A high-ranking Estonian defence officer arrested for treason

Deniss Metsavas, a former officer in the Estonian Defence Forces, has been arrested in Estonia on suspicion of passing state secrets to the GRU, the foreign military intelligence agency of the Russian armed forces.

Metsavas and his father, Pjotr Volin, were arrested by the Estonian Internal Security Service (known as kapo in Estonia) on 3 September.

According to the Estonian Prosecutor’s Office and the Internal Security Service, announcing the news on 5 September, both men had forwarded classified information and state secrets to the GRU for the past five years and received undisclosed payments in return. It is suspected that Metsavas not only traded the Estonian trade secrets, but also forwarded classified information concerning NATO (Estonia has been a member of NATO since 2004).

For example, Metsavas had a detailed knowledge on the Tapa-based Estonian Artillery Battalion and its defence plans during a theoretical military conflict; it is feared that he passed this information to Russia.

From a poster boy to a traitor

Metsavas was born in Tallinn to the ethnic Russian family during the Soviet occupation in Estonia. His dad served in the Soviet border control and it hasn’t been ruled out that he had contacts with the KGB, the main security agency of the Soviet Union. While many former KGB officers left the service after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many continued to work for the Russian secret services, such as the FSB (the Federal Security Service) and the GRU.

Metsavas became an Estonian citizen in 1990 – a year before the country officially regained independence from the Soviet Union – and started serving in the Estonian Defence Forces as a conscript in 1998. He was employed in the defence forces in 2000, after which a successful career followed – by the time of his arrest, he was promoted to the rank of major and his last job was at the headquarters of the Estonian Defence Forces, no less. He was about to start a new job in the Estonian Defence League, the unified paramilitary armed forces of Estonia.

Metsavas’ arrest becomes as a shock to many in Estonia because he was one of the ‘poster boys’ of the presumably successful integration of the Estonian Russian community. Here was a man born into an ethnic Russian family, yet who spoke perfect Estonian and served in the country’s defence forces.

In 2016, Metsavas was even invited to participate in the Estonian public broadcasting programme, “Suud Puhtaks”, where many notable members in the society debated on Estonia’s willingness to defend itself in the theoretical war situation with Russia.

When one of the guests in the programme raised doubts about the loyalty of Estonian Russians serving in the country’s defence forces – arguing that some of them could switch sides if Russia attacked Estonia – it was Metsavas who strongly rebutted such suspicions. He cited himself as the prime example of loyalty to Estonia. Provided the accusation of treason against him is proved to be true, he was a good actor.

The question of trust

The Estonian defence minister, Jüri Luik, was quick to underline the importance of trust in the defence forces – “and we will continue to trust our people!” – his statement, using an unprecedented exclamation mark, released on the evening of 5 September, said.

However, regardless of official statements and niceties, this incident is likely to increase distrust towards the Estonian Russians. Ever since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, increasing number of Estonians have raised questions about the loyalty of Estonian Russian population.

The case continues.

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Cover: Deniss Metsavas (photo by Tairo Lutter/Scanpix).

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About the author: Silver Tambur

Silver Tambur is the cofounder and Editor-in-Chief of Estonian World. He has previously studied journalism at the University of Tartu, and Politics & Society at the Birkbeck College, University of London. Silver has been the editor at the Estonian Public Broadcasting’s news service in English, as well as contributing for the Business Sense magazine in the UK, Deutsche Welle and Radio New Zealand. You can also follow him on Twitter. You can write to Silver at silver@estonianworld.com.