Russia claims ‘misunderstanding’ led to arrests of four spies in Holland

Sergei LavrovRussia’s minister of foreign affairs has downplayed the arrest and expulsion of four Russian military intelligence officers in Holland last April, saying that the incident was caused by a “misunderstanding”. Last Thursday, the US government named and indicted seven officers of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces, known as GRU. The seven are alleged to have participated in cyber-attacks on international agencies, private companies and government computer networks in at least half a dozen countries around the world since 2015. Four of the men named last week were reportedly detained in April of this year while trying to hack into the computer network of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Headquartered in The Hague, the OPCW oversees efforts by its 193 member states to detect and eliminate chemical weapons stockpiles around the world. In the past year, the OPCW has been probing the failed attempt to poison the Russian former double spy Sergei Skripal in England, which the British government has blamed on Moscow.

On Monday, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov dismissed Washington’s accusations against the GRU and said that the Dutch authorities had overreacted in detaining the four Russian officers in April. Following a meeting in Moscow with his Italian counterpart Enzo Moavero Milanesi, Lavrov said that the visit of the four GRU officers in Holland had been “customary”, adding that “there was nothing clandestine in it”. The GRU specialists were in Holland in order to secure computer servers used at the Russian embassy there. “They were not trying to hide from anyone once they arrived at the airport”, said Lavrov. They then “checked into a hotel and paid a visit to our embassy”, he added. Had they been engaged in espionage, the men would have taken strict precautions, said the Russian foreign affairs minister. They were eventually “detained by Dutch police without any reason or explanations, and were not allowed to contact our embassy”, said Lavrov. Eventually they were “asked to leave the country”, but it was “all because of a misunderstanding”, he concluded.

The Russian official did not address the information provided a series of photographs released by Holland’s Ministry of Defense, which show a car used by the four Russians at the time of their arrest in April. The photographs show that the car was equipped with WiFi antennas and transformers. A wireless server and batteries can also be seen in the photographs. Lavrov said that the allegations against the GRU were meant to draw attention to Russia and distract Western citizens from “widening divisions that exist between Western nations”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 October 2018 | Research credit: S.F. | Permalink

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Western spy agencies thwarted alleged Russian plot to hack Swiss chemical lab

OPCW HagueWestern intelligence agencies thwarted a plot involving two Russians intending to travel to a Swiss government laboratory that investigates nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and hack its computer systems. According to two separate reports by Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, the two were apprehended in The Hague in early 2018. The reports also said that the Russians were found in possession of equipment that could be used to compromise computer networks. They are believed to work for the Main Intelligence Directorate, known as GRU, Russia’s foremost military intelligence agency. The apprehension was the result of cooperation between various European intelligence services, reportedly including the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Organization (MIVD).

The laboratory, located in the western Swiss city of Spiez, has been commissioned by the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to carry out investigations related to the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March of this year. It has also carried out probes on the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Russian-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In the case of the Skripals, the laboratory said it was able to duplicate findings made earlier by a British laboratory.

Switzerland’s Federal Intelligence Service (NDB) reportedly confirmed the arrest and subsequent expulsion of the two Russians. The Swiss agency said it “cooperated actively with Dutch and British partners” and thus “contributed to preventing illegal actions against a sensitive Swiss infrastructure”. The office of the Public Prosecutor in the Swiss capital Bern said that the two Russians had been the subject of a criminal investigation that began as early as March 2017. They were allegedly suspected of hacking the computer network of the regional office of the World Anti-Doping Agency in Lausanne. The Spiez laboratory was a target of hacking attempts earlier this year, according to a laboratory spokesperson. “We defended ourselves against that. No data was lost”, the spokesperson stated.

On April 14, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov stated that he had obtained the confidential Spiez lab report about the Skripal case “from a confidential source”. That report confirmed earlier findings made by a British laboratory. But the OPCW, of which Russia is a member, states that its protocols do not involve dissemination of scientific reports to OPCW member states. Hence, the question is how Foreign Minister Lavrov got hold of the document.

