How Russia's security service framed an Estonian prisoner as a secret agent

'They were too lazy to know or care that the guy they framed was currently sitting in our prison.'

Danil Danilov and a faked interview by the FSB. (Photo illustration: Kelli R. Grant/Yahoo News; photos: family handout, FSB Murmansk region)
Danil Danilov and a faked interview by the FSB. (Photo illustration: Kelli R. Grant/Yahoo News; photos: family handout, FSB Murmansk region)

“I am a foreign agent of the special services of the Estonian Kapo,” the man, whose face has been blurred and whose voice has been rendered into bass, states on camera. “For a long time, I carried out tasks assigned to me by representatives of the Estonian Kapo, both on the territory of Estonia and in a number of other European countries, as well as on the territory of the Russian Federation in relation to civilians and including members of criminal groups.”

To hear Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, tell it, the unnamed 36-year-old Estonian national was captured in the arctic Russian city of Murmansk in late June 2022. A spokesperson for the FSB in Murmansk stated that the suspect was going to “collect information about the employees of the FSB with access to state secrets and individuals who provide them with confidential information.”

The alleged spy was evidently tasked by his handlers in the Kaitsepolitseiamet (known colloquially as Kapo), the Estonian Internal Security Service, with stealing Russian state secrets. No further information was given. And so this might have gone down as a trophy for Vladimir Putin’s spy hunters at a time when the Russian president has demanded hypervigilance against foreign intelligence operatives.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech in Moscow on Tuesday. (Gavrill Grigorov/AFP via Getty Images) (SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

There was just one problem.

The Estonian man in the video, Danil Danilov, was not a spy. He was a convicted thief and former heroin trafficker who was sitting in an Estonian jail cell while Russia was celebrating his arrest. And the FSB knew all this because it had actually arrested Danilov in Murmansk a full year earlier, in June 2021, not for espionage but because Estonia had issued an Interpol Red Notice for him as a fugitive convicted of a 2014 robbery of a jewelry store in Tallinn, the Estonian capital. He’d even done time in St. Petersburg, Russia, for drug-related offenses years prior. Moreover, in April 2022, two full months before his putative unmasking as an agent of the Kapo, Russian law enforcement extradited Danilov to Estonia, from where he’d fled from a nearly seven-year sentence for the robbery. (There’s even a public record of Russia’s handover of Danilov to Estonian officials at the Russian-Estonian border.)

So what happened? Was this a case of mistaken identity? Was it just an instance of bureaucratic incompetence, the everyday busywork of indifferent regional officials with quotas to fill and masters to impress back in Moscow? Or, perhaps, did the FSB fabricate a bogeyman in order to keep Russian society ever alive to the threat of Western eyes and ears all around them?

The FSB in Murmansk did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.

“The Russians had a common crook, a thug, on their hands with an Estonian passport,” Alexander Toots, the deputy director of the Kapo, told Yahoo News. “This was too good an opportunity to pass up. So when they caught Danilov, they beat statements out of him, got him to say he was working for us. Then they tucked this ‘confession’ away for a rainy day, for when they wanted to pretend they caught a foreign agent. The FSB likes to scam their leadership and wider audience with these fake ‘spy cases’ to show they have domestic security under control. In this instance, however, they were too lazy to know or care that the guy they framed was currently sitting in our prison.”

Talinn Prison. (via Wikicommons)
The prison in Talinn, Estonia. (via Wikicommons) (Dmitry G)

A Yahoo News reporter visited Danilov in Tallinn Prison in . He confirmed that he is indeed the man in the video that the FSB in Murmansk produced. He acknowledged robbing an Estonian jewelry store, and offered details of his criminal past in Turkey, Italy, Estonia and Russia. And he indeed alluded to being coerced by the FSB into lying about working for the Kapo.

“Did you know the FSB has accused you of spying for Estonia?”

“I don't want to talk about it,” Danilov said.

Danilov, an ethnic Russian, was born in 1986 in Estonia, which was then part of the Soviet Union after being occupied during World War II. His mother and maternal grandparents were from the Russian city of Ryazan, about 127 miles southeast of Moscow. “My mother was born there, studied there. It was convenient for the mother that the children stay there until she got some kind of apartment here in Tallinn so that she had somewhere to live,” Danilov told Yahoo News.

His parents moved to Tallinn, and Danilov attended a local high school. He served for a short time in the Estonian army, then moved to Turkey for three years. While living abroad, he made frequent trips to Italy, where he was detained by the authorities for heroin smuggling. “They couldn't prove anything, so they let me go.”

Danilov’s luck ran out shortly thereafter. He was arrested in Estonia on drug trafficking charges in 2010 and given a 7.5-year prison sentence. He served three. His smuggling ring by this point became notorious. According to the news outlet Re:Baltica, Danilov was part of a vast drug-running enterprise based in the Baltics. “Sometimes he worked as a drug mule himself,” the outlet reported, “but more and more often he found new men and women ready to earn money. The majority of them had no previous criminal records. They were normal people.” Danilov himself reportedly transported 2 kilos of heroin from Turkey to Naples.

Danil Danilov in 2009
Danilov in 2009. (Estonian Criminal Police)

Danilov admitted that he fled Estonia in 2015, following a conviction for robbing a jewelry store in central Tallinn along with accomplices, making off with 20,000 euros worth of items. “I was supposed to come to serve my sentence in 2015. But I didn’t come,” he said.

Has he ever had anything to do with the Kapo? “No, I don't know anyone there,” he told Yahoo News.

