Exclusive: Ex-Russian spy flees to the NATO country that captured him, delivering another embarrassing blow to Moscow
Michael Weiss·Sr. Correspondent Thu, November 17, 2022 at 7:00 PM·30 min read Artem Zinchenko. (Photo illustration; Yahoo News; photos: Harrys Puusepp for Yahoo News, KaPo, GRU)
TALLINN, Estonia — “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.
Once a highly secretive and effective spy agency, the GRU in the past decade has come under heightened international scrutiny owing to a spate of compromised or failed operations. Foremost among these is the hacking and leaking of Democratic Party emails in advance of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the botched 2018 assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal, another defector from its ranks, in Salisbury, England. The GRU is now reportedly assuming a firmer grasp on Russia’s faltering but gruesome campaign in Ukraine, where Zinchenko has relatives fighting on the frontlines on behalf of Kyiv against the very masters he once served.
The war, in fact, is the reason this GRU spy fled Russia.
I am sitting at a long wooden table at the heavily fortified HQ of the Kaitsepolitseiamet (KaPo), as Estonia’s FBI is known. It is Oct. 3 and I’ve only just arrived from New York in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, at the oblique request of Toots, who did not disclose the reason for my visit in advance owing to security concerns, claiming only that it would be worth my while.
“We have never had a case like this before,” Toots says, by way of briefing me on Zinchenko. “I don’t think anyone has.” The headquarters of the Kaitsepolitseiamet (KaPo) in Tallinn, Estonia. (KaPo)
He is right about that. No one has ever had a case like this before, at least as far as is publicly known. The history of the Cold War and post-Cold War eras is rife with elaborate, almost implausible tales of defectors and double agents, sometimes even triple agents, spies who worked for one or more governments simultaneously for love or money or for the simple thrill of leading a hidden life. There are those with access to state secrets, some immeasurably valuable, who betrayed their country for ideological reasons or, as they often rationalize the treachery to themselves, perfectly pragmatic ones.
And now there is a historic first: the enemy spy who came back to the people who caught and released him.
“A lot of officers of the Russian services are against the war,” Toots says. “They consider it to be a crime against Russia and the Russian people. We will be more than pleased to interact with anyone else looking for a new place to live.”
When did Zinchenko defect?
“Very recently.” The exact date is withheld from me. Toots prefers not to say if KaPo facilitated the flight of Zinchenko and his family to Estonia but invites me to ask him when he arrives, which will be any minute now.
My next two questions are more provocative.
Did KaPo recruit Zinchenko while he was in Estonian custody and play him back to Moscow under the pretense of a spy swap, in order to allow him to gather intelligence for Tallinn from inside Russia?
Toots won’t answer that either. But in a way it is a moot point. Clearly he turned Zinchenko philosophically somehow in the year or so when he was his suspect and then prisoner. There is little other explanation for how the Russian felt comfortable reaching out to Toots, the man who arrested him, to ask if Toots might now become his protector. Artem Zinchenko in custody in Estonia. (KaPo)
Finally, how can we be sure that Zinchenko hasn’t been sent here again by the GRU, perhaps in a psychological operation intended to muddy Western perceptions of Putin’s weakness or internal dissent in Russia?
At this question, Toots laughs again and shrugs as if to say, “Anything’s possible in this line of work.” Yet I am left with the strong impression that he’s certain of Zinchenko’s bona fides.
Talking to Toots is like this — by turns playful and frustrating.
At 52, he easily qualifies as Estonia’s George Smiley, novelist John le Carré’s veteran British spy and spycatcher, whose professional climax is blackmailing his Soviet nemesis, “Karla,” into defecting. In his 15 years in the job, Toots’s quarries have tended to be agents of Moscow; Zinchenko was the 10th he exposed in the space of nine years. Five GRU spies have been arrested since. There will be more; there will always be more.
Like Smiley, Toots snared a Russian spy who was a colleague and friend, an employee of KaPo who was secretly working for the Russians. Aleksei Dressen was arrested as he and his wife, Victoria, were about to board a plane from Tallinn airport to Moscow with a thumb drive full of classified intelligence.