As intelNews reported in March, in the aftermath of the Skripals’ poisoning the Dutch government expelled two employees of the Russian embassy in The Hague. In a letter [.pdf] sent to the Dutch parliament on March 26 —the day when a large number of countries announced punitive measures against Russia— Holland’s foreign and internal affairs ministers stated that they had decided to expel the two Russian diplomats “in close consultation with allies and partners”. The Russians were ordered to leave the Netherlands within two weeks. It is unknown whether the two expelled Russian diplomats are the same two who were apprehended in The Hague, since none have been publicly named.

A November 2017 parliamentary letter from Dutch minister of internal affairs Kajsa Ollongren, states[4] that Russian intelligence officers are “structurally present” in the Netherlands in various sectors of society to covertly collect intelligence. The letter added that, in addition to traditional human intelligence (HUMINT) methods, Russia deploys digital means to influence decision-making processes and public opinion in Holland.

Author: Matthijs Koot | Date: 17 September 2018 | Permalink

Greece expels Russian diplomats who ‘tried to bribe Greek officials’

Greece RussiaIn a rare moment of downturn in relations between Athens and Moscow, Greece has expelled two Russian diplomats and refused to accredit two more, reportedly for “undermining Greek national security”. Greece was not among nearly 30 countries that expelled or refused to accredit over 150 Russian diplomats in March, in an act of solidarity with the United Kingdom. The expulsions came in response to the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, a Russian former intelligence officer who had been living in England since 2010. Britain accused the Kremlin of having sponsored the attack on Skripal. But the Greek government, which has enjoyed warm relations with Moscow for decades, warned against unduly aggressive measures against the Kremlin.

Things changed swiftly on Wednesday, however, when Athens announced the surprise expulsion of two Russian diplomats from the Greek capital. One of the two diplomats has been named as Victor Yakovlev, third secretary of the Russian embassy in Athens, who some say is in fact an intelligence officer. Two more Russian diplomats, who have not been publicly named, were barred from entering Greece —a move that effectively amounts to a refusal by the Greek government to accredit them. According to an official statement from the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the expulsions were meant to prevent the “undermining of [Greek] national security”. However, a report in the Greek daily Kathimerini said that the move was taken in response to attempts by Russian spies to bribe Greek state officials. Other reports claim that the Russians were caught trying to blackmail Greek lawmakers over the possible expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), of which Greece is a member.

Some of the allegations in the Greek press refer to the country’s three-decade long dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which Athens accuses of harboring territorial ambitions against its neighbors. Greece —the wealthiest and most powerful state in the Balkans— has barred the entry of its northern neighbor into the European Union and NATO until it complies with a list of Greek demands. Chief among those is the drawing of a clear distinction between Greek Macedonia —once an ancient Greek kingdom ruled by Alexander the Great— and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which encompasses a small portion of Alexander’s former empire. Last month, the decades-long dispute between the two neighboring countries appeared to draw to a close with the proposed adoption of “Northern Macedonia” as the official name of the former Yugoslav republic. The agreement would open the way for the tiny landlocked country to enter into negotiations for eventual entry into NATO. However, nationalists in both countries have staged public rallies to protest against the proposed agreement.

It appears that Russian diplomats may have tried to convince Greek lawmakers —through extortion, bribing or both— to vote against the proposed agreement. There are also reports that Russian diplomats assisted in the organization of nationwide rallies against the proposed agreement in Greece, possibly by funding them or by spreading information about them on social media. The Russian government said on Wednesday that it would protest the expulsion of its diplomats from Athens. It also said that it reserved the right to respond to Greece’s move in kind, possibly by expelling an equal number of Greek diplomats from Moscow.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 July 2018 | Research credit: SF | Permalink

Holland expels two Iranian diplomats, but stays silent on reasons

Iran embassy HagueHolland has expelled two Iranian diplomats without saying why, leading to speculation that the expulsions may be related to the arrests of members of an alleged Iranian sleeper cell in Belgium, Germany and France last week. On Friday, a spokesperson from Holland’s General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) told reporters that “two persons accredited to the Iranian embassy” in the Hague “were expelled from the Netherlands on June 7”. The spokesperson continued saying that, although the AIVD was able to confirm that the two unnamed persons had been expelled from the country, they would “not provide any further information”. When journalists contacted Holland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they were told that there would be no comment on the matter from the Dutch government.

