- European intelligence bodies are on high alert following the arrests of a number of suspected Russian double agents.
- Since January 2019, arrests have been made in France, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, and Austria, intelligence sources told Insider.
- The arrested include colonels in the Austrian and French armies, a senior Belgian military intelligence official, and a Swedish computer engineer.
- But it is proving hard to establish whether the arrests are linked to a larger state program, due to limited information sharing between European countries.
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European authorities have arrested at least half a dozen sensitivity placed officials and executives on charges of spying for Russia, intelligence sources have told Insider.
However, limited information sharing between European countries on the cases is hampering efforts to determine whether the cases point to a larger, coordinated effort.
Since January 2019, European security services arrested suspected spies working in sensitive areas in France, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, and Austria.
The arrests or ongoing investigations have included colonels in the Austrian and French armies, a senior Belgian military intelligence official, and a Swedish computer engineer.
The engineer was implicated in spying for a Russian officer assigned to the embassy in Stockholm before ultimately being released.
“There’s an ongoing debate over the Russians,” said one senior NATO counterintelligence official, who cannot be named because he doesn’t have permission to discuss the issue publicly.
He said: “There has been an increase in their operations since 2008 when [Russian President Vladimir] Putin increased funding and called for more aggressive postures towards the West.
“But the Russians have always targeted human intelligence with greed and ideology in the West. Determining a proper pattern and analysis of the threat can be very difficult because the EU might be a single entity to target but it’s defended by 27 different national security cultures.”
“And none of them want to share information about their own lapses and compromises via spies.”
One active-duty counterintelligence agent for a Central European NATO member described a daily work environment that has turned increasingly untenable in recent years over fears of Russian compromise.
“I am responsible for preventing spies from operating in my country and Russians are a major area of concern, they are operating in my country and it’s my job to get them deported and arrest any of my countrymen helping them, this is it,” said the official, who works undercover and does not have permission to speak to the media.
“But my country is also somewhat aligned with Russia politically and economically and I know they have compromised some people throughout my service, and some of it isn’t even compromised, it’s basically official cooperation,” the official said.
“So if I want help from another service, I have to ask them for information they might have on people inside my service compromised by the Russians. But are they going to tell me? Of course not, because I could be working for the Russians.”
“Even if I had information that could help me have people rolled up here, could I really trust one of the other services? What if they leak the information to a journalist or what if one of their top officials is improperly leaking information to his Serb girlfriend, who it turns out is working for the Russians?”
“I promise you that you do not want my job.”
Recent high-profile arrests of accused Russian spies in Western Europe:
- February 2019: A senior Belgian military intelligence official is accused of improperly sharing classified information with a Serbian citizen later linked to Russian intelligence. The case remains in highly-classified review internally by the Belgian military.
- February-March 2019: A Swedish computer engineer with ties to sensitive government contracting is arrested, accused of spying on behalf of a Russian intelligence officer based at the Russian Embassy in Stockholm. The suspect was released, but not exonerated, after a month-long investigation. Swedish authorities remain opaque on the findings of the investigation.
- July 2019: Authorities in Austria arrested a 70-year-old retired army colonel and issued an international arrest warrant for a colonel in Russian military intelligence they claim was his long-time handler. He was accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of Euros over a decade in exchange for classified information on Austria’s weapons systems and military structure.
- August 2019: Norwegian intelligence arrested a man as he met with a Russian intelligence officer working under diplomatic cover. Norway expelled Russian diplomatic staff in response. The incident remains under a highly-classified investigation.
- August 2019: French domestic intelligence arrested an active duty Lt. Colonel in the French army on charges of spying for Russia. The officer, whom France has yet to formally identify, was arrested on vacation in France, away from their regular posting at a NATO base in Trieste, Italy. Both French and Italian officials refused to discuss the case with Insider.