The arrest of two Russian spies in Poland this past October is shocking. For many, the scandal lies in the penetration it revealed of the Defense Ministry in Warsaw, with a senior officer arrested along with a Polish-Russian lawyer who appears to have been part of another operation. But a little reflection suggests the real shock should be about something else. Poland, with its robust foreign policy stance and big defense budget, is a major target for Russian intelligence; clearly the Kremlin will have some successes. The real scandal, rather, is that so few Russian spies get caught and prosecuted.
The Polish spy-catchers’ success is a tiny dent in a huge problem. Western counter-intelligence sources believe that Russia has hundreds of intelligence officers at work in Europe, running thousands of agents. These range from the paid-up, fully conscious sources (“witting”, in American intelligence parlance) to those who out of naivety or self-delusion have no idea that they are working for the Kremlin.
Russian intelligence officers are sometimes based at embassies and other diplomatic missions under official cover but are more often working as business people, academics, or even students. Some of these are “illegals”, using fraudulently obtained documents that make them seem like citizens of another country. Others use their Russian identities openly, while concealing the fact that their day jobs are covers for espionage.
Vladimir Putin, himself a former Soviet spy, has a notorious appetite for intelligence material. He has hurled resources at Russia’s three spy services. These are the Foreign Intelligence Service (Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki), usually known as the SVR; the Federal Security Service (Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti), which chiefly concentrates on domestic security threats (including those stemming from Russians living abroad); and the military intelligence service, the GRU (Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravleniye). Europe is an espionage playground for these services in our globalized world. The Schengen passport-free travel zone means that an intelligence officer can easily live in one country while running agents in another, and meet them in a third. Rather than operate under the nose of, say, French counter-intelligence, a Russian official based in Munich can board a train and meet his French source in Luxembourg. Some countries in the Schengen zone are NATO members; others—notably Austria—are not. Some of the countries have effective and conscientious counter-intelligence services. Others—again, notably Austria—do not bother about foreign espionage activity unless it directly affects their own country.
A handful of exceptions stand out, notably Estonia, which has caught, prosecuted, and jailed four Russian spies in the past four years. But most of the countries of Europe devote little effort to hunting Russian spies and, as a result, rarely succeed. When they do find them, they rarely prosecute. Those spies who are jailed are usually released early.
Problems exist at every level. Counter-intelligence services are cash-strapped and often demoralized. In much of western Europe, counter-terrorism, particularly dealing with Islamic extremism, has been the top political priority since September 11, 2001. Videos of Westerners being beheaded by Western-born jihadis are shocking in a way that Russian influence-peddling and subversion are not. There are other hindrances, too. In many ex-communist countries, the ability to bug phones and read e-mails drags the spooks into internal political intrigues. Moreover, catching spies is always and everywhere a tricky political problem. However brilliant the spy-catchers’ work, it brings bad publicity. Questions inevitably arise about the security lapses that allowed the adversary to get where he did in the first place.
Moreover, most European politicians are reluctant to start public rows with the Kremlin. Some countries such as Finland have long-standing deals with Russia not to publicize intelligence conflicts. Greece is notoriously friendly to Russian intelligence. Turkey has long ploughed its own furrow when it comes to relations with Russia. Southern European countries such as Spain, Portugal, and Italy do not share the preoccupations of their northern neighbors: Russia is a long way off and is not seen as a threat.
A new factor in the past ten years, as Russia’s star has waxed and America’s has waned, is that a slew of countries in the ex-communist world—notably Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia—have dropped their formerly strong Atlanticist orientation and are quietly trying to make the best of a world in which multilateral security guarantees no longer look credible. Perhaps the most startling example of this, with a plot many would find too imaginative if proposed for a Hollywood screenplay, involves Robert Rachardžo, an Indonesian-Russian prison psychologist who moved to Prague in 1992. Recruited by the Russian secret service in Crete in 2003, he ran a spy ring in the Czech Defense Ministry through his friend, Major Vladimíra Odehnalová. Both she and he were married (to other people), but she also enjoyed close relations with three Czech generals: Josef Sedlák, formerly a top commander and then the Czech representative at NATO’s military HQ in Mons, Belgium; Josef Proks, former Deputy Chief-of-Staff and previously military-intelligence chief; and František Hrabal, a military adviser to the President. (All three men deny having behaved improperly with her or passing her classified information, but all three left their jobs soon after the story broke.)
