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

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NATO obtained Soviet Novichok nerve agents through German intelligence in 1990s

Sergei SkripalSome North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states obtained access to the Soviet Union’s so-called ‘Novichok’ nerve agents in the 1990s, through an informant recruited by German intelligence, according to reports. NATO countries refer to ‘Novichok-class’ nerve agents to describe a series of weaponized substances that were developed by the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia from the early 1970s to at least 1993. They are believed to be the deadliest nerve agents ever produced, but Moscow denies their very existence. A type of Novichok agent, described by British scientists as A234, is said to have been used in March of this year by the person or persons who tried to kill Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England. Skripal is a former Russian military intelligence officer who spied for Britain in the early 2000s and has been living in England ever since he was released from a Russian prison in 2010.

On Thursday, two German newspapers, Die Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Zeit, and two regional public radio broadcasters, WDR and NDR, said that the NATO alliance has had access to the chemical composition of Novichok nerve agents since the period immediately following the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Specifically, the reports claimed that the access was gained through a Russian scientist who became an informant for the German Federal Intelligence Service, known as the BND. The scientist struck a deal with the BND: he provided the spy agency with technical information about the Novichok agents in exchange for safe passage to the West for him and his immediate family. Initially, the German government was reluctant to get its hands on material that was —and remains— classified as a weapon of mass destruction by international agencies. But eventually it asked for the chemical composition of the Novichok nerve agents and even acquired samples from the Russian informant.

According to media reports, the BND proceeded to share information about the chemical composition of the Novichok nerve agents with key NATO allies, including Sweden, France, Britain and the United States. The sharing of such a sensitive substance was approved by the then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, said the reports. In the following years, a handful of NATO countries proceeded to produce what media reports described as “limited quantities” of Novichok agents, reportedly in order to experiment with various defense measures against them and to produce antidotes. Russia has denied accusations that it was implicated in Skripal’s poisoning and has argued that other countries, some of them NATO members, have the capacity to produce Novichok agents.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 May 2018 | Permalink

UK blames Russia, says it will not invoke NATO Article 5 in attack on ex-spy

Theresa MayThe British prime minister said on Monday that it was “highly likely” the nerve agent used to attack a Russian defector in England last week was developed by Russia. But sources in London told the BBC that the British government would not invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which states that an attack on one member of the alliance is an attack on all. Theresa May was referring to an assassination attempt carried out on March 4 by unknown assailants against former KGB Colonel Sergei Skripal. The 66-year-old former spy and his daughter were found in a catatonic state in the town of Salisbury. It was later determined that they were attacked with a nerve agent.

Speaking in the British House of Commons, Mrs. May said that “world-leading experts” in chemical weapons had concluded Mr. Skripal had been attacked with a “military-grade nerve agent”. It was, she added, part of a group of nerve agents developed by the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s, known collectively as novichok (newcomers). The existence of these nerve agents took place in secret, but was later revealed by Russian government agents who defected to the West. British officials also disclosed yesterday that the British Foreign Office summoned the Russian Ambassador to London, Alexander Yakovenko, to seek an explanation about the attack. Additionally, London has called on Moscow to provide a “full and complete disclosure” of its novichok nerve agent program to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an intergovernmental agency based in the Netherlands, which oversees the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.

Meanwhile NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Monday that the alliance viewed the use of a military-grade nerve agent on British soil as “horrendous and completely unacceptable” and that it was in contact with British officials about the matter. But British government officials told the BBC that London had no intention of invoking Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which requires all member-states to rally to the defense of a member under attack. The only time that Article 5 has been invoked by a member was by the United States, in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks. In Washington, White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Monday that the United States was “monitoring the incident closely” and took it “very seriously”. Mrs. Sanders described the attack on Mr. Skripal as “reckless, indiscriminative and irresponsible”, and extended the American government’s “support […] to our closest ally”, the United Kingdom. But she refused to respond to questions about whether the Russian government was behind the attack, saying that British experts were “still working through […] some of the details” of the case.

On Monday, during an official visit to the southern region of Krasnodar, Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked by a BBC reporter to comment on the attack on Skripal. He responded to the British reporter saying that the government in London would first have to “sort this out for yourselves first, then come talk to us”. He then walked away. Commenting from Moscow on Mrs. May’s allegations, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that her statement in the British Parliament had been “a circus show”.

