Spying, attacks, murder: Moscow’s secret services have shown they are capable of striking even in the heart of the West. However, intelligence expert Christopher Nehring says they are marked by failure and limited means.
So far, 2021 has been the year of Russian intelligence, with four spectacular operations exposed in the last four months. In Berlin, Jens F., an electrician with a Stasi past, was caught selling Bundestag construction plans to secret service agents at the Russian Embassy. In Bulgaria, a Russian spy ring was uncovered around the ex-military intelligence officer Ivan Iliev. In Italy, a frigate captain named Walter Biot was found to be selling military information.
And in the Czech Republic, the Interior Ministry identified officers of the Russian military intelligence agency GRU as the perpetrators of two explosions at an ammunition depot in Vrbetice in 2014. These were the same men who allegedly poisoned Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev in 2015, as well as former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok in 2018.
The Bulgarian Prosecutor General’s Office has also linked the GRU with four other instances of sabotage at weapons depots belonging to Gebrev’s company, EMKO. All this, of course, comes after Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny was poisoned with a nerve agent in August 2020, as well as cases of cyberespionage against the German Bundestag in 2015 and, in 2020, against the American IT company SolarWinds.
So, what can we learn from all this Russian activity?
Russia’s intelligence services at war
Syria, Libya, Central Asia, the Caucasus and Ukraine in particular: The Russian secret services, above all the GRU, are in a state of war. Operations like the one in Vrbetice, or the poison attack on the arms dealer Gebrev, are intended as support for Moscow’s military engagement by way of covert special operations.
The targets of these attacks are supporters of Russia’s military opponents. In this respect, Russia has since at least 2014, if not earlier, dispensed with any inhibitions about committing the most serious acts of violence within the territory of the Western alliance.
Intelligence operations like these have a longstanding tradition. Jens F. in Berlin, Ivan Iliev in Sofia, and Walter Biot in Rome — all were engaged in classic espionage. All that’s new is the number of cases that have been exposed within such a short space of time. Disinformation campaigns, too, were part of Moscow’s repertoire half a century ago, like the campaign by the KGB and the Stasi in the 1980s which spread the rumor that the AIDS virus was developed as a bioweapon by the US Army.
And assassinating double agents and secret service defectors is a tradition that dates back long before the Skripal case. The GRU poisoned the defector Vladimir Nesterovich in Mainz as early as 1925.