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Russia Steps Up Spy War on West

LONDON — 

Russia has successfully relaunched its spy operations against the West after hundreds of its operatives were ejected following Moscow’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, according to analysts. They warn that the Kremlin is using a network of proxies to infiltrate European nations and carry out a range of intelligence operations.

Infiltration

In a recent report, Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI, warned that Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, “is restructuring how it manages the recruitment and training of special forces troops and is rebuilding the support apparatus to be able to infiltrate them into European countries.”

The operations range from the killing of political opponents based overseas to interference in foreign elections, with the aim of undermining Western unity and support for Ukraine.

A recent high-profile case was the killing of Maxim Kuzminov, a Russian helicopter pilot who had defected to Ukraine in August 2023. Kuzimov moved to Spain and started a new life under a false identity. Last month, his bullet-riddled body was found in a parking lot in the southern Spanish town of Villajoyosa. A burned-out getaway car was found nearby.

A burned car allegedly used by the perpetrators of the murder of the Russian pilot Maxim Kuzminov to escape the scene is parked outside the Spanish Civil Guard barracks, in El Campello, Spain, Feb. 14, 2024.


A burned car allegedly used by the perpetrators of the murder of the Russian pilot Maxim Kuzminov to escape the scene is parked outside the Spanish Civil Guard barracks, in El Campello, Spain, Feb. 14, 2024.

in the killing, but the director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service has since described Kuzminov as a “moral corpse” for defecting to the West.

Spies ejected

Analysts say the killing is the latest example of how Moscow’s intelligence operations have been reinvigorated since European governments kicked out around 600 suspected Kremlin spies in the wake of Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“The Europeans had a sense of security that the Russian spies are not there anymore, that their capabilities have been significantly curtailed. But the problem is they have not been. They are mightier than ever,” said Marina Miron, an analyst at Kings College London’s Department of War Studies.

Russia last month intercepted a phone call between senior German air force officers discussing supplying long-range “Taurus” missiles to Ukraine. The recording was published by the state-owned broadcaster Russia Today, or RT, and was widely seen as an attempt to interfere in the German debate over arming Kyiv. Berlin has ruled out sending the weapons to Ukraine.

Ukraine warnings

Kyiv said it had warned Berlin of the dangers. “We have made multiple warnings to our German partners about the spy network of Russians that are very active in Germany. … It is well known that the Russians are listening to conversations of German officials, and we think it is not the last conversation they have [in their possession],” Ukraine’s national security adviser, Oleksiy Danilov, told The Times of London newspaper last week.

French intelligence services are investigating a Russia-backed campaign aimed at interfering in the June European elections, involving hundreds of websites promoting Russian propaganda and supporting pro-Kremlin candidates.

“We are going to step up our own efforts to expose a number of disinformation operations. And in this context, Russia is also attacking us. … Europe is under attack from an informational point of view,” French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné told reporters on Feb. 17 after details of the operation were revealed.

Undermining democracy

With its army tied down in Ukraine, Russia is seeking to boost its “unconventional” operations overseas, according to the RUSI report.

Russia “has an active interest in destabilizing Ukraine’s partners, and with a slew of elections forthcoming across Europe, there is a wide range of opportunities to exacerbate polarization,” the report said.

“Moreover, with its conventional forces — so often used to coerce others — fixed by the fighting in Ukraine, the significance of unconventional operations as a lever of influence increases. This is especially important with the collapse of Russian overt diplomatic access across target countries.”

Those operations aim to disrupt democracies, according to Oleksandr V. Danylyuk, an associate fellow at RUSI and a co-author of the report.

The Russians “still invest billions into intelligence operations in Europe, developing capabilities which are designed for interference into elections; radicalization of different social, ethnic, religious groups, including minorities; investing billions into political proxies who can actually even come to power,” he told VOA.

Proxy operations

Moscow’s spy agencies are increasingly operating remotely, using non-Russian proxies to carry out operations, including organized criminals and foreign nationals.

“What is actually very important for special operations is the ability to deny the sponsorship of the government,” Danylyuk added.

Several spy networks have been uncovered in recent years. In Poland, 14 citizens from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine were convicted in December of belonging to a spy ring that was preparing acts of sabotage on behalf of Moscow, including plans to derail trains carrying military aid to Ukraine.

Trials of suspected Russian spies are ongoing in Britain, Germany, Norway and several other European countries.

“It’s not any more an ideological fight,” said Danylyuk. “It’s not like ‘communism fighting capitalism,’ like the Soviets would say. It’s that authoritarian countries are trying to subvert the West as a stronghold of democracy, freedom and human rights. And this is, for them, an existential fight.”

FILE - CIA Director William Burns departs after testifying during a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on the "Annual Worldwide Threats Assessment" in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 11, 2024.


FILE – CIA Director William Burns departs after testifying during a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on the “Annual Worldwide Threats Assessment” in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 11, 2024.

‘Recruiting opportunity’

Meanwhile, William J. Burns, director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, said in January that Russia’s war on Ukraine has in turn presented an opportunity for the West to improve its intelligence capabilities.

“Disaffection with the war is continuing to gnaw away at the Russian leadership and the Russian people, beneath the thick surface of state propaganda and repression,” Burns wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine.

“That undercurrent of disaffection is creating a once-in-a-generation recruiting opportunity for the CIA. We’re not letting it go to waste.”

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