Artem Zinchenko. (Photo illustration; Yahoo News; photos: Harrys Puusepp for Yahoo News, KaPo, GRU)
Artem Zinchenko. (Photo illustration; Yahoo News; photos: Harrys Puusepp for Yahoo News, KaPo, GRU)

Alexander Toots told me that the Russians had no idea.

They don't know he's here. You can tell them what's going on.

A Russian spy defected to Estonia. Artem is more than just a spy. He was the first agent of Russia's military intelligence to be arrested by a country and traded back to Moscow a year later. The NATO country that imprisoned him for espionage has granted him asylum.

This is a huge blow to the Kremlin, as well as to his onetime masters in the GRU, as the former Soviet military intelligence service is still known.

Yahoo News was granted unprecedented access by theEstonian government. Over the course of four hours, he offered up his autobiography, which was reflective and remorseless, detailing his role in the mostly unseen shadow play between Russian espionage and the West. Estonia, once occupied by the Soviets, is now at the forefront of countermanding Russian intelligence gathering.

The decision to defect was driven by the brutality of the Kremlin at home and abroad, as well as the humanity of the people of Estonia towards him, an enemy agent. According to British intelligence, his cautionary tale is an indictment of the policies of Russian President Putin, a former KGB case officer whose own spy apparatus has been weakened.

Over the past decade, the GRU has come under increased scrutiny due to a number of failed or compromised operations. The hacking and leaking of Democratic Party emails in advance of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal, a defector from its ranks, are some of the more notable ones. Russia's faltering but gruesome campaign in Ukraine is being assumed a firm grasp on by the GRU, who have relatives fighting on the frontlines in support of the Ukrainians.

This spy fled Russia because of the war.

There is a long wooden table at the HQ of the Kaitsepolitseiamet. The reason for my visit was not disclosed in advance due to security concerns, but I arrived at the request of Toots, who claimed that it would be worth my time.

"We have never had a case like this before," Toots told me. I don't believe anyone has.

The headquarters of the Kaitsepolitseiamet (KaPo) in Tallinn, Estonia. (KaPo)

He's correct about that. There has never been a case like this before. 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. There are people who have access to state secrets who betray their country for ideological reasons or for pragmatic reasons.

This is the first time that an enemy spy has come back to the people who freed him.

The officers of the Russian service are against the war. They think it's a crime against the Russians. We will be happy to chat with anyone looking for a new home.

Is it possible that Zinchenko defected?

Recently. I don't know the precise date. Toots doesn't want to say if KaPo helped with the flight of the family, but he will let me know when he arrives.

There are two more provocative questions that I will be asking.

Is it possible that KaPo recruited Zinchenko in order to bring him back to Moscow so that he could gather intel for the city?

Toots won't answer that. It is not a big deal. In the year or so when he was his suspect, he turned into a philosopher. The Russian reached out to Toots, the man who arrested him, to see if he could protect him.

Artem Zinchenko in custody in Estonia. (KaPo)

How can we be certain that the GRU didn't send the man back to Russia in order to muddy the perception of Putin's weakness in the West?

Toots chuckled and said, "Anything's possible in this line of work" I am left with the impression that he is certain of the true facts of the case.

Talking to Toots is similar to this.

John le Carré wrote a novel about a British spy who blackmailed his Soviet opponent into defecting. Over the course of his 15 years in the job, Toots has exposed 10 other agents of Moscow. Five people have been arrested for espionage. It will always be more.

The employee of KaPo who was secretly working for the Russians was snared by Toots. As he and his wife were about to board a plane for Moscow with a thumb drive full of classified intel, he was arrested.

Toots could easily be mistaken for a high school gym teacher. He has an onomatopoeic quality to his name, which is called "Tray". I have never seen him in anything other than a polo shirt, he has an athletic build, and he has a close-cropped haircut. He is unemotional and unaffected, almost to a fault, as though to behave otherwise in the role would be a betrayal of duty and an insult to the courtesy he extends to all members of his morally dubious profession.

Russian proverbs and folk expressions are quoted by Toots, who speaks the language well. The trait of Russian culture is chaos. It is always necessary to be a shepherd.

He is a dog.

The handover on the Piusa River bridge at the Koidula border crossing took place in February of last year. A man convicted of espionage in Russia is being traded for another man. The scene lacks the Hollywood drama one has come to expect from these occasions: the darkened no-man's-land where two returnees from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain walk past each other.

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)

The Russian officer in the video is the successor to the KGB. Before the mutual orders are given, they shake hands. The guardsmen inbalaclavas took Susi out of the minivan. Toots personally escorted the man in a parka to the custody of the Russian government.

A man is standing in front of me.

