GRU, one-time spies, and fire: Russia intensifies its subversive activities in Europe

Recently, the number of reports of Russian sabotage and influence operations in a number of European countries has increased. This includes the entire spectrum of so-called “active measures,” as once defined by the Soviet KGB.

For instance, recent reports indicate that Russian intelligence recruited British citizens to set fire to offices of Ukraine-linked businesses in London, leading to their arrest in April. According to preliminary investigative data, in addition to Russian intelligence, the notorious Wagner PMC paramilitary group, known for participating in wars in Syria, Africa, and Ukraine, was also involved.

On May 24, British law enforcement officials reported a new case. A man has been charged with assisting Russian intelligence after being arrested by UK counter-terror police, BBC reported.

Howard Michael Phillips, 64, from Harlow in Essex, was arrested in central London and is due at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Thursday afternoon. Investigators have also searched addresses in Hertfordshire and Essex. Mr. Phillips was arrested under new National Security Act powers, which mean people can be detained without a warrant if police “reasonably” suspect they are involved “in foreign power threat activity.” The charge covers actions that “materially assist a foreign intelligence service in carrying out UK-related activities.”.

On May 23, Estonian border guards noticed that their Russian counterparts had removed 25 of the 50 buoys that Estonia had installed on the Narva River to prevent boats from accidentally crossing the border. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the incident “is part of a broader pattern of provocative behavior and hybrid actions by Russia.”

Estonia also dubbed it “unacceptable,” but said its response “remains calm and clear-eyed.” “We treat this as a provocative border incident,” the Foreign Ministry in Tallinn said on May 23. Josep Borrell deemed the removal of Estonian buoys by Russian border guards on a river that separates the Baltic country from Russia as “unacceptable”.

Meanwhile, reports surfaced in Poland of a series of arrests linked to suspected Russian sabotage operations. In response, the Polish government is ramping up security measures at Rzeszów-Jasionka Airport. This airport becomes a crucial hub for transporting Western military assistance to Ukraine.

Polish Interior Minister Tomasz Siemoniak highlighted what he described as the unprecedented level of foreign interference in his country. “We are facing a foreign state that is conducting hostile and—in military parlance—kinetic action on Polish territory,” Siemoniak said. “One-time agents,” recruited from criminal or hooligan circles, typically execute such operations, willing to undertake dangerous tasks for financial gain, he added.

In one notable case, the National Public Prosecutor’s Office detailed the detention of a man identified only as Paweł K., who allegedly volunteered to work for Russia’s GRU military intelligence. Investigators charged the suspect with gathering information about the security at Rzeszów-Jasionka Airport, with the intention of aiding in the planning of an attack, including a potential assassination attempt on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“We’re no longer talking about agents of influence or some online activities,” Siemoniak said. “These are individuals who are willing to come and set things on fire. There has never been anything like this before,” the Polish official added.

These are just a few of a number of events in Europe that have been linked to Russian intelligence. But their intensity indicates that Russia is stepping up its subversive efforts against the West, particularly European countries.

In fact, every citizen of the Russian Federation can be a potential agent of influence or a disguised intelligence representative. That is why the recent decision of the Norwegian authorities to significantly restrict visas for Russian tourists seems to be a reasonable response—in the current situation, it is impossible to guarantee that one of these “tourists” is not planning to sabotage an important defense facility.

These events have highlighted that countering Russian hybrid influence is becoming critically important not only for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe.

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