Russian aid center in Serbia rejects claims that it is an intelligence base

Russian-Serbian Humanitarian CenterStaff at a Russian disaster relief center in southern Serbia have rejected claims by American officials that the facility operates as an espionage arm of Moscow’s foreign policy in the Balkans. The Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center was built in 2012, at a cost of nearly $40 million, following an agreement between Belgrade and Moscow. Its stated mission is to “provide humanitarian emergency response in Serbia and other Balkan states” through the provision of humanitarian assistance to those in need and training local emergency response crews. The center is located in the outskirts of Serbia’s fourth largest city of Niš, not far from the country’s border with Kosovo, a former Serbian province that unilaterally declared independence in 2008. Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence, a decision that is strongly backed by Russia. It is also close to the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s peacekeeping force stationed in Kosovo, which houses 4,000 international troops, including 600 Americans.

Western officials have raised concerns that the disaster relief center is in reality an intelligence base, from which Russia conducts some of its espionage operations in the Western Balkans. It has also been suggested that the center could operate as a military base in a potential Russian military operation in the former communist state. In June, the United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Hoyt Brian Yee, publicly described the compound as “the so-called humanitarian center” in Serbia. Speaking during a US Senate hearing on southeastern European politics, Yee said the Department of State was concerned about the center’s unofficial use. He also expressed reservations about Moscow’s request that the Serbian government grants the center diplomatic immunity, similar to that which covers the activities of the Russian embassy in Belgrade.

Moscow responded to American allegations of espionage by inviting local and international media representatives to the center on Wednesday. The center’s co-director, Viacheslav Vlasenko, told reporters that the center was “very open”, adding that its staff consisted of 15 Serbs and five Russians who were dispatched to Serbia from Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations, known as EMERCOM. Vlasenko said that Moscow’s request for diplomatic immunity for the center was solely aimed at reducing the annual taxes that the facility had to pay.

Regular readers of intelNews will recall allegations made last October by authorities in Serbia’s neighboring state of Montenegro —later repeated by Britain— that nationalists from Russia and Serbia were behind a failed plot to kill the country’s then-Prime Minister Milo Dukanović and spark a pro-Russian coup in the country. The allegations surfaced after 20 Serbians and Montenegrins were arrested by police in Montenegro on election day, October 16, as Montenegrins were voting across the Balkan country of 650,000 people. In response to allegations that the coup had been hatched in neighboring Serbia, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić said that he would not allow Serbia to “act as the puppet of world powers”, a comment that was clearly directed at Moscow. Russia has vehemently denied the allegations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 July 2017 | Permalink

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Russia allegedly planning to expel 30 American diplomats in a few weeks

US embassy in MoscowRussia is planning to expel approximately 30 American diplomats from its territory, and seize buildings and property belonging to the United States Department of State, according to Russian media reports. The expulsions will be in response to the expulsion last December of 35 Russian diplomats stationed in the US by the administration of President Barack Obama. In addition to expelling the diplomats, Washington also reclaimed two “recreational facilities” (in reality intelligence outposts) that were used by the Russians in New York and Maryland. The White House said that the expulsions were ordered in response to alleged efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election.

Observers, including the present author, were confident at the time that the Kremlin would respond in kind. In a surprising move, however, the Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would not respond to Mr. Obama’s move, in the hope that US-Russian relations would improve with the arrival of the new president in the White House. He added that Russia reserved the right to retaliate at a later time. Moscow’s response was met with praise by the then-president-elect Donald Trump and his transition team.

But Russia’s hopes for warmer relations with the US under Mr. Trump’s leadership do not seem to be materializing. A recent article in the daily Russian newspaper Izvestia reported that the Kremlin thought it was “outrageous” that the Trump White House had not yet returned the two seized compounds to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and not rescinded the expulsions of the 35 diplomats and their families. It also claimed that President Putin raised the issue with his US counterpart during their July 7 meeting in the German city of Hamburg. The Moscow-based newspaper quoted unnamed senior Russian officials, who said that Russia was preparing to expel dozens of American diplomats and seize US diplomatic facilities soon.

It appears that Russia will wait until the upcoming meeting between the US Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon and the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, which has been scheduled for later this month in St. Petersburg. If no US assurances for the return of the compounds and diplomats are made at that time, Moscow will proceed with its tit-for-tat plan. When asked about Izvestia’s article, the Russian Minster of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, replied that the Kremlin was “weighing specific measures” in response to last December’s expulsions of Russian diplomats from the US. However, Mr. Lavrov said he did not want to elaborate at the present time, while also refusing to deny the newspaper’s allegations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 July 2017 | Permalink

North Korea secretly imports Russian oil through Singapore, says defector

Ri Jong-hoThe government of North Korea uses intermediary firms in Singapore to import thousands of tons of Russian oil each year, according to a senior North Korean defector who has spoken publicly for the first time since his defection. Ri Jong-ho was a senior official in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea under its previous leader, the late Kim Jong-il. He rose through the ranks of the Workers’ Party of Korea and was directly mentored by Kim, who personally appointed him to a post in Bureau 39. The powerful body is in charge of securing much-needed foreign currency for Pyongyang —often through illegal activities— and partly funds the personal accounts of the ruling Kim dynasty.

