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Treason Season – are the Baltics Russia's nexus into NATO?

On Sunday, Sept. 28, Estonia witnessed its first ever case of treason when former top official Herman Simm was arrested, along with his wife Heete, on suspicion of selling classified information to Russia. The Estonian investigation into Simm's treason, headed by the Public Prosecutors Office, has yet to announce – and probably yet to discover – when or for how long the former senior public servant betrayed his country. Simm was the former head of the Estonian Ministry of Defense's security department, which was involved in mediating classified information for international organizations such as NATO and the European Union.

He was even entrusted with helping to devise information protection systems for the two intergovernmental bodies. The leak leaves a lot more than Estonia's national security at stake – with tension mounting between NATO and Russia, Simm's betrayal to Moscow may have given Europe's eastern neighbor a crucial upper hand. Worse still, many now suspect that Simm was not acting alone and that the Baltics are Moscow's backdoor to infiltrating NATO security. In wake of the fiasco Estonian politicians have rushed to express their regrets, but have also been madly fixated on denying suggestions that the incident will damage Estonia's standing with NATO.

NATO has been very quiet regarding the breach, having yet to make comment about the situation or its repercussions. Consequently many Estonian politicians have been nervously shuffling their feet and mumbling assurances that Estonia is not in disrepute. Foremost among those unnerved by NATO's silence is Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo, not least because the treason originated from within his ministry. Aaviksoo has proclaimed that NATO has not made Estonia a pariah over the spy scandal, insisting that the detection and apprehension of Simm in fact boosts Estonia's image. "It is a good thing the crime has been detected and the suspects detained – this indicates the strength of the Estonian state," he said following Simm's arrest. Aaviksoo has not been alone in his hurried assurances of Estonia's good status within NATO.

MP Marko Mihkelson has been a particularly vocal supporter of this argument. "I cannot agree that Herman Simm's case would have damaged Estonia's reputation, rather the opposite. Eliminating defense risk so professionally definitely raises Estonia's reputation," Mihkelson said. H owever, according to Vahur Soosaar, Estonia's first secretary and permanent representative at NATO, the military alliance is merely waiting to see how the situation plays out before drawing its conclusions. "In Estonia the investigation is ongoing, after the investigation results then of course we can draw our own conclusions and learn from this case.

But right now it's too early to say," Soosaar told City Paper. H e went on to stress that Estonia's reputation is not the issue at hand, that NATO is in fact assessing the situation as an individual case and is understandably more concerned with the security consequences than pointing the finger of blame. The Bigggger Threatat But with Estonia's preoccupation with its status aside, there are two burning questions that NATO will want answered. Is there a greater network of spies in the Baltics? And why, of all people, would a patriotic ethnic Estonian sell security secrets to his nation's former occupiers?

The answer to both questions might be found in the testimonials of an unnamed British civil servant who dealt with the Russian secret service and its victims during the '90s. Following the announcement of Herman Simm's betrayal, the British civil servant told The Baltic Times that this might not be a one-off case, but part of a wider breach of national security. The source claimed that Russia exerts great pressure on Estonian government officials to sell secrets. He pointed to a case in which a senior official of the Estonian police who sought U.K. asylum in order to escape the demands of the Russian secret service.

"This guy worked for the Estonian police in a fairly senior position and was pretty sure that his own authorities would not be able to protect him, so rather than work for the Russians, he fled the country," the source said. W ith this in mind, is it so hard to imagine that a belligerent Russian secret service, with tentacles spread all over the Baltics region, might have coerced Simm into betraying his country for fear of his life? And if not, then what's to say that there aren't a dozen other individuals currently under the gun, supposedly defending state secrets but instead selling them off to their Russian counterparts in return for the protection of their families? It's no huge stretch of the imagination to think that the Baltics could very well be the new frontier in Russia's espionage schemes.

By Matt Withers