Yuri Stilve, who has been convicted of spying for Russia, was ordered to take pictures of petroleum product warehouses and a communications tower on the border, and to find out what kind of underwear Latvian soldiers wear.
One night not long before Christmas 2017, 30-year-old Yuri Stilve pulled into his mother-in-law’s yard in Pededze, a quiet municipality on the Latvian-Russian border.
He had not quite reached the big oak tree when his car was surrounded by masked men. They pulled open the door and told Stilve to get out. His first thought was that his recently purchased BMW was a stolen car.
Stilve did not know that the mother of his two young daughters had been apprehended a few hours earlier at a shopping mall in Riga, or that his father’s house in Pededze had also been searched.
It wasn’t gangsters who surrounded Stilve, but the Latvian Security Police (DP), which is charged with catching spies.
The masked men searched the house. The dog was going crazy so Stilve’s mother-in-law had to lock it in the toilet. The police seized computers, flash drives and phones, as well as a blue-covered notebook with the word Informat on the cover which was to play a crucial role in the case later.
The DP zeroed in on photographs found in the computer from the family’s visit to St. Petersburg the previous summer. “They asked why we went. I said because it’s beautiful there. I recommended it to them,” the mother-in-law, who kept referring to St. Petersburg by its Soviet name, Leningrad, told Re:Baltica.
After the search, which took several hours, the masked men left, taking Stilve with them. His subsequent interrogation lasted for three hours and was recorded on video. Stilve gradually began talking and admitted that he had been gathering information for the Russian secret services. He expressed his regret.
Re:Baltica reconstructed the development of the Stilve case from many sources: fragments of investigation materials, the decision to turn the case over to the court, interviews with Stilve’s lawyer, relatives, Stilve himself, the prosecutor and members of the security services. Since the case was tried in closed session, many of the people interviewed cannot reveal their names.
In August 2018, after Stilve spent eight months in prison awaiting his trial, the court sentenced him to three years on probation for spying for Russia. He is the first person in Latvia to begin serving a sentence after being convicted of spying. Another suspect, Jelgava railroad employee Alexander Krasnopyorov, sent pictures of NATO troops and routes to a “friend” in Russia and has appealed his sentence. Recently, the security services apprehended a third person, retired interior ministry employee Oleg Buraks.
Since the Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the deployment of NATO troops in the Baltics, all three Baltic countries have become spy-catchers. Re:Baltica calculated that since 2015, 13 people suspected of spying have been apprehended in Estonia, seven in Lithuania, and three in Latvia.
“We have changed our attitude toward actions that didn’t used to be subject to punishment before. The law has changed, which is a signal to the other side: it will no longer to be simple to do it [spying] here,” Jānis Maizītis, head of the Latvian external security agency (SAB) told Re:Baltica.
Fits recruitment profile
In 2008, the Latvian economy overheated and then spiraled into crisis, and Stilve who lives in the poorest Latvian region where jobs are scarce, couldn’t find work in a nearby town. His girlfriend went to England to work, but soon returned because she was pregnant with the couple’s daughter. Stilve decided to try his luck in Bryansk, a town in western Russia about a five-hour drive from Moscow.
Stilve’s life became commuting between his business in Bryansk, his mother-in-law’s house in Pededze and Latvia’s capital Riga, where his girlfriend lived. He did not like the big city, so he preferred to spend time on his mother-in-law’s farm, which is surrounded by forest.
In Bryansk, Stilve worked in construction. Later, he established his own companies, TRANSLES and BALTSERVIS, in the car repair and construction business. In 2015, BALTSERVIS’s turnover was small, only about €18,000, and there is no financial information on the other company, according to data obtained from Russian business register SPARK with the help of Investigative Dashboard, a research service of Re:Baltica’s partner, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
Currently, the companies have been suspended and they are just “hanging in the air,” Stilve told Re:Baltica.
