Treason: the real cost of Simm's betrayal

  • 2008-10-01
  • By Matt Withers

Lord Robertson explains that Russia is not a threat to NATO or Baltics

TALLINN - While some fear Estonia's reputation as a NATO partner has been tarnished and others believe it's stronger, most agree that national defense has been severely compromised by a deviant individual and some suspect widespread espionage. But where exactly does Estonia stand after Herman Simm's treason?
Ask any Estonian whether Russia should be perceived as a threat and the answer is nearly always the same: Yes. The notion that history repeats itself seems deeply ingrained in the thoughts of Baltic citizens, and given the lengthy and disastrous consequences of the Soviet occupation, this hardly comes as a surprise.

With this in mind, it's no wonder that the nation has bestowed upon Simm the status of public enemy number one. There's nothing redeemable about selling state secrets to a nation's long-term oppressor, especially when residual skepticism of Russia has existed in the Baltic states since their independence in the early '90s.
Even more alarming, a British former civil servant has informed The Baltic Times that this might not be a one-off case, but part of a wider breach of national security.

The source, who worked for the civil service throughout the '90s, claims that Russia exerts great pressure on Estonian government officials to sell secrets. He realized this while handling a senior official of the Estonian police who sought U.K. asylum to escape the demands of the Russian secret service in Estonia.
"This guy worked for the Estonian police in a fairly senior position and was pretty sure that his own authorities would not be able to protect him, so rather than work for the Russians, he fled the country," the source said.
"There was no doubt that he was telling truth, the details of the case were too precise. But he wasn't claiming asylum because of his race, religion, nationality or membership of a social group," the source told TBT.
A senior government source told TBT he was not surprised when the Simm case came out and the government knew there had been a leak for some time.

 The possible existence of intergovernmental treason on a wider scope is likely to compound existing concerns about Russia and fuel sentiments that Estonia is proving itself undependable to NATO.
Debate over whether the incident has affected Estonia's standing with NATO has been rife since the moment news broke. There is a genuine feeling that Estonia has, through Simm's treason, weakened NATO's position with Russia, particularly as Simm may have betrayed secrets concerning other member states.
The other side of the argument suggests that Estonia's detection and efficient handling of Simm's treason proves to NATO that it can be considered a responsible and trustworthy member state. MP Marko Mihkelson has been a vocal supporter of this argument.

"I can say that the legal protection has acted very professionally. Therefore I cannot agree that Herman Simm's case would have damaged Estonia's reputation 's rather the opposite. Eliminating defense risk so professionally definitely raises Estonia's reputation," Mihkelson said.

NATO downplays threat
NATO, on the other hand, has seemed somewhat blase about the whole affair, offering nothing more than an abrupt "no comment" when questioned by the Estonian press.
This appears to be consistent with NATO's delicate handling of Russia, epitomized by Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer's rejection of Baltic pleas for bolstered defenses in the wake of Russia's involvement in Georgia.

Speaking at Tartu University Friday, former NATO secretary general Lord Robertson told audiences that Russia was not a threat to NATO or the Baltics, apparently continuing to toe the line after leaving the organization in 2004. Despite talking on the subject of international security, Simm's recent treason conviction apparently didn't warrant a mention.

He suggested that while "emotions are running high at the moment," Russia has no interest in expanding its influence into the Baltics. Robertson preached a doctrine of unity, drawing comparisons between Estonian and Russian students he has spoken to, and stressing that Cold War terminology is grossly outdated.
Yet Robertson clearly struggled to parry students' concerns about Russia. In one instance he was awkwardly unable to counter a student's rebuttal to a statement he made about Russia's adherence to nuclear non-proliferation.

If Robertson's perspective is any indication, it would seem that NATO is more concerned with relieving Baltic anxieties than actually addressing the serious consequences of Simm's treason. And for all NATO's rhetoric, people actually living in the Baltic region continue to perceive Russia as a threat 's one made even more acute by the revelation of espionage.
"Simm has betrayed Estonia; I just hope we don't pay the price for it. The threat of Russia is already a problem without this too," said a Tartu University student when questioned by The Baltic Times.

Light sentence
A less contentious issue that has arisen from the case is the Estonian penal code's light punishment for treason, a meager three to 15 years' imprisonment. Given the potentially severe consequences of betraying national security, the punishment hardly seems to fit the crime.
Around the globe treason is considered among the most damnable of offenses, and punishment is categorically firmer than that found in Estonia.

Only in 1998 did the U.K. modify the penalty for treason from the death sentence to life imprisonment. The U.S., meanwhile, retains execution as the maximum penalty. Elsewhere, life imprisonment is the benchmark; this is currently the case in France, Germany, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland, among many others.
This begs the question of why Estonia is so light in its sentencing, especially when its national sovereignty may realistically come under threat from such actions. At the very least, a stiffer penalty might act as a crude deterrent for those tempted to repeat Simm's treachery.

This is just one of many considerations for the government to ponder as the hangover of Estonia's first treason fades and the sobering reality of its consequences sinks in.