It was supposed to be just another winter hunt for Sergejus Pusinas (35), a captain in the Lithuanian Air Force. Then a red light flashing in a fellow hunter’s pocket caught his eye. It triggered a series of events that finally led him to the point of no return.
The story begins in the winter of 2012, in the woods of Siauliai district in northern Lithuania. Woods he knew well, as he had spent his childhood there, hunting and fishing with his grandfather.
It ends five years later with Pusinas convicted for espionage in the interests of the Russian military intelligence agency, commonly known by its acronym, the GRU.
Pusinas is one of eight people who has been arrested and sentenced for spying in Lithuania since 2012. Five of them are ex-army; one – Pusinas – is an officer. When catching spies, the Baltic countries seems to specialize: Lithuanians in military secrets, Estonians in high-ranking officials in their own security services or small-time smugglers in the border regions, while Latvians goes for a random small fish.
“I see no major differences in strategies applied by Russian intelligence to achieve their goals in Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia. First of all, they are interested in the NATO-related information, the readiness of national armed forces, industrial-technological espionage, sensitive information about the EU and internal politics. The only thing that distinguishes Lithuania is the fact that it has been hosting the NATO air policing mission since 2004”, says Marius Laurinavicius, the expert at Vilnius Institute of Policy Analysis.
The Soviet Officers’ Hunting Club
Captain Pusinas is not the first military man in his family, nor the first hunter. In the first interview that any of the eight Lithuanian spies has given to the media, Pusinas told 15min.lt/Re:Baltica that his grandfather, whom he admired for his courage and wisdom, had been an officer in the Soviet Army.
In his spare time, his grandfather headed the officers’ hunting club. One of the participants was Sergei Moiseyenko (now 67), a Soviet army colonel and the former head of the Siauliai Military Hospital. He did not come to the club very often – once every few years – but that was enough to get to know the Pusinas family.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Moiseyenko left Lithuania. According to court records, he lived in Russia for a while where he became known as a businessman.
But he would still turn up to hunt, without prior notice, dressed to the nines in the most expensive gear obtainable at a hunters’ store, Pusinas said. He might arrive for a birthday party with a big bouquet of flowers and a gift, such as a very expensive hunting knife. Once Pusinas’ grandfather was complaining about having no money to buy new tires for his car. “Ne problema,” Moiseyenko said in Russian, and handed him a wad of banknotes.
Former Colonel? There’s No Such Thing
In 2001, Pusinas entered Lithuania’s military academy. Eight years later, he was assigned to an Air Force base near his childhood home of Siauliai. A lot had changed since then: now it had become an air base for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), home to the patrols that respond when Russian jets approach Baltics airspace. Since Lithuania joined NATO in 2004, the multinational organization had stationed its force there.
Around the time when Pusinas was assigned to the base, Moiseyenko’s visits became more frequent, until he was showing up every few months. Pusinas suspected nothing. Although Moiseyenko wasn’t asking questions about his work, some non-classified details from the military base would occasionally surface in conversations, he admits.
“He never asked any specific questions,” Pusinas said. “They were casual friendly conversations.”
As the years passed, Pusinas’ grandfather grew older, until he could no longer accompany his grandson to the hunts. So Pusinas began hunting with Moiseyenko alone, a couple of times a year. They sipped hot tea at the hunting tower and chatted about the old days – and talked sometimes of Pusinas’ work.
It was during one of these chats in 2012 when the hunter learned that he was, in fact, the hunted.
Pusinas saw a red light flashing in Moiseyenko’s pocket. “I laughed and asked: are you recording me? He got a little flustered. He said it was his phone, but I saw that lying on the windowsill. Then he said I shouldn’t pay attention to that,” Pusinas recalls.
He kept thinking about incident, but never reported it to his military superiors. He also could not muster the courage to confront Moiseyenko about it as he was a family friend and it seemed rude and even paranoid.
A few months later, they went hunting again and, after shooting a roe deer and experiencing the subsequent adrenaline rush, Pusinas mustered the courage to voice what had been bothering him for months.
“Seriously, what happened during the previous hunt? Are you recording me?” he blurted.