Stilve was good recruitment material. Good-natured, always ready to help, and talkative. He spoke good Russian. He had a logical reason for making regular trips to Russia, which was a safe place to meet a handler. The border was carefully watched by border guards, so a local was less likely to raise suspicion.
“One of the most common ways used by Russian services to spy against our country is spying from our own territory,” says Maizītis. “It means that a person goes to Russia, receives instructions and tasks, and then returns to Latvia. That’s the way intelligence is gathered.”
Regular movement across the border is facilitated by the fact that many people who live close to the border are Russian citizens or they have multiple-entry visas, which allow for visits to relatives and shopping for cheaper food or cigarettes, activities popular among locals.
In 2012, Stilve got to know a man named Aleksei in Bryansk. The first request he made to Stilve, when they met in Russia, was seemingly innocent: to bring him Latvian-Russian dictionaries. The next request was for car parts. Such assignments are given to new recruits to test how trustworthy they are.
“For two people to develop mutual trust, a relationship must be established. There must be consistency in performing the tasks,” Sandris Kaparkalējs, prosecutor in the case, told Re:Baltica.
During one of their first meetings, Aleksei asked Stilve questions about the Latvian Army Infantry School in Alūksne, where army volunteers undergo training for professional military service. Aleksei was interested in the size of the school and its program. He wanted to know if Yuri knew anyone there.
Stilve would go on to receive many varied assignments.
The instructions he received, in person and on the phone, were methodically entered in the blue notebook found during the search. They ranged from how to destroy a SIM card to the coordinates of places he was supposed to photograph.
For example, he was asked to take pictures of warehouses used for storing petroleum products in Sillamäe, an Estonian port town, and Krāslava, Latvia, and to describe their condition. To find if there are US Abrams (heavy) combat tanks. Are there instructors from the US at the Alūksne army base? Are soldiers preparing for combat duty in Ukraine there? Last names? What is the layout of his neighbor’s house and its address? How many people work at the local border crossing point? Get a list of their phone numbers.
Stilve did all he could. In early 2017, he went to a party where he met an acquaintance who works at the Infantry School. As part of the conversation, accompanied by drinks and hors d’oeuvres, Stilve asked her about the kind of boots, weapons and even underwear that was given to the soldiers. He found that they were learning English because they were to go abroad in the spring, and that they would have instructors from the US.
“The quality of a soldier’s clothing is an indication of the army’s combat readiness”, says Jānis Bērziņš, director of the Security and Strategic Research Center of the Latvian National Defense Academy. “For example, if boots aren’t waterproof, the soldiers won’t be good for moving much. A fungal infection may develop. Trench foot is a medical condition caused by bad boots. The symptoms appear as early as three days. That can be used by the adversary in planning an attack.”
Latvian security police, who communicated with Re:Baltica only in writing, indicated that “foreign intelligence is interested in any kind of information, including about the uniforms, insignia and equipment. This information is important to not only to find out the capabilities of the adversary but also to be able to prepare for carrying out sabotage, diversions or other military tactical operations.”
“It’s only a picture”
Two years ago, Stilve moved back to Latvia when his younger daughter was born. But he continued to go on regular business trips to Bryansk: and the spying, too.
Last August, Aleksei sent word: we need to talk.
They met by the Smolensk bypass. Aleksei wanted to know if any military exercises were taking place around Alūksne. Had Stilve noticed any army equipment or new faces? Stilve replied that there was nothing new apart from a communications tower being built, probably for the army. Aleksei wanted a picture. Shortly afterwards, Stilve sent a photo of the informative sign at the foot of the tower, which at that time was still under construction.
A quiet period followed but then, a few months later, Aleksei made anxious attempts to contact Stilve. He called him at several phone numbers and sent texts. Stilve answered a couple days later and went to Bryansk. And then he waited.
Aleksei contacted him after a few days. They met. This time, Aleksei needed more, much more information about the tower. Stilve told what he knew: it looks like a regular communications tower, only an army car is often parked next to it.
A couple of months later the security police arrested Stilve.
Spy cases that receive publicity in the press often elicit readers’ comments: why is this a crime if the object in question can be photographed by everyone?
