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The intense espionage war within the conflict between Russia and Ukraine

The decades-long espionage conflict between Russia and the West is escalating for war in Ukraine. But what is the Russian intelligence services suspected of doing, and how will the expulsion of his officials from capitals affect Putin’s clandestine operations abroad?

When Russia attacked Ukraine with its military forces in 2014, it also deployed its intelligence services in the West in a variety of ways, from interference in US elections with cyberattacks to poisoning and sabotage in Europe.

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But in recent months, the espionage war has intensified.

Western countries are trying to inflict lasting damage on Russian intelligence’s ability to conduct covert operations. The Unprecedented expulsion of 500 Russian officials from Western capitals is a symbol of it.

Formally, these officials are described as diplomats, but most are believed to be undercover intelligence agents.

Some will have been conducting traditional espionage, cultivating contacts and recruiting agents who can pass on secrets, something Western countries also do inside Russia.

But it is believed that some were carrying out what the Russians call “active measures”. These range from spreading propaganda to more aggressive covert activities. Poland said the 45 Russians it expelled were involved in actions to “undermine stability” in the country.

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Since 2014, Western intelligence agencies have been working to identify Russian spies involved in such activities.

One of them is the GRU unit 29155 of Russian military intelligence, which is believed to be in charge of sabotage, subversion and assassination.

It took almost seven years to discover that the unit was behind a huge explosion that ripped through an ammunition depot in a Czech forest in October 2014.

Among them were some of those who were later involved in the Salisbury, UK, poisonings in 2018.

The suspects in the 2018 Salisbury poisoning: Alexander Petrov (left) and Ruslan Boshirov. (METROPOLITAN POLICE).

The same team also attempted to poison an arms dealer in Bulgaria who had stored weapons in the Czech depot; one theory was that the explosion and poisoning were related to his supply of weapons to Ukraine, where the conflict had just started.

Members of that unit were also involved in removing pro-Russian leaders from Ukraine in 2014. Western intelligence continues to monitor it closely.

Imbalance between Russia and the West

But marking individual spies is expensive work.

While Western spies in Russia have long been subject to 24-hour surveillance, their Russian counterparts in Western capitals have not.

“The bigger the presence, the more difficult it is to control exactly what they are doing,” a US official told the BBC.

Site of the 2014 explosion at an ammunition storage depot in the Czech Republic.

Site of the 2014 explosion at an ammunition storage depot in the Czech Republic.

But this may now be changing. Western officials say the recent expulsions are more than a symbolic gesture of protest: they are part of a broader push to downgrade Russia’s ability to do harm.

Some spy hunters also say that the mass expulsion is long overdue. The Russians “have been laughing at us” for our tolerance of their presence, an official says.

“We are trying to inflict a cost on Russia to reduce its offensive capabilities and its ability to project a threat against its neighbors and the West,” one official said.

“Several European nations have taken steps to reduce the capacity of the Russian intelligence service throughout Europe. These are all steps designed to reduce their threats to us.”

Expulsions from various countries

Some countries are believed to have had a particularly significant presence. Berlin expelled 40 Russians.

However, a Western intelligence official said he believed Germany had previously housed around 100 Russian intelligence officers, serving as an “aircraft carrier” for their operations.

Why hasn’t the UK expelled anyone? Authorities say they were all expelled after Salisbury and the only spies left are “declared” officers acting as liaisons for formal contacts.

They are likely to be watched by MI5 for any sign that they are carrying out covert acts.

In the US, expulsions are based on investigations of each individual. “All decisions about who to expel are based on intelligence collected by the FBI based on what they are doing,” explains a US official.

Western countries have been cooperating to ensure that anyone expelled cannot simply apply for a visa in another country.

Intelligence officials hope the large-scale expulsions will make espionage more difficult for the Russians.  (REUTERS).

Intelligence officials hope the large-scale expulsions will make espionage more difficult for the Russians. (REUTERS).

Security officials believe the volume of expulsions over a short period of time will have a “weakening” impact on Russian intelligence as it struggles to determine how operations can continue and who can be located where.

Russia has retaliated by expelling Western diplomats. In practice, more of these are likely to be “real” diplomats rather than spies.

One of the complaints of the Western security services has long been the imbalance in the number of Russian diplomats in Western countries and the proportion of spiescompared to Westerners serving in Moscow.

Russia expelled 40 Germans, but that represents about a third of the entire diplomatic presence in its capital.

Shift in loyalties?

The invasion of Ukraine may offer other opportunities. Past events such as Moscow’s crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 caused disillusionment among some within the secret state in Moscow, opening the way for their recruitment as Western agents.

Espionage battles could still escalate.  (EPA).

Espionage battles could still escalate. (EPA).

In Washington DC, the FBI has posted online ads targeting people close to the Russian embassy, ​​according to a report in the daily. Washington Post.

They encouraged them to talk to the FBI, using footage of Vladimir Putin publicly shaming the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, the SVR.

Since 2014, Ukraine has been the epicenter of a most brutal covert strugglein which each side tries to recruit and eradicate spies, but also with assassinations of high-ranking Ukrainian officials.

Western intelligence agencies and special forces have also been training their Ukrainian counterparts for years, along with more overt military assistance.

They have helped catch Russian spies and provided covert action training, including by the CIA’s Ground Branch.

Espionage battles could still escalate, particularly as the covert activity presents an option for Moscow to target supply lines bringing military aid to Ukraine.

A missile attack on convoys or installations in Poland would be very risky, as it could trigger NATO’s Article 5 principle of self-defense, leading to all-out conflict.

But Western intelligence officials say they are concerned that the kind of sabotage operation seen in the Czech Republic in 2014 could be attempted in Poland given its key role as a staging point for supplies entering Ukraine.

These types of clandestine operations are often carried out by Russians traveling in and out of a country rather than diplomats. But the embassies provide the necessary infrastructure for them to carry out their activities, explains a Western intelligence official.

And the hope will be that large-scale expulsions will make that, in addition to traditional espionage, much more difficult now, especially since there will be fewer spies to watch.

Source: Elcomercio

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