Europe exposes its Russian spies – POLITICO | Popgen Tech


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STOCKHOLM – Two military helicopters shattered the calm of suburban Stockholm on a late November morning, swooping over a private house in sleepy Kil in a high-profile raid on a Swedish couple accused of spied on Russia.

“I couldn’t believe it when I saw the police pile into their house,” a neighbor of the arrested Stockholm couple told POLITICO. “The noise of the helicopters woke up the whole street, and we just stood on our driveways and watched the action.”

The clatter of helicopters in the darkness was the latest sign that European nations’ high-stakes spy games with Russia are increasingly being played out in public.

The raid netted a couple in their late 50s who are now accused of leaking confidential commercial information to the Russian military intelligence agency GRU. They deny the accusations.

That same week, a closely watched court case began in Stockholm involving two brothers accused of passing official secrets from Swedish security agencies to the GRU; accusations they also deny.

Both cases received national news and shocked Swedish citizens.

In another stunning takedown, this time in neighboring Norway, a man now believed to be a GRU officer was recently arrested on his way to a college where he was operating under a false identity as a Brazilian academic .

And in the Netherlands, a deep-cover Russian operative was also recently exposed, with national news outlets similarly covering details of the revelation.

All these cases indicate a shift in the way European states handle counterintelligence operations: less sweeping of cases under the rug and more splashy disruption and prosecution, experts observe.

The aim appears to be to warn European citizens of the threats they face while simultaneously calling out Moscow, making it harder for Russian President Vladimir Putin to deny the actions of his intelligence agencies as the brutal incursion into the Ukraine enters its 10th month.

“Europe is done with subtle signals to Russia,” said Carolina Angelis, a former analyst with the Swedish intelligence service who later founded a security consulting firm.

Estonia leads the way with convictions

A recent report by researchers at Sweden’s Defense Research Agency that examined legal cases surrounding state-sponsored espionage in Europe over the decade to 2021 found that the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania accounted for nearly two-thirds of convictions. Estonia alone accounted for half of the total.

According to the researchers’ assessment, this had little to do with the Baltic states being intelligence targets. Rather, it is a clear indication of their desire to demonstrate how real the espionage threat is (mainly from Russia, but also to a lesser extent China), while at the same time demonstrating their ability to catch and convict spies.

Russia’s flag flies in front of the Russian Embassy in Tallinn, Estonia | Raigo Pajula/AFP via Getty Images

High-profile Estonian prosecutions include that of Estonian soldier Deniss Metsavas, who was called a traitor by the head of the Baltic state’s military at a press conference in 2018.

In particular, over the decade covered by the Swedish report, Russia appears to have spied more aggressively on its European neighbors. According to Michael Jonsson, one of the report’s authors, this has fueled a debate among targeted states about how openly they should tackle Moscow’s espionage efforts.

The concept of a more visible counterintelligence strategy has begun to gain ground, Jonsson believes. The recent arrests in Norway and Sweden — as well as the conviction of a Swedish consultant for spying for the Russians in 2021 — are best seen in that context, he added.

Add to the equation how Scandinavia is currently a security hotspot: Sweden and Finland are on the lookout for efforts to monitor or derail the two countries’ accession to NATO, while Norway is particularly concerned about the integrity of its oil and gas infrastructure after the recent sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines under the Baltic Sea.

Also in Norway, a series of trials is now underway of Russians accused of flying camera-equipped drones over the Nordic country in violation of a Norwegian law that specifically prohibits Russians from doing so.

“Our interpretation is that gradually more European security services have come to the conclusion that the ‘Estonian approach’ is the way to go,” Jonsson said.

When cloak-and-dagger becomes public theater

The three recent cases of alleged espionage in Sweden included some colorful details.

The 47-year-old Swedish consultant was detained in 2020 after he handed over commercial secrets from carmaker Volvo and truckmaker Scania to a GRU officer in a restaurant in central Stockholm. In Sweden, the identities of suspects are withheld to protect their privacy.

Pictures of the handover, where the agent received an envelope of cash, were splashed across local media – prompting the GRU officer, who had diplomatic immunity, to quietly leave Sweden shortly afterwards. The agent was sentenced to three years in prison in late 2021.

While such a situation was considered a rarity at the time, the subsequent trial of two brothers accused of espionage relatively soon after may change this perception.

The brothers’ trial, which began on November 25 and is expected to end later this month, centers on accusations that the older brother stole files from his employers, two Swedish intelligence agencies, to give to his younger brother – which in turn passed on to the GRU in exchange for cash.

Police secure the area at a house where Sweden’s security service arrested two people on suspicion of espionage on November 22, 2022, in the Stockholm area | Fredrik Sandberg/AFP via Getty Images

Documents released before the trial detail how police saw the younger brother throw a hard drive into a public trash can after his sibling was arrested, and how investigators went through the older brother’s deposit boxes at ‘ combed a local bank looking for evidence.

The recent raid on the suburban home on the outskirts of Stockholm could also end with a widely watched trial.

The detained man, a Russian who moved to Sweden in the 1990s and took Swedish citizenship, remains in custody, while his wife, also a Russian who took Swedish nationality, has been released. The police point out that she remains a suspect in the case.

“This is an extensive investigation that will continue for a long time,” Swedish state prosecutor Henrik Olin told reporters.

At the home of the suspects – a large, newly built detached house – fresh snow filled the footprints of the police who had driven up the driveway not long ago. Windows that the police broke when they entered were covered with plastic sheets.

The neighbor said she always found the couple very pleasant, even if they seemed to want to keep to themselves.

“They were very courteous, we never suspected anything,” she said.

“But then, maybe that’s kind of the idea.”


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