Late on Friday, the Reuters news agency cited an unnamed “European government official and a Western intelligence source” who said that the two Iranian embassy personnel were expelled from Holland “up to two months ago”. But Holland’s state-owned Dutch Broadcast Foundation (NOS) reported that the expulsions took place on June 7. No further information appears to be publicly available. However, assuming that the expulsions took place last week, and not two months ago, they appear to have coincided with the arrests of members of an alleged Iranian sleeper cell on June 30 and July 1. As intelNews reported last week, the arrests began on June 30, when members of Belgium’s Special Forces Group arrested a married Belgian couple of Iranian descent in Brussels. The couple were found to be carrying explosives and a detonator. On the following day, July 1, German police arrested an Iranian diplomat stationed in Iran’s embassy in Vienna, Austria. On the same day, a fourth person, who has not been named, was arrested by authorities in France, reportedly in connection with the three other arrests.

All four individuals appear to have been charged with a foiled plot to bomb the annual conference of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that took place on June 30 in Paris. The NCRI is led by Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a Marxist militant group that has roots in radical Islam and Marxism. Until a few years ago, the MEK was designated as a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States, but has since been reinstated in both Brussels and Washington. There is also speculation that last week’s expulsions in Holland may be related to the assassinations of dissident Iranian expatriates in Holland in 2015 and 2017, which have been blamed on the government in Tehran.

On Saturday, the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Dutch ambassador to protest against the expulsions of its diplomats, while a ministry spokesperson warned that “the Islamic Republic reserves the right to retaliate”. Reuters quoted an unnamed “senior Iranian official” who said that “all these arrests and expulsions are part of our enemies’ attempts to harm efforts to salvage the nuclear deal”, a reference to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 July 2018 | Research credit: M.K. | Permalink

Russia retains massive global diplomatic footprint despite recent expulsions

Russian embassiesThough unprecedented in size, the recent expulsions of over 150 diplomats by nearly 30 countries and organizations around the world have hardly made a dent on Russia’s huge diplomatic footprint. The coordinated expulsions were announced last week in response to Britain’s allegation that the Kremlin tried to kill a Russian former spy living in England. Sergei Skripal, 66, who spied for Britain in the early 2000s, and has been living in England since 2010, is fighting for his life after being poisoned with what London claims was a military-grade nerve agent. Nearly every European country, as well as Canada, Australia and the United States, expelled Russian diplomats in response to the attack on Skripal.

The largest share of the expulsions came from the United States, where the White House announced that 60 Russian diplomats had been ordered to leave by the end of the week. The majority of these diplomats are posted at the Russian embassy in Washington and consulate in New York. At least a dozen more are serving in Russia’s permanent mission at the United Nations in New York. On Thursday, several US media outlets said that all 60 Russians told to leave the US are undeclared intelligence officers serving under diplomatic cover. Fox News quoted an unnamed “senior administration official” in the US as saying that “these are not diplomats that we expelled […]. They are intelligence officers […] operating under diplomatic cover”. The official added that the Russians were expelled because they “were engaging in activities that were not commensurate with their diplomatic roles and functions”. That description is often used by governments to allude to diplomats who are in fact engaging in espionage or other intelligence-related activities.

But in an analysis piece written for the BBC, Alex Oliver, research director at the Lowy Institute in Australia, points out that the 150 diplomats expelled in recent days are but “a tiny part” of Russia’s massive diplomatic presence around the world. With 242 diplomatic posts around the world, Russia has the world’s fourth largest diplomatic footprint, behind the United States, China and France. Several thousand Russian diplomats are stationed at any one time in 143 Russian embassies, 87 consulates, and about a dozen other diplomatic missions in nearly every country in the world. Of these, approximately 170 serve in the United States. The 60 expulsions announced last week by the US government, will still leave Russia with over 100 accredited diplomats in America —many of whom are presumably intelligence officers. Earlier today, Moscow announced that it would expel 60 American diplomats, as well as nearly 100 more diplomats for other countries. The White House said that it may choose to respond with further expulsions of Russian diplomatic personnel.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 April 2018 | Permalink

