Russia, Lithuania and Norway exchange prisoners in rare three-way spy-swap

Frode BergA rare three-way spy-swap has reportedly taken place between Russia and two North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, Lithuania and Norway. Rumors of a possible exchange of imprisoned spies between the three countries first emerged in mid-October. However, all three governments had either denied the rumors or refused to comment at the time. It now turns out that the spy-swap, which international news agencies described as “carefully coordinated” was the result of painstaking negotiations between the three countries, which lasted several months.

A major part of the process that led to last week’s spy swap was the decision of the Lithuanian parliament to approve altering the country’s criminal code. The new code allows the president of Lithuania to pardon foreign nationals who have been convicted of espionage, if doing so promotes Lithuania’s national interest. The new amendment also outlines the process by which the government can swap pardoned foreign spies with its own spies —or alleged spies— who may have been convicted of espionage abroad. On Friday, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda announced he had pardoned two Russian nationals who had been convicted of espionage against Lithuania, in accordance with the new criminal code. The president’s move was approved by the country’s multi-agency State Defense Council during a secret meeting.

Shortly after President Nausėda’s announcement, Sergei Naryshkin, Director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) said that Moscow would immediately proceed with “reciprocal steps”. The Kremlin soon released from prison two Lithuanian nationals, Yevgeny Mataitis and Aristidas Tamosaitis. Tamosaitis was serving a 12-year prison sentence, allegedly for carrying out espionage for the Lithuanian Defense Ministry in 2015. Mataitis, a dual Lithuanian-Russian citizen, was serving 13 years in prison, allegedly for supplying Lithuanian intelligence with classified documents belonging to the Russian government.

The two Lithuanians were exchanged for two Russians, Nikolai Filipchenko and Sergei Moisejenko. Filipchenko is believed to be an officer in the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), who was arrested by Lithuanian counterintelligence agents in 2015. He had been given a 10-year prison sentence for trying to recruit double agents inside Lithuania, allegedly in order to install listening bugs inside the office of the then-Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite. Moisejenko was serving a 10½ year sentence for conducting espionage and for illegally possessing firearms. Lithuania alleges that Moisejenko had been tasked by Moscow with spying on the armed forces of Lithuania and NATO. Along with the two Lithuanians, Russia freed Frode Berg (pictured), a Norwegian citizen who was serving a prison sentence in Russia, allegedly for acting as a courier for the Norwegian Intelligence Service.

On Saturday, Darius Jauniškis, Director of Lithuania’s State Security Department, told reporters in Vilnius that the spy swap had taken place in a remote part of the Russian-Lithuanian border. He gave no further information about the details exchange, or about who was present at the site during the spy-swap.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 November 2019 | Research credit: E.G. | Permalink

Moscow names intersection after Kim Philby, British spy for the USSR

Kim PhilbyIn a sign of worsening relations between the United Kingdom and Russia, a busy intersection in Moscow has been named after Kim Philby, the British senior intelligence officer who secretly spied for the Soviet Union. While working as a senior member of British intelligence, Harold Adrian Russell Philby, known as ‘Kim’ to his friends, spied on behalf of the Soviet NKVD and KGB. His espionage activities lasted from about 1933 until 1963, when he secretly defected to the USSR from his home in Beirut, Lebanon. Philby’s defection sent ripples of shock across Western intelligence and is often seen as one of the most dramatic incidents of the Cold War. He was part of a wider ring of upper-class British spies, known collectively as ‘the Cambridge spies’ because they were recruited by Soviet intelligence during their student days at the University of Cambridge in England.

Following his sensational defection, Philby lived in the Soviet capital until his death in 1988 at the age of 76. On Tuesday, a statement published on the website of the Moscow City Council announced that a busy intersection in the city’s southeast would be renamed to ‘Kim Philby Square’ in honor of the British defector. The statement said that the name change had been agreed upon by the city council and decreed by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sbyanin, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Interestingly, Philby lived nowhere near the intersection named after him. His apartment —provided to him by the Soviet state in exchange for services rendered during his 30 years of spying— was located in a residential area of central Moscow. However, the intersection in question is situated near the headquarters of the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, which is the primary successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB. In September of last year, SVR Director Sergei Naryshkin attended an exhibition in Moscow entitled “Kim Philby: His Intelligence Work and Personal Life”, organized by the Russian Historical Society. While there, Naryshkin was told by veterans of the KGB that Philby liked to take long walks through the streets of Moscow and that a street should be named after him in his honor.

