Russia preparing to swap imprisoned spies with NATO members, sources claim

LithuaniaThe Russian government is preparing to swap a number of imprisoned spies with at least two member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), according to reports. The Estonia-based news agency BNS, which is the largest news agency in the Baltics, said on Wednesday that negotiations between Russian and Lithuanian, as well as probably Norwegian, officials were nearing completion.

The alleged spies at the center of the reputed spy swap are said to include Nikolai Filipchenko, who is reportedly an intelligence officer with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Filipchenko was arrested by Lithuanian counterintelligence agents in 2015, allegedly while trying to recruit double agents inside Lithuania. He was charged with using forged identity documents to travel to Lithuania on several occasions between 2011 and 2014. His mission was allegedly to recruit officers in Lithuania’s Department of State Security in order to install listening bugs inside the office of the then-Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite. In 2017, a district court in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius sentenced Filipchenko to 10 years in prison. The alleged Russian spy refused to testify during his trial and reportedly did not reveal any information about himself or his employer. He is believed to be the first FSB intelligence officer to have been convicted of espionage in Lithuania.

BNS reported that the Russians have agreed to exchange Filipchenko for two Lithuanian nationals, Yevgeny Mataitis and Aristidas Tamosaitis. Tamosaitis is serving a 12-year prison sentence in Russia, allegedly for carrying out espionage for the Lithuanian Defense Ministry in 2015. In the following year, a Russian court sentenced Mataitis, a dual Lithuanian-Russian citizen, to 13 years in prison, allegedly for supplying Lithuanian intelligence with classified documents belonging to the Russian government. Lithuanian authorities have refused to comment publicly about Filipchenko and Mataitis, saying that details on the two men are classified. According to BNS, the spy swap may involve two more people, an unnamed Russian national and a Norwegian citizen, who is believed to be Frode Berg, a Norwegian retiree who is serving a 16-year jail sentence in Russia, allegedly for acting as a courier for the Norwegian Intelligence Service.

BNS said on Wednesday that the Lithuanian State Defense Council, which is chaired by the country’s president, had approved the spy exchange, and that Moscow had also agreed to it. On Thursday, however, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said she had “no information on this issue” that she could share with reporters.

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

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Russia detains American diplomats for traveling to top-secret military site

SeverodvinskRussian authorities detained three American diplomats because they allegedly tried to enter a highly secret weapons testing site in northern Russia, according to reports. The site in question is located near the northern Russian city of Severodvinsk. The city is home to a number of military shipyards and is thus restricted for non-Russians. The latter require a special permit to enter it.

In August of this year, Western media reported on a mysterious explosion that took place in a weapons research site located near Severodvinsk. The explosion allegedly happened during testing of a top-secret prototype rocket engine. Russian authorities revealed that five workers died as a result of the explosion, but denied media reports that the explosion had caused a radiation leak that had affected Severodvinsk. The Russian Ministry of Defense also denied allegations that a large-scale nuclear clean-up operation had been conducted in and around Severodvinsk. At the same time, Russian authorities restricted maritime traffic in the White Sea, on the shores of which Severodvinsk is situated.

On Wednesday, the Russian news agency Interfax reported that three American diplomats had been detained by authorities near Severodvinsk, allegedly because they tried to enter the city without the necessary permits. The diplomats were not named but are believed to be military attachés that serve in the United States embassy in Moscow. Interfax said the three were detained on Monday while onboard a passenger train. They were removed from the train, questioned and eventually released. However, they might still face charges of trying to enter a restricted area without permission.

The United States Department of State issued a statement claiming that the three diplomats “were on official travel and had properly notified Russian authorities of their travel”. A State Department spokesman said on Wednesday that the three diplomats’ travel plans had been authorized by the Russian Ministry of Defense. But authorities in Russia said that the three military attachés had been authorized to travel to the city of Arkhangelsk, which is located approximately 30 miles east of Severodvinsk. “We are quite willing to provide the United States embassy with a map of the Russian Federation”, the Russian statement concluded.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 October 2019 | Permalink

US Special Forces secrets could fall into hands of Russians as Kurds side with Syria

Yekîneyên Antî Teror‎American defense officials with knowledge of Special Operations Forces activities in Syria are concerned that their secrets may fall into the hands of the Russians, as the Kurds switch their allegiance to the Moscow-backed Syrian government. Members of the United States Special Operations Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have had a presence in Kurdish-dominated northern Syria since at least 2012. Following the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, the Americans have worked closely with the Kurds in battling the Islamist group throughout the region.

