US imposes sanctions on companies for helping Russian spy agencies

YantarThe United States has for the first time imposed economic sanctions on a number of Russian companies, which it says helped the Kremlin spy on targets in North America and Western Europe. On Monday, the US Department of the Treasury said it would apply severe economic restrictions on a number of Russian firms that work closely with the Kremlin. One of the companies was identified as Digital Security, which Washington says has been helping Russian intelligence agencies develop their offensive cyber capabilities. Two of Digital Security’s subsidiaries, Embedi and ERPScan, were also placed on the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list. Monday’s statement by the Treasury Department named another Russian firm, the Kvant Scientific Research Institute, which it described as a front company operated by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).

But the Russian firm that features most prominently in Monday’s announcement is Divetechnoservices, an underwater equipment manufacturer. The US alleges that the FSB paid the company $15 million in 2011 to design equipment for use in tapping underwater communications cables. According to Washington, equipment designed by Divetechnoservices is today used by a fleet of Russian ships that sail on the world’s oceans searching for underwater communications cables to tap. One such ship, according to reports, is the Yantar (pictured), ostensibly an oceanic research vessel, which Washington says is used to detect and tap into underwater communications cables.

In addition to Divetechnoservices, the US Treasury has named three individuals who will face economic sanctions due to what Washington says is their personal involvement with the underwater hardware manufacturer. They are: Vladimir Yakovlevich Kaganskiy, the company’s owner and former director; Aleksandr Lvovich Tribun, who serves as Divetechnoservices’ general director; and Oleg Sergeyevich Chirikov, identified as the manager of Divetechnoservices’ underwater surveillance program. These men —all Russian citizens— will not be able to enter into business relationships with American companies or citizens. On Tuesday, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the latest round of US sanctions as an act of desperation. The White House would fail in its effort to “force the Russian Federation to change its independent course of action in the international arena”, said the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 June 2018 | Permalink

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Opinion: Bizarre fake murder plot points to Ukrainian state’s recklessness, unreliability

Arkady Babchenko

Arkady Babchenko

Western audiences were treated to a small taste of the bizarreness of Eastern European politics this week, when a Russian journalist who had reportedly been assassinated by the Kremlin, made an appearance at a live press conference held in Kiev. On Tuesday, Ukrainian media reported that Arkady Babchenko, a Russian war correspondent based in Ukraine, had been shot dead outside his apartment in the Ukrainian capital. A day later, after Babchenko’s murder had prompted global headlines pointing to Russia as the most likely culprit, Babchenko suddenly
appeared alive and well during a press conference held by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). The SBU then said that Babchenko’s killing had been staged in an attempt to derail a Russian-sponsored plan to kill him. The bizarre incident concluded with Babchenko meeting on live television with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who praised him as a hero. Later that night, the Russian journalist wrote on his Facebook page that he planned to die after “dancing on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s grave”.

Welcome to Ukraine, a strange, corrupt and ultra-paranoid state that is on the front lines of what some describe as a new Cold War between the West and Russia. Like the Cold War of the last century, the present confrontation is fought largely through information. The Russian government, which appears to be far more skillful than its Western adversaries in utilizing information for political purposes, immediately sought to capitalize on the Babchenko case. In fact, this baffling and inexplicable fiasco may be said to constitute one of the greatest propaganda victories for the Kremlin in years.

Ever since accusations began to surface in the Western media about Moscow’s alleged involvement in the 2016 presidential elections in the United States, Russia has dismissed these claims as “fake news” and anti-Russian disinformation. When Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned in England in March, the Kremlin called it a false-flag operation. This is a technical term that describes a military or intelligence activity that seeks to conceal the role of the sponsoring party, while at the same time placing blame on another, unsuspecting, party. Most Western observes reject Russia’s dismissals, and see the Kremlin as the most likely culprit behind the attempt to kill the Skripals.

As one would expect, Russia stuck to its guns on Tuesday, when the world’s media announced the death of Arkady Babchenko in the Ukraine. Moscow claimed once again that we were dealing here with a false flag operation that was orchestrated by anti-Kremlin circles to make Russia look bad at home and abroad. It turns out that Moscow was right. Babchenko’s “murder” was indeed a false flag operation —admittedly a sloppy, shoddy and incredibly clumsy false flag operation, but a false flag operation nonetheless. Moreover, Babchenko’s staged killing could not possibly have come at a worse time for Ukraine and its Western allies. In the current environment, global public opinion is extremely sensitive to the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and disinformation. Within this broader context, the Ukrainian state and its intelligence institutions have placed themselves at the center of an global disinformation maelstrom that will take a long time to subside. In doing so, the government of Ukraine has irreparably harmed its reputation among the general public and in the eyes of its Western allies. The Kremlin could not possibly have asked for a better gift from its Ukrainian adversaries.