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

Russian-trained Serb separatists are forming paramilitary group in Bosnia

Serbian Honor militiaA group of hardline Bosnian Serbs, some of whom have been trained in military tactics by Russian instructors, are secretly creating a paramilitary group to undermine the territorial integrity of Bosnia, according to reports. Information about the alleged paramilitary group was published on the Friday edition of Žurnal, a nonpartisan investigative newsmagazine. The allegations exposed by Žurnal were later repeated by Dragan Mektić, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Minister for Security, who is himself a Bosnian Serb. Žurnal’s revelations came just days after hardline Serb separatists, dressed in dark-colored combat gear, staged a military-style rally in Banja Luka. The city of 200,000 is the administrative center of the Republika Srpska, the semi-autonomous Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The entity was established under the terms of the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, which ended the Bosnian War that began in 1992.

The rally was held despite an earlier decision by the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which ruled that military-style marches by separatist organizations were unconstitutional. According to Žurnal, the rally was organized by Srbska čast (Serbian Honor), a militia made up of hardline Serb separatists. The group strongly supports Milorad Dodik, a Serb nationalist who has served as president of Republika Srpska since 2010. The investigative news site said that several members of Srbska čast’s were trained by Russian paramilitary instructors in the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center, a Russian-funded disaster relief center based in southern Serbia, which Western officials claim is really an intelligence base. Žurnal also said that one of Srbska čast’s leading figures, Bojan Stojković, a former commando, was trained in military schools in Russia and has been decorated by the Russian military.

Friday’s report by the investigative news outlet quoted extensively from a leaked report by Bosnia and Herzegovnia’s intelligence agency. The report allegedly states that Srbska čast leaders, including Stojković, met secretly with Dodik and discussed the formation of a new, heavily armed paramilitary unit, which will operate as an extrajudicial force in support of Dodik’s administration in Republika Srpska. One quote from the document said that the paramilitary force would engage in “possible intervention if the opposition [i.e. those opposed to Dodik] seeks to obstruct the functioning of the authorities” in the Republika Srpska. Bosnia and Herzegovina has been seeking to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since 2006. The country has gone through a series of stages in negotiations with NATO and ratified a membership action plan in 2010. Bosnia’s application is heavily supported by Turkey, NATO’s only predominantly Muslim member state, but is fiercely opposed by Russia and by the Balkan country’s Serb minority.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 January 2018 | Permalink

Poland arrests military intelligence chiefs for ties to Russian spies

PytelAuthorities in Poland have charged three high-level military intelligence officials with acting in the interests of Russia. The three include two former directors of Polish military intelligence and are facing sentences of up to 10 years in prison. The news broke on December 6, when Polish authorities announced the arrest of Piotr Pytel, who was director of Poland’s Military Counterintelligence Service (SKW) from 2014 to 2015. It soon emerged that two more arrests had taken place, that of Pytel’s predecessor, Janusz Nosek, and Krzysztof Dusza, Pytel’s chief of staff during his tenure as SKW director.

According to the newsmagazine Gazeta Polska, which provides extensive coverage of the arrests in its latest issue, the SKW officials are accused of having had unauthorized contacts with Russian intelligence personnel and of “operating on behalf of a foreign intelligence service”. The court indictment reportedly states that the Polish officials “cooperated, without seeking the necessary authorization, with members of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB)”. The indictment also notes that “the mission of the FSB conflicts with that of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization”, of which Poland is a full member.

According to reports in the Polish media, the three men are accused of having held several undisclosed meetings with FSB officers in Poland. One such meeting allegedly took place in the village of Ułowo, in north-central Poland. The village is located just a few miles from Poland’s border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which lies between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. During the meeting, which included dinner and “heavy consumption of alcohol”, the SKW officials allegedly met with the FSB’s senior representative in Poland, identified in court documents only as “W.J.”, as well as with several other Russian intelligence officers. Following that meeting, Pytel and Dusza allegedly helped falsify the application data of an unnamed representative of the FSB in Poland, who was stationed at Russia’s embassy in Warsaw. This allegedly allowed the Russian intelligence officer to evade diplomatic restrictions on travel and to gain access to information about Poland’s military that he otherwise would not have.