Unlike Smiley, a portly homburg-and-specs relic of 1970s England, Toots could easily be mistaken for a suburban high school gym teacher. There’s an onomatopoeic quality to his surname, which is pronounced touts. He has a close-cropped haircut, an athletic build (he runs several miles a day), and I’ve never seen him in anything other than a polo shirt. He is unemotional and unaffected, almost to a fault, as though to behave otherwise in the role would be a dereliction of duty and an affront to the courtesy he extends to all members of his morally dubious profession, whatever side they’re on.
Toots speaks Russian flawlessly and is given to quoting proverbs and folk expressions in the language. One favorite: “Chaos is a trait of Russian culture. There always needs to be a shepherd; otherwise it’s anarchy.”
Now he is Zinchenko’s shepherd.
Toots shows me the February 2018 video of the handover on the Piusa River bridge at the Koidula border crossing, in southern Estonia, opposite the Russian city of Pskov. Zinchenko is being exchanged for Raivo Susi, an Estonian businessman convicted of espionage in Russia. The scene lacks the Hollywood drama one has come to expect from these occasions: the darkened no-man’s-land where two returnees from opposing sides of the Iron Curtain walk past each other across Checkpoint Charlie. Estonian Raivo Susi, second from left, and Russian Artem Zinchenko, second from right, in a prisoner exchange at a border crossing in Estonia on Feb. 10, 2018. (KaPo via AP)
In the video, Toots meets his Russian counterpart, a middle-aged officer from the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, at the snowbound crossing. They shake hands and exchange pleasantries before the mutual orders are given to their people. Susi is taken out of a Volkswagen minivan by FSB guardsmen in balaclavas. Toots personally escorts Zinchenko, wearing a parka and holding only a small blue briefcase, to the custody of the Russian government. There are hugs of homecoming and polite farewells.
Now the former Russian spy is back in Estonia, standing in front of me.
Zinchenko is wispily thin, in a turtleneck and quite possibly in the same parka he wore when he crossed over into Pskov, with short, lank hair combed forward down his forehead. He could pass for a lab technician on his lunch break or a computer programmer who’s been up all night coding, confined to some halogen-bathed subbasement in Eastern Europe. He appears older than his 35 years, even though his manner is that of a younger man, tentative and halting. He is visibly nervous as he and Toots speak amicably in Russian.
I shake hands with Zinchenko. He apologizes for his English, which is better than he lets on, even if I occasionally speak too quickly for his ear and have to repeat myself. The first thing he volunteers is why he is here.
“The awful situation that took place on the 24th of February,” he says, referring to the start of Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine. “It is the worst scenario that could even be imagined in my mind, and it was not only because my relatives live there, but because of the huge number of innocent victims.” Zinchenko and Yahoo News journalist Michael Weiss in Tallinn. (Harrys Puusepp for Yahoo News)
Like many Russians, Zinchenko has extended family members living in Ukraine and fighting the Russian invasion. Was he worried he would be called up, as per Putin’s recent mobilization order, and thus have to square off against one of them across the frontlines? No. He decided to flee Russia well before that Sept. 21 decree. Given that I was invited to Tallinn weeks before that, but Zinchenko defected “very recently,” I’d place the event sometime in the mid- to late summer.
How did he escape? Wouldn’t his movements within and outside Russia be monitored by the FSB, which controls the border guard, with his name easily flaggable, considering his previous work for the GRU? Zinchenko is that strange combination characteristic of a recovering spook, cagey while pretending to be guileless. “I'm not sure that they were able to detect someone after the so-called special military operation began,” he says, unconvincingly. “So I don’t think that they planned to look after me.”
He denies that KaPo helped him across the border. I don’t believe him and tell him so. He would not have risked such a dangerous move, or put his family into harm’s way by sending them ahead of himself, if he weren’t given ironclad assurances by the Estonians beforehand. Toots would not work any other way, and he would have insisted on arranging for Zinchenko’s safe passage somehow. Zinchenko doesn’t try to correct me when I press him on his point; nor does Toots, who is still here.