Danilov’s litigated criminal history would have been enough to foreclose on his recruitment by most Western intelligence services, according to experts. But that apparently did not deter Russia’s FSB from declaring he was a spy.

“After the catastrophic failure to anticipate the developments in Ukraine in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, the FSB has tried to recuperate its image with the Russian public by publicizing its ‘successes’ in the field of domestic counterintelligence,” said Filip Kovacevic, an expert on Russian intelligence and counterintelligence history who teaches at the University of San Francisco. “Their new PR campaign seems to be: ‘See how many dangerous Western spies we have caught — we sure know how to keep our country well protected.’ Danilov’s confession is a part of that campaign.”

The FSB is one of two intelligence services to be reconstituted from the Soviet-era KGB, the one focused on domestic rather than foreign security. Yet since it came into existence in 1995 it has faced a long trail of accusations of falsifying evidence, staging false-flag terror attacks, blackmailing Russian citizens and more.

“The reason this seems so unprofessional is because the FSB has two overriding goals,” Dan Hoffman, a former CIA station chief in both Tallinn and Moscow, told Yahoo News. “The first is that they want to create a climate of fear: ‘The enemy is at the gates, if not inside the gates. We have to be on alert at all times.’ The second is that they really do want to heighten their counterintelligence level of awareness and give the FSB all the reason in the world to be looking for spies.”

“This is an information operation,” Hoffman continued. “So while it may seem sloppy or buffoonish to outsiders, the FSB gets an A-plus for creating a paranoid climate, and they get an A-plus for making Estonia out to be the enemy inside the gates.”

Danilov was given a short reprieve before his sentence. He traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city. “I was in the Rossiya Hotel on Basseynaya Street,” he said. “It's next to the National Library. There I was arrested. They not only arrested me, but also a group of people.” Danilov insists the drugs discovered on him by the Russian authorities were planted.

Because he was now incarcerated in Russia, Danilov couldn’t serve his sentence in Estonia even if he wanted to. He spent three years behind bars in Prison IK-5, on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. After his release in 2018 he married a Russian woman. They had two children and lived mostly under the radar for the next few years. But in July 2018, the Estonian prosecutor general had placed an extradition request for Danilov with the Russian government, a request that Russia’s prosecutor general answered in December, claiming it was unable to locate the fugitive on Russian soil.

Razor wire
Getty Images (Getty Images/EyeEm)

Danilov told Yahoo News he took a 2021 “business trip” to the port city of Murmansk, located in the far northwest of Russia. The FSB, he said, raided their apartment, took him to its regional headquarters and kept him confined to a basement for at least a week, possibly longer. He is cagey about why the FSB would have been surveilling or tracking him. “I would not like to answer these questions,” he said.

His wife even placed a missing persons ad in a local newspaper. Her husband, it read, “left the house on June 23, disappeared. His whereabouts are no longer known.”

It was late March 2022. “The FSB came to me while I was sitting in a punishment cell. I wasn’t even allowed to contact the Estonian Embassy. They came to me and said, ‘If you want to receive letters and call, here is the text, let’s record a video, and that’s it.' I read the text several times. I said what they asked me to say on the video, and that was that. They have their own interests and didn’t explain anything to me.”

Was Danilov tortured in FSB custody, as Toots claims?

“Do you understand in general what 10 days without trial in the basement means for the FSB?” he said. “Do you understand what is happening there at this time? I don’t want to, you know, say anything. I have family in Russia. I don’t want to say anything bad.”

Did the FSB at any point try to recruit him?

“I will not answer this question.”

That he was an Estonian citizen was likely the icing on the cake for the FSB.

June 2022, the date of Danilov's capture as an alleged Kapo spy, was just four months into Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine. The West had expelled Russian intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover from dozens of embassies and consulates all over Europe and North America. And Putin had every reason to fear that his country was being infiltrated by spies: The U.S. and the U.K. had publicly aired his invasion plans in real time, almost down to the very day, along with the pretext he planned to use to justify the war. Spy mania was gripping Russia, and the president, a former KGB case officer, demanded results — especially from the FSB, the service that, out of malfeasance or stupidity, had so badly botched his war.

Black smoke rises from a military airport in Chuguyev, Ukraine
Smoke rises from a military airport near Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 24, 2022, the first day of the Russian invasion. (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

Estonia, meanwhile, has been a Baltic powerhouse, arming Ukraine and countering Putin’s intelligence operations in Europe. A NATO and EU member state, with a 183-mile border with Russia and therefore possessing one overriding national security preoccupation, Estonia has spent more than 1% of its GDP on military hardware for Ukraine. It emptied its stock of 155-millimeter howitzers to send to the war-ravaged nation. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas is outspoken among Western leaders in her belief that Ukraine must defeat Russia militarily and not sue for a peace that cedes Kyiv’s territory to Moscow.

Danilov’s own position on the war in Ukraine is hard to discern. He says he doesn’t trust the news he has access to, mostly Voice of America. (Russian state media is banned in Tallinn Prison.) He also claims to receive information directly from soldiers on both sides at the frontlines.

The Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary corps financed by sanctioned Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, has for months been recruiting militants from the ranks of Russia’s sprawling prison population, although that effort was recently stopped. Prigozhin says that as of February, Wagner has been “completely barred” from recruiting from prison colonies.

“My friends from the Murmansk prison colony who went to Ukraine — they died,” Danilov said.

With additional reporting by Holger Roonemaa and Ilya Ber in Tallinn