The amateurishness and recklessness of some Eastern European countries that the West sees as allies in its confrontation with Russia, such as Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, and others, would be humorous if it were not so dangerous. The manifest idiocy of the Babchenko fake plot also poses serious questions about the West’s policy vis-à-vis  Russia. It is one thing for the West to be critical of the Kremlin and its policies —both domestic and foreign. It is quite another for it to place its trust on governments and intelligence services as those of Ukraine, which are clearly unreliable, unprofessional, and appear to lack basic understanding of the role of information in international affairs.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 June 2018 | Permalink

Norwegian retiree jailed in Russia says he was ‘misused’ by Norway spy agency

Frode BergA Norwegian retiree, who was arrested in northern Russia late last year on charges of spying, acted as a courier for the Norwegian Intelligence Service (NIS), according to his lawyer. Last December, intelNews reported on the arrest of Frode Berg, 62, from Kirkenes, a small town in Norway’s far north, located near the Russian border. Berg retired in 2014 after nearly 25 years of service in the Office of the Norwegian Border Commissioner, a government agency that operates under Norway’s Ministry of Justice and Public Security. Following his retirement, Berg traveled regularly to Russia and helped organize a number of joint Norwegian-Russian community events, including athletic competitions and art festivals. But he is currently in a Russian jail and faces a long prison sentence if convicted on espionage charges.

On Tuesday, however, The Washington Post said it spoke to Berg’s lawyer, Brynjulf Risnes. On a telephone line from Oslo, Risnes told the paper that his client had come to believe that he had been “misused” by the NIS, and that he said so during a court session in Moscow earlier this year. “We are quite convinced”, said Risnes, “that this is a real Norwegian spy story”. The lawyer told The Post’s Anton Troianovski that his client had met a man named “Jorgen”, who worked for the NIS. He asked Berg to carry some envelopes during his frequent trips to Russia. Berg eventually came to realize that the envelopes contained operational instructions for Norwegian intelligence assets inside Russia, and sometimes money —up to €3,000 at times. He did as he was told “between two and five times”, said Risnes, in full knowledge that he was operating as a courier for the NIS.

However, when Berg began to have second thoughts about his activities, fearing arrest, “Jorgen” pressured him to continue, according to Risnes. At one point, the NIS representative asked Berg: “Don’t you want to be a good Norwegian?”. In doing so, the NIS effectively pressured Berg to continue acting as a courier by dismissing his hesitations as groundless and failed to inform him about the real risks involved in acting as an intelligence courier inside Russia. Risnes told The Post that no charges have yet been filed against Berg by Moscow, and that the 62-year-old retiree’s supporters back in Kirkenes hope that he could be exchanged for Russian spies held in Norway. But such persons are not known to exist at the moment and, according to Torbjorn Brox Webber, a Kirkenes resident and supporter of Berg, a spy swap is unlikely to “happen for a lot of time — for many years”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 April 2018 | Permalink

Russian ex-spy sees link between Skripal and GCHQ officer found dead in 2010

Boris KarpichkovA former officer in the Soviet KGB, who now lives in the United Kingdom, is to be questioned by British police after alleging that there is a link between the recent poisoning of Sergei Skripal and the mysterious death of a British intelligence officer in 2010. There has been extensive media coverage in the past month of the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a Russian former military intelligence officer who spied for Britain in the early 2000s and has been living in England since 2010. Nearly every European country, as well as Canada, Australia and the United States, expelled Russian diplomats in response to the attack on the Russian former spy, which has been widely blamed on the Kremlin.

But eight years ago, another mysterious attack on a spy in Britain drew the attention of the world’s media. Gareth Williams, a mathematician in the employment of Britain’s signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, had been seconded to the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), Britain’s external intelligence agency, to help automate intelligence collection. He had also worked with United States agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency. But his career came to an abrupt end in August 2010, when he was found dead inside a padlocked sports bag at his home in Pimlico, London. It remains unknown whether his death resulted from an attack by assailants.

Last weekend, however, Boris Karpichkov, a former intelligence officer in the Soviet KGB and its post-Soviet successor, the FSB, said that Williams was killed by the Russian state. Karpichkov, 59, joined the KGB in 1984, but became a defector-in-place for Latvian intelligence in 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated. He claims to have also spied on Russia for French and American intelligence. In 1998, carrying two suitcases filled with top-secret Russian government documents, and using forged passports, he arrived with his family in Britain, where he has lived ever since. In an interview with the British tabloid newspaper The Sunday People, Karpichkov said that Williams was killed by Russian intelligence operatives with an untraceable poison substance, because he had discovered the identity of a Russian agent within his agency, the GCHQ. According to Karpichkov, Williams had befriended the mole, codenamed ORION by the Russians, and had realized that he was working for the Russians. The mole then allegedly told his Russian handler, a non-official-cover officer with an Eastern European passport, codenamed LUKAS, that Williams had grown suspicious. Read more of this post

Outgoing CIA director acknowledges US killed ‘couple of hundred’ Russians in Syria

Mike PompeoThe outgoing director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, appeared on Thursday to confirm reports from last February that United States troops killed more than 200 Russian soldiers in Syria. According to sources from the US Pentagon, the armed confrontation took place on February 7, when a 500-strong Syrian government force crossed the Euphrates River and entered Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria’s northeastern Deir al-Zour region. US-supported Kurdish forces in the area, which include embedded American troops, responded with artillery fire, while US military aircraft also launched strikes on the Syrian government forces. The latter withdrew across the Euphrates after suffering heavy losses. The US side estimated at the time that over 100 attackers had been left dead, with another 200-300 injured. The toll later rose to several hundred dead.

