Russian teams bribed Madagascar presidential candidates, BBC claims

Marc Ravalomanana Andry RajoelinaTeams of “Russian technical specialists” bribed several leading candidates in last year’s presidential elections in Madagascar, in an effort to influence the outcome, according to an investigation by the BBC. The 2018 presidential campaign was among the most closely fought in Madagascar’s 60-year post-independence history. The electorate’s attention concentrated mostly on two former presidents, Marc Ravalomanana, and Andry Rajoelina. Following a closely contested second round in late December, Rajoelina was elected president, having received 500,000 votes more than his opponent. Since his election, Rajoelina has promoted closer ties with Russia. Most notably, he has strengthened his country’s military cooperation with Moscow —a process that was initiated by his predecessor in October of last year.

But a new investigation by the BBC suggests there was a “systematic and coordinated operation” by a group of Russian businessmen with ties to the Kremlin to help Rajoelina get elected. There were “clear signs of Russian meddling in the polls”, claims the BBC, adding that at least six leading candidates in the election were offered money by the Russians to support rival candidates in the second round of the elections. Among them was Andre Mailhol, a Christian pastor who ran for president and ended up in fourth place with around 60,000 votes. He told the BBC that a group of Russians paid his deposit to run in the election and funded his campaign. In return, they asked that he would support their preferred candidate in the second round of the elections. Mailhol said that the Russians made him sign a contract promising to do as he was told.

The BBC claims that the payments to several presidential candidates were made by “dozens of Russians” who are central figures in Madagascar’s business community. They allegedly include Andrei Kramar and Roman Pozdnyakov, who live permanently in the island country. Other alleged accomplices are diamond trader Vladimir Boyarishchev, as well as Maksim Shugaley, a political campaign manager who lives in Russia. The BBC claims that their activities were funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin operative who has been indicted in the United States for his alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Prigozhin has allegedly been financing “teams of Russian technical specialists” to sway the results of elections in Madagascar and other African countries, according to the BBC.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 April 2019 | Permalink

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Russian diplomat involved in espionage leaves Sweden after ‘unusual’ delay

Russian Embassy SwedenRussia has recalled one of its diplomats from Sweden after he was caught receiving classified information from a computer expert at a nightclub in Stockholm. The computer expert was later identified as Kristian Dmitrievski, a 45-year-old naturalized Swede who was born in Russia. The Swedish government accuses him of having been recruited by Russian intelligence in 2017 or earlier. He allegedly met with his Russian handlers on a regular basis since his recruitment, passing them classified information of a technical nature.

Dmitrievski was reportedly arrested on the evening of February 26, while meeting his alleged Russian handler in a downtown area of the Swedish capital. Both Dmitrievski and his alleged handler were detained by officers of the Swedish Security Service, known as SÄPO. Swedish authorities later said that Dmitrievski’s alleged handler was a member of staff of the Russian embassy in Stockholm and had diplomatic immunity. SÄPO added that the Russian diplomat was believed to be a Russian intelligence officer who worked under diplomatic cover. The Russian man’s diplomatic status granted him immunity, so Swedish authorities were unable to file espionage charges against him. However, the Swedish Foreign Affairs Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador to file a protest, while the alleged intelligence officer was told to leave the country.

Surprisingly, however, Moscow did not recall the diplomat, as expected, and no further reports were issued about the incident. Then on March 28, the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter named the Russian diplomat as Yevgeny Umerenko. Later that day, the Associated Press news agency said that it had seen “an intelligence report from a European service” that identified Dmitrievski’s Russian handler as Yevgeny Umerenko. The Associated Press described Umerenko as a “Line X officer” —a Soviet-era classification referring to case officers specializing in technological espionage. Western intelligence agencies had apparently been monitoring Umerenko’s activities ever since he had a similar role at the Russian embassy in Berlin, immediately before being transferred to Stockholm.

In its report, the Associated Press said that Moscow had finally recalled Umerenko from its embassy in Sweden, and that he was back in Russia. The news agency added it spoke to Anna Lundbladh, a spokeswoman for Sweden’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs, who confirmed that Umerenko had left Sweden, but went on to say that the Swedish government would “not discuss this matter in further detail”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 April 2019 | Permalink

Moscow confirms arrival of Russian troops in Venezuela

Russian planes CaracasRussian media reports have confirmed that an airplane carrying 100 Russian troops arrived in Caracas on Saturday, causing tensions to rise between Washington and Moscow over the deepening crisis in Venezuela. The arrival of the Russian troops in the Venezuelan capital was first reported on Saturday morning by Venezuelan reporter Javier Mayorca, who said on Twitter that two Russian military airplanes had landed in Caracas. The reporter said that an Antonov An-124 Ruslan cargo plane belonging to the Russian Air Force could be seen on the tarmac of the Simón Bolívar International Airport in the Venezuelan capital. Another, smaller aircraft, also bearing the Russian flag on its fuselage, landed shortly afterwards, said Mayorca.

