Spooked: inside the spy wars

By Edward Lucas

[This article was first published by CEPA]

While Britain catches spies, spies catch Austria.

Spy fever is raging in Britain. One controversy surrounds Chris Cash, a young China expert working in Parliament, who (we have just learned) was arrested in March under the Official Secrets Act; he denies wrongdoing and has not been charged. Cash was director of the hawkish China Research Group, a Conservative Party policy outfit. 

Last month it emerged, also belatedly, that British spy-catchers had in February arrested and charged three Bulgarian citizens in what was described as a major national security investigation. Details are scant, but I was able to show that one of the suspects, Orlin Roussev, was lying when he claimed in his LinkedIn profile to have studied at the Queensland University of Technology from 1997-2001. The Australian university tells me it has no records of a student under that name. It will be interesting to find out what Roussev was really during those years. I expect open-source sleuthing to reveal more about all three mysterious Bulgarians. 

What we know already sounds like a plot snippet from a spy thriller. Roussev sold surveillance products to one of Europe’s most-wanted fugitives, Jan Marsalek, born in Austria, now living in Russia. Marsalek was a board member of Wirecard, a German finance company, which collapsed in 2020 with nearly €2 billion missing. What initially looked like a fraud case now merits a counter-intelligence lens. An investigation by Bellingcat’s Christo Grozev has uncovered Marsalek’s close relationship with Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency. For reasons nobody has properly explained, Marsalek’s hurried departure eastwards was enabled by a senior official from Austria’s security service; Grozev, meanwhile, has had to leave his home in Vienna because he is on a Russian hitlist and the Austrian authorities cannot guarantee his safety.  

Russia’s near-capture of Austria, supposedly a solid democracy, is outlined in a sizzling new book, “Surprise Attack” by Peter Gridling, the former head of that security service, the BVT (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismusbekämpfung). Gridling blames the far-right Freedom Party, which held several sensitive posts in a coalition government that took office in 2017. The interior minister, Herbert Kickl, suspended Gridling, supposedly for exceeding his mandate, and a uniformed police unit, against all the rules, raided the BVT headquarters and seized a huge trove of files. These included, perhaps not coincidentally, those dealing with Russian support for right-wing extremists. Foreign spy agencies, furious that the secrets they had shared with Austrian colleagues might now be in Russian hands, cut off cooperation. 

It has yet to resume fully, not least because the fervently pro-Putin, anti-Western Kickl is now leader of the Freedom Party, which on current form (30% in the opinion polls) is heading to victory in the parliamentary election due in October 2024. Gridling’s book may need a second edition.

Back in Britain, champagne corks are popping among the spy-catchers dealing with Russia. Kremlin spies based at diplomatic missions have been sent home; some big new clues are helping unravel the illegal networks. Chinese operations are a much bigger headache. A particular worry, highlighted in the government’s response to a scathing report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, is attempts to recruit recently retired officials. An investigation by my colleagues at the Times showed how a Bejing-based spy could conduct such operations remotely, using the business-networking site LinkedIn. 

The point here is that espionage is not just about stealing state secrets. It involves finding out all kinds of other inside information about connections, vulnerabilities and trends (including in Beijing-bashing organisations like the China Research Group)

Spy agencies also conduct behind-the-scenes work to make things happen—up to and including that great Austrian tradition, the putsch. 

Photo Credit: Jürgen Jester on Unsplash

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