Vienna Calling: How Austria Became a Hub of Global Jihad

The brutal murder this week of American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State (IS) has focused Western minds, at long last, on the serious nature of the jihadist threat emanating from the Middle East, particularly Iraq and Syria. No longer are top officials mincing words. Yesterday U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel dispensed with euphemism, describing IS as “whole new dynamic … as sophisticated and well-funded as any organization we’ve seen.” When asked if IS represents a “9/11-level threat” to America, Hagel explained that this group “is beyond anything we’ve seen.”

Westerners seem particularly concerned that the butcher of James Foley is a Briton named “John” who is part of a group of jihadists from the United Kingdom who are fighting for the IS, where they are termed “The Beatles” by fellow fighters. In truth, the British capital has been known as Londonistan for nearly twenty years among counterterrorism professionals, due to its notorious status as a major hub of the global jihad, thanks to lax British laws that have long permitted extremists to find sanctuary there. If the tragic murder of James Foley causes the Western public to finally wake up to the extent of the threat they face at home, which is growing acute thanks to the unprecedented numbers of Westerners who have gone to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad, his death may not have been in vain.

However, it is good to keep in mind that this problem is hardly confined to the United Kingdom. France and Germany in particular have serious troubles with extremists. While London deserves its reputation as a jihadist’s playground, Vienna is running in second place, and has been for some time, though this is seldom realized outside Central and Eastern Europe. For years, as I’ve written about extensively, Vienna has served as the de facto base for Islamist extremists from Southeastern Europe, a place to recruit, raise and hide funds, and radicalize, thanks to Austria’s permissive laws and weak enforcement mechanisms. It’s an exceptional terrorist or Salafi radical in Bosnia who has not spent some time in Austria. It says something that the most notorious Salafi mosque in Vienna is located directly across the street from a major military base.

Yet a series of arrests this week is causing a new look at this serious problem, which is long overdue. Two days ago, Austria police arrested nine Chechens, ranging in age from 17 to 32; eight men and one woman, all were in the country legally as refugees and asylum seekers. They were planning to wage jihad with IS in Syria but, as is rarely the case, were stopped by authorities before they left. Four suspects were arrested in Vienna, while the other five were picked up in Klagenfurt, the capital of the Alpine state of Carinthia. Yesterday the Vienna group was placed in pre-trial detention, due to flight risk, and proceedings were instituted to withdraw their asylum status; a similar decision is expected from a Klagenfurt court today.

As I reported last month, Austrian officials have been warning the public about the extent of the problem, with the country’s domestic intelligence agency, the mouthful Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismusbekämpfung – BVT for short), has grown unusually blunt by the standards of tight-lipped Viennese functionaries in its choice of words: 

Religiously motivated extremism and terrorism – above all of Islamic character – as well as Salafi-jihadi groups continue to present a great potential threat…The number of young radicalized followers of violent Salafism continues to rise. In this context, the conflict in Syria is of urgent relevance for Austria, since systematic efforts are being made within [Austria] to radicalize and recruit people for the war in Syria…The conflict in Syria has become very popular among violent extremist Salafis. The spectrum of recruits to the conflict in Syria is broadly ethnically diverse. The motivation, however, seems to be uniformly jihadi.

The BVT’s latest unclassifed terrorism assessment explicitly noted that people from the Western Balkans — especially Bosnia but also Kosovo, from families who came as refugees during the war-torn 1990s —  constitute a high percentage of Austria’s would-be jihadists. According to the BVT, about a quarter of the foreign fighters traveling from Austria to Syria hold Austrian citizenship: “their families come from Southeast Europe and the Western Balkans.” The BVT assesses that more than one hundred Muslims left Austria last year to go to Syria; about sixty of them are believed to be in the war zone now. The rough figure for Germany for the same period is estimated at 320 (which, given that Germany has ten times Austria’s population, indicates the gravity of the domestic extremism problem facing Vienna).

Moreover, a new report in the Viennese daily Der Standard clarifies why Austria is having such a difficult time getting a handle on this worrisome issue. In particular, the BVT faces tight legal restrictions on intelligence collection. The agency is not permitted to search profiles in social networks for clues, despite the fact that Facebook and Twitter are the most important source of information about what foreign fighters are doing: it may only do so based on a direct suspicion and with a court order. If the BVT finds nothing that would require further investigation, everything must be deleted after six months. “When someone blows himself up, then we are the ones to be blamed: we should have known,” rues an anonymous Austrian security official.

Determining what possible foreign fighters are doing is difficult and Turkey is easy to get to from Vienna, a short flight away. A holiday and a jihad mission to southeastern Turkey look similar in many cases. As Der Standard notes, “Occasionally, someone boasts on his Facebook profile, sometimes clues come from foreign intelligence services — but in many cases no one knows before.” Austrian laws define terrorism and the support of it very narrowly. In a typical case, a Turkish citizen who is said to have been the middleman for the arrested Chechens, a jihad facilitator who was helping them get to Turkey, has been reported to the police, but is still free.

