The XX Committee

Rising Russian Intelligence Activity in Hungary

Hungary is an important state in the Ukraine crisis, albeit one whose role is little understood outside Central and Eastern Europe. Budapest shares a (small) border with Ukraine, while Kyiv has an (also small) Hungarian minority in the far west of the country, in the hilly and forested region known as Transcarpathia – Kárpátalja to the Hungarians. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling right-wing Fidesz party, which just won another four-year mandate, maintain an active interest in their co-nationals who are living outside Hungary, and Budapest has expressed concerns about the potential impact of Ukraine’s crisis, and rising violence, on Hungarians in Transcarpathia.

Although Hungary is a member of both the EU and NATO, since 2004 and 1999 respectively, it plays an ambivalent role currently, as Fidesz, a Euroskeptic, national-conservative party, has displayed certain admiration for Putinism, with which it has some ideological affinity. Moreover, Orbán’s government, which has soured on much of the European project, has sought unusually close economic ties with Putin’s Russia that promise to have long-term political impacts. 

Perhaps most ominously, Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party, which took an astonishing twenty-one percent of the vote in last month’s national elections, despite – or perhaps because of – its vehemently xenophobic and anti-Western policies, makes no effort to disguise its admiration for Putin. Jobbik regurgitates Kremlin propaganda regularly, including about Ukraine, and the affinity may be more than merely ideological. It’s been an open secret in European security circles that Jobbik appears to be on the payroll of Russian intelligence, an allegation that has appeared several times in quasi-respectable media over the years, as the party has risen from the paramilitary anti-Semitic fringe to nationwide prominence in Hungary. (Jobbik is equally pro-Tehran, and there are persistent rumors that it takes money from Iranian intelligence too.)

Not surprisingly, such secret Russian interference in Hungarian politics has been a source of concern to the country’s security services for some time. Today’s Budapest daily Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian Nation) has a story, entitled “Increasing activity of Russian intelligence agents,” that elaborates the counterintelligence worries of Hungary’s military during the Ukraine crisis. In recent months, Hungarian security services have observed a noticeable uptick in Russian espionage inside the county, by both the civilian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the military’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), aimed at purloining NATO secrets as Hungary finds itself an Alliance frontline state in the Ukraine crisis.

The report notes that although SVR and GRU have long been effective at traditional HUMINT in Hungary, meaning old fashioned legwork to recruit and run human sources, Budapest has noticed an increase in the sophistication of Russian technical intelligence in Hungary too, meaning SIGINT. There is little Hungarian counterintelligence can do, however, as their limited budget means pervasive technical countermeasures to modern Russian SIGINT collection methods are outside their reach. Additionally, the article notes that Russia is far from the only SIGINT threat Hungary is worried about – the report cites China too in this regards – while the Snowden-derived scandal about U.S. intelligence collection caused a major stir in Hungary, and it’s evident that the Fidesz government is worried about NSA too, not least because the Obama administration has repeatedly taken Budapest to task for Hungarian policies viewed in Washington, DC, as xenophobic and less-than-democratic.

The Magyar Nemzet article, which is derived from Hungarian security sources, makes observations about changing Russian espionage patterns that are of interest to counterintelligence hands. Specifically, it notes that while the SVR and GRU traditionally emphasized the use of agents and sympathizers inside Hungarian media, foundations, and Kremlin-controlled front organizations, as well as some sources dating back to the Communist period before 1990, in recent years Russian “special services” have emphasized recruiting a new generation of Hungarians to work secretly for Moscow. These newer agents have been slowly burrowed into a wide range of Hungary’s political and economic institutions, and sometimes they attempt to win sympathizers in public and media positions. Hungarian counterintelligence has also noticed that Russian intelligence officers engage in a wide range of semi-open collection such as data-gathering disguised as contact-building plus engaging in business conversations that are actually efforts at gaining information to be used to elicit cooperation and assist recruitment.

Such methods are more difficult to detect than more traditional Russian methods of HUMINT gathering, as they appear more subtle and perhaps innocent to the uninitiated. While the SVR, the successor to the KGB’s legendary First Chief Directorate, has often shown a relatively soft touch in its efforts to recruit Westerners to spy for Russia, GRU has long been notorious for its blunt and direct methods, what CI professionals term a “cold pitch.” Any Russian intelligence activities aimed at NATO that are more difficult to detect will pose problems for Western counterspies as the Ukraine crisis heats up and the Alliance’s confrontation with the Kremlin grows more serious.

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