Zinchenko seems more sincere when he says he knew he couldn’t remain in Russia. After he came home in 2018, “everything had changed dramatically” as Putin’s autocratic presidency calcified into a remorselessly nostalgic and imperialist dictatorship. Any alternative or opposition politics could meet with only one of three fates: imprisonment, exile or murder. And he has experienced one of these in a far more liberal, law-abiding country already: Estonia.
“You know, before and during my process, I saw that the law works much better here than in Russia. During my situation, the Estonians told me they were not out to destroy my life or my business. This was a competition between intelligence services, they explained, and I was caught up in the middle of it.”
But why choose the Estonian model over the Russian? Zinchenko says he saw Putin’s regime as having “all the aspects of totalitarianism.”
The invocation of that loaded term so early in our conversation prompts me to ask about his own politics. He says he greatly admires Alexei Navalny, the now incarcerated Russian opposition leader, and was an avid viewer of Navalny’s viral videos exposing the levels of thievery and corruption in contemporary Russia.
“All this anti-corruption stuff,” Zinchenko calls it, “I supported. It’s very strange to find yourself living in a country where security guards, friends of our president, must be some kind of great businessmen that they’re earning so much money.” Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny as seen via video link from a penal colony in Pokrov, Russia, on May 24. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)
Zinchenko says he, his wife and his kids all attended rallies in their hometown of St. Petersburg in defense of Navalny last year. Russia’s most famous dissident was detained at Sheremetyevo Airport in January 2021 upon arriving from Germany, where he’d spent five months recuperating from a life-threatening attempt to poison him.
Doctors in Berlin diagnosed the toxin Navalny was exposed to as the military-grade nerve agent Novichok. Western governments blame the FSB. Before leaving to return to Russia, Navalny recorded himself prank-calling Konstantin Kudryavtsev, one of the alleged assassins, posing as a bigwig in the Russian security establishment and demanding a thorough explanation as to how Navalny survived. Kudryavtsev obliged, offering everything right down to where on Navalny’s clothing (his underwear) the FSB hit squad laced the Novichok.
“I was nervous every morning after the Navalny rallies because I thought I’d be caught on CCTV cameras with my family,” Zinchenko says. “People were being arrested from facial-recognition software. I waited for a knock at the door.”
That knock never came. Instead, a devastating war did. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the disappearance of even the ability to attend rallies critical of the Russian government without reprisal, were the final straws for Zinchenko. “Of course, I want Russia to be part of the world, but I don’t see any future in this country except [that of] North Korea with this regime. I don't know if this is possible in America, but the president decided himself to begin a war. I think some institutions should not allow him to do this.” Smoke rises from a military airport near Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 24, the first day of the Russian invasion. (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)
Zinchenko began making preparations, liquidating his assets and selling his St. Petersburg apartment. His wife and three boys left in advance and are now resettled with him somewhere in Estonia.
He took an enormous gamble, but it was worth it, Zinchneko believes, not just for what he was leaving but for what he was gaining — or regaining. He had fallen in love with Estonia.
A vulnerable neighbor of Russia, Estonia is home to 1.3 million people and has played an outsize role in helping Ukraine defend itself, donating a third of its defense budget and 1% of its GDP to Kyiv for security assistance. Along with Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia joined NATO and the European Union in 2004, in large part out of collective anxiety inculcated by a half-century of brutal occupation by the Soviet Union, which illegally annexed all three Baltic states in 1940 as part of Joseph Stalin’s deal with Adolf Hitler to carve up Eastern Europe. The Soviets deported tens of thousands of Estonians to the gulag, including the mother of Kaja Kallas, the current prime minister.
Since regaining its independence in 1991, Estonia has had to deal with a host of Russian security threats, including a major cyberattack in 2007 that halted the country’s government and economic services for a short while, plus an unremitting wave of Russian spies and agents provocateurs.
