Tarmo Kõuts, a NATO scientist was convicted by the Estonian scientific community last week. He pleaded guilty to conducting intelligence activities against the Republic of Estonia on behalf of a foreign state – China.
Estonia’s counterintelligence service, known domestically by its acronym KAPO got many appreciations for its efforts to catching spies recruited and run by Russia.
An Estonian national was recruited by Chinese military intelligence. This Estonian national was working at a NATO research institution and his research was based on maritime and submarine research.
According to Aleksander Toots, the deputy director of KAPO and Tallinn’s top counterintelligence official, Tarmo Kõuts was recruited by China’s Intelligence Bureau of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission in 2018. He is yet to be tried in court with an alleged accomplice. They both were arrested in September 2020.
Toots said to the Daily Beast and Estonia’s Delfi newspaper: “Tarmo Kõuts was motivated by traditional human weaknesses, such as money and need of recognition.”
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He also added that he got cash payments from Chinese handlers and got paid for trips to many countries, dinners and accommodations at restaurants.
As per prosecutor, Inna Ombler, he earned €17K to €20K for his spying activities. This money has been seized by the Estonian government.
In 1999, Tarmo Kõuts earned his doctorate in environmental physics and worked at Maritime Institute of Tallinn Technical University for several years. He specialized in geophysics and operational oceanography while working at Maritime Institute.
His research proved quite helpful as marine scientists could predict a damaging winter storm in 2005 with the help of his research. He was also part of a renowned scientific research group that was awarded for finding the best location for a seaport on the island of Saaremaa.
He was involved directly in the national defence sector from 2006. As per his Facebook account, he checked-in at Lerici, Italy— from La Spezia in 2018 (the year of his recruitment by China).
His role at the NATO centre offered him an opportunity to access Estonia’s and NATO’s confidential military intelligence directly. He had NATO security clearance dating back 14 years and a state secret permit at the time of his arrest.
He worked for Chinese military intelligence for 3 years, confined his spying to observations about top-level work. He did not pass any confidential military information yet as per Toots.
“That he had such security clearances was one of the reasons we decided to put a stop to his collaboration [with the Chinese] so early,” Toots said.
It might have saved him from a much stricter sentence that would have followed if he’d been charged with treason, which he would have been if Kõuts had passed on a state or NATO secrets.
KAPO also arrested the head of the Ministry of the Security Department of Defence (Herman Simm) in 2008. His job was to issue security clearance, coordinate the state secret’s security and act as a link between NATO and the Estonian Ministry of Defense.
He was sentenced to 12 and a half years imprisonment. He had been working for a foreign intelligence service of Russia. He was released in 2019.
Since that scandal, Estonia has become one of the foremost Russian spy-catchers. “I’m continually amazed,” Toomas Henrik Ilves, Estonia’s former president, said. “We must be the only country the Kremlin seems to be interested in since we’re the only ones catching all their agents. What makes us so special?”