• “James Bond is romanticised. Real life is much tougher. There is no happy end,” Alexey Vasilev told me.

    It was late summer six years ago and we were talking between a glass wall in a prison in north-east Estonia, where Vasilev was serving a four year sentence for spying against Estonia on behalf of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).

    He wasn’t a master spy. In fact, he was caught trying to conduct the first task his coordinators had given him. He had lost his income, his mother had been forced out of her apartment in St Petersburg, and he had legal bills to cover. Only 21 years old, he had lost his perspective in life.

    I have interviewed people like Vasilev before and since, but this was the only time I actually felt sad about a Russian intelligence agent.

    I remembered about Vasilev when we broke the news last week about how Latvia’s MEP Tatyana Zhdanok worked on behalf of the FSB’s Fifth Service. The contrast between Zhdanok and Vasilev couldn’t be larger.

    Whereas Vasilev was a naive student hoping to become James Bond, Zhdanok has been blatantly pushing and promoting Kremlin ideology in the heart of the European Union for decades. She was not motivated by money, but by ideology. Throughout that time, the European Parliament’s impunity and Latvia’s inadequate legal system have protected her from prosecution.

    Luckily, the outcry from fellow MEPs and the president of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, has been vocal (unlike when we revealed a few months ago that Russia’s top diplomat at the EU is suspected of carrying out Russian intelligence functions in Brussels).

    Still, Zhdanok will probably come out of this scandal with barely any condemnation. Hopefully, being outed as an FSB agent will at least deter someone else from chasing  Bond-like dreams that never come true.

    Indrek Kannik, director of the International Centre for Defence and Security says Trump’s White House could help Ukraine more than Biden’s second term.

    How would Donald Trump’s victory impact the security of Estonia and Europe?

    People who claim today they know what the impact would be are ruthlessly bluffing. One of Donald Trump’s special treats is that he is very unpredictable. One potentially negative impact is that it would bring even more confusion and confrontation in U.S. society than at present. Secondly, Trump’s win could have an irritating effect on our Western Europe allies and transatlantic cooperation may become worse. 

    Some security analysts also point to possibly positive outcomes. Do you see any?

    Trump’s win could accelerate faster Europe to invest into its defence. The current administration’s actions – especially in the second year of the war – have been reactive in a bad sense, and they have always been far off the pace. This raises the question about who would be worse in office. I don’t see any reason to think that Biden in his second term would be more determined, energetic and capable to act more forcefully.

    So, in essence having Trump in the White House could turn out to have a positive impact on European security?

    It is not excluded, but the risks and unpredictability are high. Remember that when Trump was in office, the US presence in central and eastern Europe grew. Also, Barack Obama never agreed to deliver larger armaments to Ukraine, but this [process] started during Trump’s time and continued with Biden. These weapons were of tremendous help to Ukraine at the beginning of the war. Without it perhaps Ukraine wouldn’t have been able to survive. The best we can get from the current administration is the continuation of the static situation in Ukraine as it is now. With their unwillingness and fears of escalation they do not want to see Ukraine win the war.

    Just one of every 17 workers – six percent – is part of a trade union in Estonia. This is the lowest proportion among all the OECD countries. According to a labour expert, unions’ low popularity is driven by a “a particularly radical manifestation of neoliberal ideology”.

    Kaja Valk, the newly appointed chairman of the Central Union of Estonian Trade Unions, admitted that it is “a very small number of people”, but she hasn’t presented how she plans to grow union membership.

    A small number leads to a minor role for Unions in policy-making. The Unions do have a say in agreeing to the country’s minimum wage and the unemployment insurance tax. Outside of these responsibilities, they are hardly visible.

    In the early hours of Sunday 8 October, pressure at the Balticconnector gas pipeline between Estonia and Finland suddenly started to drop.

    There was a heavy storm that weekend, but when the authorities were finally able to investigate the seabed, they discovered traces of something being dragged along the bottom, a torn pipeline and a broken anchor.

