An assessment of Russia’s espionage network in Switzerland

Russian embassy SwitzerlandSINCE LATE FEBRUARY, WHEN Russian troops invaded Ukraine, over 500 Russian diplomats have been expelled from Western countries. Even former Russian allies have contributed to the growing list of expulsions —most recently Bulgaria, which ousted a near-unprecedented 70 Russian diplomats last week, citing espionage concerns. Amidst that sea of expulsions, Switzerland remains an island. It is among the few European countries that have yet to officially expel Russian diplomats. Abiding by its centuries-old policy of neutrality, it has resisted calls to take sides in the intelligence war between the West and Russia.

“No-Questions-Asked” Approach to Espionage

Russia has been able to take advantage of Switzerland’s neutrality policy since February. Instead of returning to Moscow, at least some of the expelled Russian diplomats have been reposted to Switzerland. They continue to operate there under a “no-questions-asked” policy, which has prevailed since the days of the Cold War. For this and other reasons (i.e. proximity to prime intelligence targets, safety, advanced telecommunications systems), Switzerland has been a major intelligence hub for decades. According to the Nachrichtendienst des Bundes (NDB), Switzerland’s Federal Intelligence Service, the past few years have witnessed higher levels of activity by foreign intelligence services than any other period since the Cold War.

Russia’s Intelligence Presence in Switzerland

During that time, Russia has been able to build a pan-European espionage hub in the small alpine state. That is the conclusion of a report by Jonas Roth, which was published last week in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), Switzerland’s newspaper of record. The report, entitled “So Spioniert Russland in der Schweiz” (“How Russian spies operate in Switzerland”), features commentary by several experts and government officials. One source tells Roth that, despite the intense diplomatic pressure Russia has faced globally since February, its espionage structures in Swiss cities like Geneva and Bern “are still intact”.

How many Russian intelligence officers are currently operating in Switzerland? According to the report, at least a third of Russia’s 220-strong diplomatic presence in the country consists of intelligence officers. These 70 or so intelligence officers represent all three of Russia’s primary intelligence agencies, namely the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the Main Directorate of the Armed Forces’ General Staff (GRU), and the Federal Security Service (FSB). Officers from these agencies handle an unknown number of informants and agents; these are Swiss or third-country nationals, who provide the Russians with intelligence on a regular basis. Special activities are carried out by Russian intelligence personnel who travel to Switzerland on an ad hoc basis.

Russian Intelligence Targets in Switzerland

According to the NZZ report, much of the work of Russian intelligence in Switzerland consists of current-affairs reporting that is of interest to Moscow. More than half of that is derived from publicly available —also known as ‘open’— sources, such as Swiss media outlets. Russian operations officers handle local agents, who provide them with classified or otherwise restricted information of a political, military or economic nature. All other missions —mostly special activities— rely on intelligence professionals who travel to Switzerland, either to operate there, or to prepare for missions elsewhere in Europe. Lastly, there are Russian cyber-operations, which do not usually require the physical presence of operatives in Switzerland.

Switzerland offers a target-rich environment for Russian intelligence. The NZZ report mentions numerous international organizations that are headquartered on Swiss soil. These currently number over 250 and include the European Broadcasting Union, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, Médecins Sans Frontières, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Telecommunication Union, and the World Health Organization, among others. In addition to these targets, Switzerland is frequently the site of high-level diplomatic meetings, and hosts numerous high-powered research institutions, including ETH Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. Lastly, Russian intelligence operatives engage in surveillance —and occasionally intimidation— of members of the Russian expatriate community in Switzerland, who openly criticize the Kremlin.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 July 2022 | Permalink

4 Responses to An assessment of Russia’s espionage network in Switzerland

  1. MI6 says:

    Why the EU has some of these organisations based in Switzerland is no doubt a bit of a historical conundrum as they are all obvious targets for Russian intelligence and might be better located inside the EU. On the other hand, neither Zurich (population 0.4m) nor Geneva (population 0.2m) are large cities so these Russian spies are probably operating in plain sight because using the back of a cigarette pack roughly one in 30,000 of those living there are from Russia with love.

  2. Michael Popolano says:

    It should be remembered that Lenin and his Bolshevik cabal were living in exile in Zurich during WW1.
    German Intelligence approached Lenin and offered to transport them to Russia in effort to destabilize that country.
    Lenin and cohort were transported in the famous “ Sealed Train”
    Today America and the West are paying the freight for that train ride .

  3. Pete says:

    Two additional aspects pointing to “Why Western intelligence tolerates Switzerland’s neutral intelligence hospitality?” include:

    1. Swiss territory provides a happy hunting ground for Western Counter-Intelligence (CI) to identify Russian intelligence employees. Once identified Western CI can attempt to “turn or burn” these Russians. Western motivational levers can include (singly or in combination): friendship, cash, sex, then blackmail, offers of protected sanctuary in Western countries, etc. Also Western CI can feed disinformation or malware to Russian intel employees .

    The reverse, that Russian CI exploits Swiss territory, is also true.

    2. Countries assuming Switzerland is neutral place trust in it that is useful for the West. That historically and perhaps currently includes Swiss supplied “Crypto” encoding-decoding machines made by Swiss company Crypto AG and distributed to 120 customers/countries.

    All the machines were allegedly compromised for the benefit of some large Western signals intelligence agencies. In 2018, Crypto AG was liquidated but much of its equipment, business associations and corporate culture appear to have been carried over in its descendent companies.” More see:

    – A long, detailed Washington Post article https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/world/national-security/cia-crypto-encryption-machines-espionage/
    – IntelNews https://intelnews.org/2020/03/03/01-2730/ and
    https://gentleseas.blogspot.com/2021/04/falklands-war-argie-signals-read-bugged.html

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