Earlier this month, experts convened in Brussels for a conference titled 'The Second Cold War: Heating Up?' Even among the plethora of current 'New Cold War' themed events, this one stood out: the organiser, Latvian MEP Tatjana Zdanoka, has been accused of being a Russian agent of influence – a spy.
Zdanoka, who is also chair of the EU Russian-Speakers Alliance, insists there is no truth to the allegations, adding that the accusation was part of a ‘dirty tricks’ operation against her at home by domestic opponents – a tactic familiar from the Cold War days to those who remember them. In any event, the criminal investigation against her has been closed, Latvia’s DP intelligence service says. Yet the allegations point to the new – or revived – espionage game that is now playing out in Europe. Intelligence agencies everywhere are upping their games, with Western agencies putting particular efforts into data collection – “snooping”.
The West’s efforts, though, pale into insignificance compared to those of Russia. Germany’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution reports growing instances of Russian espionage, and a spokesman for Sweden’s Säpo intelligence agency says that Russia has increased its intelligence agencies’ activities in Sweden since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. A senior European intelligence official estimates that intelligence agency employees now account for one third of Russia’s diplomats.
Of course, after the Cold War, espionage never completely ceased. Last month, Heidrun Anschlag, a Russian spy who had arrived in Germany with her husband in 1988, was released from prison after serving a year’s sentence. The two had spied on Germany for more than 20 years, until they were caught two years ago.
Even more ambitiously, Russia has successfully reintroduced the Soviet practice of so-called ‘influence operations’, which feature Westerners and Russians expats doing Moscow’s bidding. “Currently, the Russians’ aim is to whisper criticism of Western activities in Ukraine and argue for economic sanctions to be abolished,” explains Piotr Zochowski, a security expert at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), a Warsaw think tank. But it’s only one part of a broader strategic target – persuading the West to recognise Russia’s right to shape the political situation in former USSR countries. During crises, of course, all intelligence services naturally intensify their efforts. But the Russians are beginning to do this on an industrial scale. Germany even has a neologism for talking heads explaining Russia in an overly friendly fashion: Russlandversteher, “those who understand Russia”.
Along with assorted MEPs and eurocrats, the list of speakers at Tatjana Zdanoka’s Cold War conference included Russia’s deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, the European representative of the Russkiy Mir Foundation, and the deputy director of the Fund for the Legal Protection and Support of Russian Federation Compatriots Living Abroad. The Russkyi Mir Foundation, established by the Russian government in 2007 to promote Russian language and culture abroad, gives grants and organises conferences and events. But the Fund for the Legal Protection and Support of Russian Federation Compatriots Living Abroad, central European intelligence agencies allege, has a more specific mission: supporting and funding Russia-friendly foreign NGOs.
Not that influence operations are a new trick. “In the 50s, the Soviets put huge resources into newspapers, news agencies and contacts with academics in the West, and the Brits and Americans responded with similar efforts,” notes Paul Lashmar, head of journalism at Brunel University, who specialises in the relationship between intelligence agencies and the media. “It didn’t peter out until the 70s. From the 2000s onwards the Russian intelligence agencies have been back in the game, using the same techniques as their Soviet predecessors.”
Moscow says that some Western NGOs and media outlets are “agents of influence” against the Kremlin. But that’s seriously doubted. As Lashmar notes, if taxpayers in the West got wind of nefarious influence operations by their own secret services, there would be an outcry.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union recruited Western communists as agents of influence: a small category that had the additional disadvantage of not being particularly popular. Signing up as an unofficial KGB megaphone voice for the media involved a certain ideological commitment as well. Some observers say it is easier for Moscow now, as Russia is less interested in ideology than raw power. “The same people keep coming back to the same position as Moscow, though not all the time as it would damage their credibility. For that reason, the Russians use different influence agents at different times,” says Joakim von Braun, a Swedish expert on Russian intelligence, pointing out that in the past five years Russia’s influence operations in Sweden have increased noticeably and have become more obvious.
That, Lithuanian decision-makers say, is happening in their country as it attempts to lessen its dependence on Russian energy. “When we were deciding whether to build a power plant [in 2012], they tried to turn the public opinion against it”, says Rasa Jukneviciene, a member of the Lithuanian parliament’s security and defence committee and a former defence minister. “The same thing is happening now with our natural gas terminal; they’re trying to convince people it will be too expensive.” As in other European countries, radical groups in Lithuania often side with Russia, and Russia has often sided with environmental groups in Latvia and beyond in opposing fracking. “Not every radical group in Lithuania is connected to Russian intelligence services, but the Russians are taking advantage of them”, notes Jukneviciene.
That’s exactly the challenge facing intelligence agencies: when is a person an agent of influence – somebody who knowingly coordinates his opinions with a foreign intelligence agency – and when is he simply a passionate believer in Russia?
One case in point is Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar, who this autumn lost a court case against an Estonian newspaper that had referred to him as a Russian agent of influence. Or Johan Bäckman, a controversial Finnish sociologist, who energetically takes Russia’s side and whose Facebook profile now lists his job as Representative at Donetsk People’s Republic. Or the leaders of Impressum, a discussion club founded in Estonia in 2008 that now has branches in Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Ukraine. They often feature the same pro-Russian speakers, including a former Russian cabinet minister, who was barred from entering Estonia earlier this year. Identifying too many people wrongly as spooks because their views coincide with Mocow’s is itself dangerous. “Paradoxically, overuse of this term becomes a weapon in the hands of the Russian disinformation,” notes Zochowski. “By using it too often and without proper consideration we create an illusion that the impact of Russia’s secret influence is pervasive and inevitable.”
Several of the participants at Tatjana Zdanoka’s Cold War conference belong to another group that Baltic intelligence agencies allege is a Russian front organisation: World Without Nazism, founded four years ago by Russian oligarch Boris Spiegel, then a Duma member. But, WWN vice-president Valery Engel – a Russian-Israeli citizen living in Latvia – says the allegation is simply an attempt to discredit a human rights organisation campaigning against neofascism, which reminds people of the woeful record the Baltic states had in backing Nazis during the War. “They’re trying to see the Russian threat everywhere, publishing stories that all anti-fascist organizations are in the hands of the Kremlin,” he says.
World Without Nazism has had some success in spreading its message. According to the organisation, it counts the US State Department and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe among its partners. Spiegel alone funds WWN, says Engel, though last year the group also received a grant from a Russian NGO.
“Does Russia support WWN’s agenda?” asks Efraim Zuroff, a top Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who was previously involved with WWN. “Undoubtedly. I’m sure that Putin is happy having a group founded by a Jewish oligarch do the work for him.” Does that make it an agent of influence?
Any intelligence agency will make particular efforts in strategically important countries, and, for Russia, ex-Soviet republics – especially Western-leaning ones with large Russian minorities – are of particular interest.
“It’s natural that Russia is trying to influence public opinion in the former Soviet republics,” says Lashmar. In defending Russian diaspora communities, the Kremlin is neatly blending human rights with geopolitics.
It’s no mystery why a country, if given the chance, would use influence operations. In the Cold War, Radio Free Europe, which provided news behind the Iron Curtain, played a part in the collapse of Communism. Initially it was funded by the CIA. “It was an influence operation, a good one for sure, but an influence operation nonetheless”, says the German intelligence official.
The question now is whether Russia’s efforts will gain similar clout, and whether they have the potential to turn world opinion to its side.