If Russia invades the Baltics, and many Estonians believe it’s only a matter of time, Eerik-Niiles Kross will be waiting, ready to fight. He’s been warning of the Russians’ potential return since they left the last time.
By day, Kross is a member of the Estonian parliament. But that’s like saying Bruce Wayne is a billionaire playboy or Bruce Banner is an atomic physicist. Kross, 50, is Estonia’s version of James Bond, with two differences: Kross drives a black two-seater Mercedes, not an Aston Martin; and 007 is a movie character while Kross is real. At times, that can be hard to believe.
A former chief of Estonia’s intelligence services, Kross owns a private security consulting firm called TRUSTCORP Ltd. He was in Iraq working for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, on contract with the British Foreign Office, after the ousting of Saddam Hussein. And he was in Georgia during its brief war with Russia in 2008, helping direct counter-propaganda operations.
The Kremlin wants him arrested and has accused him of masterminding the 2009 hijacking of a cargo ship carrying timber (and perhaps a large stash of weapons). The U.S. has barred him from traveling there, except on official diplomatic business, for reasons that have never been explained. Kross and his friends in D.C. security circles say the ban is mystifying and unjustified.
No one — least of all Kross — denies that his work has required him to move in shadows and operate on the edge. “His background is quite controversial,” says Urmas Paet, an Estonian member of the European Parliament and minister of foreign affairs from 2009-2014 who, like Kross, is in the liberal Reform Party. “He is often close to, or crossing the limits.”
“The core question for Putin is: ‘What can I get away with?’ He is constantly pushing the borders” — Eerik-Niiles Kross
In Kross’ version of his action-film existence, there is no doubt who is the super-villain: Russian President Vladimir Putin. “The core question for Putin is: ‘What can I get away with?’” Kross says. “He is constantly pushing the borders … Airspace violations. Massive media craziness. Constant allegations that NATO and the West is to blame for everything.”
Kross is sitting at a table at the back of Frank, a stylish bistro and cocktail bar in Tallinn’s Old Town that he co-owns with his wife, the Canadian-American filmmaker and artist Mary Jordan. Talking about the Russian leader both works up Kross’ appetite and prompts him to forget the food on his plate until it has gone cold. He speaks in perfect English but with one of those European accents that is impossible to place — educated, vaguely but then definitely not British, most assuredly not American.
As Kross sees it, Putin “is sort of expanding the space of crazy stuff he can do. It kind of projects him as stronger … So, he did Georgia, and he got away with it. Nice. Very nice. His math was clearly, with Crimea, that he could get away with it. He will see about east Ukraine.”
Eerik-Niiles Kross was an anti-Soviet, pro-independence activist in college | Kristjan Lepp/Scanpix
Kross believes the West underestimated Putin and had no plan to deal with his revanchist aggression, as became clear following the seizure of Crimea in 2014. “There was not even a good set of threats,” Kross says. “There was nothing there. Obama, of course, always said the military option is off the table.”
Kross has no trouble conjuring up what to his mind would have been a better, blunter approach: “A strong Western response would have been this: The moment the first little Green Men arrived, the phone call to Putin, ‘Ok, Volodya, you have 24 hours to get the fuck out of there, my Sixth Fleet is on the way. You take your fleet, and you take your Sevastopol base, and you fuck off. That’s it. Otherwise, they’re coming. By the way, we’ll kick your ass.’”
The silver lining in Putin’s aggression was the wake-up call that the West couldn’t ignore. “The NATO border is a red line,” he says. “Now we have German tanks training in the Baltics. If you look at where they were before, that’s a dramatic change. It’s not that visible — they do not talk about it — but it’s really, really important.”
In Kross’ world — and Putin’s — it’s tank treads on the ground, not pretty words, that matter. “Putin’s not reading the speeches,” Kross says. “He’s reading the signs, and what is the action? He’s like a blatnoi [thug] in a prison cell. He wants to see this new guy, with food from home in his bag, can I take it from him or not? That’s his thing.”
Serving Estonia, and fighting Russia, is in Kross’ DNA. His paternal grandfather, Jaan Kross, was a member of the Tallinn City Council before World War II, arrested by occupying Russian forces as a “Nazi collaborator,” and killed in the Potma prison camp in 1946. His father, also Jaan Kross, who would later become Estonia’s most acclaimed author, was imprisoned in the gulag in northern Russia for eight years for “anti-Soviet activities.”