In the parka he wore when he crossed over into Pskov, he had short, blond hair combed back down his forehead. On his lunch break, he could pass for a lab technician or a computer programmer who has been up all night coding. Even though he is a young man, he looks older than his 35 years. He is very nervous as he speaks with Toots.

I shook hands with a man. Even if I speak too fast for his ear and have to repeat myself, he apologizes for his English, which is better than he says. He volunteers because of why he is here.

He says that the situation on the 24th of February was terrible. It was not only because my relatives lived there that it was the worst scenario I could imagine.

Zinchenko and Yahoo News journalist Michael Weiss in Tallinn. (Harrys Puusepp for Yahoo News)

Many Russians are fighting the Russian invasion of their country. He was worried that he would have to square off against one of them across the frontlines as a result of Putin's recent order to mobilize. It is not possible to say yes. He fled Russia before the decree. I would place the event in the middle to late summer because I was invited to Tallinn weeks before that.

He escaped. Wouldn't his movements in and out of Russia be monitored by the FSB, which controls the border guard, considering his previous work for the GRU? A recovering spook is cagey while pretending to be guileless. He doesn't think they were able to detect someone after the operation began. I think they didn't plan on looking after me.

He doesn't believe that KaPo helped him cross the border. I don't think he's right. He would not have risked such a dangerous move or put his family in harm's way if he hadn't received assurances from theEstonians. Toots wouldn't work any other way and he would insist on arranging for the safe passage. No one tries to correct me when I press him on his point.

When he said he knew he couldn't stay in Russia, he seemed more sincere. Everything had changed dramatically after he came home, as Putin became a remorselessly nostalgic and imperialist dictator. One of three fates could be met with any alternative or opposition politics. He has already experienced one of these in a country that is much more liberal.

I saw that the law in Russia was not as good as it is here. The Estonians told me that they were not trying to destroy my life. They said that I was caught up in a competition between intelligence services.

The Russian model is better than the Estonian model. Putin's regime has "all the aspects of totalitarianism", according to the man.

I asked about his own politics after he invoked that loaded term. He said he was an avid viewer of Navalny's videos exposing the levels of thievery and corruption in Russia.

I supported all this anti- corruption stuff. It's weird to live in a country where security guards and friends of the president are making 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)

Last year, he and his family attended rallies in support of Navalny. After spending five months recovering from a life threatening attempt to poison him, Russia's most famous dissident was taken into custody at Sheremetyevo Airport in January 2021.

Navalny was exposed to a military- grade nerve agent. The Western governments are responsible for the problem. Navalny pretended to be a bigwig in the Russian security establishment and demanded a thorough explanation as to how he survived. Kudryavtsev offered everything from where Navalny wore his underwear to where the Novichok was found.

After the Navalny rallies, I was worried that I would be caught on camera with my family. The people were being arrested for using facial-recognition software. I was waiting for the door to open.

That didn't come. The war did. Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the disappearance of the ability to attend rallies critical of the Russian government were the straws that broke the camel's back. I want Russia to be part of the world, but I don't think there will be a future for this country with this regime. I'm not sure if this can be done in America, but the president decided to start a war. Some institutions shouldn't 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)

Liquidating his assets and selling his apartment were the first things he did. His wife and three boys are with him in Estonia.

He took an enormous gamble, but it was worth it, according to Zinchneko. He fell in love with someone else.

One of the most vulnerable neighbors of Russia is Estonia, which has donated a third of its defense budget and 1% of its GDP to the Ukrainian army. The Soviet Union illegally annexed all three Baltic states in 1940 as part of Joseph Stalin's deal with Adolf Hitler, which led toLithuania joining NATO and the EU in 2004. The mother of Prime Minister Kaja Kallas was deported by the Soviets.

The country has had to deal with a number of Russian security threats since regaining its independence in 1991, including a major cyberattack in 2007, as well as an unremitting wave of Russian spies and agents.

The country was worried about another Russian conquest after Putin invaded the peninsula. Members of the country's liberal political establishment have questioned ethnic Russians' loyalty in the event of an invasion. Almost all of Tallinn's national security resources were preoccupied by the designs of a larger neighbor. Estonia has distinguished itself within NATO due to its counterespionage.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a parade marking Victory Day in Sevastopol, Crimea, on May 9, 2014. (Ivan Sekretarev/AP)

Our lengthy conversation shows that Zinchenko is guilty of his crimes against the nation he loves. He talks about his recruitment, espionage, arrest, conviction, imprisonment and repatriation in various ways. His "process" or his "situation" are what they are.

I find it hard to believe that his business had nothing to do with his offenses against the state, as if KaPo had investigated and cleared a corporation.