French news agency Agence France Presse reported that it contacted the Moscow City Council but a spokeswoman said she was not in a position to comment on the Kim Philby Square renaming. The move comes a few months after a small pedestrian thoroughfare located across from the front entrance of the Russian embassy in Washington DC was symbolically named ‘Boris Nemtsov’, after a Russian opposition leader who was gunned down in downtown Moscow in February of 2015.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 November 2018 | Permalink

Canada seeks to take away passports from children of Russian spies

Vavilov FoleyTwo Canadian brothers, whose Russian-born parents fraudulently acquired Canadian citizenship before being arrested for spying on the United States for Moscow, are not entitled to Canadian citizenship, according to the government of Canada. Tim and Alex Vavilov are the sons of Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, a married couple arrested in 2010 under Operation GHOST STORIES, a counterintelligence program run by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Following the couple’s arrest, their sons, who allegedly grew up thinking their parents were Canadian, were told that their parents were in fact Russian citizens and that their real names were Andrei Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova. Their English-sounding names and Canadian passports had been forged in the late 1980s by the KGB, the Soviet Union’s primary external intelligence agency.

But the two brothers, who had never been to Russia prior to their parents’ arrest in 2010, are currently involved in a prolonged legal battle to keep their Canadian citizenship, after the government of Canada refused to recognize their Canadian passports. The latter were annulled when it became clear that the Canadian passports of the brothers’ parents were fraudulent. According to the Canadian Citizenship Act, children born in Canada to “employees of a foreign government” are not entitled to Canadian nationality. But the brothers argue that they were 20 and 16 when their parents were arrested and were unaware of their double identities. It follows, they say, that they cannot be punished for their parents’ crimes, and insist that Canada is the only home they know.

Last year, Canada’s Federal Court of Appeals overturned the decision of a lower court and ordered the government to reinstate Alex Vavilov’s Canadian citizenship. According to the Appeals Court, the Vavilov could not be considered as having been born to employees of a foreign government, since his parents were not accredited diplomats, nor did they enjoy diplomatic privileges while living in Canada. Since that time, the two brothers have had their Canadian passports renewed and say they hope to be able to settle and work in Canada. But the Canadian government was given until September 20 of this year to decide whether to appeal the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision, and take the case to the Supreme Court.

Now the Canadian government has filed a new court submission, effectively challenging the Federal Court of Appeals’ decision. It its submission, the government claims that the Vavilov brothers should be denied Canadian citizenship because their parents were, effectively, secret employees of a foreign government. The two Russian spies may not have been accredited by the Canadian state as foreign employees, it says, but they were in reality “dedicated to serving their home country, except in their case, the employment was carried out clandestinely”. Canada’s Supreme Court has said that it plans to hear the case before the end of the year.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 August 2018 | Permalink

Spy chiefs from Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan hold high-level meeting

Sergei NaryshkinIntelligence directors from Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan met on Tuesday to discuss regional cooperation with particular reference to combating the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Information about the high-level meeting was revealed yesterday by Sergei Ivanov, media spokesman for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). Ivanov told Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency that the meeting was held in Pakistan and included the participation of SVR director Sergei Naryshkin. TASS reported that the meeting was held under the auspices of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate and was attended by “senior intelligence officials” from Pakistan, Russia, Iran and China.

Ivanov said that discussions during the meeting “focused on the dangers arising from a buildup of the Islamic State on the Afghan territory”. The Islamic State announced the formation of its Afghan province (wilayah in Arabic) in January 2015, using the term “Khorasan Province”. By July 2016, two of its most prominent leaders had been killed in coordinated drone strikes by the United States, but the group continues to launch operations to this day. Its core is thought to be made up of nearly 100 fighters from the Islamic State’s former strongholds in Syria and Iraq. According to Russian reports, security officials in China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran are concerned that the Islamic State’s Afghan command is becoming stronger as fighters from the group are leaving the Middle East and moving to Afghanistan.