    A data cable dozens of miles to the east was torn in half. Another cable that connects Estonia and Sweden was also malfunctioning. Similar traces to the pipeline site were found in both these locations.

    The prime suspect of these incidents is the Chinese cargo vessel Newnew Polar Bear, which passed each location around the time the damage took place. A photo taken a few days later shows Newnew Polar Bear missing an anchor and its containers tilting heavily to one side.

    The ship’s crew has refused to respond to investigators’ inquiries. It is not clear if an actor caused the damages knowingly or accidentally, but the incident indicates how easy it is to sabotage critical undersea infrastructure.

    Although the Balticconnector will be out of service until at least April next year, the two countries’ energy supplies are safe. But NATO has stepped up surveillance of the Baltic Sea area to prevent further incidents.

    Marko Mihkelson is the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Estonian parliament Riigikogu. He says the expected attack by Israeli ground forces against Hamas in Gaza will deepen divisions in Europe.

    There is a lot of speculation that the Israel-Hamas war will take the West’s attention away from helping Ukraine to fight against Russia. How concerned are you about it?
    Everything depends on the further course of the Israel-Hamas war and its possible escalation. If the war were to expand and involve Hezbollah and Iran behind it, this has the potential to develop into a conflict affecting global relations. It is in Russia’s interest to tie the US public to Israel for as long as possible in order to distract from Ukraine’s central role.

    How can it affect the security of Estonia and the other Baltic states?

    The war in Israel is undeniably linked to the war in Ukraine. Firstly, it is in Russia’s interest to light new fires in various hotspots of the world right now in order to distract the attention of the US and Western countries. Secondly, the expected attack by Israeli ground forces against Hamas in Gaza will deepen divisions in Europe.

    Thirdly, potential new migration pressures on Europe may and will only exacerbate political polarisation. All of this together weakens the ability of the Western Allies to take a strong and unified strategic stance, the main goal of which should be the defeat of Russia. If Russia cannot be pushed back strategically, then the security of the Baltic states and thus the whole of NATO is also at risk.

    “My moral values haven’t changed,” the Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas insisted. In just one week, Kallas’s untouchable grip on the country’s top job and her credibility collapsed. 

    What happened? Media revealed that her husband belonged to a group of business associates who continued to operate in Russia, despite its invasion of Ukraine. After first claiming their trucking company only helped ‘one Estonian customer close down their Russian business’ and were doing ‘a morally good thing’, new details started to emerge.

    This customer was an aerosol canister factory that belonged to one of the associates. Instead of returning factory equipment from Russia to Estonia, the trucking firm continued carrying raw material to Russia, making at least 1.5 million euros in revenue on the deals.

    If Kallas had not built herself up as a moral beacon regarding the Ukrainian war in Estonia and on the world stage, one might say this is business as usual. A few months ago Kallas urged local businesspeople to ‘find their moral compass’ and restrict ties with Russia. This wasn’t a one-off statement, but has characterised her policy since 24 February 2022. She has been one of the most staunch advocates for sanctions against Russia.

    She wasn’t involved in the business herself and, strictly following the law, it wasn’t illegal. Still, many believe her actions and statements constitute moral corruption. 

    Firstly, she tried to downplay the issue. Secondly, she insisted the scandal was revenge by middle-aged white men. Thirdly, she complained she was being bullied by reporters. Finally, she announced that her husband’s continued business links to Russia are a non-issue in the West, but are in Estonia, because the people have high demands of their leader’s ‘moral values’.

    As we went to press, she was still in power, though 70% of the public want her to resign.

    It’s evening rush hour and time to pick up the kids from the kindergarten. So I climb into my cargo bike, which I bought last autumn with my wife.

    Tallinn has never been a bike-friendly city, but the concept of three-wheeled cargo bikes is completely new. There were probably no more than a dozen of these bikes in the Estonian capital, when we joined the peloton. 