“You give him a one-page brief, and he’s the guy who says ‘Let’s do it’ when everyone else is saying: ‘You’re crazy’” — P.J. Dermer, a retired U.S. Army colonel
Following in their resistor footsteps, Kross was an anti-Soviet, pro-independence activist in college. He went directly from university into government service in 1991 when Estonia finally broke free of Moscow. He was a diplomat in London and Washington, headed Estonia’s intelligence services, and served as national security adviser to President Lennart Meri.
Kross was in a delegation that accompanied Meri in 1994 to Moscow, where a bit of flattery and a night of vodka drinking persuaded President Boris Yeltsin to finally sign an agreement withdrawing Russian troops from Estonia after more than a half-century of occupation. For Kross, it was a moment of deep personal triumph. He later wrote an article recalling phoning his father that night and proclaiming, “We did it!” and describing his father’s response after a long pause: “Well, well, I did live to see the day.”
Kross has been waiting ever since for the Russians to try to come back. “He, like a lot of Estonians, has been completely right about this,” says a friend. “They said Russia was going in the wrong direction when nobody had even heard of Putin. Those warnings were not heeded.”
In the interim, Kross’ deep connections to Western intelligence agencies led to security assignments, and adventures, outside his small Baltic homeland. After the U.S. invasion that removed Saddam Hussein from power, Kross helped re-establish Iraq’s defense ministry and intelligence service. He retains contacts throughout the Middle East.
“Estonians generally regard Kross as a patriot, if a bit too larger than life.
“His favorite saying was, ‘Let’s do it!’ and still is ‘Let’s do it!’” says P.J. Dermer, a retired U.S. Army colonel who worked with Kross in Iraq. “He doesn’t get all wrapped around the details. You give him a one-page brief, and he’s the guy who says ‘Let’s do it’ when everyone else is saying: ‘You’re crazy.’”
Kross also served as an adviser to then Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili during the 2008 war with Russia. Officially, he was responsible for countering Russian propaganda — making him an expert in the disinformation tactics that only recently came to the attention of the West. But Kross hints that his role was quite a bit broader and less defined. “In a war, you do what needs to be done,” he says.
Russia’s feelings about Kross are mutual. The Kremlin has repeatedly pressed Interpol to issue a red notice, declaring Kross an international fugitive for the 2009 hijacking of the MV Arctic Sea, a Maltese-flagged cargo ship that disappeared in the Baltic Sea, allegedly after being seized by a small band of pirates in a motorized rubber dinghy.
The ship was supposedly carrying a load of timber, yet Moscow has never explained why the boat’s disappearance set off a massive hunt by the Russian navy. The Arctic Sea was ultimately found by a Russian warship near Cape Verde, and though eight men were convicted of piracy, the true circumstances of what happened to the vessel remain unknown.
The Kremlin has pressed Interpol to declare Kross a fugitive for the 2009 hijacking of the MV Arctic Sea, a Maltese-flagged cargo ship supposedly carrying only a load of timber |
The Russian military’s intense interest has led to speculation that the ship was carrying weapons, perhaps missiles or anti-aircraft systems, in what might have been an unauthorized Russian smuggling operation that the Kremlin thwarted to avoid embarrassment or a government-sanctioned sale that Moscow was forced to call off by the West or maybe by Israel.
Whatever the truth is, Kross denies any involvement in the affair. If not sea piracy, he is certain the Kremlin would find some other excuse to come after him. Dermer, the retired Army colonel, says Russia’s outsize allegations, if unfounded, were nonetheless worthy of Kross’s creative big-thinking. “One of his bumper stickers is ‘Why are we not pushing back on the Russians?’” Dermer says. “It’s not important what it is: push back. They push and nothing happens. Push back. Do what they do.”
Estonians generally regard Kross as a patriot, if a bit too larger than life. But they are also wary of talking about him publicly. Western friends and colleagues contacted by POLITICO say they would put their lives in his hands but are similarly discreet — hardly a surprise since many work in intelligence. “No one will want to talk publicly,” says one Westerner who considers Kross a friend. “They are all in the world of shadows.”
For Kross, the key thing — in the face of new cyber and hybrid threats, not to mention tanks on Russia’s western border and nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad — is continued resistance. “We haven’t won, no,” he says. “But we haven’t lost either.”
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