Russia accuses UK of deliberately delaying visas for its diplomats in London

Russian embassy LondonRussia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom has accused the British Foreign Office of deliberately delaying the issuance of visas for its diplomatic officials who have been assigned to join the Russian embassy in London. Alexander Yakovenko, Russia’s former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, who has been heading the Russian embassy in London since 2011, said last week that the size of his staff was “shrinking” to unprecedented numbers. The reason, said Yakovenko, was that the government in London appeared to be following a systematic policy of delaying visa requests for Russian diplomats assigned to serve in London.

“As our people return home or go on to other postings, visas for their replacements are not being issued”, said Yakovenko. Consequently, the Russian embassy’s personnel numbers were shrinking, and would shrink even further unless the issue was resolved by Whitehall, he said. The Russian ambassador added that his embassy did not understand “the strategy of this country on visa issues”, implying that London was following a deliberate plan to prevent Russian diplomats from staffing the embassy. But the British Foreign Office responded on Saturday that it was not following a deliberate policy of delaying the issuance of visas for Russian diplomats. The BBC quoted a Foreign Office spokesman who said that the British government had “made it clear to the Russians that the queues [for visa issuances] need to be cleared on both sides”. The comment implies that London’s stance may be a response to efforts by Moscow to reduce the size of the British diplomatic core stationed in the Russian capital.

Bilateral relations between Britain and Russia have suffered since 2006, when the murder of former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko in London prompted Whitehall to expel four Russian diplomats stationed there. The Russian involvement in Ukraine and Syria has further strained relations between Moscow and London in recent years. In August of 2015, the Russian Embassy accused the British government of “effectively expelling” four of its diplomats from London by refusing to grant them visas for more than three months.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 24 October 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: Is Putin planning to restore the Soviet-era KGB?

SVR hqLast week, following the results of Russia’s parliamentary election, Russian media run a story suggesting that the Kremlin is planning to implement far-reaching changes to the country’s intelligence apparatus. According to the Moscow-based daily Kommersant, the administration of President Vladimir Putin is considering merging Russia’s two major intelligence and counterterrorism agencies into one. Specifically, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, will merge with the FSB, the Federal Security Service, according to Kommersant. The merger will create a new amalgamated intelligence agency that will be named “Ministry of State Security”, or MGB, in Russian. The last time this title was used was from 1946 to 1953, during the last years of the reign of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. It was one of several agencies that were eventually combined to form the Soviet KGB in 1954.

If the Kommersant article is accurate, Russia’s two main intelligence agencies will merge after an institutional separation that has lasted a quarter of a century. They were separated shortly after the official end of the Soviet Union, in 1991, when it was recognized that the KGB was not under the complete control of the state. That became plainly obvious in August of that year, when the spy agency’s Director, Vladimir Kryuchkov, helped lead a military coup aimed at deposing Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. The two new agencies were given separate mandates: the SVR inherited the mission of the KGB’s foreign intelligence directorates and focused on collecting intelligence abroad; the FSB, on the other hand, assumed the KGB’s counterintelligence and counterterrorist missions. A host of smaller agencies, including the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information (FAPSI), the Federal Protective Service (FSO) and others, took on tasks such as communications interception, border control, political protection, etc.

Could these agencies merge again after 25 years of separation? Possibly, but it will take time. An entire generation of Russian intelligence officers has matured under separate institutional roofs in the post-Soviet era. Distinct bureaucratic systems and structures have developed and much duplication has ensued during that time. If a merger was to occur, entire directorates and units would have to be restructured or even eliminated. Leadership roles would have to be purged or redefined with considerable delicacy, so as to avoid inflaming bureaucratic turf battles. Russian bureaucracies are not known for their organizational skills, and it would be interesting to see how they deal with the inevitable confusion of a possible merger. It could be argued that, if Putin’s goal is to augment the power of the intelligence services —which is doubtful, given their long history of challenging the power of the Kremlin— he would be better off leaving them as they are today.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 October 2016 | Permalink

Cease-fire near collapse after US airstrike kills 62 and injures 100 Syrian troops

Deir al-Zour SyriaA cease-fire that was launched with much fanfare by the United States and Russia last week appeared in tatters on Sunday night, after Washington acknowledged it mistakenly killed over 60 Syrian troops on Saturday. American officials expressed regret for the alleged error, but Syrian and Russian officials accused Washington of deliberately sabotaging the cease-fire agreement. Russian sources said the US air strike killed 62 and injured over 100 Syrian government troops who were engaged in a battle against Islamic State forces in Syria’s eastern province of Deir al-Zour. American military officials insisted that the pilots, who flew into Syria from bases in Iraq, believed they were targeting Islamic State forces. The operation was allegedly aborted as soon as US forces were notified by the Russian military that Syrian government troops were being targeted.

