Austrian pro-Kremlin officials planned to launch shadow spy agency, report claims

Austria Foreign Affairs MinistryTHE AUSTRIAN STATE HAS launched a probe into an attempt by alleged pro-Russian government officials in Vienna to create a brand new intelligence service in 2018, according to news reports. The effort did not succeed. Some claim, however, that, had it become operational, the new spy service in this European Union state would have been under Russian influence. There are also questions about whether Austria’s foreign minister at the time, Karin Kneissl, was aware of this effort, which appears to have emerged from within her ministry.

The alleged effort to create a new intelligence agency in Austria occurred during the government of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, a conservative politician belonging to the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). Having failed to secure a majority in parliament in the 2017 national election, Kurz’s ÖVP formed a government through an uneasy coalition with the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), a rightwing populist alliance of euro-skeptics, anti-immigration campaigners and strong critics of Islam. In joining Kurz’s governing coalition, the FPÖ was successful in installing Kneissl as Austria’s Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs.

Although previously a supporter of the ÖVP, Kneissl had worked closely with the FPÖ —though never officially joined it— in the run-up to the 2017 national election. Prior to that, she had spent nearly a decade with Austria’s Foreign Office, where she had been able to utilize her near-fluent command of English, French, Spanish, and Arabic (she had spent much of her childhood in Jordan, where her father worked as a pilot). Even prior to heading the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Kneissl —and the FPÖ as a whole— was seen by her critics as being too close to the Kremlin. At her wedding in 2018, the list of guests included Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kneissl stepped down from her ministerial post in the summer of 2019. She has since blogged for the Kremlin-funded Russia Today television channel, while also serving —until earlier this year— on the board of the Moscow-headquartered energy company Rosneft. Read more of this post

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

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