    Our way home takes us through streets where bike and car lanes are not physically separate. Every day I feel how car drivers do not notice us on the road. 

    Situations vary from trucks and delivery vehicles stopping on the bike lane to drop off goods at nearby shops and cafés to cars queuing in a traffic jam, and leaning to the right side of the road, where they steal space from bikers. While small bikes and electric scooters can ease past, a larger bike like ours must sit and wait. 

    Often, drivers don’t look into the wing mirror to see if a bike is coming. This is where it gets dangerous for us.

    On the narrow bike lane, I have developed my own kind of passive-aggressive reaction to help drivers learn and get used to paying attention to us. Sometimes I knock on their window when driving past. Then I give a long, cold glance straight into the eyes of the driver. I even ask the kids to wave to the driver.

    It is not the drivers’ fault that they are not accustomed to sharing the road with vehicles such as ours. The real problem lies in the municipality, which hasn’t developed adequate biking lanes.

    But I take it as my small task to nudge for change. Day by day. Step by step. Eventually the drivers will accept us as a natural part of the traffic.

    “The parents of the 12-year-old boys’ basketball team are worried because the recently ordered new uniforms have not arrived yet,” wrote an Estonian satire news site Lugejakiri. The article came with a photo of the supposed new uniforms — the notorious white robes of the Ku Klux Klan.

    Of course the parents actually hadn’t ordered such clothing. The fictitious story was a reaction to an embarrassing event where a Finnish youth basketball team pulled out from a tournament because their Estonian opponents had used racial slurs against their black and Asian players.

    The incident received wide media attention in both countries and sparked a much deeper debate. How to teach tolerance to such young kids? In a country where many of the older generation freely use the N-word and where, until a few years ago, the dictionary expressly said this word was not derogatory, it is not so easy to adopt a tolerant approach.

    30 out of the 101 seats in the Estonian parliament will be occupied by female candidates after last week’s general election. This matches the average political representation of women in the EU.

    Even though the sitting Prime Minister Kaja Kallas earned a record-breaking 31,800 votes, just 13 out of the 37 seats won by her Reform party will be taken by women.

    Still, 30 female deputies is the highest number of women ever to be elected to the parliament in Tallinn. Progress to gender equality follows a slow and winding road, even though, this time, there appeared to be more public calls to the electorate to cast their votes in favour of a female candidate.

    Three things are needed to make an Estonian, according to the old saying. You need to build a house, plant a tree and finish the Tartu cross-country ski marathon.

    Most probably, I will never build a house. I have planted a few trees. But for sure I can tick off the marathon box, having multiple times finished the classic 63-kilometre cross-country race, named after the southern Estonian city close to where it takes place.

    The excitement starts building every year in late autumn when the days here are sombre, dark and wet. That’s when checking the 10-day weather forecast becomes a bit of an addiction. Is the temperature going to fall below zero? Is there any hint there will be some snow? A few degrees this way or that can make the difference between the ugliest and most depressing time of year and its opposite — a snowy, beautiful winter.

    The weather is becoming more unstable. Cold and snowy temperatures change abruptly to a warm and rainy climate, destroying the ski track in a matter of days. This means it becomes more difficult to enjoy winter sports. I take every snowy winter, and every snowy weekend as the last there might be. A few weekends ago, I forced myself to do a 19-kilometre lap, even though I was suffering from a nasty cold. This was because the forecast correctly said that the next weekend there would be no more snow.

    I’m a fan of a diminishing sport. The number of people registering themselves at the ski marathon is declining. You can’t be sure if the winter will actually allow you to prepare for the tough effort or if the marathon will even take place.

    Cross-country skiing has been part of Estonia’s national identity for decades. It is something that has allowed us to feel “nordic”, which is something the nation also yearns for in terms of quality of life. But soon we’ll need to find a new characteristic to define what makes a “proper Estonian”.