There is a large Chechen community in Austria and more than half of the foreign fighters with an Austrian connection in Syria come from the Caucasus region, usually possessing legal residence in Austria; the rest of the jihadists are of Bosnian or Turkish origin.

Vienna’s biggest concern now is the challenge of returnees from Syria and Iraq. In the words of the BVT: “When fighters return from the crisis zone, their practical combat skills, traumatic experience, and behavioral changes plus, potentially, radicalization brought to perfection represent a considerable security risk for Austria” Although historically only five to ten percent of jihad returnees get directly involved in terrorism once they return home, many of them serve as proselytizers and founders of new radical centers. “Even a small number of fiercely determined former Syria fighters pose a risk,” says Gilles de Kechove, the EU’s Counterterrorism Coordinator. “Lone wolves” are a perennial concern, based on recent terrorist incidents in Europe, while the ominous threat of organized groups of experienced jihadists perpetrating terrorism worries the BVT and every security service in Western and Central Europe.

The report ends on a downbeat note, reflecting the reality that Austria remains far from entirely serious in its attitudes towards the rising radicalism in its midst:

Deradicalization strategies in Austria are anything but fully developed. A telephone hotline for dropouts and their relatives has long since been announced — and shelved. Apart from the prospects of success of such an idea — Islamism experts in Germany are critical of a similar project there — there are not enough civilian organizations that are able to carry out such an opt-out program together with the ministry.  Now, hopes are that the go-ahead will be given in the fall.

For decades, Austria has taken a laissez-faire attitude towards spying and worse conducted on its soil. Not for nothing has Vienna been regarded as the world capital of espionage, a status it retains with literally thousands of spies working in the city on the Danube. As long as such espionage is directed at third countries, i.e. not Austria, the BVT and other Austrian security agencies have tended to look the other way. Even Islamists have long had a surprisingly free hand in Austria, as long as their nefarious activities were directed elsewhere.

Now there are thousands of radicals in Austria, some of them extreme enough to wage jihad abroad, and possibly worse. What they will do when they return home is something that should cause deep concern in Vienna. The option of looking the other way and avoiding the issue, which has been the customary Austrian approach, is defunct. It would be wise of Austrian politicians to recognize this, as continuing to avoid it will only worsen this serious problem.

How Russia Wages Special War Against NATO and the EU

Long before Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and began his slow-rolling aggression against Ukraine, I was explaining the concept of Special War, specifically as an alternative to the very expensive and not always effective high-intensity warfare at which the U.S. military excels. Special War involves the application of less kinetic and overt forms of power, especially espionage, covert action, and propaganda, to achieve national aims. As I’ve explained, this is something at which the American government, particularly our Department of Defense, does not excel, while unfortunately the Russians do.

My discussion of Special War became a minor meme and has entered the lexicon of strategy talk, which ought to stimulate a necessary debate, but there’s no evidence yet that anybody in Washington, DC, has thought hard about how to systematically get better in these dark arts. In recent months we’ve had a public demonstration of the Kremlin’s acumen in Special War, above all with the near-bloodless seizure of Crimea by Moscow’s “little green men,” while lately Ukraine has been subjected to the full covert arsenal of Russia’s military intelligence, GRU: spying, subversion, agitprop, and terrorism, much of it executed through cut-outs and proxies. Although the Kremlin’s efforts to subdue Ukraine without invasion are faltering — Putin seems to have grown recklessly overconfident after his Crimean victory and underestimated Kyiv’s resolve — there is no doubt that Moscow’s Special War has rendered sterling service in espionage and propaganda, including in the West.

It’s important to note that the Kremlin’s Special War is waged against the West in toto, not just Ukraine. For Putin to achieve his easily decipherable strategic aims — dividing NATO and bringing the European Union to heel while keeping the United States on the margins, thereby assuring Moscow’s free hand in Eastern Europe and restoring Russian greatness — he must demoralize and divide those in Europe who seek to challenge rebounding Russian influence in Europe and hegemony in the East. This is where the Kremlin’s powerful intelligence agencies, what they call the “special services,” come into play.

As I’ve discussed previously, Russian espionage against the West is at an all-time high, equal to if not exceeding Cold War levels. In many Western countries, GRU and its civilian counterpart, the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), have at least as many intelligence officers posted as the Soviets ever did. States that are members of NATO and the EU are of particular interest to Moscow as it seeks to divide alliances and conquer without fighting.

No European country better illustrates how Russia wages Special War than Hungary, which is a member of both NATO and the EU. Russian intelligence is highly active in Hungary, as I’ve explained before, with its agents burrowed deep into politics, the security sector, and the economy. I recently wrote about the consternation of French intelligence that the Russian company Rosatom sold a nuclear reactor to another European country because the SVR had been secretly informed about the offer made by its French competitor, Areva. That country was Hungary. Budapest has a strategic counterintelligence problem on its hands that it is unlikely to defeat on its own.