But the news was not of the hoped-for spectacular success. To the fury of American and other officials who had worked closely on the case, Rachardžo was allowed to escape before the Czech counter-intelligence service, BIS, which was investigating his activities, could arrest him. His departure in the fall of 2010 seems to have involved a well-planned escape route. He took his wife and children to a Prague pizza restaurant and wrote a message on a napkin that he was in trouble and needed her urgent help to go somewhere in the family car. She drove him to a former Soviet airbase deep in a forest where he simply got out and walked toward some men waiting in the shadow of the trees. He Skypes his children regularly from a location they believe to be in Russia. What is unclear is whether Rachardžo was tipped off by a leak within the Czech counter-intelligence service or—as officials close to the case believe—was allowed to leave the country in order to prevent the political embarrassment of a prosecution.
To be fair to the ex-communist countries, these cases have their counterparts in western Europe. A senior German official in a sensitive position at NATO was seduced by a woman with known connections to Russian intelligence. He was not prosecuted (though he was transferred to a post in a war-torn Islamic country that offered little scope for his penchant for drinking and womanizing). In Poland Tadeusz Juchniewicz, a sleeper agent for the GRU, was caught in 2009—but released early from jail as part of the Warsaw authorities’ attempt to reset their relations with Russia.
Now the climate for Russian spies seems to be cooling. Since the arrest in America of 10 “illegals” in 2010, Western spy-catchers have enjoyed a string of successes. This is partly due to a triumph by the CIA, which successfully recruited and ran a senior official in the SVR, Alexander Poteyev. His dramatic escape from Russia in June 2010—avoiding a spy-hunt there that could have unmasked him—prompted the round-up of the biggest group of Russian spies ever caught in North America, notably Anna Chapman, but also nine others, ranging from veterans to tyros. But the gains from that operation have continued, with American intelligence offering clues and leads to partner services in Canada, Europe, and elsewhere.
German counter-intelligence scored a notable coup when it arrested Andreas and Heidrun Anschlag, two Russian illegals living in Germany with authentic-seeming identity documents that had in fact been issued by a corrupt Austrian official. They were caught in October 2011 in the middle of a clandestine radio transmission and jailed for six and five years, respectively. (Mrs. Anschlag was reportedly allowed to go home to Russia in late November, presumably as part of a spy swap.) Dutch counter-intelligence, which had earlier chafed at the political restrictions placed on it by the country’s trade-loving, controversy-fearing government, scored a notable success in April 2013 when a diplomat called Raymond Poeteray was jailed for 12 years for giving NATO documents to his Russian handlers.
Danish counter-intelligence has also started taking Russian espionage more seriously. In 2010 a Finnish professor teaching in Denmark, Timo Kivimäki, was arrested and prosecuted successfully for acting as a “talent-spotter”, identifying for his Russian handlers students who might be useful targets for recruitment later in their careers. Prosecutors say he was paid for this. But his conviction aroused storms of protest: Many Europeans found it hard to understand that it was possible to be a spy—and a damaging one—without having any access to classified information. Kivimäki served a short, non-custodial sentence and then returned to Finland, where he has continued his academic career, specializing in conflict resolution.
In Hungary it took a determined journalist to unearth the activities of Russian intelligence. When András Dezső of Index magazine investigated an obscure but influential far-right politician, Béla Kovács, he found that his Russian wife, Svetlana Istoshina, showed every sign of being a Russian intelligence officer—and that Kovács himself was likely the biological son of a KGB official stationed in Hungary during the Soviet era. Istoshina had earlier married a Japanese nuclear official, and later an Austrian gangster (speedily gaining a passport from that country). Kovács has channelled money (from unknown sources) to his party, the ultra-nationalist Jobbik, and had contributed to its increasingly pro-Kremlin tilt. Intelligence services told Dezső that Kovács has been under scrutiny for his ties to Russia since 2009. Prosecutors are trying to revoke his parliamentary immunity.
Despite these lively and sometimes lurid stories, it has been hard to rouse public opinion in Europe to the dangers posed by Russian espionage. When the Soviet Union collapsed after the failed putsch in Moscow of August 1991, British spy chiefs, prematurely as it turned out, opened bottles of champagne in their bunker under Whitehall. The real story of the past quarter-century since the fall of the Wall is a resurgence in Russian espionage to a level that does not just match Cold War levels but exceeds it. Russia’s intelligence officers use not only the old tricks of KGB espionage but a raft of new ones. Coupled with that is a huge expansion in the potential targets for Russian espionage, and a sharp decline in the West’s ability to cope with it. Russian espionage, in short, is the spearhead of the Kremlin’s attempts to penetrate and manipulate the West.