What type of business did it engage in?

I was told before that he was a boutique designer and manufacturer of baby strollers. His company was named after his wife. The strollers for Dana Investment are advertised on a website called Mother's World, which means " Mother's World." The company's revenue in the year of Zinchenko's arrest was more than one million dollars, up from 391,000 dollars in 2015. The business was taking off at the same time that the ground was disappearing.

Dana's reaction to the situation.

He says that he was not very good and that he and his wife had to change after he was arrested. It was a tough time in my life and in her life.

Dana and the children followed him home after visiting him in prison. The secret life of Dana was that he worked for the GRU for almost a decade. This is confirmed by Toots.

I was told by Toots that the Gru knew all about him and his family. He was targeted because of his family's history, particularly his father's side.

After joining the Red Army in 1936, Grigori Gutnikov went to work for the NKVD as the KGB was then called. SMERSH, the elite military counterintelligence department embedded within the ranks of the Red Army, was established on secret orders.

SMERSH was founded to capture or kill Germans working behind enemy lines. SMERSH, Ian Fleming's first Bond novel, was a parody of the Russian word smert shpionam, which means death to spies. In 1946, it was dismantled. It was up to a lot in three years.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at the Potsdam Conference in Germany in 1945. (AP)

SMERSH arrested a decorated artillery captain, who was stationed in East Prussia, after he criticized the Soviet dictator in a letter to a friend. The officers at the brigade command pushed me along their car. The journey back to Moscow began with an eight-year internment in a host of Soviet labor camps, all of which provided sufficient and necessary conditions for the great writer's landmark history.

In 1941 to 1945, military tribunals sentenced 472,000 servicemen whose cases were investigated by military counterintelligence, and of them, 217,000 were shot.

Gutnikov was more than just a Red Army soldier and an intelligence officer; he was also capable of determining whether or not a person lived or died. Albert was in the Southern Army Group of the Soviet Union when he got married. In 1963, they had a son, who went to the Kyiv Army School as a tank engineer, and later worked as a tank factory manager in Russia.

When Albert was assigned to a Soviet military base, he and his wife moved to the Baltic state. The Baltic state was where he grew up.

Albert was deployed overseas first to Vietnam, then to East Germany, and the family never left the country. She loved her new place. According to a family friend, she was a true fanatic of the country and even learned the language. Estonian is unrelated to the Slavic languages and only related to the Finn language. She might have been suspected of being a spy by her own father.

The site of a Nazi concentration camp during the German occupation of Estonia was once the location of a dacha purchased by Albert and his wife. The defense forces training facility is located there. The house was kept after the fall of communism and the reunification of the country. Artem was raised in the area. Albert was mean to him. The man was his hero. Artem was the heir to the dacha.

I want to know if his family was upset by the end of the soviet empire. The event was dubbed the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." Did he share that view or not? He was either sovok or soviet-minded.

According to Artem, his father was optimistic about Russia's future during the Boris Yeltsin period. His technical skills as a tank engineer kept him off the frontlines. He was raised as an army brat due to the fact that the family moved around a lot.

He learned the term from a distant relative who was an American army brat. The White side of the family was where he came from. The family fled Russia for the West after backing the anti-Bolshevik White movement.

When Artem was captured by KaPo, he was told that what he had done was dumb. In his conversations with his parents, the decision to spy for Russia did not come up. The less you know the better you sleep. His parents know he has left.

How did you get involved? I want to know if he decided to work for the Gru.

The year was 2009. He was graduating with a degree in economics. He tried to avoid military service by taking classes that would allow him to graduate as a lieutenant. In every university in Russia, there are people connected to the government who are looking to recruit people, according to the man. A tall man who looked every inch a military officer introduced himself to the instructor after taking a class.

Even after the fall of the communist empire, the GRU continued to work even after it was dissolved. The GRU was once considered to be an effective spy agency. Some of the most well known Soviet agents in the United States, including Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss, were behind it.

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)

No spy agency should be caught getting caught red-handed. The culprit in cyberattacks against France, Georgia, Ukraine and the Winter Olympics in South Korea has been identified. The hack-and-leak operation in the U.S. presidential election was carried out by GRU Unit 74455. More than $10 billion in damage has been caused by that infection, which initially targeted Ukrainian accounting software but quickly spread to computer systems across the world, including those belonging to the Maersk shipping company. The GRU assassins tried and failed to kill people with poison, including Skripal and his son, as well as a Bulgaria arms manufacturer, who had Novichok-like symptoms.

He doesn't know if it was his real spy recruiters name or not. He says it's too implausibly that this person would change his life. Vasily is the recruiters.

