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Europe’s decade of the spy

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Michael Jonsson is a deputy research director at the Swedish Defence Research Agency.

Last month, two Swedish brothers were convicted of spying for Russia’s military intelligence service, the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU). But their conviction is just the latest in a fast-growing list of espionage cases across Europe — and while Russia’s been behind most of the spying, Chinese espionage is on the rise too.

Increasingly, it’s starting looking like the 2020s may well turn into Europe’s “decade of the spy” — much like the 1980s was America’s.

In the 1980s, there were, on average, seven to eight espionage convictions every year in the United States, including high-impact spies like Jonathan Pollard who spied for Israel, Anna Montes for Cuba and John Walker for the Soviet Union. And though the most infamous U.S. moles, Aldrich Ames in the CIA and Robert Hanssen in the FBI, both began their betrayals that same decade, they were eventually unmasked many years later.

Similarly, in a preliminary review of court cases in Europe that a colleague and I undertook for the Swedish Defence Research Agency (Sw. FOI), we identified 42 different individuals convicted of espionage in Europe between 2010 to 2021, with another 13 still awaiting trial — 37 of those convicted were spying for Russia.

And the number has been accelerating dramatically.

 From 2014 and 2018, espionage convictions more than tripled compared to those between 2010 and 2013, reaching almost six per year. And since Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine began, those numbers have been surging: In 2022 alone, at least seven individuals were convicted of spying for Russia, and three for China.

Given that a decade ago there were only one to two convictions per year in Europe, this represents a clear step change.

Interestingly, these convictions have mainly occurred in northern Europe — particularly in the Baltic states, which represents over 70 percent of convictions despite having less than 2 percent of Europe’s population. Estonia especially has concluded that the best way to counter espionage is to prosecute, calling out the instigator in a bid to deter would-be spies. And though such convictions represent merely the tip of the iceberg, as many countries prefer more discreet counterintelligence outcomes than pressing charges, several European allies are now also adopting this approach, which may partly explain the steep jump in numbers.

In some ways, however, the number of cases matters less than who is actually carrying out the spying and what information they leak.

Disturbingly, around a quarter of the convicted European spies worked for the defense or intelligence agencies of their own countries. These moles had more access to high-grade and important information; they were better paid and active for longer than others; their recruiters used more elaborate tradecraft to protect them, including couriers, meetings in third countries, dead-drops and advanced technology; and they were clearly the most highly valued sources — because they were the most damaging to Europe.

Last month’s Swedish case fits this pattern well.

According to the court sentencing, the older brother, Peyman Kia, worked both for the Swedish Security Service (Sw. SÄPO) and later the Military Intelligence and Security Service (Sw. MUST), where he stole classified information by photographing his computer screen. Alerted that there was a mole handing over secrets to Russia, SÄPO focused on the older brother — his younger brother, Payam, acted mainly as his courier. They were sentenced to life imprisonment and almost 10 years in jail respectively.

Though prosecutors didn’t divulge details about the information leaked, the sentencing suggests that what was handed over to the GRU was highly sensitive. And in court, SÄPO drew parallels with FBI turncoat Robert Hanssen, whose espionage was described in a U.S. Department of Justice report as “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history.”

Other high-profile cases in Europe before 2021 now include an Estonian army officer, an Austrian army officer, a Portuguese counterintelligence officer and an Estonian intelligence official. And looking ahead, there are reportedly already — just two years into this decade — investigations into an Italian naval officer, a French army officer, a German soldier and a German intelligence officer, as well as seven Bulgarians with links to their national security services and military.

Last year, reports of new espionage investigations and cases in Europe were coming in so fast and furious that it was challenging to even keep track. Of course, this tempo may partly be the result of Russia’s war on Ukraine, with Moscow’s security services working in overdrive and their Western counterparts responding in kind.

As most of these ongoing cases and probes appear to involve espionage undertaken on behalf of the GRU, however, it also raises questions about whether Russia’s military intelligence service may have been compromised, or if they’re just being sloppy.

Additionally, as Western security officials are now shifting their focus from counterterrorism to counterintelligence as swiftly as they can, it isn’t just Russia that’s on their minds either. Both Britain’s MI5 and America’s CIA have issued warnings that, in fact, it’s not Russia but China that poses the greater long-term threat to Europe’s security.

American moles of the 1980s are well-known amongst intelligence scholars — some have even become household names. And as Europe enters what might turn out to be its “decade of the spy,” these names may soon be joined by equally infamous European traitors.

* The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the FOI or the Swedish government.