It is impossible to have the broth thicker on one side of the cauldron in counterintelligence – international cooperation is needed. Ignoring unacceptable acts abroad or keeping them quiet at home will result in more victims in the future, Ivo Juurvee writes in a comment originally published in the Diplomaatia magazine.
News of the activities of Russian special services have become at least a monthly occurrence lately. My friends, journalists and students often ask me what can be done. The problem is not new, several approaches have been tried and experience of what works and what doesn't accumulated.
An explosion rocked Doha, the normally safe and well-guarded capital of Qatar, on February 13, 2004. A car carrying three was turned to scrap and its passengers killed immediately. The latter included President of Chechnya in exile Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. The incident did not cause a sensation from afar. A lot can happen in what is a region of dubious repute, Islamic terrorists, perhaps settling of scores between emigrants and old debts.
The investigation was something of a matter of honor for the Qatari security forces that had managed to keep the country free of terrorist attacks thus far. The perpetrators' car was found in a matter of hours, with the terrorists arrested six days later. They were Russian citizens Anatoli Yablochkov and Vassili Pugachov who were later identified as Russian military intelligence (GRU) officers. The men were arrested along with evidence of their crime and first secretary of the Russian embassy Aleksandr Fetissov.
It can be said in hindsight to have been a historic event. As if to emphasize that aspect, Gen. Boris Labusov, head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), told the press that the KGB First Main Directorate or its successor SVR have not carried out any such operation after the "liquidation" of Stepan Bandera in Germany in 1959.
While that might not have been strictly true and Labusov was not speaking for the GRU, there was no information of such incidents having occurred outside of Russia since the end of the Cold War. What was done in the territory of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s remained unclear already at the time. For example, Georgian statesman Eduard Sheverdnadze survived three assassination attempts in 1992, 1995 and 1998. Whoever was behind them.
Small but wealthy Qatar was itching to demonstrate that it would suffer no terrorist acts in its territory and would punish perpetrators. Russia had no diplomatic, economic or even military capacity to help its officers in 2004. But other ways were found.
Two Qatari athletes landed at the Sheremetyevo Airport on February 23 to switch planes on their way from Belarus to Serbia. They were accused of transporting undeclared currency and arrested.
Fetissov who had diplomatic immunity was expelled from Qatar in March, allegedly as an exchange for the athletes. Yablochkov and Pugachov were sentenced to life in prison in June but were allowed to return to Russia to serve their punishment there following diplomatic efforts that culminated in a phone call between the Qatari emir and the Russian president. Needless to say they did not serve their punishment, with their release officially confirmed in February of the following year.
Since then, there have been dozens of cases of Russian intelligence operatives being caught in different countries, in addition to collection of information, also as tied to acts of diversion and assassinations.
The most famous are of course the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko in London in 2006 and the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018. Public sources have also tied Russian special services to the poisoning of Emilyan Grebev in Bulgaria in 2015 and the shooting of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin in 2019.
Grin and bear it
The question of what to do is naturally raised. Most countries do not have the luxury of being wealthy enough (so as not to be bought) and having full military protection against Russia and sufficiently capable and empowered security forces (that might not be compatible with democracy).
While the grin and bear it tactic of keeping incidents quiet is often used, it is not always possible. Even President of Serbia, that normally has excellent relations with Russia, Aleksandar Vucic was forced to say at a press conference after catching a spy in 2019: "I have only one question for our Russian friends. Why?" It is often impossible to keep under wraps incidents that have human casualties.
While diplomatic notes make for a tried and tested approach, they have not worked in most cases. A good solution would be to convict murderers and attempted murderers in court and carry out the punishments. Unfortunately, most are never caught and the two that were in Qatar only had to serve ten months that hardly seems fitting for acts of terrorism.
Past incidents tell us that murderers or saboteurs are usually dependent on intelligence officers working under the cover of the local Russian embassy for their information and logistics.
Declaring the latter persona non grata is a long-practiced possibility. The most extreme example from the days of the Cold War was the expulsion of 105 Soviet intelligence operatives working under diplomatic cover from the UK in 1971.
Did it work? As we now know, the answer is not really. The Soviet Union used the embassies of other Eastern Bloc counties in London to fill the gaps in information collection, while intelligence officers working under the cover of other Soviet embassies started approaching Brits in third countries. That is to say that strong measures taken by a single country already did not work in what was a much less globalized world back then.
Have lessons been learned? Some. Over 150 Russian intelligence officers with diplomatic cover were expelled from around 30 countries after the Salisbury attempted murder in 2018.
Did that work? Perhaps it did to some extent. But because Russia hosted the football world championships that year and no country wants to lose citizens to potential terrorist acts, ties with Russian special services were quickly restored.
While the alarm seems to be going off quite regularly, we should not ignore it regarding the munitions warehouse explosion incident in Czechia that caused a lot of damage and the death of two people in 2014 and in which we now know the GRU was involved.
While these incidents have taken place elsewhere, historical experience suggests that it is impossible to have the broth thicker on one side of the cauldron in counterintelligence – international cooperation is needed. Ignoring unacceptable acts abroad or keeping them quiet at home will result in more victims in the future.
Editor: Marcus Turovski