Throughout that time, US Special Operations Forces have trained members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a political and military umbrella of anti-government Syrian groups, which is led by the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Unit (YPG) militias. Until recently, the SDF and the YPG were almost exclusively funded, trained and armed by the US through its Special Operations Forces units on the ground in northern Syria. US Special Operations Forces were also behind the creation in 2014 of the SDF’s most feared force, the Anti-Terror Units. Known in Kurdish as Yekîneyên Antî Teror‎, these units have been trained by the US in paramilitary operations and are tasked with targeting Islamic State sleeper cells.

As of this week, however, the SDF and all of its US-trained militias have switched their allegiance to the Russia-backed government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The dramatic move followed the decision of the White House earlier this month to pull its Special Operations Forces troops from norther Syria, effectively allowing the Turkish military to invade the region. According to the American defense news website Military Times, US Pentagon officials are now worried that the SDF may surrender to the Russians a long list of secrets relating to US Special Operations Forces’ “tactics, techniques, procedures, equipment, intelligence gathering and even potentially names of operators”.

One former US defense official told The Military Times that SDF “may be in survival mode and will need to cut deals with bad actors” by surrendering US secrets. Another source described this scenario as “super problematic” and a symptom of the absence of a genuine American strategy in the wider Middle East region. The website also cited US Marines Major Fred Galvin (ret.), who said that Special Operations Forces tend to reveal little about themselves and their capabilities when working with non-US actors. However, this is uncharted territory for them, said Galvin, since “we’ve never had a force completely defect to an opposition like this before”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 October 2019 | Permalink

Russia has a dedicated spy unit to destabilize Europe, Western officials claim

GRURussian intelligence maintains an elite spy unit whose sole goal is to run operations that have the potential to subvert European political and economic systems, according to a new report by The New York Times. The unit is behind a string of intelligence operations in recent years, which range from espionage to disinformation campaigns and even assassinations.

The Times cited “four Western officials” who said that the group is known as Unit 29155 and operates within the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, commonly known as GRU. It has allegedly been in existence for at least 10 years, but it only recently appeared on the radar of Western intelligence agencies. The latter began to take note of Unit 29155 in 2016, after it was alleged that an elite unit of Russian spies tried to stage a coup in the tiny Balkan country of Montenegro. The former Yugoslav Republic was seeking to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization at the time. It was claimed that the Russian intelligence operatives carried out a failed attempt to kill its prime minister and instigate a pro-Russian coup.

According to the paper, Western intelligence officials do not have a clear picture of the structure of Unit 29155, nor are they able to predict where it will strike next. But they believe that it consists of a very tightly knit group of intelligence officers led by Major General Andrei V. Averyanov, a hardened veteran of Russia’s Chechen wars. The existence of the unit is so secret that even other GRU operatives are unlikely to have heard of it, said The Times. Members of the unit frequently travel to Europe to carry out sabotage and disinformation campaigns, kill targets, or conduct other forms of what some experts describe as the Kremlin’s hybrid war. They tend to travel on the cheap, in order to economize and avoid attention, said the paper.

The Times said it reached out to the Kremlin with a number of questions about Unit 29155. It received a response from Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov, who suggested that the questions be directed instead to Russia’s Defense Ministry. But the ministry did not return any messages.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 October 2019 | Permalink

Iran arrests Russian journalist for espionage in rare spat with key ally Moscow

Yulia YuzikIn a surprising move last week, Iranian authorities arrested a Russian journalist and expert on the Caucasus region, whom they accused of spying for Israel. They later agreed to release her following significant diplomatic pressure from Russia. But the move surprised observers, because Iran rarely acts in ways that have the potential to damage its close relations with Moscow.

The journalist in question is Yulia Yuzik, a 38-year-old reporter with considerable expertise on Russia’s Caucasus region. Her articles on the security situation in the Caucasus have been published in several Russian and Western outlets, including Foreign Policy and GQ. She has also authored a number of books on Islamist militancy in the Russian Caucasus, which have been translated into several foreign languages, such as German, Italian and French.

In 2017, Yuzik spent several months in Iran while working on a number of stories. She returned to Russia before returning to Iran on September 29 of this year, reportedly “on a private trip”. Media reports stated that Yuzik intending to meet a number of Iranian journalists that she worked with back in 2017. However, upon landing at Iran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, Yuzik had her passport confiscated without explanation, and was forced to enter the country without identity and travel documents. Then, last Thursday she was arrested at her hotel in downtown Tehran by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who apparently broke down the door of her hotel room before arresting her.

