Almost in homage to their Soviet predecessors, Russia is once again over-indulging in the nectar of aggressive intelligence operations to be their cocktail of choice with regards to foreign policy. In addition to keeping the masses docile at home, Russian intelligence has been instrumental in virtually all of the Kremlin’s modern foreign endeavors.
The ongoing war in eastern Ukraine is a textbook example. The entire foundation for the semi-success of the hybrid war against its fellow former Soviet republic was built upon effective influencing and intelligence gathering operations. Now, the Kremlin has set its sights on sowing the seeds of anti-Westernism in other ex-Soviet states while also manufacturing an artificial longing for reunification with the “Motherland” in areas of Eastern Europe that were once a part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.
The recent Russian revanchist movement has put NATO elements on high alert. Using ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking populations that are near the Russian Federation’s internationally recognized borders – i.e., those who are already comfortable with the Kremlin’s policies – these intelligence assets have been burrowing their way into Eastern European institutions for years. From military officials to political actors, Moscow has been seeming to have their hands inside every major army of the European Union and possess an ability to manipulate its activities with the United States and the United Kingdom.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a direct product of this intelligence program. Before a single Russian boot crossed the border, agents had been working in the shadows for years. Whereas the Russians completely botched the intelligence picture, which is the combination of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (or ISR for short) in the invasion in Georgia, the Ukrainian conflict has seen their methods evolve.
In a sense, they did it right. Despite world leaders and the media having ironclad evidence of Russian meddling, Moscow was able to lay the groundwork for the “little green men” that came next.
Operations in Europe are now in full swing, and while Europe has tried its best to counter them, it might not be enough. An enhanced cooperative effort between European nations is essential to countering this hybrid threat. On occasions, this network has resulted in significant victories. On the other hand, there have been substantial setbacks that have left NATO with noteworthy exposures.
The arrest of Frederico Carvalhão Gil served as an example of a victory for the NATO intelligence community. The Portuguese intelligence division chief was captured in Rome with his Russian handler in mid-2016. However, his story goes back to a few years before. In 2014, the Portuguese intelligence service, the Security Intelligence Service, or SIS, received a heads-up from various CIA and other NATO sources that their office had a mole. Using a tried and true tactic, the Russian intelligence service, or SVR, engaged Carvalhão’s interest in Eastern European culture, particularly women.
With the help of Georgian and Italian assets, they managed to determine that he was in fact the mole responsible. After receiving thousands of euros in compensation for his insider information, he arranged a meeting with his handler in Rome. Portuguese and Italian elements were, however, on station.
After the arrest was made, the unraveling of a spy network has begun. Since the handler wasn’t using any of the usual covers (such as an international businessman or diplomat) it indicated that the level of importance the Russians placed on Carvalhão must have been unusually high. While the details of what information was leaked is not yet known to the public, the severity speaks for itself. While Portugal may not be known for its leadership in the intelligence community, the Carvalhão case proves the issue of Russian intelligence is alive and kicking in all parts of Europe.
Naturally, the border countries have the issue in spades. Denis Metsavas was a decorated and revered military officer in the Estonian Defense Forces. Since his enlistment in 1998 into a Guard Battalion, he continued to serve with great distinction, rising up the ranks and even deploying overseas in the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Appearing on multiple Estonian talk shows, news outlets, and generally being viewed as a national hero, he led the life of a celebrity. Rising to the rank of major, Metsavas led what seemed like a gifted and idealistic life.
During a trip to visit family in the Russian city of Smolensk, he encountered one of the oldest intelligence schemes – the honeypot. After spending the night with a woman he met at a club, he was accused of sexual assault and threatened by the Russian police. Using this as leverage, the SVR saw their chance.
Knowing his military position and access to national security information, the SVR used him and his father to transfer state secrets. Over the course of 10 years, Metsavas and his father, Pyotr Volin, worked together with Russian intelligence to build a portfolio on the security and defense framework of Estonia, as well as other NATO forces. His father, an ethnic Russian, was instrumental in the transfer of data to the SVR and Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate, more commonly known as the GRU.
Since Metsavas worked in the General Staff of the Defense Forces for Estonia during the later years of his military career, his access to confidential data was virtually untethered. Upon his arrest in September 2018 by the Estonian Security Police, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison. The information that was gleaned by the Russians, while not shared publicly, has dealt one of the largest blows to national security Estonia has seen in the modern era.
The exploitation of individuals that are ingrained in the state infrastructure shows the level of aggression and boldness that the Russian intelligence entities have when it comes to gaining access to the West. However, non-state entities are also an avenue into the West. The infamous case of Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor, was a testament to the brazen efforts Russia is willing to resort to in order to get what they desire.
The United States, the veritable Holy Grail of the West’s counter-intelligence operations, has been the apple of Moscow’s devious eyes for decades. Russia has forsaken any sense of national integrity or honor in its quest for an intelligence-based one-up on NATO and the West as a whole.
The FSB spymasters in Moscow have shown time and again, in Georgia and Ukraine, as well as their latest endeavors in Syria, that the use of what we might call in our modern Western world “dishonorable”, or downright illegal, tactics in intelligence gathering is their norm. Europe doesn’t have the luxury of a standard means of counter-intelligence and diversion techniques. It’s imperative that the playing ground be leveled, even if that means sinking to the stinking depths of the Russian filth.
Bringing back the impunity of the Cold War should be part of the grand strategy of every NATO intelligence office. If Russia wants to play in the mud, it’s time Europe stepped into the ring and fought their fire with even more fire.