Tuesday’s high-level meeting in Islamabad follows an announcement last month by the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that it would adopt a more active stance on security issues in Afghanistan. Early in June, Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani described the SCO as “an important platform for anti-terrorist cooperation and enhancing regional connectivity” in Central and South Asia. President Ghani made these comments shortly before traveling to China to attend the annual summit of the SCO, of which Afghanistan is an observer country.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 11 July 2018 | Permalink

Cold-War-era Soviet spy George Blake issues rare statement from Moscow

George BlakeOne of the Cold War’s most recognizable spy figures, George Blake, who escaped to the Soviet Union after betraying British intelligence, issued a rare statement last week, praising the successor agency to Soviet-era KGB. Blake was born George Behar in Rotterdam, Holland, to a Dutch mother and a British father. Having fought with the Dutch resistance against the Nazis, he escaped to Britain, where he joined the Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, in 1944. He was serving in a British diplomatic post in Korea in 1950, when he was captured by advancing North Korean troops and spent time in a prisoner of war camp. He was eventually freed, but, unbeknownst to MI6, had become a communist and come in contact with the Soviet KGB while in captivity. Blake remained in the service of the KGB as a defector-in-place until 1961, when he was arrested and tried for espionage.

After a mostly closed-door trial, Blake was sentenced to 42 years in prison, which at that time was the longest prison sentence ever imposed in Britain. However, he managed to escape in 1966, with the help of Irish republican prisoners in London’s Wormwood Scrubs prison, where he was serving his sentence. With the help of Soviet intelligence, Blake made his way to France and from there to Germany and East Berlin, hiding inside a wooden box in the back of a delivery van. He eventually resurfaced in Moscow, where he has lived ever since, in a small, government-provided dacha (Russian cottage) located on the outskirts of the Russian capital.

Last Friday, Blake issued a statement on the eve of his 95th birthday. The statement was posted on the SVR’s official website and published by several Russian news agencies. The convicted spy said that he placed his hopes for the peace of mankind on the “men and women” of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service —the main institutional descendant of the Soviet KGB. Blake praised the SVR’s officers as “heroes” who are engaged in “a true battle between good and evil” at a time when “the danger of nuclear war and the resulting self-destruction of humankind” is a real threat. The spy added that the prospect of nuclear annihilation has been “put on the agenda by irresponsible politicians”, in what Russian news agencies interpreted as a comment that was directed against United States President Donald Trump.

The end of Blake’s statement is followed by a second statement, written by the Director of the SVR, Sergei Naryshkin. Naryshkin, who was appointed to his current post by Russian President Vladimir Putin a year ago, congratulates Blake on his 95th birthday and calls him a “reliable old comrade” and “a man of great wisdom”. Blake is “a proficient teacher”, says  Naryshkin, who has been a longtime role model for the officers of the SVR.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 November 2017 | Permalink

Fire at top-secret Moscow facility highlights rapid growth of Russian spy headquarters

SVR MoscowA massive fire that broke out at a top-secret spy facility in Moscow on Wednesday brought to the foreground prior reports about the unprecedented growth of the headquarters of Russia’s foreign spy service. The fire was reported at a government compound in Yasenevo, a leafy district on the southern outskirts of the Russian capital. The compound serves as the headquarters of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, known by its initials, SVR. The SVR is one of the successor agencies to the Soviet-era KGB. During Soviet times, the present-day SVR was known as the First Chief Directorate or First Main Directorate of the KGB. Despite its name change, however, its mission remains the same, namely to collect secrets from targets outside the Russian Federation —often through the use of espionage— and to disseminate intelligence to the president.

The fire, which local news agencies described as “huge”, was reported early in the afternoon of Wednesday. Television images showed smoke coming out of one of the multistory towers that make up the SVR building complex. According to SVR spokesman Sergey Ivanov, the fire started in what he called “a technical installation” that houses “a cable gallery” and is located beneath the multistory building. The 21-story tower block is adjacent to a large Y-shaped building and is visible for several miles around. It became operational in the early 1970s, when the KGB’s First Chief Directorate began a decade-long process of moving to the new, state-of-the-art complex in the southern suburbs of the Russian capital. Today the complex houses the entire apparatus of the SVR, including its espionage wing, and is informally known as les (the forest) or kontora (the office). Approximately 15 fire crews arrived at the scene soon afterwards, and were able to coordinate their movements despite the fact that mobile communications are blocked at the site of the compound.

