Home World Volkov attack marks Russia’s return to Cold War-era espionage in Europe

Volkov attack marks Russia’s return to Cold War-era espionage in Europe

0 comment
Volkov attack marks Russia's return to Cold War-era espionage in Europe

It was a brutal and violent assault, but as a bloody message it was frighteningly effective. An attacker ambushed Leonid Volkov, a close adviser to the late Russian opposition leader Alexei Nalvany, outside his home on the outskirts of Vilnius, Lithuania. It was 10:06 p.m. Tuesday night when he arrived, having filmed an anti-Putin video in time for this weekend’s elections.

The attacker smashed the car window and threw tear gas at Volkov, then hit him repeatedly with a hammer – about 15 times – breaking his left arm and bloodying his left leg before running away. escape. It was, Volkov later said, “an obvious, characteristic, typical, gangster-style Putin greeting” and the assault reflected an emerging truth: Russian intelligence operations in Europe are back.

On Thursday, Lithuanian intelligence said the plot “appears to be the work of Russian special services,” although Darius Jauniskis, the state security director, said Moscow had apparently used a mercenary to carry out the attack himself. Since the invasion of Ukraine, between 400 and up to 600 Russian intelligence agents have been expelled from embassies in Europe. To quickly rebuild the network, analysts say, Moscow had to resort to organized crime to help carry out its dirty work.

A month earlier, Maksim Kuzminov, a Russian helicopter pilot who defected to Ukraine, was found dead with half a dozen gunshot wounds on the Costa Blanca. He had moved to Spain in the hope of starting a new life. Although there was no solid evidence, Spanish intelligence concluded that he was killed on Russian orders, probably by hitmen. After the shooting, they ran over his body and set their getaway car on fire, before almost certainly fleeing the country.

Late last month, a sixth Bulgarian, Tihomir Ivanchev, a painter and decorator, was arrested and charged in the United Kingdom on suspicion of espionage. He should be tried this fall, alongside five compatriots. All are accused of spying for Moscow in collaboration with Jan Marsalek, a former executive at the German company Wirecard, wanted by Interpol after fleeing to Russia following its bankruptcy in 2020.

It is significant that, unlike pre-war plots, Russia shows a willingness to claim responsibility. Following the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury in 2018, both accused men attempted to deny any involvement, no matter how laughable. After Kuzminov’s death became public, Sergei Naryshkin, director of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence service, said the defector was “a moral corpse.”

This reflects a remarkable turnaround. The plan for Ukraine was to rely heavily on the FSB’s domestic intelligence services to recruit defectors willing to support the Russian invasion once troops crossed the border in February 2022. Whatever the FSB promised to do, he failed spectacularly. Ukrainian resistance has been fierce, not only on the battlefield, but throughout society. Sergei Beseda, head of the fifth service responsible for Ukraine, was arrested for a time, then released to his post as before.

Maksim Kuzminov was found dead last month. Photo: Ukrinform/Alamy

Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist and intelligence expert now living in the United Kingdom, said the resumption of intelligence operations reflects Moscow’s belief that it is now engaged in an explicit struggle with the West. “They are in a hot war,” he argued, and in fact the Kremlin “really managed to change its analysis” after the failure of what was supposed to be a special operation to capture Ukraine . While NATO weapons have entered Ukraine in significant quantities, Moscow believes this is the start of a “big war” between West and East that was always inevitable, Soldatov said.

It’s also a reaction to what happened with previous storylines. The revelation that GRU military intelligence hacked Democratic Party emails in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election was once seen as an embarrassment, given that destabilization operations are not supposed to be detected , but after the election of Donald Trump. , it ended up being seen as positive. “From the Russian point of view, this made Putin a kingmaker in the most powerful country in the world,” Soldatov said.

Morale in the Kremlin has improved considerably since the failure of the Ukrainian counter-offensive. The fear was that kyiv would break through, or at least appear to be winning on land, but its troops gained only a few kilometers despite being supplied with Western tanks, armored vehicles and artillery. But with the war also largely stalemated, other theaters of conflict have become more important. In the case of Russia, this includes the secret domain.

Analysts report greater professionalism in Russian operations. Jack Watling, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, and two colleagues last month published an analysis of how the GRU restructured its operations after Ukraine. The key to their plans is to reform the operations of its Center 161, responsible for destabilization abroad, on the Cold War model, in order to better train agents, known as “illegals”, who will be deployed in Europe under cover.

“They’re going back to some methods from the 1970s and 1980s,” Watling said. Some of the techniques used are basic, with personnel no longer bringing cell phones to unit headquarters. A new subdivision, Unit 54654, focuses on recruiting “clean skins” – individuals without prior security connections and generating cover stories to place individuals in long-term espionage missions so popular in Moscow since Soviet times and theft. atomic secrets by Klaus Fuchs of the Manhattan Project.

The changes in strategy are typical of how Russia approaches wars, Soldatov said. “Remember that in every war, the Russian army and Russian agencies enter the war in very poor condition. We talked about it in 1914, in 1941 and even in Afghanistan. Then gradually, simply through sheer numbers and because they don’t care about losses, they get back into shape. I think that’s what’s happening now.

You may also like