Within hours, several Venezuelan media reports appeared to confirm Mayorca’s claims, some even posting photographs of the two Russian planes surrounded by what appeared to be uniformed Russian soldiers. The BBC reported that the Russian cargo plane had delivered 100 Russian troops and 35 tons of military equipment. The force was led by General Vasily Tonkoshkurov, commander of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces, according to the BBC. Later on Saturday, the Russian government-owned news agency Sputnik confirmed that Russian troops had arrived in Caracas. Citing anonymous “diplomatic sources”, Sputnik said the Russian troops had been sent to Caracas in order “to fulfil technical military contracts” and “to take part in consultations […] on defense industry cooperation” with Venezuelan officials. It added that there was “nothing mysterious” about the visit and that it was “related to [military] contracts that had been signed by the two countries years ago”.

Russia has supported Venezuela militarily, economically and diplomatically ever since 1999, when Hugo Chávez became president. The recent political crisis in the Latin American country, which has prompted a direct diplomatic intervention by Washington, has brought Caracas and Moscow closer together, as Russia has strongly opposed efforts by the United States to bring down the government of Nicolás Maduro. Earlier this year, Russia sent two Tu-160 long-range bomber aircraft to take part in a military exercise organized by the Venezuelan government.

On Monday, Washington said that the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a telephone conversation with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. Pompeo told his Russian counterpart that Moscow should “cease its unconstructive behavior” and warned him that the United States would “not stand idly by as Russia exacerbated tensions” in Venezuela. Late on Monday, Sputnik quoted a “diplomatic source” as saying that that the “visit of Russian military personnel to Venezuela [was] in no way connected to the statements of the United States on potential intervention in Venezuela”.

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

Putin’s ex-adviser found dead in Washington had broken neck, say medical examiners

Mikhail LesinA former senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who died allegedly by falling while intoxicated in a luxury hotel room in Washington, may in fact have been strangled to death, according to a newly released medical examination. The body of Mikhail Yuriyevich Lesin, a well-known Russian media mogul, was found in the luxury Dupont Circle Hotel on November 5, 2015. He became famous in Russia soon after the collapse of the communist system, when he founded Video International, an advertising and public-relations agency that was hired by Russian President Boris Yeltsin to run his reelection campaign in 1995.

Yeltsin’s electoral success was partly attributed to the well-tailored media message projected by Lesin’s company. The media magnate was rewarded by Yeltsin, who offered him influential government posts, including that of director of Russia’s state-owned news agency Novosti. Meanwhile, Lesin became a media personality and frequently gave interviews espousing a free-enterprise model for the Russian media industry. But soon after Vladimir Putin’s ascendance to the presidency, Lesin saw the writing on the wall and began advocating for increased government regulation of media and telecommunications conglomerates. In 1999, Putin made him Minister of Press, Broadcasting and Mass Communications, a post he held for nearly six years, until 2004. In 2006, Lesin was awarded the Order for Merit to the Fatherland, one of the most prestigious civilian decorations in Russia.

But in late 2009, Putin abruptly fired Lesin from his post in the Kremlin’s Media Advisory Commission, allegedly because the media mogul had developed close contacts with Russian organized crime. Lesin’s ties with Putin’s inner circle were further strained in 2014, when he resigned from his position as head of Gazprom Media, after he clashed with pro-Putin executives on the board. When Lesin’s body was found in his hotel room by a member of the hotel staff, some suggested that he may have been killed by the Kremlin. Read more of this post

Russians use front-company to access US federal employees’ contact info, says report

EFIS EstoniaRussian spy agencies use front companies to purchase directorates that contain the contact details of United States government employees, according to a new intelligence report. The contact details are contained in multi-page directories of Congressional staff members and employees of US federal agencies. They are published every January by a specialist vendor called Leadership Connect with the cooperation of a Washington, DC-based provider of publishing services. The directories contain the names, job titles, professional addresses and telephone numbers of US government employees.

But according to the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (EFIS), copies of the directorate are purchased every year by the Russian intelligence services, such as the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). The two Russian spy agencies allegedly use a front company in order to purchase copies of the directory. In reality, however, the purchases are made on behalf of Russian intelligence units, such as Military Unit 71330 of the FSB. This allegation is contained in the 2019 security environment assessment, which was published this week by the EFIS. Titled International Security and Estonia, the report is an overview of the main threats to Estonia’s internal security and a description of how these threats relate to international developments.

