There hasn’t been a week since Russia began its full-scale war in Ukraine in February without reports of Russian spies, agents, or informants being exposed somewhere in the world.
Tide of accusations and arrests
A British embassy security man in Berlin who was given a 13-year prison term. A rumored informant working for the German intelligence service who is thought to be giving information to Moscow. Nine persons were detained in Poland on suspicion of monitoring weapon shipments to Ukraine and organizing sabotage activities.
Four Americans and three Russians were charged with conducting “a multi-year foreign malign influence campaign in the United States” on behalf of Russian intelligence just last week, according to an indictment presented by US authorities against them.
Diplomats and agents
The arrest of several accused “illegals”—deep-cover, elite Russian spies trained to take on foreign identities to blend in with Western society and collect secrets—has perhaps garnered the greatest attention.
Since 2011, no illegal Russian immigrant had been exposed in the West publicly; nonetheless, seven examples including Norway, Brazil, the Netherlands, Slovenia, and Greece have come to light in the past year.
According to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, more than 450 diplomats—mostly from Europe—were dismissed from Russian embassies during the first three months of the war in Ukraine.
The majority of those who were expelled were persons who the host nations thought were intelligence agents working under diplomatic cover. The series of expulsions is believed to have seriously damaged Russia’s intelligence-collecting operations. Both the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence arm, and the GRU military intelligence agency send their agents overseas under diplomatic cover.
Alleged acts of terror and assassinations
Unit 29155, first mentioned by the New York Times in 2019, is thought by Western intelligence services to have been a top-secret GRU unit entrusted with carrying out sabotage and attempted assassinations across Europe, including efforts to poison people with the nerve toxin “Novichok.”
However, it turned out that the GRU was giving 29155 operatives passports issued in the same Moscow passport office and with closely linked serial numbers, which allowed intelligence agencies and journalistic outfits like Bellingcat to identify many of the operatives and render them operationally useless. This was a spectacular failure of basic operational security procedures.
Some people think there might be something else at work. The latest discovery of illegal immigrants, according to John Sipher, a former deputy director of the CIA’s Russia operations, was likely the result of someone inside Russia sending information to the US or another western intelligence organization.
The network of illegals
Despite being trained individually, it may be simpler to apprehend one criminal than another due to commonalities in the “legends” employed for their origin stories or other operative traits.
After receiving a tip following the arrest of another alleged illegal couple in Slovenia, a senior Greek official claimed that the nation discovered an alleged Russian illegal who resided in Athens, operated a knitting shop, and falsely identified herself as a Mexican-Greek photographer named Maria Tsalla.
It is difficult to determine whether the recent roundup has destroyed Russia’s network of illegals or is merely a beginning.