Britain shared “unprecedented” intelligence details to secure expulsions of Russians

Diplomatic ExpulsionsBritain secured the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats in history by sharing “unprecedented degrees of intelligence” with dozens of foreign countries about the attempted killing of former spy Sergei Skripal. Nearly 30 countries and international organizations, including the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have expelled or refused to accredit over 150 Russian diplomats in the past 72 hours. The coordinated move came in response to the alleged attack on Skripal, a Russian former intelligence officer who has been living in England since 2010. Skripal left Russia after he was released from prison as part of a spy swap between Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. He had previously been caught spying on Russia for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6. Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, are currently in a comatose state in hospital.

The United States, Canada and Australia joined most European countries in expelling Russian spies, after Britain accused Moscow of using a Soviet-era nerve agent to attack the Skripals. But according to a senior British government official, the coordinated expulsions were not coincidental. The official, who refused to be named, told The Financial Times that the British government took the unprecedented decision to share “unprecedented degrees of intelligence” with dozens of countries in order to convince them to take action against the Kremlin. Shared information included complete intelligence assessments of Russian activities. Complete intelligence assessments are rarely —if ever— shared by nations. The latter typically share headline assessments —short snippets of longer analyses produced by their intelligence agencies— with allied nations. But in this case, British officials were authorized to share complete intelligence reports along with underlying data, which included a “detailed scientific analysis of the nerve agent used in the attack”, said The Financial Times.

Sharing complete intelligence reports runs the risk of revealing how much a nation knows about the secret activities of its adversaries, and may end up harming its intelligence-collection efforts. But the paper said that the complete intelligence shared with dozens of countries around the world convinced them that “there was no plausible alternative other than […] the Russian state” was behind the attack on the Skripals. Moreover, said the paper, London shared intelligence with foreign governments that pointed to the existence of an “explicit” state-backed assassination program run by the Kremlin. The program allegedly includes targets in numerous countries worldwide, said The Financial Times. The Russian government has vehemently rejected London’s assertions and has suggested that the attack on the Skripals was part of a British intelligence operation aimed at turning Russia into an international pariah.

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

Analysis: Will the mass expulsion of diplomats affect Russia’s spy capabilities?

Russian embassy in WashingtonRelations between Russia and much of the West reached a new low on Monday, with the expulsion of over 100 Russian diplomats from two dozen countries around the world. The unprecedented expulsions were publicized on Monday with a series of coordinated announcements issued from nearly every European capital, as well as from Washington, Ottawa and Canberra. By the early hours of Tuesday, the number of Russian diplomatic expulsions had reached 118 —not counting the 23 Russian so-called “undeclared intelligence officers” that were expelled from Britain last week. Further expulsions of Russian diplomats are expected in the coming days.

It is indeed difficult to overstate the significance of this development in the diplomatic and intelligence spheres. Monday’s announcements signified the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence personnel (intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover) in history, and is remarkable even by Cold War standards. In the United States, the administration of President Donald Trump expelled no fewer than 60 Russian diplomats and shut down the Russian consulate in Seattle. Such a move would have been viewed as aggressive even for Mr. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is known for her hardline anti-Russian stance. In Europe, the move to expel dozens of Russian envoys from 23 different countries —most of them European Union members— was a rare act of unity that surprised European observers as much as it did the Russians.

RUSSIA’S ESPIONAGE CAPABILITY

However, in considering the unprecedented number of diplomatic expulsions from an intelligence point of view, the question that arises is, how will these developments affect Russia’s espionage capabilities abroad? If the Kremlin did indeed authorize the attempted assassination of the Russian defector Sergei Skripal, it must be assumed that it expected some kind of reaction from London, possibly in the form of limited diplomatic expulsions. The resulting worldwide wave of expulsions must have caught Russian intelligence planners by surprise. There is little question, therefore, that these are difficult hours for the GRU, Russia’s military-run Main Intelligence Directorate, and the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. These agencies will be losing as much as two thirds of their official-cover officers in Europe and North America. The last time this happened on such a massive scale was during World War II, as Soviet embassies across Europe were unceremoniously shut down by the advancing Nazi forces. Read more of this post