The European Decade of Espionage – POLITICO
Michael Jonsson is Deputy Research Director at Swedish Defense 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 growing list of spy cases across Europe – and although Russia is the source of most spies, Chinese espionage is also on the rise .
More and more, it’s starting to look like the 2020s could well become Europe’s “spy decade” – much like the 1980s were America’s.
In the 1980s, there were an average of seven to eight espionage convictions each 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 although America’s most infamous moles, Aldrich Ames at the CIA and Robert Hanssen at the FBI, both began their betrayals in the same decade, they were eventually unmasked several years later.
Similarly, in a preliminary review of court cases in Europe that a colleague and I undertook for the Swedish Defense Research Agency (Sw. FOI), we identified 42 different people convicted of espionage in Europe between 2010 and 2021, and 13 others are still awaiting trial. — 37 of the convicts were spying for Russia.
And the number has increased dramatically.
Between 2014 and 2018, convictions for espionage more than tripled compared to those between 2010 and 2013, reaching almost six per year. And since the beginning of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, these numbers have increased: in 2022 alone, at least seven people have been convicted of espionage for Russia and three for China.
Considering that ten years ago there were only one or two convictions per year in Europe, this represents a sea change.
Interestingly, these convictions have mainly taken place in Northern Europe, particularly in the Baltic States, which account for more than 70% of convictions despite having less than 2% of the European population. Estonia in particular has concluded that the best way to combat espionage is to prosecute, calling the instigator in an effort to deter would-be spies. And while such condemnations are only the tip of the iceberg, as many countries prefer quieter counter-intelligence findings than laying charges, several European allies are now also taking this approach, which may partly explain the sharp increase in numbers.
In some ways, however, the number of cases matters less than who is actually spying and what information they leak.
Disturbingly, about a quarter of convicted European spies worked for their own country’s defense or intelligence agencies. These moles had more access to important, high-quality information; they were better paid and active longer than others; their recruiters used more elaborate business techniques to protect them, including couriers, meetings in third countries, airdrops and advanced technology; and they were clearly the most valued sources – because they were the most damaging to Europe.
Last month’s Swedish case fits this pattern well.
According to the court conviction, the older brother, Peyman Kia, worked both for the Swedish Security Service (Sw. SÄPO) and later for the Military Intelligence and Security Service (Sw. MUST), where he was stole classified information by photographing his computer screen. Alerted that there was a mole delivering secrets to Russia, SÄPO focused on the older brother – his younger brother, Payam, acted primarily as his courier. They were sentenced to life imprisonment and almost 10 years in prison respectively.
Although prosecutors did not release details of the leaked information, the sentencing suggests that what was handed over to the GRU was highly sensitive. And in court, SÄPO drew a parallel with FBI defector Robert Hanssen, whose espionage was described in a US Justice Department report as “probably the worst intelligence disaster in the history of the United States.” United”.
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 for the future, there would already be – only two years after the beginning of this decade – investigations of an Italian naval officer, a French army officer, a German soldier and a German intelligence officer, as well as out of seven Bulgarians with links to their national security and military services.
Last year, reports of new espionage investigations and cases in Europe were coming in so fast and furiously that it was hard to keep track. Of course, this pace may in part be the result of Russia’s war on Ukraine, with Moscow’s security services working full steam ahead and their Western counterparts responding similarly.
However, since most of these ongoing cases and investigations appear to involve espionage on behalf of the GRU, it also raises the question of whether Russia’s military intelligence service may have been compromised or is simply negligent.
Moreover, as Western security officials now shift their focus from counterterrorism to counterintelligence as quickly as they can, it’s not just Russia that’s on their minds, either. Britain’s MI5 and the US CIA have issued warnings that, in fact, it is not Russia but China that poses the greatest long-term threat to Europe’s security.
American moles of the 1980s are well known to intelligence specialists – some have even become household names. And as Europe enters what could turn out to be its “spy decade”, these names could soon be joined by equally infamous European traitors.
* The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not represent those of FOI or the Swedish government.