Ireland’s vulnerability to Russian espionage in all its variations is unlikely to change any time soon. The government has failed to deliver on promises to publish a national security strategy, The Sunday Times reports in its article about allegedly Russian agent Marina Sologub.
Ireland has been the target of espionage by Moscow’s secret services since the country’s founding in 1922. Russian GRU military intelligence and its sister SVR foreign intelligence service have increased their aggressiveness on Irish territory in recent years. As a result, Dublin-Moscow relations have reached unprecedented lows.
Both the GRU and SVR engage in covert operations such as kompromat (personal blackmail), intellectual property theft, money laundering, and more conventional covert spying. Agents have also attempted to sway political discourse, disseminate false information, and aid the political wing of terrorist organizations that are both republican and loyalist.
The Russian embassy in Orwell Road, Rathgar, is also used as a center for intelligence gathering, not just about Ireland but also the trading partners in the European Union.
Marina Sologub: not an ordinary Irish citizen?
When Australian officials forced Marina Sologub out of the country and canceled her “exceptional talent” visa, she realized something was wrong. The 39-year-old Irish national, who was born in Cork and had previously resided in Westmeath, was working for the City of Marion, a local government six miles south of Adelaide, at the time.
It was only when Sologub asked what was wrong that she found she was considered a threat to Australia’s national security. At the time her visa was revoked, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) had been keeping an eye on her for months.
Sologub was suspected because it was stated that she made an effort to make friends with Australian space agency employees. In one approach she allegedly mentioned having contacts at the highest levels in Russia, which triggered a thorough check of her background.
No criminal charges have been brought against Sologub, and she has not been found guilty of any offenses.
She had applied for her visa as an Irish citizen who had a variety of work experience. Later background checks by Garda Headquarters, the national police service of Ireland, and MI5, the UK counter-intelligence agency, confirmed that Sologub was an ethnic Russian. As a child, she obtained Irish citizenship when her parents came to the Republic after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In Ireland, Sologub had worked in political circles, public utility companies, and at the National Space Centre in Cork, all areas of Irish society that have been targeted by Moscow’s special services. She had even worked for Bernard Allen, the former Cork TD who served as chairman of the public accounts committee.
Russian diaspora or spy nest?
The presence of Russian spies in Ireland and Dublin’s laissez-faire approach to national security is now in sharp focus. The Kremlin is constantly on the lookout for individuals who could aid in its espionage and subversive efforts.
‘Access agents’ are occasionally chosen from the ethnic Russian diaspora.
It is explained that Irish citizens are typically not viewed as politically dangerous and are free to interact with a wide range of people without drawing the attention of domestic security services.
“As we are learning, the Russian intelligence services have had success recruiting spies and support assets throughout Europe. Russian offensive operations have been relatively easy in parts of Europe because they have not faced well-resourced and experienced counter-intelligence services,” said John Sipher, a retired CIA officer with experience in Russia’s espionage practices.
“In espionage, the offense is easy if there is no defense. Hopefully, the war in Ukraine has woken up western counterintelligence professionals.”
Ireland is viewed in intelligence circles as having a defense apparatus that is underfunded and of inferior quality to protect its national security interests. On the other hand, Russia is highly competent in the dark arts of espionage and hybrid warfare. As an example of Russian covert agent operations, it is necessary to remember the spy scandal in the Hague.
Last year Dutch intelligence services arrested Sergey Cherkasov, 36, a GRU military intelligence officer who had tried to infiltrate the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Cherkasov had spent years in Ireland studying at Trinity College Dublin to establish a false identity.
Such spies are known as illegals because they form a separate cadre working outside the legal intelligence framework in Russian embassies. They are deep-cover spies who try to elicit information from policymakers, analysts, and business figures while posing as ordinary citizens.
The unmasking of Cherkasov led to some public amusement but Garda Headquarters saw it as a taste of things to come.
The Defence Forces and Garda both try to disrupt Russian espionage, detect operatives, and force Moscow to withdraw them. On occasion the government also expels diplomats who work as undeclared intelligence officers in the embassy.
Sipher’s view of the dangers of taking a benign approach to national security is shared by security experts, defense officers, and retired Garda who have spent their careers thwarting the GRU and SVR.
Liam Smaul, a retired Special Branch detective who worked in counter-intelligence, said: “There are likely to be many agents with Irish citizenship and networks of Russian illegals living in Ireland. Russian spying is no longer confined to intelligence officers working from the embassy.”
“When people started arriving here from Russia and the former Soviet Union in the Nineties we looked at it as an immigration issue and not as a security one,” added Smaul, who recalls how some ethnic Russians often claimed to be Moldovan or Georgian.
“Their true nationalities became obvious when they began seeking help from the Russian embassy. Some of these people, we found, were involved in illicit activities and had traveled the world under aliases,” he said.
“They had connections to organized crime and were very security conscious. It was fertile ground for Russian intelligence to recruit agents.”
Image: @The Sunday Times. Source.