From the mid-1990s until his 2014 defection, Ri spent nearly three decades in senior positions inside the DPRK. These included the chairmanship of the board of the Korea Kumgang Group, a state-managed firm that oversees large-scale economic activity in North Korea, such as constructing energy networks and commissioning oil and natural-gas exploration. Between 1998 and 2004, Ri lived in the Chinese city of Dalian, where he headed the local branch of the Korea Daesong Trading Corporation. The Pyongyang-based company facilitates North Korea’s exports to China in exchange for Chinese goods and products.

But Ri’s mentor, Kim Jong-il, died in 2011. His son and successor, Kim Jong-un, engaged in a brutal campaign to remove his father’s advisers and replace them with his own people. During that time, said Ri, thousands of senior and mid-level officials were purged, some physically. Frightened and disillusioned, Ri defected with his family to South Korea in October 2014; fifteen months later, in March 2016, he arrived in the United States. On Tuesday, the Voice of America published Ri’s first public interview since his defection.

Among other things, the former Bureau 39 official said that the North Korean regime sustains itself with the help of oil it imports from nearby countries. One of the regime’s main sources of energy is Russia, which supplies Pyongyang with between 200,000 and 300,000 tons of oil every year. But the trade does not occur directly, said Ri. Moscow sells the oil to energy-trading companies in Singapore. These mediators then sell the oil to the DPRK through separately agreed contracts, so that Russia does not appear to be providing Pyongyang with desperately needed oil. The so-called “Singapore line” was established by North Korea in the 1990s, said Ri, and appears to still be active. In addition to Russian oil, the DPRK imports approximately 500,000 tons of oil per year from China, through pipelines, according to Ri.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 June 2017 | Permalink

New clues emerge about targeted efforts by Russia to hack US elections

GRUNew information about carefully targeted attempts by Russian operatives to compromise the November 2016 presidential elections in the United States have emerged in a newly published intelligence document. The document, which dates from May of this year, was produced by the US National Security Agency and published on June 5 by The Intercept. The web-based outlet published the leaked document on the same day that Reality Leigh Winner, a US federal contractor with a top-security clearance, was charged with espionage for leaking classified documents to the media. This has led to speculation that Winner may be the source of the leak.

The NSA document details attempts by hackers to compromise the online accounts of over 100 election officials, as well as employees of private contractors involved in administering the election process. The attempts reportedly took place during the period leading up to November 8, 2016. To do that, hackers resorted to a technique commonly known as ‘spear-fishing’. They sent carefully crafted emails, claiming to be from Google, to specifically targeted individuals. The goal was to trick the email recipients into downloading and opening Microsoft Word attachments, which were infected with malware. The infected software would then allow the hackers to remotely access the compromised computers. The NSA document states that at least one targeted person had his or her computer compromised though the ‘spear-fishing’ technique. Importantly, the leaked document appears unequivocal in its assessment that the hackers behind the ‘spear-fishing’ attacks worked for the General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the Russian armed forces. The document also states that the main goal of the attacks was to compromise the software used to manage voter registration lists, and that the attackers were operating under a “cyber espionage mandate specifically directed at US and foreign elections”.

American intelligence officials have previously said that Russian spies launched in a complex and prolonged campaign to undermine public faith in the US electoral process. It is also known that the Russian campaign targeted election officials in the months leading up to the November 2016 elections. But the NSA report is the first publicly available description of some of the specific techniques employed by the alleged Russian hackers as part of their campaign. The leaked document does not provide technical details about the ‘spear-phishing’ campaign. Nor does it discuss whether the attacks were successful, whether vote tallies were actually compromised, or whether the election process itself was sabotaged by the hackers. The Intercept said it contacted the NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, who refused to publicly comment on the content of the NSA report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 June 2017 | Permalink

Russian espionage in US increasingly sophisticated and brazen, say sources

Russian embassy in WashingtonRussian espionage in the United States has become increasingly sophisticated and brazen, and American counterintelligence professionals are finding it difficult to contain it “after years’ worth of inattention” according to sources. According to Politico, Washington ignored Russian intelligence operations in the 1990s, believing that Moscow’s numerous domestic problems kept its attention away from America. But under Vladimir Putin, Russia rebuilt its espionage network in the US, to the point that now “Moscow’s espionage ground game [on American soil] is growing stronger and more brazen than ever”.

