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Putin’s Global Espionage: Assassinations, Cyber Attacks, Sabotage, Riots

This is what emerges from a survey conducted by the German weekly Spiegel which documents a series of cases that do not only concern Germany but also other European countries and the United States.

Striking case that occurred on Italian soil discovered thanks to the investigation conducted by Repubblica with Bellingcat, Der Spiegel and The Insider. A Russian spy, Maria Adela K., whose real name is Olga Kolobova, who has been operating for almost ten years and infiltrated the Nato base in Naples, a jewelry entrepreneur by profession. She wasn’t hiding. On the contrary. She was known in the circle of discos and private parties in foreigners’ homes in the Neapolitan city, with two rented houses in Posillipo and the management of a boutique. A life of ostentatious luxury that she had also opened for her the doors of the Monte Nuovo Lions club in Lago Patria, frequented by foreign soldiers and NATO employees and which today, after the scandal, has been closed.

More recently, the war in Ukraine that broke out with the Russian invasion has highlighted over the months that it is not only a military war but also a war of intelligence and advanced technologies in comparison. The expulsion of Russian diplomats by various European countries, the drastic reduction of those accredited in embassies with apparent official roles, the decision, for example, of the USA to make public the information received from their intelligence services, all demonstrate how the Soviet espionage canvas has expanded with the advent of Putin.

Russian spies, like Adela K., call themselves “illegals” and are men and women who have lived in the West for years, usually in an inconspicuous way and perfectly integrated into the social fabric that hosts them. They are able to transmit different levels of information with actions capable of destabilizing institutions and influencing politics, manipulating elections and controlling channels such as Telegram. They can have a serious impact on the economy of a country, fomenting protests with pounding disinformation, hacking sensitive structures, thus creating a climate of constant tension, social fears, collective insecurity.

Former KGB Officer

Putin, himself a former KGB officer, has enabled what few other world leaders have done: giving enormous power to his secret agents working for the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), the foreign intelligence service SWR and for the military GRU – and we are talking about tens of thousands of people – to wage a shadow war against the West by any means. The conflict in Ukraine has exposed what has been going on for a long time, a war for power, for raw materials and for money.

From Germany, the most economically powerful democracy in Europe and one of Moscow’s primary targets, comes the call to the whole West in the face of a visible war of military aggression by Russia against Ukraine and an invisible Soviet war against the countries Western Democrats. After decades of inattention to intelligence policies, governments suddenly realized that they had to recover a significant gap in contrasting Soviet infiltration policies.

And February 24, the day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, shows us how effectively these two wars – the visible and invisible – are connected to each other. An hour before the invasion, a cyber attack hits KA-SAT, the geostationary telecommunications satellite of the ViaSat company that provides services to all of Europe and some regions of the Middle East. The attack affects various infrastructures of European states, public authorities, companies and users but also causes widespread interruptions and communications disruptions for the Ukrainian military and its command and control network, bringing a huge military and strategic advantage to the Russian Federation.

After the attack on the Twin Towers of September 11, there was the belief that the West and Russia were united by the common goal of the fight against Islamist terrorism. While the defense levels of many countries were lowered and counterintelligence was considered somewhat obsolete and a legacy of the Cold War, Putin revived dormant and non-dormant spy networks, trying to infiltrate spies even in the highest international courts as demonstrated by the case of the young Victor Muller Ferreira.

With high-level accreditations, such as the letter of recommendation from his professor at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University, the young man is accepted for an internship at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague with the intention of subsequently traveling to Holland.

Dutch Intelligence Service

However, the Dutch intelligence service, AIVD, discovers that Muller Ferreira is actually Sergey Cherkasov, a Russian spy destined for the High Court, charged with prosecuting war crimes against humanity, just as the atrocities committed by the Russian army come to light – massacres, rapes and torture – reported by Ukrainian sites, in Bucha, a suburb of Kiev. His task is to manipulate the evidence and inform the Russians about the phases of the investigation. When Cherkasov tried to enter the Netherlands, Dutch officials picked him up and immediately extradited him to Brazil.

In addition to the so-called “illegals”, there are thousands of people who ostensibly work legally at Russian embassies and consulates abroad and are obviously more difficult to prosecute.

Then there is a Unit known with the number 29155 and founded in 2009 or Putin’s assassination squad. Twenty ex-soldiers under the leadership of a highly decorated major general are held responsible for bomb attacks and assassinations and unleashing fear and unrest in the West. The list of their presumed victims is getting longer day by day, all of them liquidated with firearms or with the Novichok nerve agent. Among these, the Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, who supplies weapons to Russia’s enemies, including Ukraine, and who in 2015, after a dinner, fell into a coma and miraculously survived the poisoning. And three years later, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned in the British city of Salisbury. Investigations by authorities reveal that members of the GRU, all of whom are also members of Unit 29155, were in close proximity to both crime scenes.

Even the FSB, active inside and outside Russian territory, has its own unit dedicated to criminal operations. His most prominent victim was a political opponent of Putin, Alexei Navalny, poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok according to the report conducted by DER SPIEGEL, Bellingcat and The Insider. Navalny, who wanted to return to Russia after the attack, was arrested and is still locked up in a harsh prison.

The FSB also includes military special forces, such as the Vympel unit or Department V, tasked with sabotaging the critical infrastructure of the Western world through hacking and infiltration intended to steal data, analyze it and disclose it if deemed useful. As was the case with the publication of stolen emails from Hillary Clinton’s Democrats in 2016. The destruction and sabotage of the Ukrainian electricity grid in 2015 also seems to be attributable to the FSB.

Other hacker groups, such as the most important called Ghostwriter and which German officials link to the GRU, are in charge of launching defamatory campaigns, spreading false news and more generally disinformation.

In Europe, Germany has invested very little in counterintelligence since reunification, making it an ideal candidate for Russian infiltration, says Konstantin von Notz, a Green Party MP and head of the body that exercises parliamentary control over German intelligence agencies. Even the continuous hacks at the Green Party headquarters in May and June, which appear to be linked to Russia, have raised the bar of attention to scenarios considered unimaginable until a few months ago. The German security establishment is on high alert for a possible increase in spying on state and parliamentary targets including the Chancellery and key ministries such as the foreign, domestic, defense and economic portfolios.

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