Neither is it evident that Budapest possesses the political will to seriously confront this covert threat from Moscow. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in power since 2010, has led his ruling Fidesz party down an increasingly Putinesque road, while Orbán’s admiration for the Russian leader is undisguised. Not only has the current government forged close economic ties with Russia, Orbán speaks respectfully about Putin, while a recent speech the prime minister gave which denounced liberalism and the existing European democratic model, while holding up Russia as an “illiberal” model worthy of emulation, caused shock across the EU. Although Orbán was castigating Western (neo)liberal economics more than democracy, per se, this was cold comfort as it’s evident that Putinphilia is in fashion in Budapest’s power circles.

While many in the West have registered their displeasure with Orbán and his throwback nationalist ways, and some have wondered if Hungary is something of a Russophilic Trojan Horse inside NATO and the EU, the alarming fact is that Fidesz is not a particularly right-wing party by current Hungarian standards. While Orbán possesses a strong parliamentary majority, it bears observing that the opposition is far to his right, and there lies the real concern — and Moscow’s opportunity.

In April, second place in Hungary’s national elections was taken by the far-right party Jobbik, which secured twenty-one percent of the vote and twenty-five seats in parliament. Founded in 2003, Jobbik (which means “better”*) is an unapologetically radically nationalist party that despises the EU and espouses overt anti-Semitism. While Jobbik’s particular bugbear is Hungary’s Roma population, which it has unpleasant plans for should the party ever come to power, Jobbik’s dislike of Israel and Jews isn’t something they seek to hide. In a typical case, Krisztina Morvai, Jobbik’s top female politico, suggested that Hungarian Jews who don’t like her or her party masturbate with “their tiny circumcised dicks.” In more-Putin-than-Putin fashion, Jobbik aggressively espouses traditional values and strongly dislikes gays.

The party’s youthful leader, Gábor Vona, who has led Jobbik since 2006, is prone to radical and sometimes downright odd statements, including praising Islam and espousing considerable Turcophilia in addition to his admiration for Putin’s Russia. (Affection for Turkey, whom they view as ethnic kin, has been a trope among Hungarian ultra-nationalists for over a century.) Vona’s comments about Iran are customarily warm also, as Jobbik sees Tehran as an ally against the World Zionist Conspiracy. 

Of greatest concern to NATO and the EU, however, are Jobbik’s views regarding most of Hungary’s neighbors. The party espouses open irredentism against nearly all neighboring states, where large Hungarian minorities are present. After World War One, no defeated power suffered greater territorial losses than Budapest. The Allied-imposed Treaty of Trianon deprived Hungary of the majority of its territory and population, while leaving nearly a third of all Magyars (i.e. ethnic Hungarians) outside the borders of much-truncated Hungary. There remain large Magyar populations in neighboring states, including over 150,000 in Ukraine, more than a quarter-million in Serbia (specifically Vojvodina), some 460,000 in Slovakia, and above all more than 1.2 million Magyars in Romania.

Most Hungarians continue to view Trianon as an injustice, while Magyar right-wingers have foamed at the mouth about it for nearly a century. Prime Minister Orbán has not been above playing the nationalist card, hinting at possible revisions to Trianon, causing alarm in the Danubian basin, but Jobbik goes considerably further. The party has frequently called for border revisions, leading to significant tensions with Romania and Slovakia, both of which are fellow members of NATO and the EU. While Fidesz exploits the Trianon issue every once in a while to score points with Hungarian nationalists, few think Orbán takes the issue seriously, while on the matter of its co-nationals outside Hungary Jobbik seems to be deadly earnest.

Then there is the troubling question of foreign support for Jobbik. Many believe the party has taken secret funds from Tehran, but that has yet to be proved, while Jobbik’s close ties to Moscow are no longer a matter of conjecture. In May, Hungary’s Parliamentary National Security Committee accused Béla Kovács, a leading Jobbik player and a member of the European Parliament (MEP), of being an active Russian spy. Although he was short of funds for years after his salad bar restaurant failed, Kovács by 2010 was flush with cash, leading to questions about the origin of his wealth. This may have something to do with Kovács’s regular clandestine meetings with Russian case officers that Hungarian counterintelligence uncovered. 

Kovács lived for several years in Russia and made no efforts to disguise his deep admiration for that country and Vladimir Putin. He was an agent hiding in plain sight. In Brussels, as an MEP, Kovács was widely considered to be more a lobbyist for Moscow than for Budapest. Significantly, Kovács also serves as the President of the Alliance of European National Movements, an umbrella group of far-right parties across the EU, several of which are believed to be on the Kremlin payroll. Kovács protested his innocence of any espionage, and Jobbik brushed off accusations of secret Moscow ties, but the Hungarian media was generally skeptical, calling the suspect “KGBéla” — the nickname by which he was known inside his own party!

