Mystery surrounds arrest of alleged Russian spy couple in Sweden

Russian Embassy SwedenNUMEROUS UNANSWERED QUESTIONS SURROUND the arrest of a Russian married couple in Sweden, on charges of espionage. The arrest took place in dramatic fashion in the early hours of Tuesday, November 22. According to the Swedish media, members of the security forces descended via tactical ropes from two Blackhawk helicopters, as startled residents in the typically quiet Stockholm suburb of Nacka looked on.

The raid was apparently conducted based on information received by Sweden’s counterintelligence agency, the Swedish Security Service (SAPO), coupled with tips from the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The targets of the operation were Sergei Nikolaevich Skvortsov and Elena Mikhailovna Kulkova, a Russian-born married couple, who moved to Sweden from Russia in 1999. According to their identity documents, Skvortsov was born in Perm on July 28, 1963, and Kulkova in Moscow on May 22, 1964.

Both Skvortsov and Kulkova are university-educated, with a background in science, mathematics and cybernetics. Upon settling in Sweden, they worked in the import-export technology sector. By 2013 they had become Swedish citizens and had a son. Kulkova also had a daughter from a previous marriage. The Russian investigative source The Insider reports that Kulkova’s daughter’s boyfriend worked for Swedish military intelligence.

Swedish authorities allege that the two suspects migrated to Stockholm on orders of the Main Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, known as GRU. The GRU allegedly did not activate them until after they had acquired Swedish citizenship. According to the court indictment, Skvortsov and Kulkova began to actively spy against the United States in 2013 and against Sweden in 2014.

Some sources claim that the case of the Russian couple may be connected to the recent arrests of Payam and Peyman Kia, two Iranian-born Swedish brothers, who were arrested in 2021 and are now facing charges of engaging in espionage on behalf of the GRU. Payam Kia worked for SAPO and had access to classified information from a host of Swedish government agencies. SAPO reportedly launched the probe in 2017, following suspicions that it harbored a spy in its personnel ranks.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 December 2022 | Research credit: A.G. | Permalink

Sweden charges two brothers with spying for Russian military intelligence

Säpo swedenAUTHORITIES IN SWEDEN HAVE charged two brothers, one of whom worked in a highly secretive Swedish intelligence unit, with spying for Russian military intelligence for a decade, according to news reports. The charges resulted from a six-year investigation led by the Swedish Security Service (SAPO), which is the country’s counterintelligence agency. SAPO reportedly launched the probe in 2017, based on suspicions that it harbored a spy in its personnel ranks.

The two brothers have been named by Swedish media as Payam Kia, 35, and Peyman Kia, 42. They were reportedly born in Iran and became Swedish citizens in 1994. It is also reported that Payam Kia worked for SAPO and had access to classified information from a host of Swedish government agencies. SAPO accuses the two men of having worked “jointly” to pass information to the Main Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces’ General Staff, known broadly as GRU.

According to Swedish authorities, the two men began spying for Russia in September of 2011 and continued until the fall of 2021. Peyman Kia allegedly acted as a courier, passing information and payments between his brother and his Russian handlers. Per Lindqvist, chief prosecutor for Sweden’s National Security Unit, told the Associated Press news agency that the Kia brothers case involved “extremely sensitive topics”, but did not elaborate. Some reports claim that Payam Kia had access to the files of Swedish spies operating abroad.

The younger of the two brothers was reportedly arrested in September of 2021. His older brother was arrested in November of the same year. They face up to life imprisonment. They both deny the charges against them.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 November 2022 | Permalink

Germany ‘erroneously’ granted entry visa to known Russian intelligence officer

BfV GermanyLAST SUMMER, GERMAN EMBASSY staff in Russia issued an entry visa to a Russian national, despite warnings by at least two European security agencies that he was a known intelligence officer, according to a report. The incident has fueled persistent allegations that Berlin’s counterintelligence posture against Russia is ineffective.

According to the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, it was in July of this year when the German Embassy in Moscow received an application for an entry visa to Germany by a Russian national. The application included an official invitation issued to the visa applicant by the Russian Consulate General in the eastern German city of Leipzig. However, the application prompted a strong counterintelligence warning by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s domestic security agency. According to Spiegel, at least one more European intelligence agency warned against allowing the Russian national to travel to Western Europe. The reason for the warnings was that the visa applicant was known to operate internationally under diplomatic cover, on behalf of a Russian intelligence agency.