Moiseyenko remained calm. While examining the dead animal, he responded, “Sergei, you know it for yourself: there’s no such thing as a former colonel.”
Pusinas says he cannot remember any further details of this conversation. “The shock was so big that I couldn’t remember anything, when I was being interrogated. I even failed to remember what season it was.”
The Garage Hideout
Several months later they met again, but this time the Russian wanted to meet at the garage in Siauliai where Moiseyenko kept his hunting equipment.
At the garage, Pusinas found Moiseyenko rooting around in the trunk of his old Mercedes-Benz 400, a battered vehicle that hardly matched Moiseyenko’s usually expensive attire.
“I was tense. I knew what was happening and what we were going to talk about. But Moiseyenko acted as if nothing happened. He made some jokes and spoke calmly. It was a natural thing for him,” Pusinas said.
The garage was cluttered with old syringes, robes and other medical junk Moiseyenko had accumulated while working in the Soviet Military Hospital. In the center of the garage floor was a deep hole, the type mechanics descend into so they can work underneath cars, but Moiseyenko’s was special. It concealed a small compartment where, from now on, the two would rendez-vous in secret.
After a brief time in the garage the pair left for the hunt. The older man was quiet and so was Pusinas. When they arrived at the woods, Moiseyenko broke the silence. “We are interested in everything related to your [military] service,” he said.
“I had no knowledge of what he meant by ‘us’. Only during my interrogation, I learned he was working for the GRU,” Pusinas says.
Yet some details of his testimony show that he did know he was now working for Russian intelligence.
According to Lithuanian court records, Moiseyenko is an officer of the GRU who lived in Russia but also operated in the Baltic states. No details about his work are publicly available.
Pusinas alleges Moiseyenko only said he was working for “The Center,” which
cared about any information related to the Lithuanian armed forces, their NATO partners and international missions. While serving at the airbase, the Lithuanian captain could collect information about the NATO forces, operating methods and so on.
A year after being recruited, Pusinas was sent on a mission to Afghanistan in the summer of 2013. Although he claims he only fed Moiseyenko unimportant information, Lithuanian investigators established–and Pusinas admits–that it included sensitive information about the Lithuanian troops in Afghanistan and his prior training in USA for the mission.
Around 3000 Lithuanian troops have served in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2018. Their most important task was ensuring security of the Ghor province where Lithuania has led the provincial reconstruction team. Lithuanians have also been stationed in Kabul, Kandahar province and Mazar-i-Sharif. Lithuanian armed forces refused to comment on the case of their former officer.
Sounds Of Silence
Pusinas offers no coherent explanation for why he never reported his recruitment to Lithuanian security services. One day he was afraid of Lithuanian military intelligence ((AOTD) under the Ministry of National Defense), and the next day he feared Russian vengeance.
“In one of our conversations, Moiseyenko began talking about [Alexander] Litvinenko [a turned ex-spy who was poisoned by Russian intelligence in London – ed]. It was like: maybe our guys were too rough there, it was possible to resolve it in another way,” Pusinas recalls.
Every few months, Pusinas would get a Skype message to come to the garage and the pair would climb down into the narrow compartment beneath the floor. Pusinas sat on potato sacks. While Moiseyenko stood and asked questions.
“When he called me out for the meetings, I would try to find something of little importance and give it to him, so he would leave me alone for a few months,” Pusinas said, trying to justify his actions.
At every meeting Pusinas gave the GRU the timetables of the NATO military flights.
During their third covert meeting, Moiseyenko handed Pusinas an envelope and said, “Greetings from the Center.”
Inside were €300. “Prior to this, I still thought, ‘I can resolve this.’ After I took the money, I knew I couldn’t,” Pusinas says.
Over time, the sum rose to €500, then to €1,000. At the time, the amount was close to Pusinas’ salary in Lithuanian army.
The stress started to get to him. After meeting with Moiseyenko, Pusinas would return home irritated and jumpy. Quarrels broke out in the family, but he felt he couldn’t disclose what was really happening.