It is widely suspected that Kovács is not the only Jobbik higher-up to be secretly working for Moscow. Party leader Gábor Vona has made trips to Russia, palling around with leading Kremlin ideologist and ultra-nationalist Aleksandr Dugin. Former Jobbik members have stated that Vona is actually a Kremlin agent, while the Budapest media wondered about the Jobbik’s head’s  curious comment in January: “masses of our sleeping agents await our victory in state administration. They are still wary of showing their support in public, but we can count on them when the time comes.” More than a few Hungarian patriots have looked at Jobbik and determined that it is not an actual nationalist party, rather a fake one in the pay of Moscow.

This background inevitably raises questions about some of Jobbik’s recent actions. The party has fully taken Moscow’s side in the Ukraine crisis, denouncing the government in Kyiv as “chauvinistic and illegitimate,” while Jobbik has also encouraged ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine not to serve in the military to resist the Russian-directed war in the country’s east. Jobbik has tried to stir up trouble for Ukraine in the Transcarpathia region, where the country’s Hungarians are, and there have been strange events happening lately near the Hungarian border. Antiwar protests among ethnic Hungarians have become a nuisance in Transcarpathia, where local Hungarian politicians have openly accused Jobbik of fomenting unrest to aid Moscow in its war against Ukraine, a view which is held by Ukrainian intelligence as well. Last week’s mysterious attack on the headquarters of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) headquarters building in the border town of Uzhhorod, adjacent to Hungary, by four men in camouflage, has raised more questions still.

Of greatest concern are Jobbik’s recent efforts to stir up serious trouble inside NATO and the EU, particularly with regards to Romania, a critical frontline state for the Atlantic Alliance as its neighbor Ukraine is convulsed by war. Last week, party leader Vona, in a speech that praised Russia and denounced Hungary’s “Euro-Atlantic orientation,” stated that autonomy for Hungarians living in Romania is inevitable, “no matter what the Romanian state might do.” Needless to add, this provocative statement caused serious concern in Bucharest and has raised tensions between Romania and Hungary, yet again, at a critical time when such disharmony is detrimental to both NATO and the EU.

Cui bono? is the obvious question to be asked here. While Jobbik certainly are Hungarian nationalists who pine for the revision of Trianon — which most Hungarians understand is a fantasy in any military and political terms — the timing of the party’s provocations against Ukraine and Romania must be questioned. Given its known ties with the Kremlin and its intelligence services, one need not be overly suspicious to wonder about who is calling the shots inside Jobbik. This issue matters far beyond Hungary, and with the rise of far-right parties in many European countries, some of whom, like Jobbik, openly admire Putin and his country, all those in the Euro-Atlantic region who think Russia does not represent a positive force for peace should pay attention.

*Its full name is Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom)

Latest Ukrainian Intelligence News

As war rages in eastern Ukraine, with a possible Russian invasion looming, Kyiv has gone public today with shocking stories about the extent of Russian espionage and lethal covert action in their country.

As reported by 5 Kanal TV, Valentyn Nalyvaychenko, head of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU), today stated that the 17 July shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 near Donetsk by Russian-backed separatists represented a terrible case of a Kremlin provocation gone horribly wrong. According to Nalyvaychenko, the SBU has evidence that what happened was the outcome of a diabolical Moscow plot to create a pretext for war, meaning Russian invasion, by shooting down an Aeroflot airline (specifically AFL2074, see details here) and killing its (mostly Russian) passengers, then placing blame on Ukrainian forces.

However, the SBU boss explained, Kremlin-backed militants were supposed to shoot down the Russian plane at Pervomaysk to the west of Donetsk, but the separatists, some of them foreign mercenaries with poor knowledge of the area, delivered the Russian Buk (SA-11) missile system to a different town with the same name. In error, the poorly trained militamen launched a missile at the Malaysian plane instead of the Russian one. This terrorist act was planned by war criminals as a pretext for Russia’s direct military intervention. In Nalyvaychenko’s words: “It means that a casus belli for the Russian invasion was created,” resulting in an act of terror “carried out by terrorists from our territory.” You can find the SBU’s English-language press release on this case here.

UPDATE/COMMENT: I’ve been getting a lot of questions about this remarkable claim by Kyiv, specifically: Where’s the hard evidence? I find this story to be plausible, given known Russian intelligence tradecraft, what they call konspiratsiya, but the evidence we’ve seen to date isn’t exactly rock solid (I won’t say “a slam dunk,” thank you very much). The SBU has set a high bar for itself with its aggressive, and highly successful, public outreach in recent months, including its own YouTube channel where it has posted a lot of nearly raw intelligence, mainly SIGINT (see the next story). That Kyiv has not done so here tells me one of three things is going on:

1. The SBU has access to high-level Kremlin SIGINT, meaning they have cracked top-grade Russian codes, and releasing that SIGINT would compromise a very valuable source that Kyiv very much needs right now.

