May 9, 2024

The Hill


In mid-April, Germany reported capturing two Russian “Spionen” — identified as Dieter S. and Alexander J. —  “accused of scouting targets for potential attacks, including U.S. military facilities.” One of the men had served with the militia of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic and is therefore also charged with being a member of a terrorist organization. In late 2022, one Carsten L., an agent of Germany’s intelligence service no less, was arrested for passing information to an unnamed Russian spy agency.

Also in April, Polish authorities arrested Pawel K. for “being ready to help Russia’s military intelligence in an alleged plot to assassinate Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.” A few weeks earlier, on March 29, Austria arrested one of its former intelligence officers, Egisto Ott, alleging that “he handed over cellphone data of former high-ranking Austrian officials to Russian intelligence, helped plot a burglary at a prominent journalist’s apartment, and wrote up ‘suggestions for improvement’ after a Russian-ordered killing in Germany.”

Ever since the Cold War and Austria’s division into four occupation zones, Vienna has served as a “nest of spies.” As a 2023 Financial Times report put it, “There are still more than 180 accredited Russian diplomats in Vienna, and at least a third of them are known to be using diplomatic cover for intelligence-gathering activities. Many more are now operating in the country illegally thanks to its lax policing and surveillance of espionage.” Neutral Switzerland, replete like neutral Austria with international organizations, is also believed to be home to over 80 Russian spies.

The above mentioned cases are only the tip of the iceberg. The Economist writes that, in the last few years, “The SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, saw its presence in Europe eviscerated, with some 600 officers expelled from embassies across the continent. Disastrously, at least eight ‘illegals’ — intelligence officers operating without diplomatic cover, often posing as non-Russians — were exposed.”

Despite these losses, the continuous stream of spy arrests suggests that Russia’s agents are alive and well in Europe. Brussels, in particular, which houses both the European Union and NATO, has its hands full with Russian agents, informers and Putin sympathizers.

One intriguing consequence of Europe’s saturation with Russian spies is that they must have known that NATO was confused, demoralized and dejected after the end of the Cold War. Having lost its enemy, NATO lost its raison d’etre, which enlargement into Eastern Europe failed to restore.

Russia’s spies must have also known that NATO had no intention whatsoever of inviting Ukraine to join the alliance in anyone’s lifetime. And they must have passed on that information to their bosses in the Kremlin, first and foremost to Putin himself. It begs credulity to think Putin

really believed his own assertions of impending Ukrainian NATO membership and the subsequent emplacement of nuclear weapons on Ukraine’s eastern border.

The ubiquity of Russian spies also raises questions about certain Western policymakers and analysts and their putative relations with Russian intelligence. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who took a top job with Gazprom immediately after losing an election, could not have avoided a thorough vetting by Russian intelligence — and perhaps more. Ditto for Austria’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs Karin Kneissl, who danced the Viennese waltz with Herr Putin and moved to Russia in 2019.

The most sensational bit of spy-related news — or gossip — concerns former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and current Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. According to Ukraine’s Lieutenant General Hryhory Omelchenko, both Merkel and Orbán were, or still are, agents of the Russian intelligence services.

Omelchenko is a highly regarded former officer of Ukraine’s Security Service and a former deputy in the Rada. He’s no crackpot. Although his allegations haven’t been confirmed, they deserve a hearing — especially as they may explain a lot about both politicians.

Orbán used to be virulently anti-Russian. Then, magically, he made an about-face and has consistently voiced support for Putin and Russia and antipathy for Zelensky and Ukraine. A change of heart, or something more?

Merkel, as a highly placed chemist in East Germany, had to have been screened by the Stasi, which perhaps made her an offer that she refused. She was friendly with Putin, but so were most Germans. Where Omelchenko’s charge may hold some water is in her government’s decision to phase out nuclear power — thereby increasing Germany’s dependence on Russian gas — and its underfunding of Germany’s armed forces.

Of course, it’s possible that Omelchenko is consciously making exaggerated accusations in order to embarrass Budapest and Berlin. Or that he may mean “agent of influence” instead of “agent.” Or, finally, that he may be making sincerely believed, and possibly true, allegations in order to counter the “Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation,” which, according to the Washington Post, calls for an “offensive information campaign” and other measures involving “the military-political, economic and trade and informational psychological spheres” against a “coalition of unfriendly countries” led by the United States.

Whatever the case, Russia’s spies are everywhere, and their numbers will only grow as Western relations with the Kremlin continue to deteriorate. Next time you’re in Vienna, Geneva or Brussels, think twice about accepting Ivan Ivanovich’s invitation to have a drink.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”