Austria issues international arrest warrant for alleged Russian spy

Igor Egorovich ZaytsevThe Austrian government has issued an international arrest warrant for a Russian man who allegedly recruited a retired colonel in the Austrian Federal Army to spy for Moscow. The arrest warrant was issued on Tuesday by the public prosecutor’s office in the city of Salzburg. It identifies the Russian man as Igor Egorovich Zaytsev. Austrian officials allege that the Moscow-born Zaytsev is in fact an intelligence officer for the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. Known as GRU, the organization is Russia’s primary military-intelligence agency.

In an accompanying press statement issued on Tuesday, the Austrian Ministry of the Interior said that Zaytsev had facilitated the “betrayal of state secrets” and that his actions had been “to the detriment of the Republic of Austria”. The arrest warrant accuses Zaytsev of having participated in the “intentional disclosure of a military secret”, but does not provide details. However, in a subsequent statement, Austrian police directly linked the search for Zaytsev with an espionage case that was reported in the Austrian media last year. The statement said that Zaytsev is believed to have recruited a man known as “Martin M.” to spy on Austria. This appears to refer to the arrest last November of a 70-year-old colonel in the Austrian Army, who was stationed in Salzburg. He is believed to have spied for Russia from at least 1992 until his arrest. Austrian media reported that the accused spy was believed to have given Russia information on a range of weapons systems used by the Austrian Army and Air Force, as well as the personal details of high-ranking officers in the Austrian Armed Forces.

Soon after the arrest of “Martin M.”, Austrian authorities arrested a second man, identified only as “O.”, who is also suspected on having spied for Russia. According to the Vienna Public Prosecutor’s Office, “O.” was an employee of the Austrian Office for Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism, known as BVT. He had been investigated on suspicion of espionage for more than a year prior to his arrest. The man’s arrest took place alongside simultaneous raids at two residential addresses associated with him, according to reports. No further details have been made available since the arrest. It is not known whether Zaytsev’s is also connected with the case of “O.”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 July 2019 | Permalink

Israel leaked video that brought down Austrian government, says German ex-spy chief

Strache GudenusIsraeli intelligence was likely behind the leaked video that brought down the far-right governing coalition in Austria on Monday, according to the former deputy director of Germany’s spy agency. The surreptitiously recorded video was leaked to two German media outlets on May 17, days before Austrian voters participated in the continent-wide elections for the European Union. In the video, two senior members of Austria’s governing far-right Freedom Party are seen conversing with an unnamed woman posing as a Russian investor. The two men in the video were Heinz-Christian Strache, the the Freedom Party’s leader and until recently Austria’s Vice Chancellor, and Johannes Gudenus, the party’s deputy leader and a member of parliament. In the video, Gudenus and Strache promise to award the woman’s firm state contracts if her uncle —a Russian oligarch— purchases an Austrian newspaper and uses it to support the Freedom Party. The video threw Austria’s political system into disarray and prompted the resignations of both Strache and Gudenus. On Monday, Austria’s Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, was removed from power during a special parliamentary session in Vienna.

But the question is who leaked the video, and why? In an article in the Cicero, a monthly political magazine based in Berlin, a former senior official in Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) argues that Israeli intelligence was probably behind the leak. The article’s author is Rudolf Adam, who served as deputy director of the BND from 2001 to 2004, before serving as president of the Federal Academy for Security Policy of the German Ministry of Defense. Adam argues that the actions of Strache and Gudenus, as shown in the leaked video, seem “half mafia-like and half-treasonable”, and that the two should face legal consequences. But he goes on to ask “a far more interesting question”, namely “who is behind this intrigue [and] what were the intentions of its initiators?”. Adam points out that nothing is known about the woman in the video; she reportedly met Gudenus several months before the video was filmed. She posed as the Latvian niece of a Russian oligarch with ties to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. In exchanges that lasted for several months, the woman told Gudenus that she planned to move with her daughter to Vienna and was interested in investment opportunities. She eventually invited him and Strache to a meeting in a villa in the Spanish resort island of Ibiza. It was there where the video was recorded. Read more of this post

German spy agency concerned about Russian penetration of Austrian government

Sebastian Kurz Vladimir PutinA day after Austria’s political system was thrown into a disarray by a covert video featuring the country’s vice chancellor and a woman posing as a Russian investor, German intelligence sources have raised fears that Russia may have penetrated the Austrian government with informants. Heinz-Christian Strache, who heads Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, stepped down from the post of vice chancellor on Saturday. His resignation came a day after two German media outlets aired a covert video in which Strache appears to be promising to award state contracts in the construction sector to a woman posing as a Russian investor. In return for the state contracts, the unnamed woman said that she would have the firm of her uncle —a Russian oligarch— purchase an Austrian newspaper and use it to support Strache’s political party.