2. The SBU has a high-placed HUMINT asset in the Kremlin camp and compromising that source by releasing too much information here would be stupid as war with Russia looms.

3. This is an analytically-derived conclusion, based on a lot of evidence from many sources, none of them conclusive alone but which, taken together, lead to a firm conclusion based on multi-INT analysis.

Back to our story … Today, the SBU has also released new signals intelligence (SIGINT) intercepts, reported by the Kyiv daily Zerkalo Nedeli, which demonstrate that Russian intelligence is seeking to clean up ints mess in the Donbass by assassinating the leaders of its own revolt in Donetsk and Luhansk (the link includes the intercept). Today, Ukraine’s National Defense and Security Council (SNBO) asserted, based on the available SIGINT, that the following officials in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) and the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR) are on Moscow’s death list:

To be assassinated by the Federal Security Service (FSB):

“Lyeshyy” (LNR, Ukrainian citizen Oleksiy Pavlov, resident in the town of Prymorsk in Zaporizhzhya Oblast);

“Batya” (LNR, operating in the town of Perevalsk, Luhansk oblast, probably Mykola Kozitsyn, head of one of the “Cossack units” in the LNR);

“Kimeriyets” (DNR, operating in the town of Maryinka, Donetsk oblast, probably in Oplot’s 8th Company).

To be assassinated by the General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU):

“Rym” (LNR, commander of a combat unit, operating in the area of Chervonopartyzansk-Sverdlovsk);

“Vitaliy” or “Oruzheynyk” (LNR, operating in the town of Perevalsk, has information on weapons and combat hardware supplies from Russia);

“Mongol” (DNR, was headquartered in the building of the Administration for Combating Organized Crime in the town of Makiyivka);

“Serhiy” (DNR, probably Serhiy Zdrylyuk nicknamed “Abwehr”).

Developing….watch this space.

If Putin Invades Ukraine …

Today NATO stated that Russia has amassed about 20,000 battle-ready troops near the border of eastern Ukraine and stands ready to intervene in the war raging around Donetsk and Luhansk, where Russian-backed paramilitaries are losing ground to Kyiv’s forces. Ukraine has been making slow yet steady progress in its “anti-terrorist operation” (ATO) against Moscow’s proxies in eastern Ukraine and it’s now clear that, if the Kremlin does not directly intervene in the conflict — beyond the artillery support from across the border that the Russian military has been providing its paramilitaries for weeks — it’s likely that the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) and the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR) will soon unravel altogether. NATO has warned that Moscow may send troops across the border under the guise of a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission (observers have spotted Russian military vehicles near the border pre-painted with “peacekeeping” insignia), in a Putinesque version of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine that the Obama administration cited in its 2011 Libya intervention.

While the Ukrainian military has made considerable progress against DNR and LNR forces, it must be kept in mind that Moscow’s proxies represent a third-rate force of mercenaries and volunteers, mostly with antiquated weaponry, some dating to the 1940s, under the guidance of Russian military intelligence (GRU). Fighting against Russian regular forces would present Kyiv with a far greater challenge. Not least because the Ukrainian media is replete with tales of woe from the forces waging the ATO around Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine is now paying the price for more than twenty years of neglect of its armed forces after independence in 1991. Logistics are a mess, supplies of even ammunition are haphazard, while Ukrainian forces are rife with Russian spies; officers as senior as a major general have been arrested for passing classified information about troop deployments to Moscow. Worse, the standards of training are inadequate, with many volunteers being dispatched to the front with minimal refresher time (most Ukrainian troops previously served, usually as conscripts, in the military, but frequently many years ago). It’s no exaggeration to state that most Ukrainian army units are learning to fight by fighting. Against DNR and LNR militias, such on-the-job improvisation has worked more often than not, but against elite Russian forces it will invite disaster.

From the outset in any clash, Moscow’s forces will enjoy considerable fire superiority in artillery — long a Russian forte — and airpower; high losses to date among Ukrainian air force units in close air support missions indicate inexperience and it is to be expected that the Russian air force will sweep Ukrainian opponents from the skies, at least around Donetsk and Luhansk, with relative ease. One wonders how well mostly green Ukrainian ground units will withstand hard pummeling by artillery and air strikes.

While NATO says there are fifteen or more battalion battle-groups of Russian ground forces, 20,000 or so men in all, poised to invade, the true number may well be higher, given longstanding Kremlin acumen in denial and deception, what the Russians call maskirovka. The actual figure may be closer to 40,000 troops within a short distance of the Ukrainian frontier. Latest information indicates that these battle-groups are drawn from Russia’s best ground forces: the 4th Tank and 2nd Motorized Rifle Divisions, the 76th and 106th Airborne (VDV) Divisions and the 31st VDV Brigade, the 23rd Motor Rifle Brigade, plus unidentified units of Naval Infantry (i.e. Marines), and experienced GRU special forces (SPETSNAZ). Many of these units contributed to the Kremlin’s near-bloodless seizure of the Crimea in the spring and should be considered the best that Russia has. Most of these combat units are composed of professionals, not conscripts, and Ukraine’s improvised forces are by and large no match for them.

