Laas Leivat, Eesti Elu
Approximately 18,000 foreign students studied at Russian post-secondary institutions in 2021. This rose to 23,000 in 2022 and jumped to 30,000 in 2023.
Why such a sizable increase now? Russia quickly needs to refill the intelligence vacancies due to hundreds of its spies being exposed and expelled from Europe after the invasion of Ukraine. And the most favorable setting for approach, forging relationships, and recruitment is an educational environment.
It’s understandable that Russian FSB, GRU, and SVR personnel with diplomatic cover in embassies abroad are currently subjected to a heightened surveillance protocol. Talent spotting, assessments, and making contact are hampered by prying Western eyes. Russian university campuses are free of unwanted attention.
Russia expects some 100 students from Estonia to pick up the attractive offer – no tuition fees and plenty of financial support through generous scholarships.
The Russian Embassy in Tallinn plays a substantial role in promoting opportunities on their web page to join the program through the social media group “Studying in Russia”. Its membership of about 300 consists mainly of students from Estonia.
An Estonian student of ethnic-Russian heritage who has graduated from the Russian Economics and Civil Service Academy affiliated with the Office of the President and completed a post-graduate degree at the Foreign Ministry’s Moscow State Foreign Relations Institute stated that the attack against Ukraine did not affect her nor any other student in any manner. Studies continued unabated.
In contrast, an Estonian citizen, of Jewish heritage, returned shortly after the Russian assault. He was a journalism student at the Moscow Advanced School of Economics, considered the most liberal post-secondary school.
He was expelled for his social media commentary and insists that freedom of speech on Russian campuses is non-existent. Anyone claiming otherwise is lying and advancing the Kremlin script.
Starting this fall semester, all freshmen initiating studies at Russian universities must pass a compulsory course in “the fundamentals of the Russia state” which has been labeled as crass Kremlin propaganda. This harkens back to the mandatory course on Marxism that all students required before graduating during the Soviet occupation.
The Estonian Security Police (KAPO) indicate that students who are disappointed with their studies in Moscow have described their experiences about attempts at recruitment by Russian clandestine services.
Cases do exist involving foreign students who understand the goal of any recruitment approach, are flattered by the attention and willingly accept any possible proposal. The extent of Russian success in this is unknown.
The nurturing of a trustworthy relationship between recruiter and student subject may often stretch into a prolonged period of personal engagement, according to KAPO.
Over time the recruiter will be familiar with the student’s proclivities – perhaps expensive items or adventurous experiences or being the center of attention or winning the respect of others, etc. All of this could be used to influence someone with a manipulative but still friendly manner.
Then there’s the hard sale. If the above techniques fail, they’re replaced with intimidation/coercion. It’s easy to “discover” anti-Russian material with the subject; threaten the subject with exposing his/her already existing relationship (sometimes as their own informer) with Russian intelligence, etc. Simply put, threatening crude blackmail by using evidence – “kompromat” – into which the recruiter already has deliberately enmeshed the subject.
During the Cold War, the recruitment of youth was textbook practice by the KGB for generations through the numerous World Festivals of Youth and Students organized by the Soviets and mainly sponsored by the KGB. While a few were located elsewhere, they were mostly held in the USSR and communist countries. These “peace and brotherhood” venues were ideal for talent-spotting.
Next year in March, Putin has decreed a World Youth Festival to be held in Russia on the Black Sea coast. Some 20,000 young Russian “leaders” and foreign youth are expected to participate.
The organizing cadre has already begun its preparation. From September to December of 2023, 150 recruiters will select the hundreds of volunteers who will work at the festival. The recruiters themselves will have received training in interviewing, psychology, and communication in assessing potential volunteers for their motivation, skills, and savvy. To many, it’s naive to expect Russian intelligence not to be involved.
Eesti Elu/Estonian Life