At a press conference held soon after the armed clash, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis refused to discuss the matter, which he referred to as “perplexing”. Bloomberg said at the time that American officials were “in talks” with Russian counterparts “in search of an explanation for what happened”. On Thursday, however, Pompeo appeared to acknowledge that US troops killed hundreds of Russians in Deir al-Zour. The outgoing CIA director was speaking before a committee of the US Senate, during a hearing pertaining to his nomination to serve as the next US secretary of state. He was making the point that the administration of US President Donald Trump had maintained a hardline policy on Russia. After referring to the recent expulsions of 60 Russian diplomats from the US, Pompeo said: “in Syria, now, a handful of weeks ago the Russians met their match. A couple of hundred Russians were killed”.

Pompeo’s comments were seen by the media as an acknowledgement by a senior US government official of the incident in Deir al-Zour, which has remained shrouded in mystery since it happened. Later in his speech, Pompeo said that the Kremlin had “not yet gotten the full message about US determination to block aggression from Moscow. We need to continue to work at that”, he said.

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

Britain looking to resettle poisoned Russian spy to the United States, says source

Sergei SkripalThe British government may relocate Sergei Skripal, the Russian double spy who appears to have survived an assassination attempt in England, to the United States, in an effort to protect him from further attacks. The BBC reported last week that Skripal, who had been in a critical condition for nearly a month, was “improving rapidly”. Skripal, 66, who spied for Britain in the early 2000s, and has been living in England since 2010, was poisoned with what London claims was a military-grade nerve agent. Nearly every European country, as well as Canada, Australia and the United States, expelled Russian diplomats in response to the attack on the Russian former spy. His daughter, Yulia, who is 33, also came down with nerve-agent poisoning on the same day as her father, but appears to have survived.

The London-based newspaper The Sunday Times said yesterday that British government officials are exploring the possibility of resettling Skripal and his daughter in an allied country. The paper claimed that the countries being considered for possible relocation belong to the so-called “Five Eyes” agreement (also known as UKUSA), a decades-old pact between intelligence agencies from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Canada and the United States. The Times quoted “an intelligence source” familiar with the negotiations allegedly taking place between the British government and its UKUSA partners. The source reportedly told the paper that the Skripals “will be offered new identities”, but did not elaborate on how they would avoid attention after their images were published by every major media outlet in the world following last month’s incident in England.

The anonymous source told The Times that “the obvious place to resettle [the two Russians] is America because they are less likely to be killed there and it is easier to protect them there under a new identity”. The paper also reported that Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6, is holding discussions with its American counterpart, the Central Intelligence Agency, about resettling the Skripals on American soil. But an article published on Sunday in another British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, said that senior government officials in the United States are now worried that Russian defectors and former spies living there may not be safe. The paper quoted an unnamed “senior US administration official” as saying that Washington has “massive concerns” that US-based Russians who have spied for America, or have publicly criticized the Kremlin, could be targeted just like Skripal. The Times said it contacted the British Foreign Office seeking to confirm whether the Skripals would be relocated abroad, but did not get a response.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 9 April 2018 | Permalink

Surge in Russian spy activity prompts US agencies to bring back retired officers

FBIA surge in the activity of Russian intelligence personnel on United States soil has caused American spy agencies to rehire retired Russia specialists, according to Newsweek. Additionally, Russian defectors living in the US are reevaluating their personal safety in light of the poisoning of Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England last month, said Newsweek’s intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein in an article published on Sunday. Writing from Washington, Stein said that US counterintelligence agencies —notably the Federal Bureau of Investigation— are “on edge” over the attack on Skripal, which the British government said was carried out with a military-grade nerve agent on orders of the Kremlin.

Soviet spy agencies have a long history of assassinating defectors, called ‘wet operations’ in Russian spy parlance. But such activities were considerably scaled back after the 1970s. However, many claim that the rise of Vladimir Putin to power brought back these tactics, and that Moscow may now be investing more time and money in ‘wet operations’ training. Stein quoted one anonymous Russian defector living in the US as saying that it would be “easy [for Russian spy services] to find us if they are really determined”. It usually takes an email, text or phone call to friends or relatives back in Russia for Moscow to start tracking the physical whereabouts of defectors. In other cases, family members of defectors may be followed by Russian intelligence personnel while visiting the US to reunite with relatives, said the US-based defector.

The same source told Stein that suspected Russian intelligence personnel had been spotted by US counterintelligence teams surveilling the neighborhoods where Russian defectors reside. To address what they see as an “uptick in Russian activity […] over the past two years”, the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency “have been bringing people out of retirement” with expertise on Russian intelligence operations, Stein reports. The veteran intelligence correspondent also spoke to retired CIA officers, who did not rule out an attempt by Russian intelligence to carry out a ‘wet operation’ on American soil. Stein contacted the CIA and the FBI, asking them to respond to these concerns. He said the CIA declined to comment, while the FBI did not return his messages.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 April 2018 | Permalink