Russian readiness is the outcome of serious, long-overdue defense reforms commenced in 2008 under then-Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov, that aimed to produce a smaller, more professional and combat-ready army. Missteps in the brief 2008 Georgia war demonstrated continuing problems with the Russian military that needed fundamental repair. No longer would Russia base its ground forces on a mass-mobilization model, opting instead for higher-readiness units better able to respond to regional crises. Given the vast sums Moscow has spent on its military in recent years, it would be unwise to underestimate its combat prowess when fighting close to home, as in Ukraine, with the support of a Russian public that is supercharged with nationalism and eager to settle scores with the “Nazis” ruling in Kyiv.

That said, conquering Southeastern Ukraine — to say nothing of creating “Novorossiya” by driving along the Black Sea coast to establish a bridgehead to Transdnistria, as Russian nationalists advocate openly — is a very different proposition than taking Crimea. Not only would this operation be vastly greater in size and scope, but Ukrainian forces can be expected to resist mightily. The capability, not will, of Kyiv’s forces in defense of their country is the question, following months of Moscow’s depredations and dirty dealing. While Ukrainian forces will lose the fight for Donetsk and Luhansk if the Russians invade, this will be no cakewalk, and Moscow would be very unwise to think different. Having lost Crimea, the Ukrainian public is in no mood to give in to the Kremlin without stiff resistance.

If Moscow intervenes openly in Southeastern Ukraine, it will start a war it cannot win. Conquering territory is one thing; pacifying it, in the face of serious resistance, is quite another, as the U.S. military discovered in Iraq a decade ago. Russia’s new model army lacks the manpower it once possessed, and by creating a smaller, more professional force, Moscow has made the occupation of Ukraine impossible without a large-scale mobilization that may not be popular with the Russian public, particularly as casualty rolls expand rapidly. Big battalions of the sort Napoleon recommended Moscow no longer has in abundance. As the Russian defense analyst Aleksandr Golts recently explained, “Even if the Kremlin has managed to mass approximately 40,000 servicemen on Ukraine’s borders, this is absolutely insufficient for occupation. Absolutely no fewer than 100,000 men and officers would be required for this. But we simply don’t have them.” Unless Vladimir Putin wants to embroil Russia in a protracted war for Ukraine that will bear no resemblance to the walkover  Anschluss with Crimea, he would be well advised to reconsider invasion. This will no longer be Special War, but a real war — one which may not be possible to limit to Ukraine.

Nevertheless, Russia has a long habit of invading places in August — East Prussia and Galicia (1914), Poland (1920), Manchuria (1945), Czechoslovakia (1968), and Georgia (2008) — so all bets may be off. It’s clear that Putin is reluctant to back down in the face of Western economic pressure, scoldings, and admonitions, not least because consistently doubling-down has worked well for him many times in the past. I have no crystal ball, but if we learn in a few days, perhaps this weekend, that Russian “peacekeepers” are moving by the battalion into Southeastern Ukraine, you won’t count me among the surprised.

Putin’s Espionage Offensive Against France

One of the major themes of my work is how Russia, drawing on decades of rich experience with espionage, aggressively employs intelligence in what I term Special War to defeat, dissuade, and deter its enemies without fighting. As I’ve reported many times, Russian espionage against the West has been rising since the mid-2000’s and has returned to Cold War levels of effort and intensity — and in some cases, more so. In recent years, the Kremlin has endorsed aggressive espionage against a wide range of Western countries, members of NATO and the European Union (often both), to learn secrets and gain political advantage. This is simply what the Russians do, as Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer, understands perfectly. Such things are well known to counterintelligence hands the world over, but are seldom discussed in public.

What this looks like up close has recently been exposed by the Parisian newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur, in an exclusive report that draws on deep research and interviews with a wide array of in-the-know French intelligence officials. The world-weary French are a pretty unflappable bunch in matters of espionage, but the piece, which has caused worried discussion in Paris, makes clear that Moscow’s spies are aggressive, indeed “hyperactive,” in France, representing a serious threat to the country’s security and well-being.

The story begins with the case of Colonel Ilyushin, who was ostensibly the deputy air attache at the Russian Embassy in Paris, but in reality was an officer of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff (GRU), who was discovered to be peeking a bit too closely into President Francois Hollande. Specifically, Ilyushin was detected by French counterintelligence trying to recruit one of Hollande’s senior aides; in other words, GRU was seeking a mole at the president’s side. Ilyushin wanted information not just regarding matters of state, but about the president’s salacious personal life too. Fortunately, French counterspies were onto the GRU officer, and surveilled him for months, cutting short his secret plan. But the French were impressed by the colonel, only thirty years of age and a diligent case officer; unlike many of his predecessors dispatched to Paris by the Kremlin, particularly in Cold War days, Ilyushin was neither a drunkard nor a slacker.

