Counterintelligence Operations in Europe: A 6-Month Outlook


    Recent counterintelligence operations in Europe are proving successful as a series of high-profile cases have led to arrests of Russia-linked spies. In the light of Russia’s war in Ukraine, espionage cases will likely continue to increase for at least two reasons.

    First, history shows that war often produces more spies and increases the incentives for a covert presence in foreign states. Second, in times of geopolitical tension, the activity of countries’ intelligence services increases.

    Second, recent arrests and suspected Russian activities in Europe follow a pattern of Russian active measures, which bring prospects for future incidents and increasing counterintelligence operations in Europe.

    Moreover, as some European countries are balancing interests between Western actors and Russia, there are prospects for ever-increasing espionage recruitment and presence. Such development will likely make them hubs of spy activity following patterns back to the Second World War.

    Key Judgement 1: It is highly likely that Russia has an extensive covert presence within governmental entities in Europe, which will continue to be exposed and investigated in the next 6 months.

    • In March 2022, Slovakian police arrested three Slovakian citizens on espionage suspicions. Among them was a colonel from the Defence Ministry and a member of the Slovak counterintelligence service SIS [source].
    • In March 2022, Bulgarian authorities arrested an ex-general and previous NATO advisor on espionage suspicions going back to 2016 [source].
    • In April 2022, the German Public Prosecutor’s Office charged an officer of the Bundeswehr on espionage charges. They suspected the officer of giving Russia civil defence and Nord Stream 2 information between 2014 and 2020 [source].
    • In June 2022, Dutch intelligence prevented a Russian illegal trying to infiltrate the International Criminal Court in The Hague [source].
    • In November 2022, a Swedish court charged two brothers suspected of espionage on Russian behalf. The older brother, Peyman Kia, previously worked within military intelligence and secret service [source]. On 19 January, Peyman got a life sentence in prison [source]. 
    • In December 2022, German authorities arrested an employee of its Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) foreign intelligence agency. They suspected the employee to be passing state secrets to Russia [source].

    Key Judgement 2: It is likely that increasing joint counterintelligence efforts in Europe will continue to deliver arrests of suspected Russia-linked spies in the next 6 months.

    • Previous arrests in 2022 show increasing activity among European intelligence services’ countermeasures targeting Russian espionage.
    • The common position among most European states on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine opens chances for future domestic and foreign cooperation.
    • Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, intelligence liaison is reportedly increasing [source].
    • As Russia is conducting covert operations targeting NATO member states, incentives for intelligence liaison are increasing.
    • In June 2022, Scotland Yard, working with British security services, arrested a man at Gatwick airport. They suspected the man was involved in Russia-linked espionage [source].
    • The Swedish police arrested a Russian couple on suspicions of espionage in a helicopter raid on 22 November 2022 [source].

    Key Judgement 3: It is likely that European states that are balancing relations between Russia will increasingly develop into hubs for espionage in the next 6 months.

    • Historically, countries that are balancing between key actors in wars attract spies [source].
    • Bordering Ukraine, Hungary is seeing an increase of Russian and Ukrainian spy presence [source].
    • As large numbers of Russians left the country following the Russian partial mobilisation in 2022, the development was utilised by Russian intelligence services to develop an increasing presence in Europe [source].
    • In July, British MI6 chief Richard Moore claimed efforts to interrupt Russian spies resulted in the expulsion of  400 intelligence officers [source]. However, following Russian migration, there are indications Russia is reorganising its spy networks in Europe.
    • As in-between countries are naturally a favourable destination for Russians avoiding mobilisation, they are becoming vulnerable targets for recruitment. Vulnerabilities for recruitment are increasing if the person has relatives still living in Russia, making him or her a target for extortion [source].

    Intelligence Cut-off Date: 1 February 2023

    Oscar Rosengren
    Oscar Rosengren
    Oscar Rosengren is a student at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm. His main focus area is the Sahel Region and West Africa. Specific interests are asymmetric threats, mainly terrorism, covert action, and cyber threats.

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