After Putin invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the looming threat of another Russian conquest of Estonia weighed heavily on the country. A quarter of Estonia’s small population is ethnic Russians, whose loyalty in the event of an invasion has been questioned not only by the xenophobic far right but by members of the country’s liberal political establishment. As such, the malign designs of a much larger and militarily superior next-door neighbor preoccupy almost all of Tallinn’s national security resources. But it is in counterespionage, as helmed by Toots, that Estonia has distinguished itself within NATO. Russian President Vladimir Putin at a parade marking Victory Day in Sevastopol, Crimea, on May 9, 2014. (Ivan Sekretarev/AP)
Throughout our lengthy conversation, Zinchenko’s guilt manifests in the coyness with which he alludes to and downplays his crimes against the nation he paradoxically loves. He repeatedly refers to his recruitment, espionage, arrest, conviction, imprisonment and repatriation in euphemisms. They are his “process” or his “situation.”
The Estonian government even let him conduct some business from his cell, something I find hard to fathom, although Toots confirms it, stating perfunctorily, “His business had nothing to do with his offenses against the state,” almost as if KaPo had investigated and exonerated a corporate entity.
What kind of business was it?
“Something like wholesale,” Zinchenko offers indistinctly, although I’d been told beforehand that he was a boutique designer, manufacturer and retailer of baby strollers. The design company was named after his wife. You can still see the strollers for Dana Investment advertised on an Estonian website whose name translates as “Mother’s World.” According to public records, the company’s revenue in 2017, the year of Zinchenko’s arrest, was about a million euros, up from just 391,000 euros in 2015. The business was taking off just as the ground beneath Zinchenko’s feet was vanishing.
What was Dana’s reaction to the “situation”?
“Not very good,” he says, although she stuck by him throughout, remaining in Tallinn with two of their boys — the youngest hadn’t been born yet — for a year and change after his arrest. “It was a very difficult period in my life and in her life, too.”
Nonetheless, Dana and the children visited Zinchenko in prison, and when he was traded back they followed him home to St. Petersburg. Zinchenko swears Dana never knew about his secret life working for the GRU, a life that lasted for almost a decade. Toots confirms this is true.
“The GRU knew everything about him and his family,” Toots had told me before Zinchenko arrived. He was not selected at random for recruitment; he was targeted because of his family’s pedigree, especially on his father’s side.
Grigori Gutnikov, Zinchenko’s paternal great-grandfather, joined the Red Army in 1936 and went to work two years later for the NKVD, as the KGB was then called. In World War II, Gutnikov was attached to SMERSH, the elite military counterintelligence department embedded within the ranks of the Red Army, established on Stalin’s secret orders.
SMERSH was founded to capture or kill German operatives working behind enemy lines — and also alleged Soviet deserters and traitors. Popularized but slightly mischaracterized by Ian Fleming in “Casino Royale,” his first Bond novel, SMERSH — a portmanteau of the Russian words smert shpionam, “death to spies” — was one of the most feared Soviet intelligence apparatuses, a fact made all the more remarkable by the brevity of its existence. It was disbanded in 1946. But it got up to quite a lot in just three years. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at the Potsdam Conference in Germany in 1945. (AP)
SMERSH arrested a decorated artillery captain named Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was stationed in East Prussia, for the offense of criticizing the Soviet dictator in correspondence with a friend. The “SMERSH officers at the brigade command … shoved me along to their automobile,” Solzhenitsyn recounted. So began the long journey back to Moscow, an eight-year internment in a host of Soviet labor camps and internal exile in Kazakhstan, all furnishing the sufficient and necessary conditions for the great writer’s landmark history, “The Gulag Archipelago.”
According to the scholar Vadim J. Birstein, “Overall, from 1941 to 1945, military tribunals sentenced 472,000 servicemen whose cases were investigated by military counterintelligence, and of them, 217,000 were shot.”
Gutnikov therefore wasn’t just a Red Army soldier and an intelligence officer; he wielded terrifying power over the rest of his compatriots, capable of determining whether they lived or died. His daughter, Tamara, married Albert Zinchenko, who started his military career in the Soviet Union’s Southern Army Group, in Veszprém, Hungary. In 1963 they had a son, Igor, Artem’s father, who followed in Albert’s footsteps, attending the Kyiv Army School as a tank engineer, then working as a tank factory manager in Ussuriysk, in Russia’s far east.
Albert and Tamara moved to Estonia in 1966 when Albert was assigned to a Soviet military base at Klooga. Igor, just 3 years old at the time, grew up mainly in the Baltic state.