The counterintelligence warnings were examined and caused the visa application to be rejected. However, a month later the applicant submitted a second application for an entry visa to Germany. Remarkably, the German embassy approved the second application, after “no longer recogni[zing] any suspicion of espionage” in association with this case. One possible reason, according to Spiegel, was that Russian officials had applied pressure on the German government, asking for a review of the application. When the issue was raised in Berlin, an internal review was launched. It reportedly found that the espionage warnings had been “overlooked due to an [administrative] error”. The visa was thus promptly canceled. Der Spiegel claims it is “possible that the accidental visa issue was related to [Berlin] wanting to show good will to the Russian side”.

What does that mean? Back in April, Germany expelled 40 suspected Russian intelligence officers, in response to Russian war crimes in Ukraine. As expected, Russia promptly expelled an equal number of German diplomats in a tit-for-tat move. The Russian Foreign Ministry made sure to point out that it would respond in a similar fashion, should Berlin choose to expel more Russian diplomats in the future. Such an eventuality, according to Spiegel, would run the risk of decimating Germany’s diplomatic presence in Russia, given that its size is considerably smaller than that of Russia’s in Germany. Germany, in other words, is not prepared to risk a complete breakdown in its diplomatic relations with Russia.

Some claim, however, that the current arrangement between the two countries is being exploited by the Kremlin. Der Spiegel notes that, according to intelligence experts, no European country hosts more Russian intelligence officers under diplomatic cover than Germany. It is estimated that at least 100 bogus diplomats are currently stationed in Russia’s diplomatic facilities throughout Germany.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 October 2022 | Permalink

New paper sheds light on Russian and Chinese influence in Italy

Russia Italy Putin ConteA NEW PAPER, PUBLISHED by the United Kingdom’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) for Defence and Security Studies, sheds light the complex relationship between Italy and the West’s two principal adversaries, Russia and China. Italy is a major global economic power. It is a prominent member of the Group of Seven (G7), which collectively account for more than 50 percent of global net wealth. It is also a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU).

Despite —or perhaps because of— its central place in the Western alliance, Italy has long been a leading advocate for cooperation and dialogue between the West and Russia. In 2019, it became the first G7 member and the first major European Union power to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with China on Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Additionally, the Italian private sector has been far more hesitant than those of other Western countries to abandon Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, with only a single Italian company having completely exited the Russian market since February of this year.

According to two Italian researchers, RUSI Senior Associate Fellow Raffaello Pantucci, and Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), Italy’s cooperative attitude toward China and Russia has led some to accuse Rome of being a “Trojan horse in Europe”. But in their research paper published by RUSI earlier this week, Pantucci and Ambrosetti argue that the reality is far more complex, especially in the case of Italian-Russian relations. They point out that Italy has, in fact, been a leading voice in favor of the imposition of harsh sanctions on Moscow in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Currently the Italian state is actively seeking to disengage its energy-import sector from Russia.

Strategy of Engagement

The research paper, entitled “Russian and Chinese Influence in Italy”, argues that Italy’s tendency to “hedge between its close transatlantic ties and its longstanding connections with Moscow and Beijing” is not new. In fact it reflects a longstanding Italian strategy, which tends to remain relatively constant and “does not change according to the political color of the government in charge” in Rome. As a result, Italy’s relations with Russia and China “show a roughly consistent pattern” in the post-Cold War era, as Rome is largely oriented “toward engagement” with both Moscow and Beijing. Read more of this post

Hawaii couple alleged to be Russian spies using fake names held without bail

Walter Glenn Primose, Gwynn Darle MorrisonA FEDERAL JUDGE IN HAWAII has denied bail to a married American couple, who are believed to have assumed the identities of dead children in order to lead double lives for over 20 years, according to prosecutors. Local media reports allege that Bobby Edward Fort and Julie Lyn Montague, who were arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on July 22 on the island of Oahu, are Russian spies, and that their names are parts of their assumed identities.

According to the reports, the real names of the couple are Walter Glenn Primose, 66, and Gwynn Darle Morrison, 54. Government prosecutors allege that, in the late 1980s, the couple hurriedly left their home in the state of Texas, telling family members that they were entering the US Federal Witness Protection Program. They are also said to have given some family members permission to take whatever they wanted from their home, before it was foreclosed.