According to media reports, the US government has apologized to Damascus though Russian intermediaries for the “unintentional loss of life of Syrian forces”. But the incident has incensed Moscow, as it marks the first known engagement between US and Syrian forces since American military forces began fighting the Islamic State in 2014. The incident was described by The Washington Post late on Saturday as having sparked “one of the most hostile diplomatic exchanges between Washington and Moscow in recent years”. Soon after the US airstrike, Russia called an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, during which the Russian delegation accused the United States of deliberately trying to derail the cease-fire. According to reports, the American delegation stormed out of the closed-door meeting and denounced it as a “stunt” after the Russians openly accused Washington of aiding the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Syria.

American officials have launched an investigation into Saturday’s incident and are so far refusing to speculate whether it was caused by human error or an intelligence failure. In Washington, a State Department spokesman insisted that “coalition forces would not intentionally strike a known a Syrian military unit”. But in a statement issued on Saturday, Russian Major General Igor Konashenkov said that, if the US air strike was in error, it was a “direct outcome of the US side’s stubborn unwillingness to coordinate its activities  in Syria with Russia”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 September 2016 | Permalink

US spy agencies are significantly expanding operations against Russia

CIAAmerican intelligence agencies are diverting counterterrorist resources to Russian accounts, prompting some commentators to describe the move as the greatest expansion of spy operations against Russia since the Cold War. In a leading article published on Wednesday, The Washington Post’s Greg Miller cites unnamed United States officials in describing “a shift in resources across spy services”. The shift allegedly reflects an increasing emphasis on Russia, with many of the resources coming from accounts focusing on terrorism threats and war zones in the Middle East and Central Asia, which were created in the aftermath of 9/11.

In contrast to the Cold War, when US intelligence agencies devoted most of their resources to the Soviet Union and its allies around the world, today the US Intelligence Community designates “at most 10 percent” of its budget on espionage targeting Russia, according to Miller. But this is now beginning to change, he says, as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has now “moved Russia up the list of intelligence priorities for the first time since the Soviet Union’s collapse” in 1991. This move, which reflects current national-security priorities in the White House, will have a spiraling effect on the resources devoted to Russia by every American intelligence agency. There will be more human intelligence collection conducted by the CIA against Russian targets, more attention paid by the National Security Agency to Russian communications, and more reconnaissance activity over Russia by satellites operated by the National Reconnaissance Office, among other changes.

This change in direction comes after a prolonged period of tension between Washington and Moscow, which has been marked by America’s intervention in North Africa during the Arab Spring, which Moscow strongly objected to, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Syrian Civil War, and numerous instances of cyber espionage. As a result, says Miller, “surging tensions now cut across nearly every aspect of the US-Russia relationship”. He adds that some voices in Washington have raised concerns about the slow response by the US Intelligence Community to Russia’s resurgence as a world actor, especially in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He quotes one unnamed senior US intelligence official as saying that American spy agencies are now “playing catch-up big time with Russia”. However, some US officials stress that, given the level of reduction in US intelligence capabilities targeting Russia since 1991, it will take years to rebuild them. Regardless, they say, there is no desire in Washington to return to Cold War levels of intelligence activity any time soon.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 September 2016 | Permalink

FBI warns against alleged Russian campaign to destabilize US elections

Putin and ObamaThe Federal Bureau of Investigation is among several intelligence agencies in the United States that have expressed concerns about an alleged Russian campaign to destabilize November’s presidential elections. The Washington Post, which revealed the FBI’s concerns on Monday, claimed that Moscow recently launched an “active measures” operation aimed at covertly sabotaging the integrity of the US election process. Russia’s goal, said the paper, was to “counter US leadership and influence in international affairs”, thus subverting America’s image, especially in countries of the former Eastern Bloc or former Soviet republics.

According to The Post, the FBI and other US intelligence agencies have “no definitive proof” that Moscow is attempting to promote public distrust in American political institutions. But there are strong indications that have made this topic “a priority” for intelligence officials from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, said the paper. These indications include the hack of the computer systems at the Democratic National Committee, the official governing body of the US Democratic Party, which was revealed in June. The hack resulted in the disclosure of over 20,000 internal emails and led to the resignation of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the DNC’s Chairwoman. According to The Post, the hack is “not yet officially ascribed by the US government to Russia”, but US intelligence officials are convinced that Moscow was behind it.