The SVR spokesman added that the fire is believed to have begun at a section of the facility that is undergoing extensive maintenance work. Three members of the crew that were initially missing during the early stage of the fire were later rescued, said Ivanov, and the fire was eventually extinguished without causing fatalities or injuries. But the incident highlighted the reportedly unprecedented growth of the SVR complex that observers have noted in recent years. As intelNews reported in 2016, satellite images show that the top-secret facility has doubled —and possibly tripled— in size in the past decade. The most recent images were compiled by Allen Thomson, an analyst who worked for the United States Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970s and 1980s. They were published by Steven Aftergood, who edits the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News blog. The images clearly show that at least three more large buildings have been erected alongside the landmark skyscraper and the adjoining Y-shaped office block. These additions, said Aftergood in 2016, appear to have increased the SVR headquarters’ floor space “by a factor of two or more”. Moreover, the nearby parking capacity at the complex “appears to have quadrupled”, he added. Observers often describe the compound as a constant construction site, with new buildings and facilities being built at an unprecedented speed.

On Wednesday evening, SVR officials told the Moscow-based TASS news agency that the agency would investigate the cause of the fire. It was “too early to give any comments” about it, they said, but the SVR had already initiated an official probe into the incident.

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

Sons of exposed Russian deep-cover spies want their Canadian citizenship back

FoleyThe sons of a Russian couple, who fraudulently acquired Canadian citizenship before being arrested for espionage in the United States, are seeking to reinstate their Canadian citizenship, which was annulled when their parents were found to be Russian spies. Tim and Alex Vavilov are the sons of Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, a married couple arrested in 2010 under Operation GHOST STORIES —a counterintelligence program run by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Following their arrest, their sons, who allegedly grew up thinking their parents were Canadian, were told that their parents were in fact Russian citizens and that their real names were Andrei Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova. Their English-sounding names and Canadian passports had been forged in the late 1980s by the KGB, the Soviet Union’s primary external intelligence agency.

The two boys were at the family’s home in suburban Cambridge, MA, on Sunday, June 27, 2010, when FBI agents conducted coordinated raids across New England, arresting their parents and eight more Russian ‘illegals’. The term is used to signify Russian non-official-cover operatives, namely intelligence officers who operate abroad without diplomatic cover and typically without connection to the country they spy for. It is now believed that Bezrukov and Vavilova were recruited as a couple in the 1980s by the KGB’s Department S, which operated the agency’s ‘illegals’ program.

But the two brothers, who were born in Canada, are currently involved in a prolonged legal battle to have their Canadian citizenship reinstated. The latter was rescinded when it became clear that their parents’ Canadian passports were fraudulent. According to the Canadian Citizenship Act, children born in Canada to “employees of a foreign government” are not entitled to Canadian nationality. But the brothers argue that they were 20 and 16 when their parents were arrested and were unaware of their double identities. It follows, they told Canada’s newsmagazine Maclean’s in August, that they cannot be punished for their parents’ crimes.

This past June, Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal overturned the decision of a lower court and ordered the government to reinstate Alex Vavilov’s Canadian citizenship. Now the government has until September 20 to decide whether to appeal the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision to the Supreme Court. If it does not, or if it upholds the decision of the Federal Court of Appeal, it is thought that Alex’s brother, Tim, will also have his Canadian citizenship reinstated.

But the case may be further-complicated by allegations made by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) that Tim was aware of his parents’ espionage activities when they were arrested by the FBI. The CSIS claims that the two Russian spies had groomed Tim to enter the intelligence profession, and that the then-20-year-old had given an oath of allegiance to the SVR —the KGB’s post-Cold-War successor agency. But Tim Vavilov denies he was groomed or “sworn-in” by the Russians, and argues that he has never been presented with evidence of this allegation, even though his parents’ home in Massachusetts was bugged by the FBI for nearly a decade.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 September 2017 | Permalink