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Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Estonia has been one of the most steadfast supporters of Kyiv—and one of the most uncompromising when it comes to Russia. Having been at the sharp end of Russian disinformation and cyberattacks in recent years as well as Soviet occupation and deportation before that, Estonians have few illusions about the capabilities of their neighbor to the east.

This experience has given the country’s foreign intelligence service, the Valisluureamet, detailed first-hand insight into how Moscow operates—and its weaknesses. Mikk Marran was chief of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service for almost seven years until he stepped down at the end of October to take up a new post as CEO of the country’s State Forest Management Centre.

Foreign Policy spoke with Marran about Russia’s intelligence blunders, cyberwar, and why it’s too soon to count Russia out. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Estonia has been one of the most steadfast supporters of Kyiv—and one of the most uncompromising when it comes to Russia. Having been at the sharp end of Russian disinformation and cyberattacks in recent years as well as Soviet occupation and deportation before that, Estonians have few illusions about the capabilities of their neighbor to the east.

This experience has given the country’s foreign intelligence service, the Valisluureamet, detailed first-hand insight into how Moscow operates—and its weaknesses. Mikk Marran was chief of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service for almost seven years until he stepped down at the end of October to take up a new post as CEO of the country’s State Forest Management Centre.

Foreign Policy spoke with Marran about Russia’s intelligence blunders, cyberwar, and why its too soon to count Russia out. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Foreign Policy: One thing that I’m puzzled about is how Russia so badly misunderstood Ukraine ahead of the invasion. If there was any country in the world that the Russians should have been able to understand, it’s Ukraine. And yet, they seem to have misunderstood the country on the most basic levels. Why do you think that is?

Mikk Marran: First of all: corruption. That’s the biggest problem in the Russian system, in the Russian defense forces, in the intelligence and security services. So basically, I think that most of the money that was dedicated to recruit people and build these networks were stolen by members of the services. And then we have to consider the [nature] of dictatorship, and I think the special services are quite careful with the message they convey to the Kremlin. So probably not the [most precise] information was delivered to leadership. And thirdly, I would say that they started to believe their own propaganda because it was so heavy.

I would add maybe a fourth item that in Russia, there is a tendency to miscalculate—and the start of the war was a big miscalculation—from different points of views. I would also say that the mobilization is another Pandora’s box that they just opened because the war will be much closer to Russian homes and families than it used to be.

FP: Russia has spent a long time trying to be a global player again, using both traditional diplomatic means and so-called gray zone tactics. How effective have these influence efforts been in light of the invasion? Are they paying off for Moscow?

MM: I think that the positions are not paying off at the moment. But at the same time, I would say they had quite good positions before the war in the West. But everything went toxic after the 24th of February. [If Russia hadn’t] started the war in February, I would say that they would have much better positions to influence different processes in the West and I would say that it would take a lot for Russia to recreate those positions in different countries.

At the same time, I wouldn’t also believe that Russian special services are not working. They’re still doing their jobs—probably trying to find alternatives to the influence operations or agents of influence. Definitely we see that they are focusing more on Africa. Much more power is being put to these regions of the world. And of course, the West has been really united; the Western security services have been quite tough [expelling] Russian service members or spies from different capitals. So, all in all, I think it has not paid off for Russia.

FP: But what about their position in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia? It seems there that the Russian narrative about the war seems to be making a little more progress.

MM: I think you’re right that, as I said, they have started to focus on those countries and regions. They had already positions there before the war. Right now, a lot of [Russian] diplomatic effort is being put into these regions because they know that they cannot change the attitudes so much in Europe as a whole [or] the United States, but they think they can do more in different African countries. For example, in Mali, they’re trying to take the position of France for example and project Russia as a country that would help them economically and with other means.

FP: How confident are you that Western support for Ukraine is going to hold up over the winter as energy prices rise, inflation rises, and the prospect of recession [grows]? Can Russia make new inroads?

MM: Actually, I’m quite optimistic. I think that the West has been considerably or quite united. The West has supplied Ukraine with different weapons systems. But I think, of course, we could do more. I would call for more contributions from all Western countries, including weapons systems with longer range.

FP: How has the view of the threat that Russia poses evolved among Western intelligence chiefs? It has long felt like Estonia, the Baltic states, and Poland were much more realistic about Moscow than their Western counterparts before this war.

MM: I think it comes from the fact that we are living in this part of the world. We haven’t had the luxury to focus on other issues; Russia has been the main topic for Estonia’s foreign intelligence services and for the other Baltic countries. But I would say that the Western intelligence services have made great progress. It kind of started in 2008 already after the war in Georgia [and] even more after 2014—and of course now after the war started in Ukraine in February. I think everybody understood that Russia is a problem and will remain a problem for a long time. But we have to understand that bigger Western services don’t have the luxury to focus only on one topic. There is China, terrorism, migration, and it depends on your geopolitical location. So probably Russia is not so important for Portugal as it is for us in Estonia.

FP: As far as we are publicly aware, there haven’t been the kind of [damaging] cyberattacks that have brought down the national grid or really shut the country down, which we expected in advance of this war. Are the Russians underperforming, or are the Ukrainians over-performing?

MM: I think that cyber is not an equal part of the war compared to the traditional way of fighting. Many Western countries, including Estonia, were kind of disappointed because we were expecting a bit more from Russia. Of course we have had different low-level attacks. We saw some of the cyber ability against Ukraine in the first days of the war; it was intense then. [But] nothing really extraordinary. Both Ukraine and the West were quite well prepared for cyberattacks. Ukraine has been supported in fending off these attacks by large Western [information technology] companies and governmental bodies. Also, Estonian cyber defense authorities were and are prepared for more sophisticated attacks. So the West has been quite well prepared for these attacks.

Of course, we shouldn’t be too happy. There is always the possibility that the bigger weapons and attack vectors have not been used yet. The problem with cyber weapons is once you use them, you lose them, so probably the Russian services are also calculating when might be the best time to use them.

FP: There’s been a lot of focus on the surprising weakness of the Russian military and mistakes that they have made. Are we wrong to discount Moscow at this stage and the ability of their military?

MM: No, we shouldn’t do that. We never do that in our corner of Europe. The Russian armed forces and the leadership are still able to learn from different lessons. And I would say when the war is over sometime in the future, they will go through a major reform again because they have found that the structure they have built is not working. There are people who think there will be more units towards Western Europe, towards Europe, especially seeing that Finland and Sweden will become members of NATO. So once again, the focus will be in the Western military district of Russia.

Estonia’s Former Spy Chief: Too Soon to Count Russia Out

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