Ilyushin was a busy man, always on the lookout for recruits. He regularly made his presence felt at a wide array of French defense establishments and think tanks, where he constantly tried to “bump into” senior officials, researchers, and journalists, especially those working on security affairs. As a French counterintelligence official explained about Ilyushin’s efforts to recruit influential Parisian reporters, “Before approaching them, he learned everything about them: their families, their tastes, their weaknesses too.” He would invite promising targets to lunch at an expensive restaurant and continue to do so every two weeks, per usual GRU practice. During these meetings, Ilyushin would volunteer juicy insider information about Russian defense matters and ties between Moscow and Paris.

At first, he asked for nothing in exchange. Au contraire, Ilyushin was a generous man, and eventually he would offer his quarry a nice gift, an expensive pen or high-end bottle of liquor: “standard first gifts from the former KGB, sufficiently expensive for being a little compromising, but not expensive enough to be considered corruption,” as Le Nouvel Observateur noted. If the gift was accepted, Ilyushin would move forward to full-fledged recruitment of the source. What followed conforms to standard Russian practice in such matters:

Then Ilyushin asked for information, initially anodyne, then less and less so. He put forward to them some small pre-written article, part of a disinformation campaign conceived in Moscow. In exchange, he offered more substantial gifts: for example, a family trip to some sunny paradise. If the interlocutor accepted, he entered into the murky world of espionage. Like in manuals, Ilyushin moved to phase three, the handling (“manipulation”) of his agent, with clandestine meetings abroad and stacks of cash.

One of the journalists whom Ilyushin was seeking to recruit became wary, and he turned to French counterintelligence just in time, as the man had access to Hollande’s inner circle, just as GRU wanted. When the journalist realized he was soon to be a paid Russian agent, he told his story to Parisian counterspies (DCRI, since May termed DGSI), specifically their H4 team that conducts counterintelligence operations against the Russians in France, which already was aware of who the “deputy air attache” really was. Ilyushin was summoned for a meeting and told by French officials to cease his espionage. When he did not do so, a few months later Ilyushin was sent packing back to Moscow, where he was promoted to general, presumably as a reward for his excellent clandestine work in Paris.

The never-before-revealed Ilyushin case represents, in the words of Le Nouvel Observateur, “but the tip of the iceberg that is the broad offensive by Russian spies in Europe, in particular in France.” As a senior French official explained, “In the last few years, particularly after Putin’s return at the Kremlin, they are increasingly numerous and aggressive.” Another added, “They are twice as active as during the Cold War.” The Ukraine crisis has only made Russian spies in France more zealous, and they are seeking everything: political secrets, military secrets, nuclear secrets, economic secrets, plus anything to do with French relations with NATO, the EU and the UN. Hence DGSI’s H4 team is very busy and has been increased to meet this new threat, but today they only number thirty, including secretaries, versus more than eighty when the Berlin Wall fell.

French counterintelligence is aware that several members of the French parliament have been approached by Russian intelligence over the last two or three years; the Russians especially look for unwitting sources who inadvertently reveal too much about defense and security matters. DGSI recently detected one such seeker of “soft” intelligence, Vladimir F., ostensibly a press attache at the Russian Embassy but actually an officer of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). Once detected, he was discreetly sent back to Russia.

SVR officers try to recruit politicians and also influence-shapers in Paris: “Some MP’s agree to relay information supplied by these spies, most of the time without realizing it, acting like ‘useful idiots’ … Some give diplomatic cables to their new ‘Russian friends’.” Think tanks represent another common SVR and GRU target, with prominent researchers reporting many approaches from suspected Russian intelligence officers, while French counterintelligence has tried to keep known Russian operatives away from prominent think tanks, not always successfully.

Industrial espionage is a perennial Kremlin interest, having been a major source of Soviet technology during the Cold War, since it is always cheaper and easier to steal cutting-edge technology than to develop it, but it is now perhaps less tempting than in the past: “These days, the Russian secret services, obsessed as they are with political and military matters, are less effective as regards economic intelligence than their counterparts.” Nevertheless, there are Russian successes in this arena too. Last year, according to DGSI, the Russian company Rosatom sold a nuclear reactor to a European country because the SVR had been secretly informed about the offer made by its French competitor, Areva.