According to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, the video was filmed in Spain in 2017, two months before the Freedom Party won a record 26 percent in Austria’s national election. This gave the party 51 seats in the Austrian parliament and propelled Strache to the post of vice chancellor. In his resignation statement, Strache said he was filmed while drunk and was engaged in “macho talk” in an atttempt to “impress the attractive hostess”. He also dismissed the airing of the covertly filmed video as “a targeted political assassination”, but added that he was resigning from the government as a matter of principle. Shortly afterwards, the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Chairman of the rightwing Austrian People’s Party, announced that new national elections would be held “as soon as possible”.

Meanwhile, German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag reported on Saturday that the director of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), warned that sharing intelligence with Austria was “risky”. The Berlin-based newspaper said that BfV director Thomas Haldenwang was speaking at a closed-door meeting with German parliamentarians. He reportedly told his parliamentary audience that, due to the close relationship between the Freedom Party and Moscow, members of the Austrian government could potentially “misuse” and in some cases “forward to Russia” intelligence that they receive from other European Union member-states. This is not the first time that such warnings have come out of Germany. Last year August Hanning, who served as director of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) openly warned Western officials to stop sharing intelligence with the government of Austria, because of its alleged proximity to the Kremlin.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 May 2019 | Permalink

Austria arrests second spy for Russia in a week: media reports

BVT AustriaAuthorities in Austria have arrested a second alleged spy for Russia in a week, according to media reports. Several Austrian news outlets reported on Monday that police had arrested an Austrian counterintelligence officer on suspicion of passing classified information to Russian intelligence. The news follows reports late last week of the arrest of an unnamed retired colonel in the Austrian Army, who is believed to have spied for Russia since 1988. As intelNews reported on Monday, the unnamed man worked at the Austrian Armed Forces’ headquarters in Salzburg. He is believed to have been in regular contact with his Russian handler, known to him only as “Yuri”, who trained him in the use of “sophisticated equipment” for passing secret information to Moscow. He is thought to have given Russia information on a range of weapons systems used by the Austrian Army and Air Force, as well as the personal details of high-ranking officers in the Austrian Armed Forces.

On Monday, the Vienna-based newspaper Kronen Zeitung, said that a second Austrian man had been arrested on suspicion of carrying out espionage for Moscow. The man was identified in Austrian news reports only as “O.”, due to strict restrictions imposed on media in the country. But the Kronen Zeitung said that the Vienna Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had confirmed the reports of the arrest of the second alleged spy. According to the Vienna Public Prosecutor’s Office, the second individual was an employee of the Austrian Office for Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism, known as BVT. He had been investigated on suspicion of espionage for more than a year prior to his arrest this week. The man’s arrest took place alongside simultaneous raids at two residential addresses associated with him, according to reports. No further details about this latest case have been made available.

No information is available about the kind of information that the suspect is believed to have shared with Moscow. Furthermore, statements from Austrian officials do not mention any connection between the arrest of “O.” and the arrest of the retired Army colonel that took place last week. The Kronen Zeitung notes that, if found guilty of espionage, “O.” will face a sentence of up to 10 years behind bars. The embassy of Russia in Vienna refused to respond to questions about the arrest of “O.” on Monday night.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 November 2018 | Permalink

Austria summons Russian ambassador over arrest of alleged army spy

Sebastian Kurz Mario KunasekThe Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Russian ambassador to Vienna on Friday, following the arrest of a retired Austrian Army colonel who allegedly spied for Moscow for more than two decades. The news was announced on Friday by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz at an emergency news conference in Vienna. He did not reveal the alleged spy’s identity, but said that he had been taken into custody as Austrian counterintelligence were investigating the extent of the security breach he caused.

However, according to the Kronen Zeitung, Austria’s highest-circulation newspaper, the suspect is a 70-year-old Army colonel who recently retired after a long military career. He reportedly worked at one of the Austrian Armed Forces’ two headquarters, located in the western city of Salzburg. The unnamed man is believed to have spied for Russia from the early 1990s until his arrest last week. The Kronen Zeitung said that the retired Army colonel was in regular contact with his Russian handler, known to him only as “Yuri”. The Russian handler reportedly trained him in the use of “sophisticated equipment”, which he used to communicate information to Moscow. He is thought to have given Russia information on a range of weapons systems used by the Austrian Army and Air Force, as well as the personal details of high-ranking officers in the Austrian Armed Forces. Austrian media reported that the alleged spy was paid nearly $350,000 for his services to Moscow. According to Austria’s Minister of Defense Mario Kunasek, the arrest came after a tip given to the Austrian government “a few weeks ago” by an unnamed European intelligence agency. He also said that Austrian security services were looking into the possibility that the suspect may have been part of a larger spy ring working for Moscow.