“Prior to this, Skype used to be always running on our home computer, because that’s how we kept in touch with some of our relatives. When it all began, I would deliberately shut it down, so Moiseyenko couldn’t reach me. My family knew nothing, so they began asking why I keep exiting Skype”, he remembers. “I knew it was going to end one day.”
Helping the Russians Know They Were Exposed
Lithuanian military counter intelligence (AOTD) agreed to answer the questions about the case only in writing. AOTD pointed out that the case illustrates how Russian intelligence operates: dragging people in gradually, creating friendly relationships, based on mutual trust, making them feel indebted: Pusinas’s fatal mistake was not to report the approaches.
“Thereby, he took responsibility for all the consequences both in the short term and in the long run,” AOTD says.
Lithuanian law enforcement has publicly disclosed some details in Pusinas’s case. The most serious accusation aired publicly was that Lithuanian was handing Moiseyenko information about fellow officers from the Siauliai airbase.
To Pusinas, however, this wasn’t his biggest crime. He told 15min.lt/Re:Baltica that in one of their last meetings he gave Moiseyenko a report, written by the Lithuanian military intelligence service, of the employees at the Russian embassy who were in fact spies working under diplomatic cover.
“A meeting with Moiseyenko was upcoming in the evening. All day long, I was thinking of what I could give him. That list was laying on the table. I thought it shouldn’t do much damage: they will simply know that our guys know about them,” he said.
After turning over the list, Pusinas was rewarded with another €1,000.
He didn’t know that their next meeting would also be their last.
The Fingerprints He Wanted to See
On Dec. 29, 2014, Pusinas got another message from Moiseyenko, asking for an immediate meeting. Usually meetings were planned ahead of time, so Pusinas felt uneasy.
“I went to the garage, but we didn’t talk about anything special. He asked how my family was doing, we chatted about some common affairs. Then he said he must go,” Pusinas recalls.
The abrupt departure only deepened his anxiety.
He was nearly home when he spotted two unfamiliar Skoda cars, and saw two strangers smoking at the door to his staircase. After two years of spying for the Russians, it was not a view Pusinas could handle without his stomach churning.
“When I approached, these men said they were from the police. They handcuffed me and took me to their car. I knew what was going on, but still asked, ‘Why am I being arrested?’ They promised to explain it shortly,” Pusinas told.
After a brief chat in the car, they all returned to Pusinas’s flat where he, in handcuffs, saw his family led into another room by a police psychologist, while other officers searched the flat. “I immediately told them they will find nothing, because I kept none of this at home,” he says.
Later that night, he was taken to the airbase where police searched his office and computer. Next they took him to the capital, where Pusinas would spend his first night in custody. “There I saw that Moiseyenko had been fingerprinted [just] prior to me. It was a relief. It really was. Prior to this, I thought he ran away,” Pusinas said.
He immediately agreed to cooperate, to diminish the looming jail sentence.
“How Have You Been, Sergei?”
They did not meet again until their trial for espionage in the summer of 2016. Before one of the hearings, Pusinas and Moiseyenko bumped into each other in the corridor, escorted by police officers. “Hi Sergei! How have you been?” Moiseyenko shouted in a friendly manner.
“He appeared as if nothing has happened, just as usual,” Pusinas recalls.
The court sentenced Moiseyenko to 10.5 years, and Pusinas to five years in prison. Both appealed, but their appeals were rejected.
While serving the last year of his prison sentence, Pusinas says his family is his biggest concern.
“I’m thinking of how I can compensate them for what I have done,” he says. “Both financially and psychologically. Just so every minute is worth living.”
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This story is the part of the series supported by the first EU-financed fund for investigative journalism IJ4EU and jointly developed by Re:Baltica, Postimees, Direkt36, 15min.lt and Respekt.cz Financing was given as a result of the open call, managed by International Press Institute.
Written by Dovydas Pancerovas (15min.lt)
Edited by Sanita Jemberga (Re:Baltica), editing of the English version by Jody McPhillips (OCCRP)
Illustrations by Artur Kuus (Postimees)
Translated into Russian by Alexei Grushnickij
Translated into English by Šarūnas Černiauskas (15min.lt)
Translated into Latvian by Ieva Lešinska – Geibere