Russia is intensifying its spy war against the West, research says

In a recent report, the UK’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) warned that Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, is “making changes to the leadership of recruitment and training of special forces and rebuilding its support apparatus to be able to penetrate European countries.”

Infiltration

Operations can include the assassinations of political opponents abroad and interference in elections abroad to undermine Western unity and military aid to Ukraine. A recent high-profile case was the murder of Russian helicopter pilot Maxim Kuzminov in Spain, who fled to Ukraine in August 2023. 

Kuzminov moved to Spain and started a new life under a different name. Last month, his bullet-riddled body was found in a parking lot in the city of Villajoyosa in southern Spain. Nearby, authorities found a burned-out car.

Seizure of spies

Analysts say the killing is an example of Moscow’s intensified intelligence operations after European governments expelled about 600 suspected Kremlin spies following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

“The Europeans had a sense of security that Russian spies were no longer there and that their capabilities were significantly limited. But the problem is that this is not true. They are stronger than ever,” said Marina Miron, an analyst at the War Studies Department at King’s College London.

Last month, Russia intercepted a telephone conversation between senior German air force officers discussing the supply of long-range Taurus missiles to Ukraine. The recording was published by Russia’s state broadcaster, Russia Today, or RT, and was widely seen as an attempt to interfere in German discussions about supplying weapons to Ukraine.

Warnings from Ukraine

Kyiv said it had warned Berlin of the danger. “We have repeatedly warned our German partners about the Russian spy network, which is very active in Germany. It is well known that the Russians listen to the conversations of German officials, and we believe that this is not the last conversation they have [at their disposal],” Ukraine’s national security adviser, Oleksiy Danilov, told The Times.

French intelligence services are investigating a Russian-backed campaign to interfere in June’s European elections, involving hundreds of websites pushing 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 an information attack,” French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne told reporters on February 17 after the details of the operation were revealed.

Undermining democracy

According to the RUSI report, Russia is seeking to increase “unconventional” operations abroad. Russia “is actively interested in destabilizing Ukraine’s partners, and with a number of elections coming up across Europe, there is a wide range of opportunities to increase polarization,” the report says.

“Moreover, with Russian armed forces tied up in Ukraine, the importance of unconventional operations as leverage is growing. This is especially important in the context of the curtailment of Russia’s open diplomatic access to target countries.”

According to Oleksandr Danyliuk, a RUSI research fellow and co-author of the report, these operations are aimed at undermining democracy. The Russians “are still investing billions in intelligence operations in Europe, developing capabilities designed to interfere in elections, radicalize various social, ethnic, and religious groups, including minorities, and invest billions in political proxies who may even come to power,” he told Voice of America.

“Proxy operations”

Moscow’s intelligence services are increasingly working remotely, using proxies from other countries, including members of organized crime groups and foreign nationals, for operations.

“What is actually very important for special operations is the ability to refuse government sponsorship,” Danyliuk added. Recent years have uncovered several spy networks.

In December, Poland found 14 citizens from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine guilty of being part of a spy group that was planning sabotage for Moscow, including plans to derail trains delivering military aid to Ukraine.

Trials of suspected Russian spies are ongoing in the UK, Germany, Norway, and several other European countries. “This is no longer an ideological struggle,” Danylyuk said. – “This is ‘communism fighting capitalism,’ as the Soviets used to say. The point is that authoritarian countries are trying to undermine the West as the basis of democracy, freedom, and human rights. And this is an existential struggle for them.”

“An opportunity to recruit”

William Burns, director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, said in January that Russia’s war against Ukraine has given the West an opportunity to improve its intelligence capabilities.

“Disaffection with the war will continue to gnaw away at the Russian leadership beneath the steady diet of state propaganda and practiced repression,” Burns wrote in Foreign Affairs. “That disaffection creates a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us at the CIA, at our core a human intelligence service. We’re not letting it go to waste.”

The Kremlin said in May 2023 that its agencies were tracking Western spy activity after the CIA published a video encouraging Russians to make contact via a secure internet channel.

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