Austria was rocked by a massive Russian spying scandal

Austria has been hit by its biggest espionage scandal in decades, as the arrest of a former intelligence officer reveals evidence of extensive Russian spy infiltration.

The scandal erupted with the arrest on March 29 of former intelligence officer Egisto Ott, accused of, among other things, passing on the cell phone data of former high-ranking Austrian officials to the Russian secret services and helping to plan a robbery of a journalist’s apartment.

According to allegations, Egisto Ott sold the Russians confidential information from Western databases, including Christo Grozev’s address, a Bulgarian journalist for the Bellingcat website.

Austria has uncovered the biggest espionage case following an investigation by the German weekly Der Spiegel and the independent Russian website The Insider.

“If the allegations are true, as we currently assume, this will have significant consequences for Austria’s security as well as for the security of partner institutions and services that are part of the information chain. When information from a friendly intelligence agency is part of the data cluster, this will also have implications for the security of third countries,” said Nicolas Stockhammer, an intelligence specialist at the University of Krems.

“But nobody is ever safe from infiltration by foreign intelligence services. It’s happened in MI5, MI6, and elsewhere. That means we’re not a Russian spy island”, he added, as quoted by Euronews.

Jan Marsalek, a fugitive Austrian compatriot wanted on suspicion of fraud since the collapse of German payment company Wirecard in 2020, may have received sensitive information from Egisto Ott. According to the warrant, chat messages provided by British authorities link Marsalek directly to the FSB, a Russian intelligence agency.

German and Austrian media reported Marsalek has had links with Russian intelligence since at least 2014. He is now believed to be in Russia.

According to reports, Egisto Ott conducted more than 380 illegal searches in the Austrian police database in 2017, some of which targeted anti-fascist activists. Julia Spacil, an activist, is one of the people involved.

“The question is, who has an interest in this data? Are there perhaps far-right networks with links to the authorities who might be interested in this data? And this certainly represents a great danger for me as an active anti-fascist and for all the other people concerned,” she commented on the situation.

The Austrian Minister of the Interior declared that “the police and authorities must carry out appropriate investigations.” Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer called a meeting of the National Security Council and said the country needed to step up its security to counter Russian infiltration.

Vienna, a nest of spies during the Cold War, has clearly lost none of its reputation, despite the fall of the Iron Curtain. The arrest on March 29 of a former Austrian intelligence officer suspected of years of collaboration with Russia has caused unprecedented upheaval in this Central European country, which, behind its claimed “neutrality,” remains the target of Moscow’s infiltration operations at political, economic, and security levels.

After acknowledging on April 5 that the affair in question constituted “a national security problem,” the conservative Chancellor, Karl Nehammer, announced a tightening of the country’s very permissive anti-spying legislation.

His Minister of Justice, the ecologist Alma Zadic, who has declared that she wants to do away with her country’s image as a “haven for spies,” has in particular promised to introduce a bill to raise the ceiling on sentences for espionage, currently set at a maximum of five years.

Known for having been involved in countless charities for over ten years, Mr. Ott had certainly been suspended from the BVT in 2017, following information from allied services on how he had sold confidential information extracted from Western databases to the Russians for several tens of thousands of euros. Surprisingly, the courts cleared him of these facts and reinstated him in another department of the Ministry of the Interior. All this while continuing, in parallel, his occult activities for Russia, according to the investigators.

However, the UK’s information sharing in early 2024 eventually prompted the Austrian authorities to take action. The previous year, the British services had arrested a cell of Bulgarian citizens working clandestinely from their territory on behalf of the former director of the now-defunct online payment service Wirecard, the notorious Jan Marsalek.

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