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.