Russian spy service accused of role in Norwegian journalist’s firing

Thomas NilsenNorway’s state broadcaster has alleged that the Russian intelligence service pressured a Norwegian newspaper to fire one of its journalists who covered fossil fuel exploration in the Arctic Ocean. Last week, journalist Thomas Nilsen was fired by The Barents Observer, a Norwegian government-run newspaper that covers developments in the Arctic. Headquartered in the northern Norwegian town of Kirkenes, The Barents Observer publishes daily news in English and Russian from the four countries that border the region, namely Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. It is owned by the Norwegian Barents Secretariat (NBS), a government-owned agency that aims to encourage collaboration between Norway and Russia, two countries that share fishing, fossil fuel and mining interests in the Barents Sea.

Since the end of the Cold War, the NBS has funded collaborative projects between Norway’s state-owned oil company Statoil, and its Russian equivalent, Rosneft, which aim to promote offshore oil exploration in the Barents region. The move reflects a recognition by the Norwegian government that close relations with Russia are vital for Norwegian interests. But Nilsen is one of many Norwegian investigative journalists who have challenged Oslo’s collaboration with Moscow in Arctic oil exploration. Last year, Mikhail Noskov, Russia’s consul in Kirkenes, spoke publicly against Nilsen’s reporting, which he described as “damaging to the bilateral relations between Norway and Russia”. He also reportedly contacted the offices of The Barents Observer to complain about Nilsen’s articles.

Last week, when Nilsen was fired, staff at the newspaper protested that his removal from the paper had been ordered by the government in Oslo and described it as a clear case of government censorship. But on Saturday, Norway’s state-owned NRK broadcaster said that Nielsen had been fired following pressure from the Russian Federal Security Service, known as FSB. Citing an unnamed Norwegian government source, NRK reporter Tormod Strand alleged that the FSB had threatened that cooperation between Russia and Norway in the Arctic would be negatively affected if Nilsen was not removed from his post. The NRK contacted the embassy of the Russian Federation in Oslo, where a spokesman denied that Moscow had intervened in any way in Nilsen’s firing. An official from the Norwegian government told the station that he had seen no evidence showing that Tormod’s allegations were factual.

Iran, Hezbollah to launch ground assault on Syria rebels, says Reuters

Syrian troopsHundreds of ground troops from Iran and Lebanon have been entering Syria in the past two weeks and are about to launch a large-scale ground attack against rebel groups, according to Reuters. The news agency quoted Lebanese sources “familiar with political and military developments in the conflict”. One source said that the Russian airstrikes in Syria, which began earlier this week, are the first phase of a large-scale military offensive against the Islamic State and other anti-government forces operating on the ground.

The Lebanese official told the news agency that hundreds of Iranian “soldiers and officers” had arrived in Syria in September. These forces “are not advisors”, said the source; rather, they have entered Syria “with equipment and weapons, specifically to participate in this battle. And they will be followed by more”, said the source, adding that some “Iraqis would also take part in the operation”, without specifying whether these would be regular troops or Iraqi Shiite militias. According to Reuters, the operation will be supported by Russian airstrikes and aims to recapture territory that is currently in the hands of various rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic State.

Last week it was reported that the governments of Russia, Iraq and Iran had entered a formal intelligence-sharing agreement with Syria, in an effort to defeat the forces fighting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. According to the Baghdad-based Iraqi Joint Forces Command, the agreement entails the establishment of a new intelligence-sharing center in the Iraqi capital. It will be staffed with intelligence analysts from all four participating countries, who will be passing on shared information to their respective countries’ militaries. The announcement of the agreement came as Russia continued to reinforce its military presence in Syria by deploying troops in Latakia.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 2 October 2015 | Permalink

Russia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, sign intel-sharing agreement against Islamic State

Tartus SyriaThe governments of Russia, Syria and Iran have entered a formal intelligence-sharing agreement with Iraq, in an effort to defeat the Islamic State, it has been announced. Intelligence-sharing has been practiced for a while between Russia, Syria and Iran; but this is the first time that Iraq, an American ally, has entered the alliance. According to the Baghdad-based Iraqi Joint Forces Command, the agreement entails the establishment of a new intelligence-sharing center in the Iraqi capital. It will be staffed with intelligence analysts from all four participating countries, who will be passing on shared information to their respective countries’ militaries.

