Spy games: the expulsion of diplomats exposed the monstrous secret network of Putin in the world

France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Sweden… Europe is expelling Russian diplomats en masse. There are already more than 400 on the global blacklist and all of them are being targeted by spies.

Russia, before Putin and with Putin, has used its diplomatic network to strengthen its espionage network. The method is simple. They present themselves as cultural or commercial attaches and weave contacts at all levels. However, the mission of each of them in the countries to which they are sent is only one: collect information and infiltrate the highest levels of government.

The unprecedented wave of expulsions of Russian diplomats from European capitals is not just a symbolic act, albeit a reversible one, it is part of a decades-long battle to police the dividing line between espionage and diplomacy

John Sawers, former head of MI6, said last year that he suspected the West only captured 10% of Russian espionage.

Until last Friday, among the EU member states, only Malta, Cyprus and Hungary had so far refused to send any Russian “diplomats”.

the recognized former French diplomat François Heisbourz assured in dialogue with Guardian, that there is a clear and valid distinction between a diplomat and a spy, and that those expelled from Europe were not chosen at random, but because there is evidence that they violate the Vienna Convention, the code that governs legitimate diplomacy. In addition to espionage, it could also be the spread of disinformation on social media.

“If you engage in Twitter insulting the host country government, if you follow the ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy undertaken by Chinese diplomats, that may fall under that definition of making you persona non grata,” Heisbourg said.

Heisbourg stated that expulsions are an art. “Obviously, it’s easier to track down the spy you know than the one you don’t. Once his existence is known, he becomes a useful counter-spy. If you don’t know who they are, you have a problem.” He recalled that during the so-called Farewell affair in the 1980s, a KGB defector, Vladimir Vetrov, handed over nearly 4,000 secret documents to the DST, the French internal secret service, showing how Russia had penetrated the West to steal its technology. . Vetrov also provided a list of 250 intelligence officers stationed under legal cover in embassies around the world.

Following Vetrov’s arrest in Moscow alone, France, based on the files provided by Vetrov, moved to expel 40 diplomats, two journalists and five business officials. Heisbourg was involved in handling the case, recalling: “Even then, it was useful to withhold some names, so we had an A-list and a B-list that we kept in reserve in case the Russians took countermeasures. We let the Russians know that if they retaliated, they would take a much bigger hit.”

The mistrust of commercial, military and cultural “attaches” is growing in the world’s democracies. Unlike what happens in other delegations with more democratic representation, the titles that appear on their business cards are just a façade. The main function of these diplomats is to frequent political, business, journalistic and cultural corridors in order to obtain sensitive information. The network has been armed since the time when the Soviet Union placed control of its international relations with the agents of the KGB (Committee for State Security, for its acronym in Russian).

Forensic technicians remove the body of a civilian who was killed during the Russian invasion and later buried and exhumed from a mass grave in the town of Bucha, outside kyiv, Ukraine, April 13, 2022. REUTERS/Volodymyr Petrov
Forensic technicians remove the body of a civilian who was killed during the Russian invasion and later buried and exhumed from a mass grave in the town of Bucha, outside kyiv, Ukraine, April 13, 2022. REUTERS/Volodymyr Petrov ( VOLODYMYR PETROV/)

After the collapse of the Soviet experiment in Russia, the KGB’s image laundering came into operation. His heir would only change her name: it was renamed the FSB (Federal Security Service, for its acronym in Russian), after several restructurings in its organization chart. It depends on President Vladimir Putin, who was a spy during the final years of the Cold War in East Germany. It operates in the same building as its predecessor and employs around 300,000 secret agents. An army.

Since the 1980s the proportion of spies operating within the Russian diplomatic service is higher than in most countries.

Heisbourz wonders, for example, why 290 Russian diplomats are still operating in neutral Austria, even after the Foreign Office, after days of hesitation, expelled four diplomats. For comparison, Austria has about 30 diplomats operating in Moscow. It is true that large countries have larger embassies – an excellent example is the US embassy in Baghdad – and some of the Russian diplomats in Vienna – possibly 100 – are attached to the many UN institutions in Austria, such as the nuclear watchdog of the UN, the IAEA. But the imbalance of Russian and Austrian interests in each other’s countries is surprising at best.

