‘Tip of the iceberg’: rise in Russian spying activity alarms European capitals
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The scene seemed more suited to an Austin Powers spy farce than a John le Carré cold war intrigue.
“I told Moscow that you are such a good boy,” lieutenant colonel Sergey Solomasov, a spook working for Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, told his Slovak contact, Bohus Garbar. “Moscow decided that you’ll be a hunter.”
But Solomasov — on paper, Russia’s deputy military attaché in Bratislava — was wrong. Garbar did not get a chance to hunt. Instead he was the hunted: Slovak agents had filmed the meeting with his handler.
On March 14, Solomasov was one of three Russians expelled from Slovakia “for acting in contravention of the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations”. Though Garbar — a well-connected, muckraking blogger — was a lowly target, the Russian’s other recruits were not: Solomasov’s network included a Slovak colonel and a senior official in counter-intelligence.
Keeping track of the Kremlin’s espionage activity in the west has become an even more urgent task since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upended Europe’s security order. But many countries are still playing catch-up with Moscow’s undercover activity on their soil.
“What we know about [it] is almost certainly the tip of the iceberg,” said Keir Giles, senior consulting fellow of the Russia programme at 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.”
Eight serving European intelligence officials and diplomats interviewed by the Financial Times said Russia’s covert operations in Europe had been expanding at a rate that counter-espionage efforts have struggled to match. Several countries still rely on US and UK intelligence gathering because of restrictions on domestic surveillance and a lack of resources.
A round of expulsions this month points to the scale of the problem. In addition to the Slovak defenestration, three Baltic states and Bulgaria announced expulsions of 20 alleged Russian agents in total. And Poland declared 45 Russian diplomats personae non gratae, alleging all to be using diplomatic cover to undertake intelligence work.
Some countries, such as the UK, are confident they have reduced Russian capacity significantly, with agent numbers in Britain in the low single digits, according to one senior Whitehall official. But other countries are more exposed. Dozens of Russian agents are still active in Germany, France and Belgium, according to the assessment of one European intelligence official.
Austria is a “veritable aircraft carrier” of covert Russian activity, said another. Its BVT intelligence agency is regarded as being so compromised that for a time it was cut out of much European intelligence sharing activity, according to one Vienna-based European diplomat. The country’s defence ministry is “practically a department of the GRU”, the diplomat added.
An Austrian chancellery official said they could not comment on anonymous allegations but pointed out that the current government has been pushing through sweeping reform of its security agencies.
“We are beginning to see governments in Europe start to face up publicly to what is happening,” said Giles. “Democracies can’t defend themselves against threats about which the majority of their population is unaware.”
Recent cases that have made it into the public domain reveal the scope and scale of Russia’s interests and successes:
2017 Russia had an agent working as a close adviser to the then French minister of defence, now foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s former spy chief Bernard Bajolet said in an interview last year.
July 2020 Danish authorities uncovered Russian attempts to steal energy technology. In August that year, a French lieutenant colonel, working for Nato’s maritime command in Naples, was arrested for passing classified Nato material to the GRU, the Russian intelligence agency. In December, Dutch authorities expelled two Russian undercover agents for trying to steal AI and nanotechnology from Dutch companies.
March 2021 Bulgaria arrested six of its own citizens — including defence ministry employees and former head of defence intelligence Ivan Iliev — for passing secrets to the GRU at a cost of $3,000 each. Iliev and the other accused are remanded in custody awaiting trial. Later that month, Italian authorities caught navy captain Walter Biot selling a series of military secrets to the GRU for $5,000 a time. Biot’s trial opened last week. He has not yet entered a plea.
June 2021 German authorities arrested Russian scientist “Ilnur N” for stealing aeronautical secrets and missile technology from research centres in Augsburg. His trial continues. In September they arrested a security employee of the German parliament, who had sold the GRU detailed blueprints of the building and its systems.
Russia employs around 400,000 people across its three main intelligence agencies. The defence ministry’s “main directorate”, the GU — still widely known by its Soviet-era initials as the GRU — has wide-ranging interests in Nato affairs and military technology, as well as in subversion and sabotage.
The FSB is focused on domestic intelligence but its “fifth service” collects foreign intelligence from Russia’s near-abroad — including Ukraine. The SVR, the inheritor to the KGB’s first chief directorate, is tasked solely with foreign intelligence gathering.
Western officials said there were typically three types of Russian agent at work in Europe: declared agents, often filling roles such as the defence attaché, working for the GRU; undeclared agents, who might be disguised by the SVR as part of a trade delegation; and illegals, who are sleeper agents working deeply undercover.
“There are very few of these. For every 100 that enter the SVR’s ‘S’ directorate [for training “illegals”], only two might graduate,” said one official.
Keeping track of Russia’s covert activity is a huge challenge even when the targets are known.
“You need a very co-ordinated 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 tool that can be wielded. The bigger prizes, said another official, are to persuade agents to switch sides or to deliberately misinform them.
“Offence is often the best defence — especially when things get ugly, as they are now,” said one European security official. “It can be a good time to recruit.”