There were no news of Yuzik’s whereabouts until the following day, when staff at the Russian embassy in the Iranian capital were contacted by her family. Yuzik’s family said that the IRGC had charged her with collecting intelligence for the Mossad, Israel’s spy service. Russian media reports said that the accusations against Yuzik took Russian diplomats by the surprise, given that Yuzik has no apparent connection to Israel, nor does she have a travel visa to enter that country. She reportedly spent a few days there in 2004 while writing a story about the Israel Defense Forces for Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Yuzik’s family told the Russian embassy that she had been scheduled to appear in a Tehran court on Saturday. The Russian embassy gave a press briefing to reporters on Friday, saying that the Russian Foreign Ministry had summoned the Iranian ambassador to Moscow to complain about Yuzik’s arrest. Then early on Saturday, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow, announced that Yuzik would be released soon and would be allowed to return home to Russia.

The incident has surprised observers, because Russia is one of Iran’s closest international allies. It is therefore highly unusual for Tehran to take any action that might potentially provoke Moscow or otherwise damage its diplomatic relations with the Kremlin.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 October 2019 | Permalink

Gas explosion reported at Russian research facility that houses Ebola and smallpox

Vector RussiaRussian authorities announced on Tuesday that a gas explosion had damaged a section of a medical facility in Siberia that houses live samples of viruses such as Ebola and smallpox, but added that there was no need to declare a biomedical emergency. The explosion reportedly took place on Monday at the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, known as Vector. The six-floor concrete and steel facility is located in the isolated Siberian town of Kotsovo, near the city of Novosibirsk, 600 miles from the Mongolian border.

Vector was founded in 1974 by the Soviet state to study mass infectious agents that could be used to build biological weapons. Today it remains as one of the world’s largest virology research centers, specializing in the treatment of some of the most lethal infectious diseases, such as Ebola, tularemia and swine flu. The Vector facility is believed to be one of two locations in the world that house live samples of the smallpox virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States city of Atlanta is also believed to house samples of the virus.

According to a statement issued on Tuesday by the Russian state-owned news agency TASS, the Vector facility sustained an explosion on Monday afternoon local time. The explosion was reportedly caused by a gas canister used by workers who were carrying out repairs at a sanitary inspection room located on the fifth floor of the Vector facility. An employee suffered unspecified injuries as a result of the explosion, according to the statement. However, “no work with biological agents was being carried out in the [Vector] building” at the time of the explosion, so there was no need for a state of emergency, according to the statement. Russian media reported on Tuesday that Vector personnel were present on the site and that no biological threat alerts had been issued.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 18 September 2019 | Permalink

Russia fired officials over Smolenkov defection, filed INTERPOL search request

INTERPOLThe Russian government reportedly fired a number of officials over the defection of a senior Kremlin aide, who alleged worked as an American spy. Meanwhile, Moscow has filed a search request with INTERPOL about the alleged defector’s whereabouts. News of the defection was reported on September 9 by the American news network CNN. The network alleged that the man —which it did not name— was exfiltrated from Russia in 2017 by the United States Central Intelligence Agency, over fears about his life. A subsequent report in the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant identified the alleged defector as Oleg Smolenkov, 50, and said that he disappeared along with his wife and three children in the summer of 2017 while on holiday in Montenegro.

On September 11, the Reuters news agency revealed that Smolenkov was a career diplomat who served as senior aide to Yuri Ushakov, Russia’s former ambassador to the United States and senior international affairs advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the Kremlin disputes claims that Smolenkov was a highly placed official or that he could have been in possession of damaging classified intelligence.

According to a new report from Russia’s InterFax news agency, the Kremlin disciplined a number of Russian officials for permitting Smolenkov and his family to travel to Montenegro. The disciplinary action was taken soon after Smolenkov’s disappearance and led to a number of firings, said InterFax, citing anonymous government sources. In the summer of 2016, the Kremlin had issued a travel ban for Montenegro, which barred government employees from traveling there, due to the deteriorating relations between Moscow and the former Yugoslav Republic. Montenegrin authorities had previously claimed that Russia tried to stage a coup and planned to kill the country’s prime minister. According to InterFax, an investigation by “the relevant law enforcement agencies” concluded that those officials who had allowed the Smolenkovs to travel to Montenegro had “violated the ban”. They were therefore “disciplined and [some] were fired”, said the anonymous source.

Meanwhile it was reported on Friday that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs filed a search request for Smolenkov and his family with INTERPOL, the international agency that facilitates worldwide cooperation between national police organizations. When asked about it by Western news media, a Russian government spokeswoman said that Russia did what any other country would do in this situation: it contacted INTERPOL with “questions regarding the disappearance of […] a citizen of Russia on the territory of a foreign state along with his family […] and his presence on the territory of the United States”, said the spokeswoman.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 September 2019 | Permalink