The Zinchenkos never really “left” Estonia, even when Albert was deployed overseas, first to Vietnam, then to East Germany. Tamara grew to adore her new home. She was “a true Estonia fanatic,” according to a family friend, and even learned the Estonian language, a rarity for many ethnic Russians. (Estonian is linguistically related only to Finnish and has nothing in common with the Slavic languages.) Such proclivities might otherwise have earned her the suspicion of her own father, the Stalinist spy hunter.
Tamara and Albert purchased a dacha, or country house, by the seaside where he was stationed, at the tiny northern settlement of Klooga, once the site of a Nazi concentration camp during the German occupation of Estonia. Today it is home to an Estonian Defense Forces military training facility. They kept the house after the fall of communism and Estonia’s reclamation of independence and sovereignty in 1991. Artem spent his boyhood summers in Klooga. Albert “meant everything” to him, Toots says. “He was his hero.” When Albert died, Artem inherited the dacha.
I ask if his family lamented the end of the Soviet empire and all it stood for. Putin notoriously termed the event the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Did Igor share in that view or pine for the past? Was he sovok, or “Soviet-minded”?
Artem Zinchenko says he can’t remember his father’s political views, but he recalls him being optimistic about Russia’s future during the Boris Yeltsin period. Igor’s technical skills as a tank engineer kept him off the frontlines amid Moscow’s wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya. But the family moved around the Russian Federation quite a lot, Zinchenko says, and he was raised as a bit of an army brat.
“I learned this term recently,” he says, “after connecting with a distant relative in North Dakota, who was an American army brat. He came from the White side of the family.” (Zinchenko is referring to the family side that fled Russia for the West after backing the anti-Bolshevik White movement in Russia’s 1917-22 civil war.)
When KaPo captured Artem Zinchenko, Igor, who retired from the Russian military as a colonel, told him that what he had done — spying for the GRU — was “very stupid.” Zinchenko insists the transformative decision of his life, to spy for Russia, didn’t really come up at all in the last four years in his conversations with his parents. (Another Russian proverb, albeit one Toots is unlikely to endorse: “The less you know, the better you sleep.”) Even still, his mother and father know he has defected.
“How were you recruited?” I ask Zinchenko about his decision to work for the GRU.
It was 2009. He was finishing his degree in global economics at St. Petersburg Polytechnical University. He sought to avoid compulsory military service by enrolling in classes that would allow him to graduate as a lieutenant, a workaround many Russian students utilized at the time to avoid yearlong conscription. “You should know that in Russia, in every university there are those connected to the government, there is some representative of the services looking to recruit people,” Zinchenko tells me. After one of the classes he took, a tall man who looked every inch the military officer introduced himself as a friend of the instructor.
Unlike the Soviet KGB, which was disbanded in 1991 and reconstituted later as two separate civilian intelligence agencies — the FSB and SVR, with domestic and foreign purviews respectively — the GRU never stopped working even after the collapse of the communist empire. Founded in 1918 at the prompting of Leon Trotsky, the GRU was once considered a highly secretive and effective spy agency. It was behind some of the most well-known Soviet agents in the United States, including Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss, and it was the incubator for some of the most influential defectors during the Cold War, including Col. Oleg Penkovsky, whose critical intelligence on Soviet missile capability helped the CIA and the Kennedy administration immeasurably during the Cuban missile crisis. Oleg Penkovsky at his espionage trial in Moscow in 1963, where he was accused of leaking Soviet state secrets to the West. (Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)
In the last decade, however, the GRU has repeatedly done what no spy agency should: get caught red-handed. It has been named as the culprit in a spate of cyber operations, including debilitating cyberattacks against France, Georgia, Ukraine and the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. GRU Unit 74455, also identified in the hack-and-leak operation in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, was responsible for the worst cyberattack in history, the NotPetya malware infection. That infection initially targeted Ukrainian accounting software but rapidly metastasized, crippling computer systems across the world, including those belonging to the Danish shipping giant Maersk, the U.S. pharmaceutical company Merck and hospitals as far apart as Kyiv and western Pennsylvania, causing more than an estimated $10 billion in damage. GRU assassins have also tried and failed to murder people with poison — not just Skripal but also a Bulgarian arms manufacturer, along with his son and factory manager, all of whom suffered from Novichok-like symptoms in 2015.
