‘Ukraine is going to win’: Estonia’s departing spy chief opens up on Putin’s war

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TALLINN, Estonia — “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.

Demonstrators with Ukrainian and Estonian national flags gather for a rally.
Demonstrators with Ukrainian and Estonian national flags gather for a rally in support of Ukraine, in Tallinn, Estonia. (AP/Raul Mee) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

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.

Marran was appointed director in January 2016 at age 37, having held virtually every role in Estonia’s defense sector prior to that, from desk officer to permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defense — to which the Välisluureamet is subservient — to head of foreign espionage. Given the neighborhood Estonia is in, that has meant a singular focus on spying on a single adversary. “The bigger intelligence services all have Russia houses,” Marran says. “We are a Russia house. Eighty-five to 90% of what we monitor is our nextdoor neighbor.”

Marran hardly wears the years of a turbulent tenure, one that has seen Russian election interference campaigns, a spate of Russian assassinations and sabotage operations on NATO soil, and multiple Russian wars in the Middle East, North Africa, and now Europe. Clean-shaven, well-tailored, and immaculately groomed, he cuts a conspicuously different figure — more hedge fund manager than intelligence chief — from his more mature counterparts, particularly the Americans. Notable CIA directors have recently included David Petraeus, the gaunt four-star general subsisting on little sleep and one meal a day; Leon Panetta, the jowly, bespectacled egghead and walnut farmer; and now Bill Burns, with his nimbus of white hair and wispy pencil mustache, almost embodies a recovering matinee idol — a wintry Errol Flynn. Having met Marran occasionally over the past seven years, I realize this is the first time I’ve ever seen him without a tie on.

He is leaving three years shy of his allowed decade for a seemingly counterintuitive assignment: chairman of the board of Estonia’s State Forest Management Center, a state-owned, for-profit environmental company. Marran applied for the corporate gig thinking he’d never get it but come in second or third. When he got the job, he knew he’d regret it if he didn’t accept.

A screenshot of one of Välisluureamet's intelligence reports from 2018.
One of Välisluureamet's intelligence reports from 2018. (Screenshot: valisluureamet.ee)

Most people in the world’s second oldest profession tend to continue in a similar vein in the private sector, capitalizing on the knowledge and connections they’ve acquired. They join prestigious law firms, private intelligence firms or corporate due diligence shops. Forestry seems a curious offramp, not that a flat woodland nation doesn’t require plenty of upkeep in that department. “As Estonia is basically covered with forests, I will be responsible for a third of the territory of the country, more than half of the forests of Estonia.”

I ask if there isn’t a metaphor buried somewhere in this professional homecoming, given that Marran has been in charge of keeping tabs on every place but Estonia for so long. Or perhaps he thinks it’s mission accomplished after a career of warning the West, often in vain, of Putin’s dark designs for Europe. He admits to feeling more than a little vindicated by recent events.

“We tried to inform our partners and different leaders many, many years ago,” he says. “But, of course, some of them thought that we are typical schizophrenic Balts who just scream about Russia. So I don’t know whether they didn’t believe us or whether they didn’t want to believe us, but now everything is on the table.”

Marran has overseen people who have been in Välisluureamet for almost 30 years, nearly the entirety of its existence, since Estonia became independent again following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which invaded the Baltics in 1940 as part of a deal between Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler to carve up Eastern Europe. I have never met an Estonian who doesn’t somehow consider their collective trauma of the not-too-distant past as part of their identity: the Stalinist deportations of grandparents or parents, the suppression of Estonian culture, and the ever-present fear that someday, if they are not careful, it might all return. If Ukraine’s war is existential, Estonia’s espionage is, too.

“Our people understand the [Russian] mindset, they still have the language capabilities and they can put the puzzle pieces together, I think, in a better way than anyone else in the world,” Marran tells me. “I would say that we also re-educated, or educated, some of our partners. Now it’s more of a discussion and comparing notes between different services. So it’s a nice feeling.”

Soldiers board a military plane.
Soldiers board a military plane in an undisclosed French city to take part in Operation Thunder Lynx, in which 100 paratroopers were deployed above Estonian territory. (French Army via AP) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

As is the fact that the West is “more united than it has ever been in the last 30 years or so.” And the man to thank for that resides in the Kremlin. “Putin has helped us by coming up with new incentives or ideas that are totally crazy from the European point of view,” Marran says.