Back in 2010, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy warned Vladimir Putin about rising Russian espionage. According to one of his top aides, Sarkozy told his Russian counterpart, “almost as if in jest: ‘Instead of spying on our country, you had better deal with terrorists’.” This came after a major spy scandal, never before revealed to the public. A Russian deputy naval attache at the Paris embassy — again, a GRU officer, in reality — sought super-secret information about the sound signatures emitted by new French nuclear submarines. He developed a French naval officer, gradually, eventually showing up at his house with a suitcase filled with cash to exchange for the desired purloined data. But the French officer had reported the GRU approaches, and French counterintelligence played a trick on the Russians. The “top secret” documents exchanged for cash were fakes. Although Paris hushed up the affair, the GRU officer was declared persona non grata and sent home without delay.

Sarkozy’s warning had no effect, and Russian espionage against France is today more robust than ever. According to French counterintelligence, there are some fifty Russian intelligence officers — roughly forty SVR and ten GRU — posing under diplomatic cover at the Paris embassy and the Russian consulates in Nice, Marseille, and Strasbourg. There are also a few officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB)* in France serving undercover as well. The head of SVR activities in France, termed the rezident by the Russians, usually poses as a third secretary at the embassy in Paris, while the GRU rezident masquerades as a TASS journalist or as the senior naval attache.

The Russians also employ Illegals, meaning intelligence operatives who work without benefit of any formal cover. They enter the country under aliases and wholly fake identities, through third countries, following years of training, and are notoriously difficult for even top-notch counterintelligence services to detect. (America got a rare break in 2010 when it rolled up a ten-strong SVR Illegals network in the USA, including the famously photogenic Anna Chapman.) There is as little contact as possible between the SVR’s “legal” presence, meaning officers serving under various official covers like diplomats and journalists, and Illegals, to protect the identities of these elite spies. French counterintelligence estimates that there are between ten and twenty Russian Illegals currently in the country. How DGSI’s H4 team came to this number was explained by an official:

SVR headquarters in Moscow communicates with Illegals by regularly sending flash high-emission frequencies. They last about half a second and they are encrypted. A spy receives them at their place on an ad hoc receiver-transmitter piece of equipment. The discreet radio-electric DGSI center in Boullay-les-Troux in the Essonne, is capable of intercepting all these emissions. Given that there are some twenty different ones, and that some are probably for training purposes, one can estimate that the clandestine people are between ten and twenty.

Paris believed that there were as many as sixty KGB Illegals in France when the Cold War ended, but French counterintelligence never had much success detecting exactly who they were. Now, however, DGSI claims to have a better handle on Moscow’s Illegals. One official revealed that the Anna Chapman network rolled up in the USA in 2010 had links to an Illegal in France as well: “We discovered his apartment, in which there was material for transmissions. We did not arrive in time to arrest him, he had disappeared.” Nevertheless, officials told Le Nouvel Observateur that DGSI has good information on SVR Illegals in France but is playing the long game: “We are watching them permanently. We learn. We will ‘squeeze’ them at the right time…” 

Cooperation among Western security services is a major help in detecting Russian espionage. Such collaboration has never been better, Parisian officials made clear. Everybody in the West is on a heightened state of alert these days regarding Kremlin espionage: “Every time we identify a Russian spy, particularly a rezident, we warn our friends in Berlin, London, or Warsaw,” explained a French official. Top security officials in Germany and Britain have admitted that Russian espionage is at unprecedented levels in their countries as well, while the head of the Belgian security service recently stated that there are “hundreds” of spies operating in Brussels, where NATO and the European Commission are headquartered, “chiefly Russians.”

In contrast, French officials have been more circumspect in public, rarely mentioning the extent of Russian espionage in their country. Indeed, the last time Parisian higher-ups raised a public fuss about such Kremlin activities was way back in 1992, when a French nuclear official was caught passing top secret documents to the Russians. Why this silence persists despite the rising clandestine threat from the East is not difficult to discern. As one Paris official noted wryly: “How can one explain to public opinion that Russian spies are a threat and, at the same time, that it is necessary to deliver Mistral warships to Moscow?” 

This laissez-faire attitude in Paris about Russian espionage seems unlikely to change soon. The only game-changer potentially on the horizon would be Western reactions in the event Russia actually invades Ukraine with major conventional forces. In that case, the counterintelligence gloves would come off and Russian spies — hundreds of them — who are known to Western counterspies would be expelled en masse.

Unless that happens, Russian espionage in France will continue at a fever pitch. Although DGSI and other French security services are highly professional, and get a great deal of help from Western partners in identifying and blunting SVR and GRU activities to the extent that they can, without political resolve to seriously confront this problem it can only be expected to get worse. Moreover, the same tradecraft employed by Russian spies in France is played out on a daily basis in every Western country, including — perhaps especially — in the United States. American politicians, journalists, researchers, and academics are targeted by the SVR and GRU just as their counterparts in France are and, we can assume, with similar success. This is a SpyWar, and Moscow intends to win.

*Although Le Nouvel Observateur does not state this, these FSB officers working undercover in France are mostly signals intelligence (SIGINT) specialists conducting covert electronic collection from Russian diplomatic facilities, as the FSB is Russia’s civilian SIGINT agency, as well as the domestic security service.