The government claims that the couple then assumed the identities of two infants, Bobby Edward Fort and Julie Lyn Montague, who had died in Texas in 1967 and 1968 respectively. They then used these infants’ birth certificates to obtain social security cards, drivers’ licenses, and even US passports. In 1994, while living in Hawaii under his assumed name, Primrose enlisted in the US Coast Guard, which is the maritime security and law enforcement service branch of the US military. He served there for over 20 years as an avionic electrical technician with a secret level clearance. Following his retirement in 2016, Primrose is said to have worked as a private contractor for the US Department of Defense until his arrest on July 22 of this year. Read more of this post

Analysis: The West should not trust Ukrainian spy agencies. Neither should Ukrainians

Volodymyr ZelenskyON SUNDAY, JULY 17, the Ukrainian administration of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced the most extensive shake-up of the nation’s security leadership since the Russian military invasion. Two key members of Zelenskiy’s inner circle, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova and domestic security chief Ivan Bakanov, were summarily fired. Venediktova was the public face of Kyiv’s war crimes campaign, which was launched in March in response to the Russian invasion. Bakanov, a childhood friend of Zelenskiy, had headed the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) since 2019.

In a subsequent video statement, Zelenskiy said he fired the two officials after he was informed that at least 60 employees of the SBU and the Prosecutor General’s office had defected to the Russians in eastern Ukraine. Last week, in an article for SpyTalk, Kremlin watcher Olga Lautman said Bakanov’s dismissal had been expected for a few days. Regardless, the move has shaken Western observers, and has given rise to legitimate questions about the susceptibility of Ukraine’s security and intelligence services to Russian meddling. Should the Western alliance, and Western intelligence agencies in particular, trust their Ukrainian counterparts? The answer is, invariably, no. In fact, even the Ukrainians themselves are not in a position to trust their own intelligence services.

From the KGB to the SBU

On September 20, 1991, just one week after Ukraine secured its independence from the Soviet Union, the SBU was founded in place of the Soviet KGB. Initially, the new agency handled both internal security and external intelligence functions. But in 2005, the SBU’s Department of Intelligence became a stand-alone agency under the title Foreign Intelligence Service (SZR). Since then, the SZR has functioned as the institutional equivalent of the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), while the SBU has performed domestic security functions that resemble those of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

As is the case with the entirety of Ukraine’s state sector, the two agencies are endemically bloated. Intelligence observers report that the SBU’s 30,000 employees make it far larger in size than its British counterpart, the Security Service (MI5). Meanwhile, according to the latest information, the SZR has “double the number of personnel than the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and is larger than Britain’s [Secret Intelligence Service, or] MI6”. By all accounts, even today, more than 30 years after the dissolution of the USSR, the two agencies continue to resemble Soviet-style bureaucracies in terms of size, sluggishness, and corruption. Read more of this post

Newspaper discloses names of Russian alleged spies expelled from Belgium

Russian embassy in BelgiumA BRUSSELS-BASED NEWSPAPER has publicized the names and backgrounds of nearly two dozen Russian diplomats, who were recently expelled by the Belgian government on suspicion of espionage. A total of 21 Russian diplomats were expelled from Belgium in April, in co-ordination with dozens of European governments. The move was part of a broader European wave of diplomatic expulsions of Russian diplomatic personnel, in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Like other governments in Europe, the Belgians carried out the expulsions of Russian diplomats in secret, and employed a “no comment” policy in response to media requests. Such an approach is customary when it comes to diplomatic expulsions. It allows the government ordering the expulsions to expect a similar level of discretion if and when its own diplomats are expelled in a possible tit-for-tat move by an adversary. It is therefore highly unusual for information concerning expelled diplomatic personnel to be made public. And yet that is precisely what happened earlier this week, when the EUObserver, an English language newspaper based in Brussels, published information about the names and backgrounds [PDF] of the 21 expelled Russian diplomats. The paper said the information was leaked by a source, but did not elaborate.