This is certainly true up to a point, but Putin still curries influence with far-right ideologues in Europe, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. And Europe is still widely dependent on Russian oil and gas. Putin aims to whittle away at European consensus on sanctions and his own geopolitical isolation by exacting prohibitively high costs for them. It’s the one war of attrition he may still be capable of winning. Energy prices are set to rise even higher this winter, now that OPEC has joined with Russia in agreeing to cut its daily production levels by 2 million barrels.

Marran, though, is sanguine. He believes Europe can and will weather an especially cold winter. “Our populations have been warned already that it’s going to be difficult and expensive, but we need to survive because it’s a war situation.” He is fond of the refrain used to justify Estonia’s outsize military assistance to Ukraine that every Russian tank destroyed in Ukraine is one less Russian tank that could someday invade Estonia. Välisluureamet also provides real-time actionable intelligence on Russia’s war machine with seemingly less hesitation than other Western services. “Every bit and piece we collect that might help Ukraine, we just give it to them.”

Behind this reflexive assistance lies moral obligation wedded to utilitarianism wedded to a unique form of survivor’s guilt: Ukraine’s profound misfortune, and dramatic battlefield success, has unintentionally bolstered Estonia’s security. Putin’s war is flailing so badly that few observers think he could invade another neighbor anytime soon, let alone a NATO member. He recently yanked as many as 24,000 of the 30,000 soldiers formerly stationed along Russia’s western flank to replenish crippling personnel losses in Ukraine, losses that Kyiv estimates to be in excess of 60,000. Furthermore, NATO is far more alive to the day-one requirements of any invocation of its Article V collective security clause than it has been in the past. President Biden recently reiterated that the U.S. military would defend “every inch” of NATO land. This includes Estonia, a member since 2004, and long considered a “tripwire” state in any hypothetical Russian attack, given its proximity to Russia.

Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg meets NATO troops.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meets with troops at an airbase in Tallinn, Estonia. (Leon Neal/Pool Photo via AP) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The world’s largest military alliance is “in good shape in the region,” Marran affirms, noting that Western troops now train daily with Baltic ones. NATO is also set to expand, again thanks to Putin, with the anticipated accession of Sweden and Finland. This twinned membership will transform the Gulf of Finland into what he calls “an internal NATO lake.” The broader Baltic Sea, which houses some of Russia’s most strategic sealanes and ports, is set to be fully ringed by NATO members.

Välisluureamet publishes a yearly unclassified report filled with insights on Russian military maneuvers, intelligence services and cybersecurity operations, an Estonian bailiwick ever since a crippling 2007 cyberattack that was widely attributed to Russian hackers. These reviews are said to be “read religiously at CIA.” Chapter one of the 2022 edition, published on Feb. 15, less than two weeks before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, was titled “Russia is Ready for War.”

On Ukraine, Välisluureamet has been more bullish from the outset on Kyiv’s chances to withstand a Russian war of conquest than were many other intelligence services in NATO, which anticipated the collapse of Ukraine’s conventional army, the loss of its air force and a recourse to partisan warfare. That assessment fed directly into policymaking — namely, the reluctance of the Biden administration to equip Ukraine with the heavy offensive Western firepower it now sends in waves of billion-dollar security assistance packages. But even now the White House has its limits; it has refused to directly dispatch long-range artillery missiles out of fear that they might be used to hit targets inside Russian territory and escalate the war.

Marran believes this U.S. barrier is misguided. “I think the West should kind of get over this self-limitation that we should limit the weapons systems or ammunition to 80 kilometers or 40 kilometers. Keep in mind, all the NATO arms sent there are now being tested in wartime. So we have a self-interest in giving Ukraine what they ask for. But I’m convinced we’ll get there, eventually. We are light years from where we were on Feb. 24.”

