On December 4, the French newspaper Le Monde published a report arguing that at least 15 Russian spies allegedly belonging to “Unit 29155” of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU) have been using the Haute-Savoie French Alpine region as a rear (logistic) base (UNIAN, November 21). According to an investigation jointly conducted by intelligence agencies from the United Kingdom, Switzerland, France and the United States, this unit moved around Europe from 2014 to the end of 2018 and arrived in France to continue to carry out secret tasks, potentially including assassinations and sabotage. Members of Unit 29155 are notably suspected of the attempted poisoning of Russian defector Sergei Skripal. It appears that the operative theater of the above-identified GRU cell has included Bulgaria, Moldova, Montenegro and perhaps other European states (Le Monde, December 4).
The same day the French report was published, German authorities made public their suspicions that Russian agents were linked to the assassination of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a former Chechen rebel commander, shot in Berlin last August (see EDM, December 5). Germany has accused the Russian government of reluctance to “cooperate sufficiently” in the murder investigation. Moreover, two diplomats attached to the Russian embassy in Berlin were declared personae non gratae on December 4. According to German prosecutors, the Russian diplomats were working for Russian intelligence, and Berlin has collected “enough indications” that either the Kremlin or the Moscow-backed Chechen government were behind Khangoshvili’s killing. Some evidence suggests members of the aforementioned GRU detachment may have been involved in his assassination (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, December 4).
On November 17, a separate espionage scandal involving Russia exploded in Serbia. A video published on YouTube allegedly shows Russian diplomat Georgiy Kleban giving money to an unknown Serbian official in Belgrade (Svoboda.org, November 21). According to Bulgarian investigative journalist Christo Grozev—who actually helped identify the alleged Russian spy with the help of Microsoft Azure, a facial recognition program—it is usual Russian practice to have one or two people from the GRU amongst the employees of the military mission attached to each Russian embassy. These undercover agents’ tasks include—but are not limited to—establishing contacts with political circles and military personnel of the “host” state. In recent months, the Serbian Security Intelligence Agency (BIA) has repeatedly expressed deep dissatisfaction with the fact that, apart from “watching” Serbia, Russian intelligence is also using the Serbian capital as a platform from which to prepare numerous special operations in other European countries. Moreover, the BIA is unhappy with the fact that large numbers of radical Serbian nationalists were trained by GRU instructors in Donbas (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, November 25; see EDM, December 3).
Next door, in Bulgaria, the Prosecutor’s Office published information, on October 28, regarding an investigation into the first secretary of the Russian embassy in Sofia who is suspected of espionage (Prb.bg, October 28). Since September 2018, the Russian diplomat allegedly held regular secret meetings with Bulgarian citizens, including one senior official with access to classified information from Bulgaria, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, October 28). Of course, this was not the first such instance of Bulgaria serving as a central site for Russian espionage efforts against the West.
As was publicly revealed in September 2018, Russian intelligence services had extensively wiretapped hotel rooms occupied by European leaders staying in the Bulgarian capital. Notably, from January to July 2018, the five-star Marinela hotel in Sofia was outfitted with various listening devices, from the basement to the roof. Interestingly, according to Bulgarian sources, the hotel’s oligarch owner, Vetko Arabadjiev, had a file on him compiled by the Bulgarian secret service during the Soviet era and was in close contact with the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which, in turn, was supported by Moscow (Newizv.ru, September 13, 2018). Former Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Bulgaria to the Russian Federation Iliyan Vasilev also confirmed that this hotel had always been exploited by the Russian special services (Dsnews.ua, September 13, 2018).
Apart from engaging in espionage, Russia also was trying to use its mobile assassin squad from Unit 29155 to kill Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev. According to a series of joint investigations conducted by The Insider, Bellingcat and Der Spiegel, at least eight GRU agents participated in the attempted poisoning of Gebrev, his son and the director of his company. Later analyses showed that the perpetrators had tried to use a nerve agent belonging to the “Novichok” family of chemicals—which were also employed against Skripal in the UK (Theins.ru, November 23).
Catalonia may be yet another European region where members of the same GRU “mobile squad” operated. In 2017, Spanish media wrote about a “Russian trace” in the Catalonian pro-independence referendum movement (see EDM, October 2, 2017). And on November 21, 2019, it became known that Spain’s High Court had opened an investigation into a Russian spy’s involvement in a campaign to destabilize the internal situation in Spain (Elpais.com, November 21). The Russian agent in question, who had traveled to Barcelona on the eve of the illegal referendum in Catalonia under the false name “Sergey Fedotov,” was also spotted in the United Kingdom and Bulgaria. International investigators believe he had been involved in numerous assassination attempts all across the European continent (Elpais.com, November 22).
Also, on October 21, the Czech Security Information Service (BIS) disclosed the existence of a Russian intelligence network that Czech authorities had been broken up in 2018. Michal Koudelka, the director of the agency, stated that the former spy network was part of a longer chain created by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and funded by the Russian embassy in Prague. The task of these Russian agents was to carry out cyberattacks on targets in Czechia (the Czech Republic) and its allies (Radio.cz, October 21). Russia continues to pose one the largest cybersecurity threats to this Central European country.
The Russian government denies its involvement in the flurry of spy scandals that emerged all over Europe in the past few months (or for that matter in any other forms of interference in the internal affairs of other countries). But based on the openly available evidence, it is quite clear that those repudiations by Moscow strain credibility. In effect, Russia’s intelligence web—which has visibly heightened its presence and operational footprint in Europe since 2014—is working to undermine the internal cohesion and unity of European countries.