According to the newspaper, all 21 expelled diplomats were men. It further alleged that 10 of them were intelligence personnel of the Main Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces’ General Staff. A further nine diplomats worked for the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR, Russia’s equivalent to the United States Central Intelligence Agency), while two were employees of the external service of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Most were in their 40s, though at least one was in his early 60s and one was in his late 20s. The EUObserver said that some of the information about the alleged spies was unearthed by The Dossier Center, a British-based open-source information outlet, which is similar to Bellingcat. The Dossier Center is funded by the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is a critic of the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Read more of this post

An assessment of Russia’s espionage network in Switzerland

Russian embassy SwitzerlandSINCE LATE FEBRUARY, WHEN Russian troops invaded Ukraine, over 500 Russian diplomats have been expelled from Western countries. Even former Russian allies have contributed to the growing list of expulsions —most recently Bulgaria, which ousted a near-unprecedented 70 Russian diplomats last week, citing espionage concerns. Amidst that sea of expulsions, Switzerland remains an island. It is among the few European countries that have yet to officially expel Russian diplomats. Abiding by its centuries-old policy of neutrality, it has resisted calls to take sides in the intelligence war between the West and Russia.

“No-Questions-Asked” Approach to Espionage

Russia has been able to take advantage of Switzerland’s neutrality policy since February. Instead of returning to Moscow, at least some of the expelled Russian diplomats have been reposted to Switzerland. They continue to operate there under a “no-questions-asked” policy, which has prevailed since the days of the Cold War. For this and other reasons (i.e. proximity to prime intelligence targets, safety, advanced telecommunications systems), Switzerland has been a major intelligence hub for decades. According to the Nachrichtendienst des Bundes (NDB), Switzerland’s Federal Intelligence Service, the past few years have witnessed higher levels of activity by foreign intelligence services than any other period since the Cold War.

Russia’s Intelligence Presence in Switzerland

During that time, Russia has been able to build a pan-European espionage hub in the small alpine state. That is the conclusion of a report by Jonas Roth, which was published last week in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), Switzerland’s newspaper of record. The report, entitled “So Spioniert Russland in der Schweiz” (“How Russian spies operate in Switzerland”), features commentary by several experts and government officials. One source tells Roth that, despite the intense diplomatic pressure Russia has faced globally since February, its espionage structures in Swiss cities like Geneva and Bern “are still intact”.

How many Russian intelligence officers are currently operating in Switzerland? According to the report, at least a third of Russia’s 220-strong diplomatic presence in the country consists of intelligence officers. These 70 or so intelligence officers represent all three of Russia’s primary intelligence agencies, namely the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the Main Directorate of the Armed Forces’ General Staff (GRU), and the Federal Security Service (FSB). Officers from these agencies handle an unknown number of informants and agents; these are Swiss or third-country nationals, who provide the Russians with intelligence on a regular basis. Special activities are carried out by Russian intelligence personnel who travel to Switzerland on an ad hoc basis. Read more of this post

Despite expectations, a cyber-blitz has not occurred in Ukraine. Experts explain why

Russian invasion of Ukraine IN THE OPENING STAGES of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was a widespread expectation among security experts that the world would witness a new chapter in the history of cyber-warfare: something akin to carpet-bombing in cyberspace. These fears, however, have not materialized. Although cyber-attacks have occurred on both sides, their scale has remained markedly modest. Consequently, their effect has been limited and has had no traceable strategic impact on the conflict.

Why is that? According to two experts, Nadiya Kostyuk, assistant professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Cybersecurity and Privacy, and Aaron Brantly, assistant professor and director of Virginia Tech’s Tech4Humanity Lab, the reasons partly relate to how nation-states form cyber-alliances, as well as to Russia’s overall approach to this war. The two experts attempt to forensically analyze this topic in their article entitled “War in the Borderland Through Cyberspace: Limits of Defending Ukraine Through Interstate Cooperation”, which was published on June 29 in Contemporary Security Policy.

Does the Improved Cyber-Defense Argument Stand to Reason?

In their article, Kostyuk and Brantly systematically scrutinize a number of reasons that other experts have proposed to explain the absence of a major cyber-war campaign by Russia. Among them is the view that Ukraine significantly improved its cyber-defenses after 2015, when it began collaborating closely with Western countries —notably the United States and the United Kingdom. Specially designated “cyber-warfare teams” from these countries have been helping Ukraine in tasks ranging from “the synchronization of [its] cyber-related legislation” with Western standards, as well as aligning them with NATO standards, so that Ukrainian cyber-warfare units can make use of advanced technologies and systems. Could it be, therefore, that Ukraine has improved its cyber-security posture enough to be able to defend itself against relentless Russian cyber-attacks?

