An ordinary family or sleeper agents: new details of the spy case in Slovenia.

Slovenia has identified two foreign citizens who were spying for Russia. The two suspects face up to eight years in prison for espionage and providing false information. The couple, who were arrested with a huge amount of cash and a history of long travels across Europe, is now part of a diplomatic game.

Image: Ludwig Gisch’s passport/The Guardian

In early December last year, Slovenian police detained a couple believed to be Russian spies. Law enforcement officers broke into the house, arrested the couple, and took their two children into social care. Police also searched the office belonging to the couple. Among the findings, according to a source with knowledge of the investigation, was an “enormous” amount of cash; so much, in fact, that it took hours to count, The Guardian reported.

In late January, Slovenian media reported on the arrests, linking them to Russian intelligence. This week, sources in Ljubljana told the Guardian that “Maria and Ludwig” were in fact elite Russian spies known as “illegals.” The arrests came after Slovenia received a tip-off from foreign intelligence.

“The suspects are members of a foreign intelligence service who used illegally obtained foreign identity documents to live and work in Slovenia under false identities and secretly gather information,” said Drago Menegalija, a police spokesman.

(Un)ordinary family

Maria Mayer and Ludwig Gisch arrived in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, in 2017 with their two young children. People who met the couple tended to like them; the newcomers from Latin America were friendly but never overbearing, inquisitive but never intrusive.

The house in Ljubljana where Ludwig Gisch, Maria Mayer and their two children lived. Photograph: Shaun Walker/The Guardian

Mayer opened an online art gallery, and Gisch ran an IT startup. They told their friends that fear of street crime in Argentina prompted them to move to Europe. People who knew one or both of the couple characterized them with the words: “ordinary” and “nice”. 

Mayer’s social media pages show that she traveled frequently to promote the 5’14 gallery, her online art portal. So far, there are no credible grounds to believe that the travels were a cover for espionage activities. However, this version cannot be dismissed.

Maria Mayer/The Guardian

Ludwig Gisch used an Argentine passport claiming to have been born in Namibia in 1984. He ran a company called DSM&IT, which offered software to organize people’s email accounts and block viruses, malware, and spam.

The Guardian claims that a friend of the couple who downloaded a trial version of the software said he doubted anyone would pay for such a service.

“I was not very impressed. It was five years behind modern technology in Europe, or even what’s done in Russia,” the friend told reporters.

Gish also used his job to travel, including to specialized online security conferences where he could meet with senior executives.

The couple spoke Spanish at home and most of their social contacts in English, claiming that the consonants of the Slovenian language were too difficult for them to master. Shaun Walker of The Guardian suggests that the couple may have thought that a Russian accent might be more noticeable in another Slavic language.

Kind, unassuming people living in a quiet suburban neighborhood with two children and frequent friends visiting is a great cover for an illegal immigrant and a sleeper agent.

Russia non-publicly recognized them

On Thursday, Slovenian Foreign Minister Tanja Fajon told reporters that the arrested couple were in fact Russian citizens, not Argentinians.

Two sources with detailed knowledge of the case told The Guardian that Mayer and Gisch worked for Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence service. 

One source with knowledge of the behind-the-scenes maneuvers said that in informal conversations after the arrests, Moscow quickly acknowledged that the pair were intelligence officers. Despite preparations for a trial in Slovenia, behind-the-scenes talks are underway between Moscow and Western countries to exchange them for a person or people currently in prison in Russia, the source said.

“The majority of their activity was not in Slovenia,” said an unnamed source.

A large cache of cash found during a search of the office may indicate that the couple’s duties included paying Russian unofficial agents or informants. Moscow sometimes uses illegal immigrants for this kind of task because intelligence officers working in embassies can be subject to routine surveillance and thus risk exposing sources.

The importance of such illegals for Russia rises because, after the invasion of Ukraine, many European countries began mass expulsions of “legal” Russian spies working under the cover of embassies and other diplomatic and cultural missions.  

The breadth of Russia’s spy operations makes it a unique threat, said Janez Stušek, who until last June was director of Slovenia’s Sova intelligence service. “I believe that the Chinese are mostly interested in economic issues, but for the Russians it’s also political, about the EU and Nato,” he said.

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