After the deportations: where are the Russian spies?


Status: 11.05.2022 6:23 p.m.

More than 400 Russian diplomats have had to leave Europe since the start of the war in Ukraine. It is said that they were spies. Security authorities assume that Russia is adjusting its espionage activities.

“I told Moscow you’re a good boy. Someone with lots of friends,” said the man in the polo shirt, baseball cap and shoulder bag. He draws nervously on his cigarette. His counterpart, a man in a white T-shirt with graying hair, listens intently. “Moscow has decided that you should become a hunter.” He should get information, such as confidential NATO documents. Then the man in the polo shirt takes a wad of 1,000 euro notes out of his pocket and gives them to his interlocutor.

Florian Flade

It’s a scene from a bad spy movie, secretly filmed and overheard by the Slovak military intelligence service. In mid-March, Slovak media released the surveillance video. It’s supposed to show how the deputy Russian military attache in Slovakia, the man in the polo shirt, recruits an informant. A blogger who writes mainly for ideological and pro-Russian conspiracy sites.

Similar initiation attempts are said to have already been made by a high-ranking Slovak military officer. In response to the spying action, Slovakia expelled several Russian diplomats from the country.

Hundreds of alleged spies deported

Many other countries have done the same since the start of the war against Ukraine: around 400 Russian diplomats, believed to be disguised secret service agents, have been declared ‘undesirable’ in Europe in recent weeks and have had to return to Russia .

Among them were 40 Russians accredited to the Embassy in Berlin and the Consulate General in Germany.

“The 40 members of the Russian missions in Germany whom we expelled did not spend a day in the diplomatic service during their stay in Germany,” Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said in late April. Secret Service agents had “for years and systematically worked against our freedom and against the cohesion of our society”.

Expelled diplomats cannot be replaced

In particular, people considered to be members of the Russian military intelligence service GRU and foreign service SWR were expelled by the Federal Foreign Office. Their families also had to leave Germany. In some cases, it was considered not to end the right of residence immediately, since the children of spies were about to finish their studies.

Those expelled cannot be replaced at the moment, which means that the total number of Russian diplomats in this country has decreased significantly.

Moscow must adapt its methods

The involuntary withdrawal of hundreds of secret service agents, some of whom were very experienced, is seen as a blow. European security authorities assume that Russia will now adapt its espionage activities in order to continue to obtain information from politics, business, the military and research.

According to security experts, it can be assumed that cyberattacks will increase. They mostly expect hacker attacks targeting information on energy policy, sanctions and weapons plans. Russian opposition figures and Ukrainian activists could also be increasingly targeted, Polish authorities recently warned.

In addition to hackers and cyberattacks, well-known Cold War-era methods may now be enjoying a renaissance.

Probably more travel agents in the future

According to security circles, it can be assumed that Moscow will increasingly use roving spies in the future, i.e. people equipped with false identities and who only travel to a target country to a specific command.

In the case of the poison attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain in the spring of 2018, such a team of roving secret service agents would have been deployed.

Restricted air links between Russia and the EU, the visa requirement for Russians and the increased vigilance of Western security authorities make such operations more difficult. However, security officials warn, Russian services have logistics networks that can be used for conspiratorial trips.

Murder in Berlin Tiergarten

The case of the assassination attempt at the Kleiner Tiergarten in Berlin in the summer of 2019 shows the importance of these traveling spies, who apparently act without any connection or contact with the Russian Embassy: at that time, a killer in Russian pawns shot a Chechen exile. with a gun.

The attacker, who has since been arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment, approached his victim on a bicycle and then tried to flee on an e-scooter.

To date, the Berlin police and the Federal Criminal Police Office have not been able to determine where the murderer got the bike and scooter from. And not who had provided him with the murder weapon and who had spotted the victim beforehand. The search is still ongoing for a man believed to be a member of the Russian FSB secret service who traveled to Germany at the same time. He is suspected of being involved in the assassination.

Revival of the supreme discipline of espionage?

Security authorities also suspect Moscow of reviving in the coming years an extremely complex, expensive and risky form of espionage, considered the “supreme discipline”: the so-called “illegal program”. Originally launched by the KGB during the Cold War, it is now carried out by Directorate S of the Russian foreign intelligence service SWR, a department responsible for particularly risky espionage operations.

“Illegals” are spies who are smuggled into a target country with constructed biographies and cover identities and remain active there for years or even decades. They do not have diplomatic status and are therefore not immune from prosecution if discovered. Their camouflage is usually that they pretend to live a middle class life, like a normal married couple or a neighboring family.

“Illegals” were also discovered in Germany

The “illegals” have been discovered only rarely: around the summer of 2010, when US federal police unmasked a Russian spy ring and arrested eleven spies. Shortly after, a couple who had been spying for Moscow since the late 1980s were unmasked in Germany. Andreas and Heidrun stop, according to the false identities of the agent couple, were sentenced to several years in prison and eventually transferred to Russia.

The Office for the Protection of the Constitution is convinced that there are other “illegals” in Germany. Encrypted commands are still transmitted from Moscow by shortwave radio – and recorded by the German authorities. It is almost always unclear who the agent’s radio recipients are and what the content of the radio messages is.

A few years ago, a joint project of European national secret services aimed to hunt down these camouflaged spies, called “prodigies” in Russia, at great expense. However, with only moderate success.

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