Also Poland You may wonder, in retrospect, why after expelling 45 diplomats on March 23, he had granted diplomatic status to so many Russians in the first place. Stanisław Żaryn, spokesman for the coordinating minister of special services, has justified the expulsions: “We are neutralizing the network of Russian special services in our country.” And he claimed that half of the expelled diplomats were direct employees of the Russian secret services and the other half were involved in hostile influence operations.

“Russia uses diplomacy not to keep in touch with its partners, but to push false claims and propaganda statements against the West,” Żaryn said. In total, the 45 expelled Russians represent about half of the Russian diplomatic staff in Warsaw.

Two other countries at the forefront of supplying heavy weapons to Ukraine –Slovakia and the Czech Republic – have also recently been on the front lines of espionage with Moscow.

On March 30, Bratislava expelled 35 diplomats, one of the largest expulsions in the current wave.

Just a fortnight earlier, on March 14, Slovakia detained four people suspected of spying for Moscow, and expelled three Russian diplomats in response. Russia had paid the suspects “tens of thousands of euros” for sensitive or classified information. The quality of that information is disputed, but one of the two accused men was pro-rector and head of the security and defense department of the Armed Forces Academy in the northern city of Liptovsky Mikulas.

It was also reported that there were contacts since 2013 with four officers who worked for the Russian military intelligence agency GRU. One of them was Lieutenant Colonel Sergey Solomasov, a spy for the GRU. Slovak intelligence filmed Solomasov smoking and talking in a park with Bohuš Garbár, a contributor to the now-closed Hlavné Správy conspiracy website. In the video he tells Garbár: “Moscow has decided that you will be a ‘hunter’ of two types of people: those who love Russia and want to cooperate, who want money and have confidential information. The second group is your acquaintances who may or may not be thinking of working for Russia. I need political information and communication between countries, within NATO and the EU.”

Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov
GRU agents Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov were linked to the novichok poisonings in Salisbury and the sabotage of Czech weapons stores. (HANDOUT/)

The Czechs also have reason to doubt the good faith of the Russian diplomat. In 2014, a mysterious but massive explosion occurred at a pair of remote Czech arms depots, including one in Vrbětice, near the Slovakian border, resulting in two deaths. At that time, Ukraine had been on the arms market to fight Russia in Donbas. It was unclear whether the cause of the explosions was sabotage or incompetence, and the case went cold. But then investigations by the British police, as well as the open source investigative outlet Bellingcat, revealed the identity of two suspected GRU operatives. They were Ruslan Boshirov (whose real name is Anatoliy Chepiga) and Alexander Petrov (Alexander Mishkin).

Guardian details that these same aliases had allegedly been given by two Russians who had visited a hotel near Vrbětice just before the 2014 explosion. Intelligence sources suggested that the planned arms shipments belonged to EMCO, a company owned by the Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, who was poisoned in a fancy restaurant in Sofia in April 2015, just a few months after the explosion in the Czech Republic.

A 2019 investigation by Bellingcat claimed that another senior GRU official, Denis Sergeev (alias “Sergey Fedotov”), was in Bulgaria at the time of Gebrev’s poisoning, which he survived.

Sergeev would also have been in the UK at the time of the novichok poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer who had spied for Britain, in Salisbury, England.

After the war crimes in Bucha were revealed, Germany expelled 40 Russian diplomats, France at 35, Spain at 25, Slovenia out of 33, Italy – which had kicked out two Russian spies in 2021 – selected another 30. Lithuania decided to expel Alexey Isakov, the Russian ambassador himself. As a parting gift, someone dyed the lake in front of the embassy blood red.

Some, like Belgium (21 expelled) and the Netherlands (17) took action before news of the Bucha massacre began to circulate.

The expulsion of spies on this scale is unprecedented. That is more than double the number expelled in 2018, when 28 Western countries returned 153 suspected spies to Moscow in response to Russia’s assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal. The latest expulsions are “exceptional” and “long overdue,” Marc Polymeropoulos, who led CIA operations in Europe and Eurasia until 2019, told The Economist. “Europe is its historical playground and its diplomatic staff has always been confused with that of intelligence agents.”


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