“A satellite picture is one thing, a picture from the distance of a couple of meters is quite another,” explains Maizītis. “You can’t see wrinkles on a person of a certain age if they are far away, but they are visible close up. And various conclusions can be made based on that.”
In Stilve’s case, the tower was just one of the useful details he provided, says prosecutor Kaparkalējs. “The keywords in this case are ‘an illegal gathering of other information’. The information that he gathered was objective evidence that he knew what he was doing.”
There was another detail that was important in sentencing Stilve: the identity of Aleksei. The Lithuanian prosecutor’s office had something to say about that.
No admission of guilt
Re:Baltica attempted to interview Stilve while he was still in jail. He refused. When the court put him on probation and he was freed, Re:Baltica went to Pededze.
Only his mother-in-law was at home on that sunny fall morning. Friendly and sincere, she asked that her name not be mentioned in the press because of her employment by the local government. She cried as she recalled the search and her son-in-law’s arrest.
That morning, Stilve was away, at the probation office in Alūksne. His mother-in-law, girlfriend and sister all claimed in the media to not know anything about his activities. They were outraged that he was supposedly arrested for taking a picture of a tower, a storyline that was picked up and disseminated by Russian media.
In fact, his girlfriend knew everything. Suspicious that he might be cheating on her, she had gone through his things and understood what he was doing. She warned Stilve of ending up like Alexander Krasnopyorov in Jelgava, who had been sentenced at the time. Stilve ignored her warning.
I met him late in the evening. After returning from Alūksne, he had gone to the forest for firewood. It was already dark when a tractor rolled into the yard with a load of logs. Stilve jumped out of the cab, loud music playing, and walked over to talk to me. He seemed reserved but not hostile, but would not look me in the eyes. Their big dog kept pestering me, yet Stilve would not reprimand it.
During our conversation Stilve denied any guilt. Yes, he had said things to the security police because they had promised him freedom if he confessed. He claimed he had sent a picture of the tower to Aleksei, his acquaintance in Russia, for no reason. That’s no crime, is it?
After a while I understood why Stilve had not thrown me out of the yard. He was hoping that I would help him.
During the conversation, Stilve pulled out a notebook from the breast pocket of his overalls and asked if I could find some information in Lithuania. Apparently, his case contained a notice from the Lithuanian prosecutor’s office, stating that his “Aleksei” is Aleksei Viktorovich Pizhikov, an employee at intelligence center No. 74 of the Western military district of Russia. In his notebook, Stilve had entered the number of another criminal case in Lithuania where Pizhikov and a Lithuanian individual, Roman Šešelis, are involved. He did not believe “his” Aleksei was the same person, as he had gone by the different name, but he could not find out anything about him online. Lithuanian prosecutors did not comment to Re:Baltica as the case is still ongoing.
Why did he do that?
There’s no answer yet about Stilve’s motivation. Analyzing information about all the cases involving Baltic spies, the most common motives are money, the need to feel important and the opportunity to freely go back and forth across the Russian border to conduct their business without harrassment from Russian authorities. The latter aspect was particularly important for cigarette smugglers convicted of spying in Estonia.
In Stilve’s case, there is no evidence that he ever received any money for providing information. Replying to our queries in writing, the security police speculated that what mostly motivated Stilve was “the opportunity to freely travel and earn income in Russia.”
Since getting out of prison, Stilve has invested his energies in the farm. He grows potatoes with his brother and sells them to the locals, which provides some income. He says that he should go to Bryansk and close both companies, but he is not permitted to leave the country. He has no idea when his probation will be lifted. There is no reason to think that it will be any time soon.
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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 Inga Spriņģe
Edited by Sanita Jemberga
Illustrations by Artur Kuus
Translated into Russian by Jara Sizova
Translated into English by Ieva Lešinska – Geibere, edited by Jody McPhillips (OCCRP)
Video Jānis Orbidāns
Madara Eihe participated in the data gathering