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Russia’s spy networks in Europe see greatest post-Cold War setback, experts claim

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February 20, 2023 by Joseph Fitsanakis

Russian embassy LondonRUSSIA’S ABILITY TO CONDUCT human intelligence operations in Europe has suffered greater damage in recent years than at any time since 1991, according to some experts. These setbacks have partly been caused by what The Washington Post refers to in a recent article as “a campaign to cripple Russian spy networks”, which is taking place across the continent. This Europe-wide campaign has grown in momentum since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and supplements boarder efforts to arm Ukraine in its war against the Kremlin.

The initial blow against the Kremlin’s spy network was delivered last year, when a wave of mass expulsions of Russian diplomats resulted in more than 400 suspected Russian intelligence officers being ordered to leave various European capitals. According to observes, the expelled Russian diplomats were in reality intelligence officers, who were active across Europe under diplomatic cover. Since that time, European counterintelligence agencies have launched a series of “precision strikes” against what remains of Russia’s human intelligence network across the continent.

The recent wave of expulsions of Russian intelligence personnel was not unprecedented. But it does suggest a degree of collaboration between Europe’s counterintelligence agencies that is difficult to match with historical examples. An interesting element in this collaboration is what The Washington Post describes as a “post-Ukraine shift in mind-set” in countries that had previously taken a softer approach toward the Kremlin. These include Germany, as well as Britain, which since 2018 has “refused on national security grounds over 100 Russian diplomatic visa applications”.

Russia’s response has been noticeably muted, and may mean that Moscow was caught off-guard by this Europe-wide counterintelligence campaign. The Post quotes Antti Pelttari, director of the Finnish Security and Intelligence Service (SUPO), who claims that the Russian capability to conduct human intelligence operations in Europe “has been degraded considerably”. This would imply that the Kremlin’s ability to carry out covert political action, such as political influence campaigns and related psychological operations, has been curtailed. Moreover, it is likely that the Russian intelligence services are unable to adequately assist the Kremlin’s decision-making capabilities with actionable information.

It stands to reason that Russia has tried to compensate for these suspected losses by utilizing its formidable cyberespionage capabilities. Additionally, there have been at least two recent cases of Russian intelligence operatives who employed non-official cover personas, using fake Brazilian citizenship papers. It is reasonable to assume that many other cases are being pursued by Western intelligence agencies, but thus far remain away from the media limelight. The Post speculates that the Kremlin may be able “to take advantage of border crossings and refugee flows to deploy new non-official-cover spies and replenish its depleted ranks”.

But such moves are likely to be happening hastily and with little preparation. These new non-official-cover spies are probably far less trained than the intelligence officers they are replacing. Moreover, they are working without the protection of diplomatic cover and in relative isolation from Russia’s global diplomatic infrastructure. As a result, they are operating in relative isolation and are expected to improvise to a large extent. This may explain why a number of them have been caught recently.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 February 2023 | Permalink