Europe unpicks Russia spy network Kremlin spent years building

30 March, 01:38 PM
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Putin wants to divide Ukraine (Photo:Thibault Camus/Pool via REUTERS)

Putin wants to divide Ukraine (Photo:Thibault Camus/Pool via REUTERS)

European security services are trying to uncover and eradicate a network of agents Russia has spent a lot of time and resources to develop, UK newspaper the Financial Times reported on March 28.

On March 14, Slovakia deported three Russian citizens, for “breaching the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations.”

Prior to this, Slovak security services managed to record a meeting between Bohus Garbar, a journalist from one of the most popular pro-Russian websites, and Sergei Solomasov, who serves as a Lt. Colonel in Russia’s GRU. In this meeting, Solomasov is explaining to Garbar his objective: searching for pro-Russian individuals with access to valuable information who would be willing to part with it for a reward.

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“I told Moscow that you are such a good boy; Moscow decided that you’re going to be a hunter,” Solomasov told Garbar.

However, Garbar was a secondary target for the Russians. Among Solomasov’s contacts, there were a Slovak army colonel, and a high-ranking counter-intelligence official.

The war in Ukraine has forced Europe to put effort into weeding out Russian agents.

“What we know about (it) is almost certainly the tip of the iceberg,” says Keir Giles, senior Russia research fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House.

“For many years there has been a conspiracy of silence, with western powers reluctant to talk about Russian activities or even go after them.”

Some countries have to rely on U.S. and UK intelligence due to constraints on domestic surveillance and limited budgets.

According to eight European diplomats and intelligence officers that FT spoke with, Russian covert activities on the continent are expanding so quickly that counter-intelligence simply can’t track them all properly. The sheer number of expelled Russians across Europe serves as an indicator of just how vast this problem is.

Besides Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and Bulgaria have expelled a total of 65 Russian “diplomats,” who were using their posts as cover to engage in espionage.

According to a high-ranking UK official, the number of Russian agents in the UK has fallen sharply as of late. Other countries, however, remain rather vulnerable in this regard.

As per an unnamed EU intelligence officer, Germany, France, and Belgium are still swarming with dozens of Russian spies. Austria, meanwhile, is altogether considered “a veritable aircraft carrier” for Russian agents: the country’s defense ministry is “practically a department of the GRU.” 

Austria’s BVT security service is considered so compromised that it has been effectively cut out of European intelligence sharing mechanisms.

While the Austrian government refuses to respond to such anonymous accusations, it says that a sweeping reform of state security is underway.

“We are beginning to see governments in Europe start to face up publicly to what is happening,” says Giles.

“Democracies can’t defend themselves against threats about which the majority of their population is unaware.”

Here are some recent incidents that can give an idea of the true scope of the covert assets and activities Russia is responsible for in Europe:

  • In 2017, a close adviser to French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian – who now is the country’s top diplomat – was revealed to have been a Russian agent.
  • In July 2020, Denmark uncovered Russian attempts to steal energy technology.
  • In August 2020, a French Lt. Colonel, working at NATO’s maritime command in Naples, was arrested for passing alliance secrets to theGRU.
  • In December 2020, the Netherlands expelled two Russian covert operatives for attempting to steal AI and nano-technologies from Dutch companies.
  • In March 2021, Bulgaria arrested six of its own citizens – including a former head of military intelligence and several defense ministry officials – for passing classified materials to the GRU.
  • In March 2021, Italy caught navy captain Walter Biot selling a series of military secrets to the GRU. Biot’s trial began last week.
  • In June 2021, Germany arrested a Russian scientist for stealing aerospace technology from Augsburg research centers. His trial is ongoing.
  • In September 2021, Germany also arrested a security employee of Bundestag, who sold the GRU detailed blueprints of the German parliament’s building.

Russia’s three main intelligence agencies employ around 400,000 people. The GRU is actively developing a network of agents in NATO countries, trying to access the latest European military technologies, as well as engaging in subversive activity and sabotage.

Domestic and counter-intelligence falls within the purview of the FSB, including its 5th Service, responsible for Ukraine.

The SVR is tasked solely with foreign intelligence gathering.

Russian agents in Europe typically fall into three categories: GRU-handled military attachés; undeclared agents, embedded by the SVR into various delegations; and deep undercover sleeper agents. The last variety is the rarest one: for every 100 who begin training to become such agents, only two or three might graduate.

Even when the suspects are known, tracking Russian covert activity is a very challenging task. 

“You need a very coordinated foreign and domestic intelligence operation to try and foil a lot of this activity,” said Gustav Gressel, a Berlin-based Russia analyst at the European Council for Foreign Relations, a think-tank.

“A lot of the security bureaucracies in Europe are just not up to this.”

But expulsions, or the destruction of Russian networks, are just one available tool. It’s much more lucrative and effective to persuade agents to switch sides and start supplying Moscow with deliberate misinformation. 

“Offence is often the best defense — especially when things get ugly, as they are now,” said one European security official. 

“It can be a good time to recruit.”

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