To better understand how dangerous this is, compare the situation now with the conditions of Cold War days. In that era, dealing with the Soviet threat was the top priority for Western security officials. The West faced an existential threat from a totalitarian dictatorship. Any Soviet visitor to the West was conspicuous and deserved (and usually attracted) close scrutiny. Cultural and trade ties across the Iron Curtain were limited. It would have been impossible for someone like Anna Chapman (the daughter of a senior Russian intelligence officer) to move so easily and inconspicuously from Moscow to London and New York.
For more than twenty years, the West has tried to integrate Russia—diplomatically, financially, economically, and institutionally. True, Western policymakers have accepted (belatedly in many cases) that Russia is an authoritarian kleptocracy. True, many also accept (reluctantly and tentatively in many cases) that it is a revanchist power that menaces its neighbors. But few are willing to accept the seriousness of the threat and give it the priority it deserves. These days it is one threat among many. On many issues—notably terrorism—the West still sees Russia as an important partner.
The most difficult espionage battleground is in some of the ex-communist countries. After 1989 too many in the West projected their own sense of triumphalism onto the countries of the former Soviet empire. But amid the ruins of old structures, the KGB established new networks and assets that were to serve it well in the years ahead. Russia still benefits from the vast legacy of compromising information that can be used to blackmail potential sources. Moreover, political and economic advances have in many countries proved shallow or transient. A whiff of Putinism is now noticeable in many countries between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, where politicians taste the pleasures of a close overlap between business and politics, of the cheap gas and easy money that Kremlin ties offer, and the use and abuse of officialdom against opponents.
Coupled with the inability of the new member states to carry out thorough counter-intelligence screening where it is most needed, this has created, in effect, a cohort of Trojan horses welcomed by Western alliances, states, services, and agencies with open arms. It may not be very interesting for Russian intelligence to know the details of security planning in, say, Slovakia. But a Slovak official in the heart of Western decision-making in Brussels can be an invaluable asset as a conveyor of juicier secrets.
The prime example of this is the most damaging spy in NATO history: Herman Simm, the head of security at Estonia’s defense ministry. This was a paradox: Estonia rightly counts as a star example from among the ex-captive nations. It has a dynamic economy, innovative and well-run public institutions, and an impressive crop of leaders. Its small but expert security and intelligence services enjoy the close confidence of Western partners, particularly Britain’s MI6 and America’s CIA. But precisely because Estonia is so trusted, Simm was a particularly damaging traitor. He was trained at Britain’s super-secret Defence Intelligence and Security Centre at Chicklands outside London, and supervised the reform of Estonia’s security procedures to meet NATO standards. Russia was interested in Estonia—but it was far more interested in the details of NATO’s physical and cryptographic security.
Simm was caught in 2010 and jailed for 13 years. Interestingly, his case officer was a Russian intelligence officer who used a fake Brazilian birth certificate to gain Portuguese citizenship and ran a business consultancy in Madrid under the name Antonio Graf—a classic example of how Russia uses post-Cold War Europe as a single espionage space.
Intelligence is a vital part of Russia’s attempt to establish a soft hegemony in the frontline states of Europe, based on corruption and propaganda rather than the rigid control of the Soviet era. Espionage can help identify corruptible politicians and officials, to see which parts of the business landscape are most vulnerable to Russian influence, and also to disable any institutional points of resistance, such as a tough and effective security service.
Many East Europeans are worried about Russia’s capabilities in this regard, but their warnings have gone mostly unheeded. Western countries habitually underestimate the capabilities of the Russian intelligence services. These are indeed wasteful, corrupt, bureaucratic, nepotistic, and blinkered. But they have some big advantages. For a start, their top priority is subverting and penetrating Western societies. The reverse is not the case: It is not the West’s top priority either to penetrate Russia or to prevent Russia from penetrating it.
Another Russian advantage is its capacity for long-term thinking. For Western intelligence, spying is a demand-driven business. Spymasters invest resources in the subjects that interest their political masters and neglect those that do not. For nearly twenty years, Russia was not a priority, and those who seemed preoccupied with it risked—and sometimes sacrificed—their careers.
Russian espionage operates on different principles. The agencies there spend large amounts of time and money building up long-term assets, with little concern for an immediate payoff. If you recruit a bright Danish student, it may be twenty years before he becomes useful. But when he does, the consequences will be devastating. Russia is also far better at operating what in espionage parlance are known as “false flag” operations, in which the target is recruited under the guise of a different cause, perhaps involving environmentalism or digital freedom.
