Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 64

Amid the accusations and recriminations which have accompanied the latest spy row between Russia and the United States, news media have given relatively little attention to a pair of other diplomatic confrontations–one actual and one potential–which have arisen as a result of Russia’s foreign intelligence activities. The first of these, a clash between Russia and Bulgaria, began just before the Russian-U.S. spy row, and ultimately involved the tit-for-tat expulsion of three Russian and three Bulgarian diplomats. The other came during the EU’s recent summit meeting in Stockholm, only two days after the start of the Russian-U.S. row, when British Prime Minister Tony Blair reportedly warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that his government was growing concerned over Russian espionage activities in Britain. For some Russian observers, the incidents were interpreted as little more than efforts by Sofia and London to please Washington. As has been the case with the Russian-U.S. spy wrangle, there was little in the Russian press to indicate any acknowledgement that Moscow’s problems in this area might in fact be the result of more aggressive espionage policies enacted by a government presided over by a one-time KGB colonel and dominated more generally by former Soviet and Russian intelligence agency officials.

The Bulgarian-Russian row began on March 17, when the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry reportedly gave Moscow one week to withdraw three of its diplomats from Bulgaria. The three were said to have been implicated in the arrest a week earlier of a retired senior Bulgarian military intelligence officer, Colonel Yani Yanev, and the chief of a Defense Ministry secret archive. The two Bulgarians were accused of having delivered military secrets to a foreign embassy in Sofia. Local news media said that Yanev had been arrested while trying to hand a secret Bulgarian intelligence report about the situation in the Balkans to a Russian diplomat. The Bulgarian government appeared to downplay the incident, deliberately choosing not to declare the three Russian diplomats persona non grata and suggesting that it hoped Moscow would quietly withdraw the three.

Moscow reacted angrily, however, not only announcing a tit-for-tat expulsion of three Bulgarian diplomats from Russia, but also accusing the Bulgarian government of launching an “anti-Russian campaign” and of engaging in “Russophobia.” A Russian Foreign Ministry statement warned that the spy row would “damage civilized, normal relations between Russia and Bulgaria.” Russian pique was stoked further when U.S. FBI Director Louis Freeh, who arrived in Sofia for a two-day visit on March 19, praised the Bulgarian government for its “prompt” action. “It is very important to identify and prevent agents of other countries from conducting intelligence operations in our democracies,” he told reporters after meeting with Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov. Freeh is the first FBI chief to visit Bulgaria. A Russian diplomatic source responded sarcastically to Freeh’s remarks in Sofia, suggesting that Bulgaria, which has historically close ties to Russia and has been seen by Moscow as a “little brother,” had now apparently found a new “big brother” in the United States.

Indeed, the spy row between Moscow and Sofia is only the latest in a series of recriminations which have occurred since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and which have soured relations between the two countries. Moscow has been especially embittered by Bulgaria’s efforts to win membership in NATO, and Russian news sources were quick to write off the spy row to Sofia’s hopes of impressing Western leaders. They attributed it also to efforts by the Bulgarian government to win votes in upcoming elections. Russian frustration on all these counts was reflected in comments by First Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Avdeev, a former ambassador to Sofia, who warned on March 22 that Bulgaria’s determination to draw closer to the West and to NATO was undermining its chances of friendly relations with Russia (Reuters, March 18, 21; AP, AFP, Segodnya, March 19; Russian agencies, March 19-21; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, WPS, March 22; RFE/RL, March 23).

Less than a week after the start of the Bulgarian-Russian spy row, and only two days after Washington announced it was expelling some fifty Russian diplomats, Moscow was also apparently warned that its espionage activities risked triggering a confrontation with Britain. That, at least, was what the Sunday Times reported on March 25. According to the British newspaper, Prime Minister Tony Blair used a meeting with President Vladimir Putin on the margins of the March 23 EU summit to warn that any escalation of Russian espionage in Britain would be dealt with severely. The blunt warning was said to have been based on the British government’s growing concerns over the extent of Russian spying not only within Britain and the rest of Europe, but also in the democratic states of Eastern Europe. The British Ministry of Defense was said to be especially worried by the build-up of Russian penetration under the cover of diplomatic status (Sunday Times, March 25; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 27).

That other European governments share British concerns, and that EU countries are perhaps following the lead of the Bush administration in responding strongly to stepped-up Russian espionage activities, was also suggested by developments in Berlin on March 29. A report released by Germany’s Federal Agency for the Protection of the Constitution concluded that the “number of [Russian] intelligence operatives has increased as the amount of embassy personnel has grown.” German Interior Minister Otto Schily, referring to the report, also told reporters that “everything points to the conclusion that the Russian intelligence services have been strengthened” under Putin. The growing number of Russian spies working undercover from official positions is a growing concern in Germany, he added (Reuters, March 29). The British warning and the German report suggest that Moscow’s hopes of exploiting tensions between Europe and the United States, an effort already undermined by Russia’s continuing war in Chechnya, could be further harmed by the foreign activities of Russia’s intelligence services.