That is unlikely, say the authors, given that “Ukraine’s cyber capabilities are still organizationally and operationally under- developed” in comparison to Russia’s. That is exacerbated by the endemic corruption and clientelism (the creation of patronage networks) in Ukraine, as well as by the bitter in-fighting between government agencies —notably the Ministry of Defense and the Security Service of Ukraine. It should not go without notice, Kostyuk and Brantly note, that the Ukrainian government sought frantically to develop a “volunteer cyber-army” on an ad hoc basis to defend the nation in the first days of the Russian invasion. That did not exactly instill trust in the country’s level of preparation to withstand a cyber-campaign by Moscow. Read more of this post

Can one ever truly leave the Russian intelligence services? It depends, says expert

Kremlin, RussiaRUSSIANS ARE AWARE OF the phrase “there is no such thing as a former chekist”. The term “chekist” dates from the Bolshevik-era All-Russian Extraordinary Commission (VChK, pronounced “cheka”), which was formed in 1917 as the first Soviet-era state security agency. By the 1940s, intelligence posts had come to be seen as life-long relationships between chekists and the Soviet government, which continued even after one’s retirement. In the words of Joseph Stalin, “[a] chekist has only two paths: toward promotion or to prison”. Is that still the case? It depends on who you ask, says Dr. Kevin Riehle, a 30-year counterintelligence veteran with the United States government, who now teaches at the University of Mississippi’s Center for Intelligence and Security Studies.

Riehle, author of Soviet Defectors: Revelations of Renegade Intelligence Officers, 1924-1954 (Edinburgh University Press, 2022), discusses this topic in an article published earlier this month in The International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. The article, entitled “Post-KGB Lives: Is There Such a Thing as a Former Chekist?”, examines this concept with reference to three Russian intelligence agencies, all of which trace their origins to the Soviet-era Cheka —namely the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the Federal Protective Service (FSO).

The author explains that the history of chekist organizations is replete with examples of officers, especially those with military backgrounds, who “received post-separation jobs with no apparent obligation to continue cooperation with the [intelligence] service[s]”. However, since the rise of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency, the Kremlin has imposed tight restrictions on the post-retirement activities of former intelligence personnel. As of 2019, such former personnel are not permitted to leave Russia for any reason for five years following their retirement. There is another category of Putin-era intelligence retirees, who enter careers in business or politics. Many of them maintain their intelligence contacts and “continue to fulfil service requirements” while displaying a sense of pride for their government service. This often results in business or political advantages, notes Riehle. Read more of this post

Mystery blasts, fires, prompt rumors of sabotage campaign inside Russia (updated)

Kremlin, RussiaA SERIES OF LARGE-scale incidents of destruction, which have been occurring across Russia in recent days, are prompting speculation that the county may be experiencing a wave of attacks against its strategic infrastructure. The incidents include enormous fires at power plants, munition depots and state-owned storage facilities. The collapse of at least one railway bridge has also been reported. There are additional reports of massive wildfires raging across Siberia, which are imposing heavy demands on Russia’s emergency response infrastructure.

On April 21, a massive blaze engulfed the Central Research Institute for Air and Space Defense of the Russian Defense Ministry in Tver, a city located around 120 miles northwest of Moscow. According to Associated Press, which reported the news about the fire, the institute “was involved in the development of some of the state-of-the-art Russian weapons systems, reportedly including the Iskander missile”. By next morning, at least 17 people were believed to have died as a result of the fire.

Late last week, the Sakhalinskaya GRES-2 power station, a vast 120-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Russia’s far-eastern Sakhalin province, went up in flames, giving rise to persistent rumors of sabotage. On May 1, Russian state-owned news agencies reported that a railway bridge in the western province of Kursk, 70 miles from the Ukrainian border, had been destroyed. Analysts at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank claimed that the bridge had been used extensively by the Russian military to transport equipment to eastern Ukraine. Later on the same day, a cluster of fuel-oil tanks in Mytishchi, a mid-size city located northeast of Moscow, were completely destroyed by a fast-spreading fire.