The DNC hack prompted the FBI to send a so-called “flash alert” to US election officials in July, urging them to remain vigilant against “attempts to penetrate election systems”, which have been detected in several states, according to the report. The unprecedented FBI alert did not expressly name Russia as a national-security threat, nor did it give details of electoral sabotage. But it urged state election officials to “be on the lookout for intrusions into their election systems”. Citing unnamed intelligence officials, The Post said that the investigation into alleged Russian operations against the US Presidential election is being coordinated by James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 August 2016 | Permalink

Czech spy service accuses Russia of waging ‘information war’

Czech Security Information ServiceThe intelligence agency of the Czech Republic has accused Russian spy services of waging a “war of information” aimed at destabilizing the eastern European country. The agency has also warned that Russia continues to maintain a large intelligence presence in the Czech Republic, 25 years after the country, which was formerly known as Czechoslovakia, exited the Soviet sphere of influence and joined the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

These claims are included in the annual report of the Security Information Service of the Czech Republic, known as BIS. The report, which was published on Thursday, singles out Russia and China for allegedly operating the two most active intelligence apparatuses in the Czech Republic today. It also claims that Russia’s embassy in Prague, which exceeds in size that of any other country in the Czech capital, serves as a base for dozens of spies. The latter are among the 140 diplomatic personnel stationed at the Russian embassy, operating under diplomatic cover, according to BIS.

In addition to collecting intelligence and recruiting spies, Russia’s undercover efforts in the Czech Republic focus on “creating or promoting inter-societal and inter-political tensions” in the country, said the report. That is allegedly one in many ways, including covert support for domestic extremist and populist organizations –both rightwing and leftwing, according to BIS. There are also organizations in the country, described by the Czech intelligence agency as parts of a network of “puppet” groups, which tend to hold consistently pro-Russian stances on domestic and international issues. They are also highly critical of NATO and the EU, and promote the view that, like Britain, the Czech Republic should seek to exit the EU.

The report suggests that the main focus of the current phase of the alleged “information war” is to advertise the Russian viewpoint on the civil wars in Ukraine and Syria. However, “the infrastructure created for achieving these goals will not disappear with the end of the two conflicts” and “can be used to destabilize or manipulate Czech society […] at any time, if Russia wishes to do so”, the report states.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 September 2016 | Permalink

Notorious Russian arms dealer ‘refused US offer for lighter sentence’

Viktor BoutThe wife of Viktor Bout, the imprisoned Russian arms dealer dubbed ‘the merchant of death’, said he rejected an offer by his American captors who asked him to testify against a senior Russian government official. Born in Soviet Tajikistan, Bout was a former translator for the Soviet military. After the end of the Cold War, he set up several low-profile international air transport companies and used them to transfer large shipments of weapons that fueled wars in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. He made millions in the process and acquired international notoriety, which inspired the Hollywood blockbuster Lord of War. But his business ventures ceased in 2008, when he was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand, by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, with the cooperation of the Royal Thai Police. He was eventually extradited to the US and given a 25-year prison term for supplying weapons to the Afghan Taliban, and for trying to sell arms to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Bout is currently serving his sentence at the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center in New York.

In a newspaper interview on Tuesday, Bout’s wife, Alla Bout, said her husband could have gotten away with a considerably lighter sentence had he agreed to testify against a senior Russian government official. Speaking to Moscow-based daily Izvestia, Alla Bout said her husband had been approached by American authorities after being extradited to the United States from Thailand. He was told that US authorities wanted him to testify against Igor Sechin, a powerful Russian government official, whom American prosecutors believed was Bout’s boss. In return for his testimony, US prosecutors allegedly promised a jail sentence that would not exceed two years, as well as political asylum for him and his family following his release from prison. Alla Bout added that her husband’s American lawyers were told by the prosecution that the ‘merchant of death’ “would be able to live in the US comfortably, along with his wife and daughter”, and that his family could stay in America during his trial “under conditions”. Alla Bout claimed she was told this by Bout himself and by members of his American legal team.

From 2008 to 2012, Sechin, who has military background, served as Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister. Today he heads the Board of Directors of Rosneft, a government-owned oil extraction and refinement company, which is considered one of the world’s most powerful business ventures. Many observers see Sechin as the most formidable man in Russia after Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is also believed to be a senior member of the Siloviki, a secretive group of government officials in the Putin government who have prior careers in national security or intelligence. Although Bout and Sechin have never acknowledged having met each other, some investigators of Bout’s weapons-trading activities believe that the two were close allies. It is believed that the two men first met in Angola and Mozambique in the 1980s, where they were stationed while serving in the Soviet military. But the two men deny they knowing each other. According to Alla Bout, Viktor told his American captors that he “never worked for Sechin and did not know him in person”. He therefore turned down the prosecution’s offer and was handed a 25-year sentence. When asked by the Izvestia reporters whether Bout was simply protecting the powerful Russian government official, Alla Bout insisted that the two “have never even met, not once”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 August 2016 | Permalink