Vasily was able to strike up a relationship with his target. He might have been interested in me because I was visiting Europe a lot. Or perhaps because of Grigori Gutnikov's excellent credentials? It's possible.

Vasily offered to do hypothetical favors for Zinchenko in order to forge trust and feel indebted to him. Vasily told him that he could always count on Vasily for help if he ever found himself in trouble as a businessman. Maybe he would bring a postcard, a copy of a newspaper, or a bottle of local alcohol with him if he were to go to Estonia. Whether a target of cultivation or recruitment desires so or not, tiny favors are a way of making sure they are returned.

Vasily would reach out by phone and email. It seemed like they became friends at the time. They were dancing for two years. After you send an email from a new account, Vasily will send you a second email.

Dana was hired as an accountant in India in 2011. He got his first taste of government work in Delhi. He was hired by Rossotrudnichestvo, the cultural arm of the Russian Foreign Ministry, but unofficially a clearinghouse for Russian espionage. He and Dana went to Delhi for a year in the fall of 2011.

He doesn't know what he did during that year. I didn't want to have a relationship with the Russians after this. It was not a purpose-driven job. Russian culture is not being promoted in India. It wasn't very smart.

Though Rossotrudnichestvo provided a convenient cover for him in India, Vasily stopped communication with him during his India sojourn. They were able to reestablish their contact once Zinchenko returned to Russia.

Did he ever think that his new friend was an intelligence officer?

He said yes, why not. Russia is always looking for someone to do something. You think about the services contacting you. He admits to being excited by the thought of being a spy or just an Informant. I was a child. He says he was full of illusions about becoming an officer. I remind him that he avoided army service by taking courses. He seems to have been atoning for not following the path laid down by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, a path that each of them began with wearing a uniform.

He doesn't know which agency Vasily works for. They didn't tell you that you were recruited to Russian military intelligence. They don't show you an ID or a Badge. Many agents don't know who their masters are until they're in the West. Toots was the one who told him that he was working for the Gru.

The Rossotrudnichestvo made him believe that he should start his own business and make money. He had a dacha in his second home, and it was a great place to go to do so.

He and Dana moved to Tallinn in order to get legal residency. Vasily didn't tell him to move, but he was glad of the opportunity given to him. The favors became more complicated and dicey, even though Vasily told him that what he was asking was not against the law. It was a violation of section 233 of the Penal Code to commit nonviolent acts against the republic.

He would want me to visit a company or building and take pictures of it. He used a dash cam to record the routes he took and the sites he saw. He refers me to his court docket whenever I ask what buildings he took pictures and video of.

At the time of our interview, I hadn't seen it, but the majority of what was publicly available consisted of laptops, mobile phones, sim cards, etc. I and a colleague from the news outlet Delfi petitioned the Harju County Court in Tallinn in order to unseal the full verdict in the case.

The five-page document tells a more complete story than the four-hour offer. Vasily was one of three different people who worked with him. I was only told that Vasily introduced him to another man. He would meet with each one face-to-face at liaisons in St. The objects of national defense and its "vital services" were assigned to him by each handler.

The scouts battalion, a veteran unit of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, was stationed in Paldiski. The mari Air Base is located on Vasalemma.

A Belgian F-16 fighter plane takes off from Ämari Air Base in Estonia in February. (Benoit Doppagne/Belga via ZUMA Press)

According to the verdict, he gathered information about the movement of the equipment of the defense forces, as well as objects used for the state's regulatory activities

Two of the country's ports are in the northwest, and one is in the northeast. He obtained information on how to acquire citizenship and residency permits, which he knew how to do from experience, and information on the e-residency program, a kind of virtual citizenship that was easy to get.

He was instructed by his handler to purchase mobile phones and sim cards in order to work for the Gru. Technical literature was something they wanted. An issue of European Security and Technology is a German-language defense and security journal contracted by Germany's Federal Ministry of Defense.

When he returned to Russia after the spy swap, he didn't think he was a hero. He sees his story as cautionary. He says that people should not think twice about doing something. I'm fortunate. Five years is how long I got. It might have been worse.

He wonders why the Kremlin was so determined to get him home. After all, he wasn't a superspy. He was foolish and enamored of the prospect of doing something to see his family's legacy continue.

I wonder if it was because he was a Russian James Bond or if they wanted to know more about how he was discovered. There have been rumors for a long time that the GRU is being penetrated by people. If anyone on the Russian side was working for foreign intelligence, it would make sense for the Russians to question him to find out what the Estonians had to say about the case against him.

I want to know if you were debriefed about your capture and imprisonment when you returned to Russia.

He doesn't want to talk about what he was asked. I'm pretty sure they were trying to find someone in their services who might be. 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.