On May 2, a munitions factory in Perm, a major urban center in western Siberia, was hit by a “powerful” explosion. Ukrainian government officials hinted at sabotage in social media posts, though no proof has been provided, and the Kremlin has not commented on the matter. On the following day, the Prosveshchenie publishing house warehouse in Bogorodskoye, northeast of Moscow, was destroyed by a massive fire. The warehouse belongs to Russia’s state-owned publisher of school textbooks. The fire occurred almost simultaneously as another fire engulfed a polyethylene waste storage facility in the central Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk.

Meanwhile, the sprawling forests that surround Krasnoyarsk and other Siberian urban centers are experiencing seasonal wildfires of near-unprecedented scale. Some early reports claimed that the Russian government was finding it difficult to contain these fires, because the country’s emergency response personnel has been sent to the frontlines of the war in Ukraine. But these reports were denied by Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations, which claimed earlier this week that the fires were mostly under control.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Updated: 09 May 2022 | Research credit: M.R. | Permalink

Russia targeted by unprecedented wave of cyber-attacks, experts say

Computer hackers AnonymousRUSSIAN STATE COMPANIES, BUSINESSES and individuals are being targeted in an unprecedented wave of attacks by digital assailants, according to observers, who say they are surprised by its ferocity. Since February of this year, hackers have accessed the personal financial data of pro-Kremlin oligarchs, stolen millions of internal emails stored on Russian government severs, and defaced high-profile websites across the nation. The Washington Post, which summarized the wave of attacks last Sunday, said they are being waged by hacker collectives, as well as common criminals. The paper claimed that the assailants are not connected to foreign governments.

According to observers, Russia currently tops the global list of targeted attacks by hackers for the first time since records began. Major targets include Russia’s media regulator, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, which anti-government activists blame for implementing Soviet-style censorship. Hackers have also attacked Russia’s state-owned broadcaster, known as VGTRK, as well the Russian intelligence and defense establishments. Tens of thousands of emails exchanged by senior VGTRK officials since 2013 were recently stolen and leaked in a massive data dump. Additionally, lengthy lists containing the names of alleged Russian intelligence officers, as well as of soldiers, have been leaked online by unknown hackers.

The attacks are led by political hacker collectives, including Network Battalion 65 (NB65), which announced its existence on Twitter just hours after Russian troops began to march toward Kyiv. The group is believed to have links to the international hacktivist collective Anonymous, and claims to have no ties to governments. Another hacker collective that is behind the attacks on Russia is a group calling itself AgainstTheWest. Despite its name, it is led by a group of pro-Western, “English-speaking hackers […] with intelligence backgrounds”, according to The Post. Attacks are also being perpetrated by smaller groups of hackers, some of them based in Ukraine, and by criminal groups, whose members are motivated by profit and are attacking Russian state targets at a time when the Kremlin appears vulnerable.

According to the paper, the Ukrainian government is not directly involved in these cyber-attacks. However, it has repeatedly endorsed attacks by hackers aimed at weakening the Russian state. Back in February, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister and Digital Transformation Minister issued an open call for the formation of a “volunteer cyber army” to fight for Ukraine. As intelNews reported at the time, the Ukrainian government claimed that nearly 200,000 people had shown interest in joining the initiative. However, little has been mentioned since. The government of Ukraine maintains an “IT Army” channel on Telegram, where it frequently suggests Russian targets that pro-Ukrainian hackers should attack. However, any evidence of links between it and the wave of cyber-attacks that Russia has been experiencing remains speculative.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 03 May 2022 | Permalink

Russia orders 175,000 diplomatic passports, prompting speculation about their use

Russian foreign affairs ministryTHE RUSSIAN FEDERATION HAS reportedly ordered 175,000 new diplomatic passports to be printed, prompting speculation about their possible use at a time when Western sanctions are affecting Russia’s governing elite. Diplomatic passports are travel documents that are issued to accredited diplomats and government officials, such as foreign ministry envoys and others. Pursuant to the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations, holders of diplomatic passports enjoy diplomatic immunity and are typically subjected to very limited inspections by security personnel when crossing international borders.

On Wednesday, SOTA Vision, a Russian alternative news website and social media network, claimed in a report that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation had ordered nearly 175,000 diplomatic passports to be printed, at the cost of over 300 million rubles ($4 million). The report, which was translated into English by the British newspaper The Daily Mail, questioned the need for so many diplomatic passports to be printed. It noted that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs employs no more than 15,000 people, of whom only about a third spend any time abroad, and thus require diplomatic passports.