Iraqi officials said on Sunday that the intelligence-sharing agreement had been forged by Moscow, which was “increasingly concerned about the presence of thousands of terrorists from Russia undertaking criminal acts” as members of the Islamic State. The announcement of the agreement comes as Russia has been reinforcing its military presence in Syria, by deploying troops in Latakia. Security observers have interpreted the move as a strong message by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin that it is prepared to safeguard the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The latter also enjoys strong support from Iran, which has poured billions of dollars in aid to support the regime in Damascus, and has deployed hundreds of Hezbollah advisers and militia members in defense of Assad.

Speaking from Baghdad, Colonel Steve Warren, the American spokesman for the Western-led military campaign against the Islamic State, said that Washington was respectful of Iraq’s need to enter into security agreements with other regional governments. But he added that the US objected to the Syrian government’s role in the intelligence-sharing agreement, because it was “brutalizing its own citizens”. The US government has also protested against the Russian government’s expansion of its base in Tartus and its increased military presence in Latakia. But, according to Foreign Policy, US officials have privately expressed support for the move, saying that “it could, in the short term, help rein in the Islamic state”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 September 2015 | Permalink

Russia and Estonia conduct Cold-War-style spy swap

Estonia Russia spy-swapThe Russian and Estonian intelligence services have exchanged two men accused by each country of spying for the other, in a rare public example of what is commonly referred to as a ‘spy-swap’. The exchange took place on Saturday on a bridge over the Piusa River, which forms part of the Russian-Estonian border, separating Estonia’s Polva County from Russia’s Pskov Oblast.

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said that it had handed to the Estonian government a man going by the name of Eston Kohver. Last year, Estonian officials accused Moscow of abducting Kohver, an employee of the Internal Security Service of Estonia, known as KaPo, from the vicinity of Luhamaa, a border-crossing facility in southeastern Estonia. But the Russian government said that Kohver had been captured by the FSB on Russian soil and was found to be carrying a firearm, cash and spy equipment “relating to the gathering of intelligence”.

Kohver was exchanged for Aleksei Dressen, a former Estonian KaPo officer who was arrested in February 2012 along with his wife, Viktoria Dressen, for allegedly spying for Russia. The Dressens were caught carrying classified Estonian government documents as Viktoria was attempting to board a flight to Moscow. Aleksei Dressen was sentenced to 16 years in prison, while Viktoria Dressen to six, for divulging state secrets. Russian media have since reported that Dressen had been secretly working for Russian counterintelligence since the early 1990s.

Soon after the spy- swap, KaPo Director Arnold Sinisalu told a press conference that the exchange had been agreed with the FSB following “long-term negotiations”, during which it became clear that “both sides were willing to find a suitable solution”. Kohver, sitting alongside Sinisalu, told reporters that it felt “good to be back in my homeland”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 September 2015 | Permalink

Russia jails ex-military intelligence employee for contacting Swedish company

Tselina satelliteA court in Moscow has sentenced a former employee of Russia’s military intelligence agency to a lengthy prison term for seeking to work for a Swedish engineering firm. Gennady Krantsov worked for the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, from 1990 to 2005. As a radio engineer, he is believed to have worked on a number of projects relating to satellite technology. The terms of his government contract reportedly forbade him from travelling outside Russia. He was also forbidden from participating in intelligence-related engineering projects for foreign governments or the private sector for a minimum of five years after leaving the GRU.

But he was arrested last year by Russia’s Federal Counterintelligence Service, known as FSK, allegedly for sending a letter to a Swedish engineering company seeking work. In 2013, when the FSK first questioned Kravtsov, it was told by the former GRU engineer that his letter to the Swedish firm contained no state secrets. Additionally, Kravtsov was not found to have received any funds from the Swedes. But the counterintelligence agency returned to arrest Kravtsov in 2014, claiming that a polygraph test he had taken showed that he had shared classified material with foreign agents. According to Russian government prosecutors, Kravtsov gave the Swedes information about Tselina-2, a military radio surveillance system designed to detect the location and activity of radio-emitting objects from space.