The directories, says EFIS, are not classified. On the contrary, they contain information that is publicly available in the US. However, the job descriptions and contact information of US federal employees are difficult to access in a collected format. The directories are therefore useful to Russian intelligence, which routinely tries to access large quantities of open-source information from foreign countries. Russian spy agencies are known to incorporate this open-source information into recruitment or surveillance plans that target specific individuals or foreign government agencies. They also use them to fill gaps in intelligence collection about specific agencies or parts of agencies, according to Robert Dannenberg, a former CIA officer who spoke to Yahoo News about the EFIS report.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 March 2019 | Permalink

Lithuania widens espionage probe, several now in custody for spying for Russia

Algirdas PaleckisA growing number of individuals are in custody in Lithuania, as the Baltic state continues a probe into an alleged Russian espionage ring whose members reportedly included a former diplomat and member of one of the country’s most revered political families. On Tuesday, government prosecutors asked for an eight-year prison sentence for Roman Sheshel, who stands accused for giving Moscow classified information on Lithuania’s naval forces. Sheshel, a Russian-born Lithuanian citizen, is also believed to have given his Russian handlers intelligence regarding warships belonging to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which Lithuania is a member. He is accused of having worked for the Russians from early 2015 until his capture by Lithuanian authorities in December of 2017. His trial has been taking place behind closed doors in order to protect state secrets.

Government prosecutors allege that Sheshel was part of a sizeable spy network of Lithuanians who were recruited by Russia in the past five years and whose “activities threatened Lithuanian national security”. Among them is allegedly Alģirds Paleckis, a former parliamentarian and diplomat, Paleckis was born in 1971 in Switzerland, where his father, Justas Vincas, served as a Soviet diplomat. His grandfather, Justas Paleckis, was a towering figure in the Communist Party of Lithuania, which in 1940 spearheaded Lithuania’s amalgamation into the Soviet Union. But his son, Paleckis’ father, broke ranks with the family’s communist past and became a leading nationalist parliamentarian in 1990, when the country seceded from the USSR. Paleckis followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the diplomatic service before entering parliament. But in 2008, after a successful career as a pro-Western reformist politician, Paleckis began to veer to the left, eventually founding the Lithuanian Socialist People’s Front, a small leftist party that is often accused of being too close to Moscow. The party is a vocal opponent of Lithuania’s membership in the European Union and NATO. Paleckis’ critics also note that he is married to a Russian woman whose father is reportedly a Russian intelligence officer.

The German news agency Deutsche Welle reported last week that Paleckis attracted the attention of Lithuanian counterintelligence investigators after he “fully paid back the mortgage on a house too quickly”. He is now accused of giving his Russian handlers information about a Lithuanian government investigation into Soviet-era informant networks in the small Baltic country. He has been in custody since last October, along with an undisclosed number of other alleged members of a purported Russian spy ring. Earlier this week, Lithuanian authorities said that evidence collected from the unnamed detainees are helping them broaden their probe into alleged Russian espionage.

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

Senior Belgian counterintelligence officer arrested on suspicion of spying for Russia

NATO HQ BrusselsA senior counterintelligence official in Belgium’s external intelligence service is under house arrest on suspicion of sharing classified documents with Russian spies, according to a Belgian newspaper. Additionally, the chief of the agency’s counterintelligence directorate has been barred from his office while an internal investigation is underway on allegations that he illegally destroyed government documents. These allegations surfaced last Thursday in a leading article in De Morgen, a Flemish-language daily based in Brussels.

Citing anonymous sources from the General Information and Security Service —Belgium’s military intelligence agency— the paper said that the arrestee has the equivalent rank of major in the General Intelligence and Security Service. Known as GISS, the agency operates as the Belgian equivalent of the United States Central Intelligence Agency or Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service —better known as MI6. GISS officers collect information abroad and are not permitted to operate within Belgium’s borders. The man, a career counterintelligence official, is suspected of having passed secrets to Russia with the help of a woman who claims to be Serbian, but who is in fact believed to be an operative for Russian intelligence. It is not known whether the compromised information included secrets involving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which Belgium is a founding member. In the same article, De Morgen also said that Clement Vandenborre, who serves as chief of GISS’s counterintelligence directorate, has been barred from his office while an investigation is taking place into allegations of mismanagement. He is also accused of having shredded classified government documents without permission. It is not believed that this case is connected with the alleged Russian penetration.

De Morgen quoted a spokesperson for Belgium’s Ministry of Defense, who confirmed that an investigation into alleged foreign espionage targeting a GISS employee was underway, but added that “no comment” would be made on the subject so as “not to hinder” the probe. Ironically, German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag reported last week that the European Union’s diplomatic agency warned officials in Belgium to watch out for “hundreds of spies” from various foreign countries, including from Russia and China. The warning, issued by the European Union’s diplomatic agency, the European External Action Service (EEAS), said that “approximately 250 Chinese and 200 Russian spies” were operating in Brussels.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 February 2019 | Permalink