Zinchenko claims not to be able to remember his spy recruiter’s name or to know whether it was even his real one. “Too many years have passed,” he says, rather too implausibly, given how fundamentally this person would come to alter his life. Let’s call the recruiter Vasily.
Vasily struck up a rapport with his target. “I don’t know exactly why he was interested in me, maybe because I was visiting Europe quite often,” Zinchenko says. Or possibly because of Zinchenko’s long-standing attachment to Estonia, and Grigori Gutnikov’s impeccable credentials? “It could be.”
Vasily set out in the customary fashion by offering to do hypothetical favors for Zinchenko, a way of forging trust and inculcating a feeling of indebtedness. Vasily assured him that should Zinchenko ever find himself in any kind of trouble as a fledgling businessman — Russia is, after all, a very corrupt country — he could always count on Vasily for help. Oh, and if Zinchenko was headed to Estonia, which he often was, might he bring his new friend something back, a trinket or souvenir — a postcard, say, or a copy of a newspaper, or a bottle of local alcohol? Tiny favors easily accomplished are a way of ensuring they’re inevitably returned, whether a target of cultivation and recruitment desires so or not.
Vasily would contact Zinchenko primarily by telephone, sometimes by email. They became “friends,” or so it seemed to Zinchenko at the time. On they danced for about two years, communicating through insecure means. “First, send an email from a new account,” Vasily would instruct Zinchenko, “and after that we’ll send you one back.”
That continued on until 2011, when Dana was offered a job as an accountant in India. They moved to Delhi, where, he explains, he got his first taste of official government work. He took a job with Rossotrudnichestvo, officially the cultural arm of the Russian Foreign Ministry, but unofficially a clearinghouse for Russian espionage and influence operations abroad. He and Dana spent about a year in Delhi, returning to St. Petersburg in 2012.
He is vague on what he did during that year. “I didn't want to have anything to do with the [Russian] government after this. It was a job without a purpose. There is no plan to promote Russian culture in India. It was all very stupid.”
Zinchenko claims that though Rossotrudnichestvo provided a supremely convenient cover for him in India, a populous nation in which spying is far easier than in a NATO or EU member state, Vasily ceased communication with him during his India sojourn. They reconnected once Zinchenko was back in Russia.
Did he ever suspect in the two years that had passed since meeting Vasily that his new friend was an intelligence officer?
“Yeah, why not?” he replies cavalierly. “Russia always wants someone for some purpose eventually. You’re always thinking about the services contacting you.” He admits to feeling excited and titillated by the prospect of becoming a spy or even just an informant. “I was a young boy. I was full of illusions about, I don’t know, stupid childhood dreams to become an officer,” he says. And yet I remind him that he took courses to avoid army service. He seems to have been subconsciously atoning for not following the path laid down by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, a path that for each of them began with donning a uniform.
Zinchenko claims he had no idea which agency Vasily worked for, nor did he care. “No one told you you were recruited to Russian military intelligence. No one shows you a badge or an ID.” (This is true: Many agents don’t discover who their masters are until they’re caught in the West. Toots was the one to inform Zinchenko he was working for the GRU.)
The Rossotrudnichestvo interlude convinced Zinchenko he should forge ahead on his own as an entrepreneur, found a company and make money. What better place to do so than in his second home, Estonia, which he knew intimately and even had a dacha in?
He and Dana decided to move to Tallinn in 2013, obtaining legal residency. Vasily didn’t instruct him to move but was glad of the opportunity provided by a young prospect headed into the West. Now the favors grew a little more complicated and dicey, even though Vasily told Zinchenko not to worry, that what he was asking was by no means against the law. In fact, it was, under section 233 of the Estonian Penal Code, governing “nonviolent acts” committed against the Republic of Estonia, the violation of which being what Zinchenko was ultimately charged with.
