Comment: Russian Espionage Steals 2010 Limelight

GRU emblem

GRU emblem

As the first decade of the 21st century is coming to an end, few would dispute that Israeli and American spy agencies have been among the most talked-about intelligence organizations of 2010. The reasons for this are equally undeniable: the United States tops the list because of its political prominence, which inevitably attracts media attention; Israel tops it because of the sheer ferocity of its espionage output throughout the Middle East. And yet there is nothing new about this, since neither the Central Intelligence Agency nor the Mossad are exactly novices when it comes to high-profile media exposures. The same cannot be said with respect to Russian intelligence agencies, which went through a period of prolonged hibernation following the end of the Cold War. Indeed, the year that is about to end demonstrates that the stagnant interlude in Russian espionage may well be in its closing stages.

It is not only the famed busting of the Russian illegals network in the United States, which captivated the global news media for the better part of last summer. In fact, most intelligence observers agree that the diplomatic significance of the arrests, as well as the subsequent spy swap between Washington and Moscow, far outweighed its operational value. What is more important in this equation is the speed and assertiveness with which Russian foreign intelligence has reasserted its presence in Eastern Europe.

Putting aside the obvious example of Georgia, which has become a major epicenter of post-Cold-War intelligence warfare between Russia and the West, one can hardly fail to notice ongoing developments in the Czech Republic. The country’s historic capital, Prague, was recently described by The New York Times as “a hotbed of Russian espionage not seen since the Cold War”. The paper provided this fitting account during an unusually substantial narrative of the so-called Rakhardzho affair, which security commentators regard as “the worst espionage scandal in the Czech Republic since 1989”.

The affair centers on Russian/Indonesian-born Robert Rakhardzho, a prison psychologist who moved from Russia to the Czech Republic as a student in 1992. Fluent in Czech, Rakhardzho appears to have been recruited by Russian intelligence while holidaying on the Greek island of Crete in 2003. Soon after his recruitment, he befriended and had an affair with Vladimira Odehnalova, a Czech Army Major who worked as chief of staff to three of the country’s most senior military generals. The rest, as they say, is history, and led to the embarrassing resignations of all three generals earlier this year. Rakhardzho himself managed to escape to Moscow, leaving behind his bewildered Czech wife and two small children.

Tadeusz J. (full name and identity unknown), an alleged Russian sleeper agent operating in Poland, was not so lucky. He was arrested in February or March of 2009, after a six-month surveillance operation by Poland’s Internal Security Agency (ABW). The significance of his capture may be noted by the fact that Polish prosecutors did not reveal it to anyone other than Poland’s President and Prime Minister until January of 2010. Polish media reports suggest that the alleged Russian operative, a fluent Polish speaker who had lived in Poland for at least decade prior to his arrest, did not appear to be in contact with the Russian embassy in Warsaw, and was instead handled directly by the Russian Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directory (GRU). His arrest may thus be linked with the surprise dismissal of the GRU’s Director, General Valentin Korabelnikov, in April of 2009.

The closed-door trial of Tadeusz J., which began in October, featured charges of possessing “cutting edge” signaling and encryption devices and obtaining classified information on the Polish military through his patronage of elite Polish hunting clubs, whose members included several Polish military officials. Earlier this month, he was jailed for three years, prompting no comment from Moscow or indeed Warsaw. But intelligence observers in Poland and elsewhere have little difficulty in seeing this case as representative of Russia’s broader intelligence redeployment in the former Soviet sphere of influence. This redeployment may include the suspected defection of Stefan Zielonka, a senior signals intelligence officer with Poland’s Military Intelligence Services, who disappeared without trace in early May of 2009. Several Polish and Russian newspapers have alleged that Zielonka, who is said to have extensive knowledge of Polish undercover intelligence networks operating overseas, was in fact recruited by the GRU.

None of the above should astonish serious students of intelligence or diplomacy. On the contrary, there is no strategic reason to expect that Russia would voluntarily choose to relinquish its control of Eastern Europe, so long as a rearmed and unified Germany belongs to a US-led military alliance. The continual eastward expansion of NATO —which, again, is strategically unsurprising— will logically continue to be met with Russian resistance in the political, economic, diplomatic and intelligence fields. The resurgence of Russian espionage in Eastern Europe is thus both predictable and coherent. In the words of Russian military analyst Aleksandr Golts, Russian intelligence planners are using Moscow’s decades-old strong ties with countries of the former Eastern Bloc as a gateway into NATO and the European Union, which many of these former Soviet allies have now joined: “getting into the Czech Republic or Bulgaria is a lot easier than Britain or Belgium”, he says.

If Golts is correct, it can be safely predicted that 2011 will be a busy year for European and American counterintelligence agencies.

About intelNews
Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

4 Responses to Comment: Russian Espionage Steals 2010 Limelight

  1. ugurrr says:

    nice article thanks!!

  2. Andreas says:

    Russian GRU and SVR consist of incompetent loosers and their professionalism gets worse every day.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Russia disintegrates into several independent states in couple of years.

  4. johnUK says:

    Not surprising that Russian intelligence would have a strong presence in Czech Rep as that is the centre for CIA/MI6 terrorist operations against Russia in Chechnya moved after the Cold War from West Germany.

    Senior military and intelligence officials in the Russia, Belarus and other former Soviet states act as mercenaries, gun runners, drug traffickers, etc for Chechen and Islamic militants in Central Asia.

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