Soldiers fire a M777 Howitzer.
Ukrainian soldiers fire at Russian positions from a U.S.-supplied M777 Howitzer in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Estonia has been closely advising Ukraine’s intelligence services since 2014, the year of Russia’s initial invasion and occupation, and the dividends of that advice are now demonstrable on the battlefield. In the past several weeks Ukraine has recaptured more than 4,000 square miles of terrain, not only in the northeast of the country but now also in the south. Russian frontlines are collapsing in Kherson, whose provincial capital was the first major population center to fall to Moscow in the opening days of the war. And despite Putin’s heralded “annexation” of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, his army is losing ground in all four districts to simultaneous Ukrainian combined-arms offensives. Just yesterday, Ukraine somehow partially collapsed the Kerch Bridge — one of Putin’s prize projects — which connects Russia to occupied Crimea.

The more Russia is defeated, the louder the chorus of voices grows advocating Ukraine negotiate the terms of its conditional surrender. Everyone from Elon Musk to Pope Francis has lately urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to enter into negotiations with Moscow. But the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians are against any ceasefire that entails giving their land to an invading force that they’re pushing farther back every day.

Marran cautions that advising Ukraine to enter peace negotiations is strategically backward. “It is our job as intel services to give correct information assessments to our leadership. And our assessment is that we shouldn’t push Ukraine to any negotiations because that will send a message to Putin that things will go his way, and he will start slicing the sausage.”

But what of the worst-case scenarios now being advanced in the West, such as Putin’s potential use of a tactical nuclear weapon or some other nonconventional means of halting or reversing Ukraine’s advances? Biden recently told the crowd at a New York Democratic fundraiser, “We have not faced the prospect of armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis.” The cliche in U.S. foreign policy discourse that a “cornered” Putin is a more dangerous Putin. Marran sees it in reverse. “I would say that it is better for us to see him in the corner than outside of it, where he’ll have more options to deal with the West. I think that’s what he’s hoping for. I would let him stay in the corner.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a videoconference. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

As to the nuclear option, a grim contingency for which Estonia could easily suffer more of the literal and figurative fallout than many other European countries, Marran isn’t panicking. In fact, he exhibits calm. “First of all, I am quite sure that all the major services are following the situation in Russia around the nuclear depots. Second, NATO’s nuclear posture is ready to deal with that scenario. Third, I would say that even China and India will have a quite harsh response, at least rhetorically, in case Russia detonates a nuclear bomb. Putin will risk losing his only friends if he does that.”

Estonia’s assessment of Ukraine’s defensive potential closely tracked with that of Ukraine’s own estimation of itself. Right up until the bombs started falling nearly eight months ago, many in Kyiv at high levels of government refused to acknowledge that Putin would pull the trigger, although in hindsight they were arguably wrong for the right reasons. They calculated that this would be a calamity for the Russians. Might Kyiv one day serve as the destination capital for Western intelligence officers seeking to be tutored in Ukraine’s tradecraft rather than the other way around?

Marran sees parallels with Estonia’s post-Soviet trajectory, but ranks Ukraine’s potential as even higher thanks to its more recent and hard-won sacrifices. “Ukraine was still cooperating a bit with the Russian services” before 2014, when Russia invaded and illegally annexed Crimea, he says. “So basically, they still know the people and they still know the procedures, and so it’s much easier for them to understand the Russian way of doing things, collecting intel information. In that sense, they could even have a better experience than we do. When the war ends, I think that there will be a long line of intel services who want to learn from Ukraine.”

A military fighter jet.
A U.S. military fighter jet participates in a NATO practice mission near Tallinn, Estonia. (Mindaugas Kulbis/AP) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

How will the war end?

“Ukraine is going to win,” Marran says without hesitation. “They have to win because for Ukraine, it’s an independence war. It’s not just a regional conflict, and that’s why they are highly motivated.” Though he is less certain of when, exactly, that victory will come.

By running raw manpower into the meat grinder of war, Putin can prolong the fighting. “My father was fond of the expression Nado, Fedya, nado,” Marran says, quoting a line from the hit 1965 Soviet comedy “Operation Y and Shurik's Other Adventures.” Literally it means “it’s necessary, Fedya, it’s necessary,” but it connotes a sense of implacable stubbornness in the face of extreme adversity.

“The Russians are like this, and we shouldn’t underestimate their ability to press on when others would give up. The first conscripts who will arrive, or have already arrived, at the war zone are the easiest targets for Ukrainians, but it’ll likely be a kind of a Darwinist cycle of events. The ones that survive the first months will learn how to do the job and they’ll become better soldiers because Nado, Fedya, nado.