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Harri Tiido: Russian spying and influence activity in Europe

Harri Tiido.
Harri Tiido. Source: ERR/ Ken Mürk

Harri Tiido takes a look at Russian intelligence activity in Europe and how there seems to be close cooperation between the Russians and Belarusians in Brussels as the latter have not been expelled as frequently as Russian diplomats.

That Russia is spying on the West and trying to influence Western societies in various ways is hardly news these days. The Estonian media also recently reported that Kirill Logvinov, who heads up the Russian Mission to the EU, is suspected of intelligence activity. While this is, again, hardly surprising, it constitutes an interesting approach.

Russian intelligence activities in Europe have been dissected at length in a journalistic collaboration in which Estonia participated through Holger Roonemaa from Delfi.

Kirill Logvinov is believed to be an operative of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) on top of his diplomatic position. Logvinov stepped into the shoes of Vladimir Chizhov, who had held the position for 17 years, officially as chargé d'affaires in September of last year.

By the way, Chizhov's son also served in Brussels under diplomatic cover, working at the Russian Mission to NATO before he was expelled for spying. Chizhov Sr. also made the EU sanctions list upon his return to Russia and as a member of the Federation Council.

What makes Logvinov's two-faced mission a little surprising is that heads of mission usually do not work for intelligence. Relevant efforts are usually the task of someone lower down the food chain, whether we're talking about the deputy head of mission, minister-adviser, the first secretary etc. Naturally, heads of mission, usually ambassadors, also have a background in intelligence. It usually starts already back at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO) where Russian and formerly Soviet diplomats are made.

Should Logvinov stay on as chargé d'affaires, it is likely an ambassador will soon be named the official head of mission. As we've established, Logvinov is with the SVR, which means that the mission also has military intelligence or GRU and FSB operatives. Russia is rumored to be in the habit of manning missions with representatives of different security services. This creates competition and tension between the organizations and lets everyone know that someone from home is always watching.

It is said that the true heart of Russia's intelligence efforts in Brussels is the Russian embassy in Uccle. Rumor also has it that some of the people accredited at the EU Mission spend more of their time there than they do in Brussels.

NATO does not have a Russian mission anymore. While Russia was the one to close it, relations had hit Arctic temperatures even before that happened and there was no cooperation to speak of. Russia also needed to shut down its missions so it could demand NATO close its mission and military communications hub in Moscow.

Back when I worked at NATO, I had the chance to see the Russians' behavior firsthand, which made for an interesting experience. Before Estonia became a NATO member, our mission was outside the fence so to speak, outside the territory of the NATO Headquarters, and if memory serves, Russia's was one floor up from ours. The Estonian mission later moved to the headquarters building's annex.

Conversations with NATO security service staff soon revealed that most employees of the Russian mission also belonged to one of the three aforementioned special services. I asked for a relevant briefing to be organized for our staff, which was quite enlightening.

It was also interesting to see the Russian representatives' conduct at headquarters. Their movements were limited to the public area. Access to other parts of the headquarters was by card which they lacked. But they were always scurrying about the public area. They became active during NATO meeting intermissions, especially during ministerials, when everyone got together in the public area. You could see them making their way toward and past groups of people talking, trying to prick up their ears to hear what was being said.

It was also when NATO's tradition of paying for the stay and other expenses of conference and forum participants was called into question. Because Russia was a partner nation, its delegates were also paid participants, so to speak.

Belgian and NATO security services quickly determined that many forum participants flew in on NATO dime, took up residence in their hotel room and often even received a daily allowance, while they then disappeared to go about their own business. In other words, Russia was letting NATO pay for the travel and stay of its intelligence operatives who met with agents or handled other business instead of attending conferences. Finally, it was decided to end the practice, while I can no longer recall how it happened.

Back then, the Russian mission was run by former border guard general Konstantin Totski who was an interesting character in many ways. During meetings of the NATO-Russia Council it always paid to look at lower-level so-called diplomats sitting behind Totski when he spoke. Whenever they started nervously shifting in their chairs during Totski's turn to speak, it was clear the old man was about to go off script again. One time he was handed a piece of paper, which he read and then asked for the floor again, saying, "My colleagues write that what I have just said is not Moscow's official position. Perhaps, but I will stand by what I said." Those sitting behind Totski looked like they were about to faint.

But I digress. As we know, a lot of Russian diplomats have been expelled from the West since the start of the Ukraine war. It has been suggested there is close cooperation between Russian and Belarusian agents in Brussels because the latter have not been squeezed as hard. Hungary makes for another question for me, while Slovakia is fast becoming one too. Listening to their leaders, especially Viktor Orban's pro-Moscow statements, I'm tempted to ask whether they may be sharing information with the Russians. And if so then what kind of information?

It would be quite prudent to say when discussing a more sensitive topic in the EU or NATO, that while we have more information for you because there is a country present from where the info might leak directly to Moscow, we will be sharing the rest of it on a mutual basis with trustworthy allies.

In addition to intelligence efforts and Orban, the Russians also have political movements they support, influence agents and levers for hybrid attacks and sowing uncertainty. Therefore, they still have plenty of tricks in their toolbox and have been squeezed only a little so far. But we can hope the latter process picks up momentum.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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