“He’d ask me to go visit some Estonian company or building and take pictures of it,” Zinchenko says. He would drive around in his car, recording the routes taken and sites seen with a dashcam. Whenever I ask something pointed, such as what buildings he took pictures and video footage of, he refers me to his court docket.
At the time of our interview I hadn’t seen it, although the majority of what was publicly available consisted mostly of the electronic devices KaPo confiscated from Zinchenko after his arrest: laptops, mobile phones, SIM cards, etc. That version of the verdict did not state what these devices were used for or how Zinchenko carried out his assignments for Russian military intelligence. That part remained classified until I and an Estonian colleague from the news outlet Delfi successfully petitioned the Harju County Court in Tallinn, which tried Zinchenko’s case in 2017, to unseal the full verdict.
An unredacted five-page document tells a fuller story than anything Zinchenko offered in our four hours together. Vasily was one of three different handlers over the space of his eight years as a GRU agent. (Zinchenko would tell me only that Vasily introduced him to another man with whom he’d sometimes communicate.) He’d meet with each one face-to-face at liaisons in St. Petersburg, only a five-hour car or bus ride from Tallinn. Each handler tasked him with surveilling Estonia’s “objects of national defense” and its “vital services,” defined under Estonian law as critical infrastructure, power and electricity, telecommunications and banking services.
Zinchenko spied on Paldiski, a garrison town where Estonia’s elite Scouts Battalion, a veteran unit of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, was stationed. He also spied on Vasalemma, where NATO’s Ämari Air Base is located. A Belgian F-16 fighter plane takes off from Ämari Air Base in Estonia in February. (Benoit Doppagne/Belga via ZUMA Press)
He gathered information, according to the verdict, about “the movement of the equipment of the Estonian Defense Forces, the Estonian Defense League [a national paramilitary organization] and Estonia’s military allies,” as well as “objects used for the state’s regulatory activities,” presumably the police and border guard facilities.
He spied on ports in a country with no shortage of them: two at Paldiski, in the northwest; one at Sillamäe, in the northeast; the main passenger port in Tallinn. He obtained what must have been easy-to-get open-source information on Estonia’s legal processes: how to acquire citizenship and residency permits, which Zinchenko clearly knew how to do from firsthand experience, and information on Estonia’s e-residency program, a kind of virtual citizenship that allows noncitizens to bank and to register companies.
His handlers further instructed him to acquire mobile phones and SIM cards purchased in Estonia for the purposes of the GRU’s operational work. They also wanted technical literature. The verdict names Russian-language newspapers published in Estonia, online articles in Estonian on military topics, and an issue of European Security and Technology, a German-language defense and security journal contracted by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Defense and the Bundeswehr (Germany’s army).
Zinchenko did not feel like a hero when he went back to Russia after the spy swap. He regrets it and sees his tale as a cautionary one. “People thinking of doing such a thing should not think twice, but 10 times,” he says. “I am lucky. I only got five years. It could have been a lot worse.”
To this day he wonders why the Kremlin was willing to go to such lengths to get him home. He was no superspy, after all. He was just a foolish kid, perhaps a little too in awe of his family’s history, and enamored of the prospect of doing something to see its legacy continued.
I wonder why Moscow got Zinchenko back, too, and hazard a theory that it wasn’t because he was anything approaching a Russian James Bond — it’s because they wanted to know more about how he was uncovered. There have long been rumors in Western counterintelligence circles that the GRU in particular is infiltrated by moles or informants. Given that Zinchenko was the first GRU agent KaPo arrested, might the Russians have wanted to interrogate him to find out what the Estonians divulged about the evidence against him, the better to piece together if anyone on the Russian side was working for foreign intelligence?
“Surely you were debriefed when you got back to Russia, about your capture and imprisonment,” I say to Zinchenko.
He confirms that he was but doesn’t want to go into detail about what he was asked. “No one told me anything to this effect, but I am sure they were trying to find someone in their services who might be. … Maybe they found what they wanted. There are two to three hundred cases a year about moles in the different [Russian] services, and usually there are no names in the press, so I don't know — maybe they found what they wanted.”
With additional reporting by Holger Roonemaa.