- Russia’s intelligence services pose a threat to Western nations, according to former Estonian foreign intelligence chief Mikk Marran.
- Despite the Kremlin’s quagmire in Ukraine, Russia’s spies are still carrying out operations in the West, he told Newsweek.
- Marran believes the Russian leadership and military miscalculated in Ukraine, and that the intelligence services were partly to blame.
Russia’s intelligence services, though busy with the Kremlin’s quagmire in Ukraine, still pose a threat to Western nations, the former intelligence chief of a front line NATO nation has said.
Mikk Marran, who from January 2016 to October 2022 headed the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service, told Newsweek that Moscow’s spies won’t abandon long-planned operations in the West, even while their colleagues grapple with the fallout of President Vladimir Putin’s disastrous order to invade Ukraine for the second time in a decade.
“I would say that Russia is still looking for weaknesses in different Western countries,” said Marran, now the CEO of the Estonian State Forestry Management Centre. “I’m sure that the Russian intelligence systems and services are working in different countries. We have to be alert in Estonia and also in other Western countries, but we haven’t seen anything big.”
“At this point, I think that Russia and the Russian intelligence services are very much employed in Ukraine,” Marran said. “This is a very big effort for Russia and also for Russian intelligence services.”
“I wouldn’t say that they have left Western countries, that they aren’t doing anything,” he added. “They’re still professionals. And I think that there are orders to do different operations in different Western countries and they continue to do that.”
Russia’s intelligence services have long conducted covert operations across NATO nations. Agents have reportedly meddled in elections, assassinated dissidents living in exile, infiltrated adversarial governments, plotted coups and stolen sensitive intelligence.
But Russian covert operations in Ukraine have proved less effective that the Kremlin hoped. Years of infiltration failed to fatally undermine Kyiv’s institutions and pave the way for the rapid military victory many in Russia and abroad expected.
Observers have suggested that Russia’s intelligence institutions have been, like many others in the country, hobbled by the systemic corruption and rampant authoritarianism that have characterized the country’s post-Soviet era.
“The Russian leadership and military made a huge miscalculation,” Marran said. “We could also say that the Russian intelligence services were somewhat failing.”
“I wouldn’t say that they failed totally, because we have some information that there were some reports available for the leadership. But most probably the information that was sent to the top levels of the intelligence services and from there to the Kremlin was fine tuned. So, the exact information was not forwarded to the top.”
The mistakes were clear from the first hours of the full-scale invasion, which Marran said he and his team had been expecting since the end of 2021. “We were kind of surprised during the first days how bad they were,” he recalled.
“We knew from the start that it’s not going to be a three-day or three-week war, but specifically when Russia was stuck north of Kyiv, that showed that something was terribly wrong with decision makers, with the military commanders, and also with the logistics, because they were not able to move, to fuel their vehicles, and so on.”
“We knew already that it wasn’t going to be an easy mission for the Russian military,” Marran added. “We didn’t have any illusions about the Russian capabilities because we had been collecting information about Russian military might for some time already. We saw that everything was not in tip top order.”
Putin’s rise to power arguably represents the seizure of the new Russia’s levers of power by the remnants of Soviet intelligence bodies. Putin is surrounded by the so-called “siloviki,” the national security and intelligence veterans that dominate the president’s inner circle.
Among them are Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the security council; Sergei Naryshkin who runs the SVR foreign intelligence service; and FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov. All three are believed to have worked with Putin in the St. Petersburg—then Leningrad—KGB during the Cold War. All are considered Putin loyalists and hawks, with Patrushev and Naryshkin thought to be particularly hard line influences on “the boss.”
But even the preponderance of “securocrats” did not prevent Putin’s blunder into full-scale war in Ukraine. According to The Washington Post, the FSB in particular “bears enormous responsibility” for the gulf between Russian expectations and reality in Ukraine, where President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government was expected to crumble, and Ukrainians were expected to greet the invaders as liberators.
“Russia is not a democracy,” Marran said. “Every boss wants to be liked by his boss. There is no normal policy-making process in Russia. The decisions are made by a very small group of people and sometimes they do not get the right intelligence information, or the intelligence information is made rosier by the top levels of the services.”
“I believe that it will not change until the leadership changes,” Marran added. “Russia is still a totally undemocratic country with this imperialistic thinking. Until that changes, I think that the services will still continue to fail in forwarding the information that has been collected.”
“I’m sure that they have made some corrections in the way they do their business, but on a larger scale I wouldn’t say that too much has changed in the intelligence services system.”
Newsweek has contacted the Kremlin by email to request comment.