Abundant resources and ruthless ingenuity mean that the Russian espionage adversary is a shape-shifter: In one manifestation it may be a legitimate-seeming energy company, then a curious student apparently from a NATO country, then a jovial official from the Russian embassy, then a supposedly independent charitable outfit offering a large donation to anyone who conducts the right research, then a hard-working secretary, then a Portuguese business consultant. This gives Russia what American intelligence theorists call “natural capacity”: the ability to operate in the guise of a legitimate business or organization. For Western intelligence agencies, this involves formidable legal and bureaucratic obstacles. Russia adopts it without a qualm.
Natural capacity exists not only in Russian business abroad, but via foreign businesses with investments or offices in Russia. The people they take on as local employees and then send on foreign postings may be loyal workers for the company, or they may have been assigned to it by the authorities, perhaps for nepotistic reasons, perhaps with clandestine work in mind, perhaps both. If that fails, the Russian diaspora provides a rich fishing ground for whatever catch is needed.
All these advantages far outweigh the handful of counter-espionage successes outlined above. Since the end of the Cold War, the rules of the game have changed in Russia’s favor. Kremlin spies swim effortlessly and invisibly through suburbia, nightlife, think tanks, and consultancies in the West, exploiting the natural trust and collegiality of an open society. Russia is running rings round the West in Europe, both in the weak and jittery countries of “New Europe” and in the complacent rich countries of “Old Europe.”
It is hard to see how this can change quickly. Clearly, there is no chance of returning to the practices of the Cold War, when East and West were divided by an almost hermetic seal, and security vetting applied to even junior positions in government and public life. But the gravest weakness of the Western approach is that it treats spy-catching, criminal justice, financial supervision, lobbying disclosure, and media-ownership rules as separate areas of decision-making. Russia exploits all these together as one data- and decision-set, with operations moving easily from one to the other. Given the multi-faceted threat Western authorities face, the agencies involved in these fields need to work in concert, not separately.
Anna Chapman, for example, had a mysterious colleague called Stephen Sugden, who used an identity stolen from an innocent electrician from a small town in the English county of Kent. Their operation—which apparently involved money-laundering for Zimbabwean business cronies of her father’s—also used an address in a suburb of Dublin. This address was used without the knowledge or consent of its owners. But neither the British nor the Irish authorities were willing to follow up this puzzle. Because no money seemed to have been stolen, it was below the radar of the police. From the British spy-catchers’ point of view, it became a “cold case”; Chapman was long gone, and there was no point in worrying about events that took place in the past.
The ability of frontline states to catch and jail Russian spies varies hugely. Estonia, with a population of one million, has managed to catch and jail four Russian spies, more than Germany, with a population of eighty million. The Czech Republic (with a population of ten million) has not jailed any. Other countries such as Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia have similarly pitiful records.
Just as failure to prosecute creates a climate of impunity, so, conversely, prosecutions change public thinking. Those in professional or public life need to be wary about the questions people ask, and particularly of any offer of money for information. If you risk nothing, you may well say yes, even if the request concerns potentially sensitive topics. If you risk disgrace and jail, you are more likely to decline. That is why Denmark’s prosecution of Kivimäki was so important—though the effect would be far greater if it were not a one-off case.
Western countries can also be far tougher in dealing with Russian intelligence officers—the people who recruit, motivate, direct, and run the traitors such as Kivimäki, Simm, and Poeteray. Germany has shown commendable toughness in prosecuting and jailing the Anschlags. Canada, by contrast, caught a Russian illegal in 2009, under the assumed name of Paul William Hampel—but deported rather than jailed him. Western countries could be far tougher in denying visas to Russian “diplomats” with backgrounds in intelligence. They could be far tougher in expelling Russian officials who are caught spying—and ensuring that these people never receive a visa of any kind from any Western country in future. This approach does not come free: Russia will respond with tit-for-tat expulsions, and will start quibbling about visas for Western diplomats posted to Moscow and St. Petersburg. But it is worth the trouble.
Ultimately, the espionage climate reflects politicians’ priorities. Russia spies on the West because it fears democracy and the rule of law, and sees a chance to subvert them. For its part, the West does not make a big deal about Russian espionage because it has other worries. Most of all we do not want to admit the extent of the threat from Russia and of our own vulnerabilities, which it is so expertly exploiting. As with other troubled aspects of Western political culture in the early 21st century, it comes down to simple but elusive qualities: courage, honesty, and consistency. The West’s shortcomings in dealing with Russian espionage seem to reflect wider and deeper woes.