Speaking on Polish state-owned television, Poland’s Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz said last week that he was aware of the seriousness of the accusation against the three SKW officials. He told the Telewizja Polska station that the three officials face “very serious allegations” that point to “fully conscious and illegal cooperation with Russian spies”. That, said Macierewicz, was the “worst kind of betrayal that can be committed by a Pole”. The three defendants claim that they were not working in the interests of the FSB and that it was their job to meet regularly with Russian intelligence representatives in Poland.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 December 2017 | Permalink

Polish counterintelligence chief questioned over alleged deal with Russia

General Piotr PytelThe former director of Poland’s military counterintelligence agency has been questioned by the country’s military police, over allegedly illegal cooperation with Russian intelligence. From 2006 to 2012, General Piotr Pytel was head of Poland’s Military Counterintelligence Service (MCS), which is responsible for domestic security and for ensuring the war-readiness of Poland’s armed forces. According to government prosecutors, General Pytel struck an illegal agreement with the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB, in 2010. The alleged agreement concerned the return to Poland of troops who had been sent to serve in Afghanistan with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Several hundred Polish troops participated in ISAF, a NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan, established by the United Nations Security Council in 2001.

General Pytel’s critics claim that he reached out to the FSB without authorization, and struck an agreement allowing for the passage of Polish troops through Russian soil on their way back to Poland from Central Asia. Some in the Polish government claim that the passage of Polish troops through Russia allowed the Russian spy services to collect intelligence on the Polish armed forces and thus weakened the Polish military vis-à-vis Russia. Polish authorities also accuse Genera Pytel’s predecessor at the helm of the MCS, General Janusz Nosek, of striking similar agreements with Moscow. These agreements were not authorized by NATO or the Polish high command and thus exceeded the prerogative of the MCS directors, according to prosecutors. The same prosecutors also questioned Donald Tusk, the current President of the European Council, who was Prime Minister of Poland in 2010. Mr. Tusk is also suspected of colluding with the Russian FSB, according to some reports.

But Mr. Tusk, and Generals Pytel and Nosek, deny that they engaged in illegal dealings with Russia and accuse the Polish prosecutor’s office of engaging in a political witch-hunt. All three of the accused belong to the Civil Platform, a liberal political party that is now in opposition but was the ruling party in the country from 2007 to 2015. Members of the Civil Platform have accused the Minister of Defense, Antoni Macierewicz, a member of the ruling conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), of politically persecuting his opponents. In statements made on social media on Wednesday, Mr. Tusk said he was proud to have worked with the two MCS former directors, whom he described “shining example[s] of responsibility, patriotism and honor”. He also called for Minister of Defense Macierewicz to resign.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 6 December 2017 | Permalink

German intelligence spied on EU and NATO allies, report finds

Bad Aibling - IAA major parliamentary inquiry into the operations of Germany’s main intelligence agency has concluded that it spied on nearly 3,500 foreign targets in recent years, most of which belonged to allied countries. The inquiry was initiated by the German government in response to a number of recent public controversies involving the Bundesnachrichtendienst, Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND.

In 2015, the BND was found to have secretly collaborated with the US National Security Agency (NSA) in spying on several European governments and private companies. According to German investigative magazine Der Spiegel, the BND used its facilities at Germany’s Bad Aibling listening station to help the NSA spy on, among other targets, the palace of the French president in Paris, the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels, and the France-based European conglomerate Airbus. In response to the revelations, Airbus filed a criminal complaint against the German government, while Belgium and Switzerland launched official investigations into the joint BND-NSA activities. The extent of the BND-NSA collaboration prompted widespread public criticism in Germany. In response to the criticism, German Chancellor Angela Merkel promptly fired the director of the BND in April of this year. Additionally, the German chancellor authorized a parliamentary inquiry into the operations of the BND, which was completed last spring.

The resulting 300-page report has not been made public. But summaries leaked to the German media reveal that the BND spied on 3,300 targets until the end of 2013. Nearly 70 percent of these targets belonged to countries that are members of the European Union or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and are thus some of Germany’s closest international allies. The targets allegedly included “hundreds of diplomatic missions” in Europe and elsewhere, as well as heads of state, government ministers, aides to foreign cabinet officials, and heads of foreign militaries. The report summary also states that the BND targeted non-governmental organizations and private corporations that are operate in the areas of aviation, weapons design, transportation, advertising and the media.

Last month, the German cabinet approved draft legislation that aims to reform the BND. The legislation explicitly bans the agency from spying on foreign governments or corporations for the benefit of German companies. It also prevents it from spying on targets within the European Union, unless the operation pertains to “information to recognize and confront threats to internal or external security”. The legislation also calls for the establishment of a new independent oversight body consisting of senior judges and representatives of the Office of the Federal Prosecutor, whose job will be to evaluate and approve the BND’s proposed espionage activities against foreign targets.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 12 July 2016 | Permalink