So what is the reason for the use of so many diplomatic passports? According to SOTA Vision, these may be used by members of the Russian governing and economic elite, as well as their families, to evade Western sanctions on international travel and to avoid arrest when traveling abroad. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of this year, Russia has been subjected to the harshest sanctions by Western countries since the end of the Cold War. Additionally, employees of Russian intelligence agencies may use several thousands of these diplomatic passports for their employees to operate abroad under what is known as “official cover”. Such agencies include the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Federal Protective Service (FSO), SOTA Vision noted.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 April 2022 | Permalink

Russian sleeper agent Mikhail Vasenkov reportedly dead at 79

Mikhail VasenkovRUSSIAN DEEP-COVER SPY Mikhail Vasenkov, who was caught by authorities in the United States in 2010, and was later part of a multi-person spy-swap between Washington and Moscow, has reportedly died. Vasenkov was an officer for the Soviet-era Committee for State Security (KGB), under which he constructed his non-official cover identity. In 1976, he reportedly arrived in Lima, Peru, from Madrid, Spain. He traveled on a Uruguayan passport bearing the name “Juan Jose Lazaro Fuentes”. The forged identity had been constructed by the Soviet KGB. The spy agency had used the birth certificate of a Uruguayan child, who had died of respiratory failure in 1947.

In 1979, Lazaro applied for, and was granted, Peruvian citizenship. A few years later, he met and married Peruvian journalist Vicky Pelaez, with whom he had a son. In 1985, the Lazaros moved to New York, along with their child and a son Pelaez had from a previous relationship. The couple were arrested by the FBI in 2010, and later admitted being in the service of Russian intelligence. They were among 10 Russian non-official-cover intelligence officers, who were swapped for a number of Western-handled intelligence agents held in Russian prisons.

In January of 2020, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), which is one of the KGB’s successor agencies, admitted for the first time that Vasenkov had been an intelligence officer. This unusual announcement directly contradicted Vasenkov’s own claims 10 years earlier: the spy had allegedly said that he was not Russian, did not understand or speak Russian, and wanted to move to Peru.

On April 6 of this this month, the SVR announced Vasenkov’s death, saying he was 79 years old. The announcement gave no cause of death. It added that Vasenkov had served in the so-called “special reserve staff” of the organization, which refers to spies who do not operate under diplomatic cover abroad. The obituary noted that Vasenkov had “created and headed an illegal residency”, which “obtained valuable political information, that was highly appreciated” by Russian decision-makers. It also said that Vasenkov had acquired the rank of colonel in 2005.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 April 2022 | Permalink

Dozens purged as Kremlin blames Russian spy services for botched Ukraine invasion

FSB - IAMore than 150 officers have been purged form the ranks of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), as President Vladimir Putin is placing blame on his intelligence agencies for the setbacks experienced during the invasion of Ukraine. This assessment was communicated to the London-based Times newspaper by British intelligence sources, who added that many of those purged have been dismissed from the service, while others remain under house arrest. A few —among them senior FSB officials— are in prison. The FSB is tasked with domestic security and counterintelligence operations, which were carried out by the KGB during the Cold War.

According to The Times, the purge has mostly targeted officers in the FSB’s Service for Operational Information and International Communications, which is informally known as the Fifth Service of the FSB. As intelNews has previously explained, the FSB’s Fifth Service was established in 1992 in order to fill the vacuum created by a host of no-spy agreements between Moscow and the governments of former Soviet Republics. These agreements prevent Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) from spying inside the territories of former Soviet states.

By 1995, the Fifth Service had become known as the “foreign spy wing” of the FSB. It grew in size drastically after 1999, and some claim it “graduated into [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s imperial gendarme”. Today, the Fifth Service is reportedly in charge of Kremlin’s “kill list” of Ukrainian senior officials and other dissidents who live in Ukraine. Until recently, the Fifth Service was led by Sergei Beseda and Anatoly Bolyukh (or Bolukh).

However, The Times claims that both officials have been dismissed from their posts in recent weeks. Initially, the Russian government claimed that Beseda had embezzled funds, and placed him under house arrest. He has since been transferred to a prison, according to the paper, and has now been formally charged with misinforming the Kremlin about the conditions on the ground in Ukraine. Bolyukh has been dismissed from his post but is reportedly not in prison. His current whereabouts remain unclear.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 April 2022 | Permalink

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