Kravtsov was convicted of state treason and stripped of his GRU rank of lieutenant colonel. He was sentenced on Monday to 14 years in a maximum-security penal colony. The judge said that he had violated his promise not to reveal information about his GRU-related work to foreign government officials. His lawyers, however, complained that the case had been held completely behind closed doors and that they had not been permitted to call witnesses or examine material that was central to the case.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 September 2015 | Permalink

Dual US-Russian citizen pleads guilty to spying for Russia

Alexander FishenkoA resident of Texas, who is accused by United States authorities of setting up a front company in order to illegally acquire American technology on behalf of Russia’s intelligence services, has pleaded guilty to espionage charges. Alexander Fishenko, 49, was one of 11 people arrested in October 2012 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The arrests came during several raids in locations around Houston, Texas, which included the headquarters of Arc Electronics, Inc. The FBI accused the export firm of having shipped over $50 million-worth of military-grade micro-electronics since 2008. The supplies were received in Moscow, Russia, by a mysterious procurement company called Apex System LLC. Counter-intelligence investigators in the US claim that both firms are part of an elaborate scheme set up by Russian military intelligence, aimed at stealing dual-use electronics hardware created by American firms.

According to the indictment, Arc Electronics told its US suppliers that the microelectronics technologies were intended for use in various types of streetlights. But in reality, said the FBI, the company gave the hi-tech supplies to the Russian Ministry of Defense for use in airborne surveillance systems, as well as in remote weapons guidance systems, among other military applications. Federal prosecutors said that, for over four years, Arc Electronics engaged in a prolonged “surreptitious and systematic” scheme to circumvent US government export controls, thus seriously damaging US national security. Following the early-morning raids, the FBI unsealed indictments against 11 Arc Electronics employees, most of whom were charged with “acting as unregistered agents of the Russian Federation in the United States” —legal jargon for espionage.

Fishenko, who is originally from Kazakhstan, was scheduled to face trial on September 21 in New York. But on Wednesday he chose to plead guilty to the charges leveled against him. He is the fifth member of the 11 Apex System employees arrested back in 2012 to plead guilty to espionage. A government spokesman said the Fishenko’s plea did not result from an agreement to cooperate with the FBI. He now faces up to 15 years in prison. His lawyer, Richard Levitt, declined comment when he was contacted on Wednesday. The Russian government has denied that it had any involvement with Fishenko’s operations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 September 2015 | Permalink

Former KGB officer facing deportation voluntarily leaves Canada

Mikhail LennikovA Russian former officer in the Soviet KGB, who defied deportation orders issued against him by the Canadian government by taking refuge in a Vancouver church for six consecutive years, has voluntarily left the country. Mikhail Lennikov, who spent five years working for the KGB in the 1980s, had been living in Canada with his wife and son since 1992. But in 2009, Canada’s Public Safety Ministry rejected Lennikov’s refugee claim and notified him that he could “be ordered deported from the country in as early as a few weeks”.

Canadian authorities have refused to reveal the precise reason for the decision to issue deportation orders against the former KGB agent. But it is believed that his Soviet intelligence background is perceived by Canadian authorities as a national security threat. Lennikov has consistently rejected accusations that he is a threat to Canada’s national security and has previously stated that he voluntarily revealed his KGB background to Canadian authorities. He has also said that if sent back to Russia he could face imprisonment for having revealed his KGB background to a foreign government. In 2009, the former KGB officer sought refuge at the First Lutheran Church in Vancouver, where he lived until recently. Meanwhile, his wife and children, who have no connections to Soviet or Russian intelligence, were awarded asylum and eventually Canadian citizenship.

Last week, however, it emerged that Lennikov had left the Vancouver church that had been his home for six years. His lawyer, Hadayt Nazami, told reporters that the former KGB officer had left Canada. His departure appears to have taken place after an agreement was struck between him and the Canada Border Services Agency. Nazami said on Sunday that Lennikov had “left at the end of this week and left on his own accord, voluntarily, according to his own wishes and decisions he reached himself”. Canadian media reported that it “no longer seemed to be the case” that Lennikov would face treason charges if he went back to Russia. When asked about Lennikov’s whereabouts, Nazami told journalists that it was “something that I cannot comment on”, but added that his client “feels safe and we are going by that assumption”. Lennikov’s wife and children, who are Canadian citizens, plan to remain in Canada, said Nazami.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 19 August 2015 | Permalink


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,011 other followers