The news outlet cited “half a dozen current and former US intelligence officials”, who said that America has been “ignoring Russia for the last 15 years”. During that time, Washington focused much of its intelligence-related attention to the Middle East and Central Asia. But Russia used that opportunity to rebuild its espionage network on American soil. Currently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation —the US agency that is in charge of counterintelligence work— is finding it difficult to keep an eye on Russian espionage operations, partly because of the size of Russian operations. One US intelligence official told Politico that the Russians “have just got so many bodies” and are able to evade FBI surveillance.

It is now commonplace, say sources, for Russian “diplomats” to be found wandering around the US without permission from American authorities. Foreign diplomats are required to notify the US Department of State in advance each time they intend to travel more than 50 miles from their consular base, and the FBI must consent before permission to do so is granted. But the Russians are now routinely breaking this requirement; what is more, “half the time they’re never confronted” by the FBI, allegedly because Washington is does not wish to antagonize Moscow in light of the fragile state of affairs in Syria. One US intelligence official told Politico that the Russian “diplomats” appear to be secretly visiting locations across America “where underground fiber-optic cables tend to run”. They appear to be mapping the US telecommunications infrastructure, “perhaps preparing for an opportunity to disrupt it”, said the source.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 June 2017 | Permalink

Ukraine raids Russian internet search engine company as part of ‘treason’ probe

YandexUkrainian security service personnel raided the offices of a Russia-based internet search engine firm in two cities on Tuesday, as part of a treason investigation. The probe is reportedly related to the ongoing dispute between Kiev and Moscow, which intensified after 2014, when Russia unilaterally annexed the Russian district of Crimea. The Ukrainian government also accuses the Kremlin of clandestinely supporting pro-Russian insurgents in southeastern Ukraine, something that Moscow denies.

Earlier this month, Kiev announced that it would be blocking its citizens from using social media networks that are popular in Russia, including Yandex, a search engine that holds the lion’s share of the Russian internet usage market. The Ukrainian government argued that Russian social are were being used by Moscow to stir up pro-Russian sentiment and organize pro-Russian insurgents and activists inside Ukraine.

On Tuesday, members of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) raided the offices of Yandex in the Ukrainian capital Kiev and in the city of Odessa, Ukraine’s third largest city, located on the Black Sea coast. The two locations that were raided by the SBU are registered as subsidiaries of Yandex, which is based in the Russian capital Moscow. In a statement issued on the same day, the SBU said that the simultaneous raids were part of a wider “treason probe”. The security service argues in the statement that Yandex had been found to be sharing the personal information of Ukrainian Internet users with the Russian intelligence services. The illegally shared information included the details of Ukrainian military personnel, said the SBU statement. In turn, Moscow used the data provided by Yandex to plan, organize and carry out “espionage, sabotage and subversive operations” in Ukraine, said the SBU.

Late on Tuesday, a statement issued by Yandex in Moscow confirmed the SBU raids and said it would cooperate with the investigation by the Ukrainian authorities. Meanwhile, Kiev has said that the ban on Russian social media and Internet search engines will remain active for at least three years.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 May 2017 | Permalink

Israel revises intel-sharing rules with US, after alleged disclosure to Russians

Donald Trump and Benjamin NetanyahuAuthorities in Israel have revised their intelligence-sharing protocols with the American government after it became known that United States President Donald Trump inadvertently exposed Israeli secrets to Russia. The alleged exposure of Israeli secrets came earlier this month, during a meeting between Mr. Trump and a delegation of Russian government officials, which included Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Sergey Kislyak, Moscow’s Ambassador to Washington.

During the meeting, the US President allegedly gave the two Russians details about plans by the Islamic State to smuggle explosives onboard airplanes, by hiding them inside laptop computers. However, according to reports in the American press, the information shared by Mr. Trump originated from Israel, which had voluntarily shared it with US intelligence. What is more, Tel Aviv had not authorized Washington to share the precise details behind this intelligence with other countries. Some reports in the US media suggest that Mr. Trump shared the Israeli-derived intelligence with the Russians in such a way as to expose ‘sources and methods’ —that is, the most sensitive aspects of the intelligence business, which intelligence agencies typically never disclose to adversaries. Additionally, even though the US president claims he never disclosed the source of the information, American media reports suggest that the Russians could easily determine that it came from Israel.

Israeli sources allegedly complained strongly to Washington, claiming that the intelligence shared by the US president “had put an [Israeli] agent’s life in peril”. Tel Aviv’s reaction appears to have been swift. On Wednesday, Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said in an interview that Tel Aviv promptly “did our checks” and “clarified [things] with our friends in the United States”. Speaking to Israel Army Radio, the official radio station of the Israel Defense Forces, Mr. Liberman said that Israel had done “a spot repair”, prompting the Voice of America to claim that the Jewish state had altered its intelligence-sharing methods with the US. Liberman was asked by the Israel Army Radio to clarify, but refused to specify what changes had been made in the Israel-US intelligence-sharing arrangements. He only added that “there is [now] unprecedented intelligence cooperation with the United States”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 May 2017 | Permalink