents of influence “very seriously” since gaining independence from the USSR in 1991, rebuilding its security services from scratch, US Ambassador George Kent told AP.

This year in Estonia, a university professor was arrested on charges of spying for Moscow. 

Thirteen people were arrested over attacks allegedly organised by Russian military intelligence operating under diplomatic cover. Flights between Finland and the city of Tartu were disrupted by Russian jamming of GPS signals.

“What I would like to see is the recognition that these are not isolated events," Kallas told AP. "Second, that we share information about this amongst ourselves. Third, make it as public as we can.”

Estonia has a reputation for aggressively pursuing espionage activity and publicising it, consistently seizing more Russian agents per capita in the country of 1.3 million than other European nations.

It is “not very plausible” that there's such a large pool of agents in Estonia that makes them easier to catch, said Kusti Salm, permanent secretary at Estonia’s Defence Ministry, in an interview with AP. 

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Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves told the US news agency that some nations don't act because they hope to do business with Russia again.

“People are afraid of decisive action, and the absence of decisive action basically tempts bad actors to keep pushing their luck," added Ilves.

That could lead to unintended deaths and injuries, Estonian officials and security experts say, citing a trend of Russia is outsourcing attacks to locals, sometimes recruited relatively cheaply. That makes it harder to identify connections between attacks or to trace them back to Russia.

Bulgarian investigative journalist Christo Grozev, who exposed Russian intelligence involvement in poisoning former spy Sergei Skripal in 2018 in Britain, and the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2020, were victims of such outsourcing.

A former Austrian intelligence officer was arrested in March for supplying Grozev’s address to Russian intelligence, which allegedly hired burglars to break into the journalist's apartment in 2022. 

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Although Russia has been blamed for attacks in Europe for decades, Estonian officials and security experts indicated there's no collective mechanism for dealing with them, and suggested the EU do more.

Kallas says Russia uses spies in the guise of diplomats “all the time,” and senior Estonian officials support a Czech initiative limiting visas for Russian envoys to the country where they are posted.

Estonia also is pushing for separate sanctions within the EU to counter hybrid threats. 

Although many Russian intelligence agents are already sanctioned, these could dissuade some “intermediaries” - local organised crime figures, disillusioned youth and potential spies and collaborators - from working for Moscow, said Jonatan Vseviov, secretary general of Estonia’s Foreign Ministry.

While some countries feel such exposure could cause instability and erode trust, Grozev called it an important deterrent.

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Russian intelligence agents running operations abroad are “extremely averse” to incidents where they are named and shamed, Grozev said. Such individuals can be denied promotion, and proxies will realise they cannot be guaranteed immunity, he said.

The threat of sanctions and reduced opportunities for travel and study abroad can also help discourage younger Russians from joining security services.

Russia seeks “to sow fear” and break Western support for Kyiv, Kallas said.

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