The incident has strained relations between Austria and Russia. In the past decade, Austria —which is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization— has been seen by observers as a rare ally of Moscow inside the European Union. Unlike the vast majority of European Union countries, Austria chose not to expel Russian diplomats following the poisoning of former Russian double spy Sergei Skripal in March of this year. In August, Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the wedding of his personal friend, Austria’s Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl. But Mrs. Kneissl has now canceled a planned visit to Moscow in December in response to last week’s spy scandal. Speaking in Moscow on Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed Austria’s accusations as “unfounded” and “unacceptable”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 November 2018 | Permalink

German ex-spy chief tells West to stop sharing intelligence with Austria

Peter GridlingA former director of Germany’s foreign intelligence service has warned Western officials to stop sharing intelligence with the government of Austria, because of its alleged proximity to the Kremlin. August Hanning served as chief of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND, from 1998 to 2005. He went on to serve as the most senior civil servant in the Ministry of the Interior until his retirement in 2009. In an interview published on Wednesday in Germany’s Bild newspaper, Hanning argued that “caution is necessary with [an intelligence] service [like that of Austria,] which cannot protect its own secrets or the sources and sensitive information of its partners”. He went on to add that “there is […] now extreme caution when sharing information] with the Austrian intelligence services.

Hanning’s statement came less than a week after The Washington Post claimed in a major article that most Western intelligence services had stopped sharing sensitive information with the Austrian government. The newspaper alleged that the disruption in intelligence cooperation between Austria and other Western countries was sparked by an unprecedented police raid on the headquarters of Austria’s spy agency in February of this year. On February 28, Austrian police raided the central offices of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (BVT), which operates as Austria’s domestic intelligence agency. By that evening, thousands of classified documents had been removed from the BVT’s headquarters and stored in police facilities in Vienna. Austrian officials claimed that the raid was sparked by allegations made by South Korean intelligence that blank Austrian passports had been acquired by the North Korean government.

However, according to The Post, the raid was politically motivated by Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, which is part of the country’s ruling coalition. The purpose of the raid, said the article, was to neutralize the BVT, whose mission includes defending the Austrian constitution from domestic threats from the far left and the far right. Many Western services were alarmed by the February 28 raid on the BVT and immediately stopped sending sensitive information to the agency’s Vienna headquarters, according to The Post. It also said that Western European powers are concerned by the seemingly close relations between some members of Austria’s government and the Kremlin. Last week, Russian Premier Vladimir Putin traveled to Austria to attend the wedding of Karin Kneissl, Austria’s Minster of Foreign Affairs, who is politically close to the Freedom Party. The Russian leader said that he attended Kneissl’s wedding on a “purely private” capacity. But that did little to appease European Union leaders.

On Monday, the BVT rejected the claims made by The Post. In a statement issued to the media, BVT director Peter Gridling (pictured) said that “cooperation [between the BVT and] partner intelligence services continues to work well in key areas such as the fight against terrorism”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 August 2018 | Permalink

More spies now in Brussels than Vienna, Austrian intelligence chief says

Peter GridlingThe head of Austria’s counterintelligence agency has said that Brussels has now replaced Vienna as Europe’s spy capital. For nearly a decade, this blog has published expert commentary that points to the Austrian capital being the world’s busiest spy den. In 2009, German broadsheet Die Welt explained that Vienna had “the highest density of [foreign intelligence] agents in the world”. The reasons for this are partly historic: during the Cold War, the center of Vienna was located less than an hour’s drive from the Iron Curtain, making it a central location for East-West spy intrigue. Additionally, Austria boasted then, and boasts today, an efficient transportation network that connects it to both Western and Eastern Europe.

Furthermore, Vienna hosts the headquarters of several important international agencies, including the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE). This gives dozens of countries the opportunity to station in Vienna large numbers of diplomats, in addition to those who staff their embassies there. Consequently, it is estimated that the Austrian capital today hosts nearly 20,000 foreign diplomats, which is a substantial number for such a small country with a permanent population of less than 9 million. Experts believe that around half of these foreign diplomats are in fact connected to a foreign intelligence agency.

But in a rare public appearance on Thursday, Peter Gridling, head of Austria’s main counterintelligence agency, said that Vienna no longer topped the list of preferred destinations for the world’s spies. Gridling heads the Vienna-based Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism, known as BVT. He was speaking during the official presentation of the BVT’s annual Constitutional Protection Report for 2017, which was held at the headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior. Gridling told reporters that the number of foreign intelligence operatives pretending to be diplomats posted in the Austrian capital remained significant, and that Austria as a whole was still “a favored area of operations” by the world’s intelligence agencies. However, he added that Vienna had now been overtaken by the Belgian capital Brussels as the spy capital of Europe. Gridling said that, according to his agency’s calculations, there was now a greater density of spies in Brussels than in any other European capital.

Gridling thus appears to concur with numerous intelligence experts and practitioners, among them Alain Winants, former Director of Belgium’s State Security Service (SV/SE), who have claimed since 2009 that Brussels is home to more spies than any other city in the world. When asked to specify the number of foreign intelligence operatives that are active in Vienna, Gridling said it was “in the neighborhood of hundreds of people, but certainly fewer than 1,000”. The Austrian counterintelligence chief declined calls to provide further elaboration on the mater.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 June 2018 | Permalink