Russian intelligence activity: who are Putin’s spies and how do they operate?

Putin’s dormant spies wait for an order from the Kremlin for up to a dozen years. During this time, they integrate into the local community, lead mediocre lives, and even sometimes die under a false name. Until they are unmasked, they carry out aggressive intelligence activities in Europe for just as long. Discover the identities and secrets of Russian spies!

The condition of Russia's intelligence services

Vigilance or paranoia? The line between the two is increasingly blurred. The aggression against Ukraine has caused a loss of confidence in the staff of Russian diplomatic missions. Since the beginning of the war, several hundred people suspected of collaboration with the GRU military intelligence service and the SWR foreign intelligence service have been expelled from them.

A series of espionage scandals exposed the weaknesses of Putin’s secret agents and – along with international sanctions – forced the president to reactivate Russia’s “dormant” spy networks in Europe – the “cadre illegal” agentry that was considered “royal discipline” during the Cold War. How big a threat is it now?

Large-scale intelligence operations

Actions unmasking spies, while they may indicate the waning effectiveness of Russian intelligence, at the same time prove that it already controls all areas of life in European communities. Its officers are, among others, students, Uber drivers, city guards, journalists or volunteers.

Depending on their role in society, Putin’s secret agents:

  • influence government decisions,
  • manipulate elections and referendums,
  • control news channels to spread propaganda through them,
  • organize protests, seek to create divisions,
  • break into sensitive facilities, steal confidential data,
  • penetrate the structures of various organizations,
  • break into computers and networks (carry out hacking attacks).

So far, the Kremlin has been most interested in secret information about the energy and weapons policies of other countries. Since the military attack on Ukraine, electronics companies and research centers have been on the target of Putin’s spies. Since the Russian military’s equipment is largely dependent on imported components and parts, the sanctions imposed have threatened to make their production unprofitable. Stealing off-the-shelf solutions (industrial espionage) therefore involves gaining technological independence.

Identity of illegals - who are Russian spies?

“Cadre illegals,” also known as “sleepers” or “matryoshkas” are usually young men and women whose life goal is a role in a spy show. Preparation for it involves physical, mental and intellectual aspects. Future spies must not only know a foreign language as if it were their native one, but also take care of the consistency of the elements of their new biography, including the details that will prove their knowledge.

This process of customization is what experts call “breeding” or “sewing a legend.” It begins when the future “cadre illegal” is only a dozen years old. That’s when he or she arrives in a foreign country and is given a “new identity”, usually based on real data, such as a list of deceased infants stolen from the Registry Office. When, on the other hand, such a “sleeper” is deconspirated, he usually returns to Russia, where he not infrequently takes up a privileged state post….

Pavel Buczka – a reserve general in the Slovak defense ministry

In March 2022, Slovakia’s National Criminal Agency arrested Pavel Buczka, who admitted to working with Russian intelligence. The defense ministry colonel had access to top-secret data not only on Slovakia, but also on NATO and the European Union. For the past nine years, he handed over details of military operations, air defense information and military exercise plans to the GRU. In total, he received at least 46,000 EUR for them.

Sergei Vladimirovich Cherkasov – trainee at the Hague Tribunal

In June 2022, the Dutch intelligence agency unmasked a Russian spy who – claiming to be Brazilian citizen Victor Muller Ferreira – intended to start an internship at the Investigation Department of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. His goal was likely to gain access to digital systems and, consequently, to influence the Court’s criminal proceedings. He could destroy documents and evidence of war crimes committed by the Russians in Ukraine.

Olga Kolobova – a businesswoman at the NATO command in Italy

In August 2022, an international investigation revealed that Olga Kolobova – a jewelry designer, philanthropist and lover of dozens of officers – was in fact named Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera, and that the role of the businesswoman was created like her entire resume. The Russian agent had a close relationship with NATO officials and US Navy commanders for 10 years. She frequented their private apartments and appeared at annual military balls and NATO events. However, it is not known what information she gathered or whether she installed spyware on her partners’ devices.

Carsten L. – an officer of the German intelligence service (BND)

In December 2022, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Carsten L. The double agent worked in the Technical Reconnaissance department. He was engaged in electronic intelligence and had access to, among other things, highly sensitive information on Ukraine that had been gathered by German services.

Sergei Skvortsov and Yelena Kulkova – entrepreneurs in Sweden

A month earlier, in November 2022, a high-profile espionage scandal in Sweden involving a Russian couple who had lived in Stockholm since 1999 and worked with the GRU for a decade reverberated. The two-man intelligence cell ran two companies involved in importing and exporting electronic equipment, among other things, for the air force, which were a vehicle for acquiring technology for the domestic defense industry.

The influence of Russian intelligence on Europe

Putin has an extensive spy network that has been operating continuously since the Cold War. Illegals work in consulates, cultural institutions and state institutions. Not only do they conduct intelligence activities, but they also spread disinformation in society and have a real influence on political decisions. Their goal is to destabilize European countries.

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