We live in an era where news about the activities of Russian spies is nothing really new to anyone. It was recently reported that Belgian intelligence services, the ones responsible for protecting EU and NATO objects, have begun large-scale investigations based on concerns of possible infiltration by Russia or other actors. The Belgian military intelligence authority – the General Intelligence and Security Service (GISS) – has initiated 15 cases, while the State Security Service (VSSE) has opened five cases. Information about the investigations appeared soon after a whistleblower within the VSSE expressed concerns that the head of counterintelligence is surprisingly tolerant towards Russia. Moreover, head of counterintelligence of the GISS was sacked last year due to faults in the storage and circulation of secret documents, and this was another signal that the problems are quite severe.1
It is not just now that Belgium has identified espionage issues within the country. Already in 2012, Director of the VSSE Alain Winants said that the number of foreign spies in the EU capital is not dozens, but “hundreds, several hundreds”. “In Belgium, the level of espionage by Russia and other nations, for instance, China has remained at the same level as during the Cold War. We are a nation with a huge concentration of diplomats, entrepreneurs and international institutions – NATO and EU institutions.” Winants explained.2 If this was an issue already in 2012, what exactly was done to improve the situation in any way? We will, most likely, never know the answer, because such information in not publicly available. However, if in reality there is no plan of action, then we have a problem. Espionage in Belgium is a topic that appears in the media from time to time: in 2015, it was reported that high-ranking officials within some institutions have possible ties to Russian intelligence services;3 and in 2019, a military intelligence major was fired because of his links to a Russian oligarch.4
What concerns Belgium’s fight against these spies, it can be divided into two levels: the political and the professional. The professional level entails everyday activities of Belgian authorities to identify, observe and neutralize spies and spy networks; the political level means the actions of politicians in a political and legislative sense. Interestingly, in 2018 as a consequence of the Skripal poisoning numerous countries expelled long-identified Russian spies working under official covers, but Belgium expelled only one. Something is amiss – in 2012 it is announced that Belgium can’t even count the number of spies in its territory (the majority of which are Russian), but when we start researching how many have been expelled – we find nothing.
Okay, this is just one side of the story. How many intelligence services are there in Russia? Well, at least those that we know of from public information – I counted four, although the fourth one employs intelligence methods, it cannot be considered an intelligence service in the classical sense:
- The Federal Security Service (FSB) is the successor to the Soviet State Security Committee (KGB);
- The Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) mainly deals with political intelligence and is the successor to the 1st Directorate of the KGB;
- The Main Directorate of the General Staff (GRU) mainly deals with military intelligence;
- The Federal Security Service also employs intelligence methods in its activities.
For this reason, we will speak about the first three. In order to better understand the current situation, we must look back on history. To make this easier, we should equate the current intelligence services with their Soviet counterparts. Honestly, this won’t be that hard, because the predecessor of both the FSB and the SVR is the KGB, and because the FSB and the SVR have common roots, they employ basically the same tactics and methods.
Let’s first talk about cadre policies. Back then, the KGB – and consequently now the FSB and SVR – filled their ranks based on applications, but the GRU has always been a closed environment. One can only be invited to join the GRU, so the requirements for the candidates are anyone’s guess (a guess – excellent psychological condition, comprehensive knowledge on numerous subjects, knowledge of at least one foreign language and must be from the military).
A good indicator is the requirements for candidates wishing to work in the remaining intelligence services. For instance, the SVR is interested in candidates who have:
The candidate has acquired higher education – he is a specialist or in possession of a master’s degree in humanitarian or technical sciences; has good or excellent scores in the appropriate fields; has command over at least one foreign language. Final year students are also welcome to apply.5
And for the FSB:
The requirements concerning education, professional knowledge and experience are determined by the head of the appropriate service.6
Considering the similarities, it can be assumed that intelligence services hire people with knowledge of foreign languages and higher education. This means these persons can be put in different state or privates positions – they can be anywhere. If we refuse to accept this uncomfortable truth, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.
If we know what tactics and methods are used, we are better able to counter them. So how do Russian intelligence services operate? The answer to this is nothing new: they can still be divided into two large groups – legal and illegal. Legal ones include undercover posts in embassies. Most often diplomats are the ones we hear on media who’ve been expelled for espionage. According to Viktor Suvorov’s book Aquarium, during the Soviet era embassies were filled with both KGB and GRU officers in different positions. The fact that the situation has not changed is supported by the media, because they usually disclose the posts of the expelled diplomats. For example, on 4 December 2019 it was reported that Germany is expelling two Russian diplomats working in the Russian Embassy’s Military Attaché’s Office.7 On 24 January 2020, an announcement by the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office revealed that two Russian citizens – first secretary in the Russian Embassy’s Consular Office in Sofia and a Russian trade representative – have been collecting secret information to be handed over to a foreign nation or organization.
It was explained that the first secretary had been gathering information on “mechanisms of the election process in Bulgaria” from 2017 up until now, while the trade representative had been collecting sensitive information on the state’s “energy sector and energy security” from October 2018 to the present time.8
Judging by these cases, we can conclude that Germany expelled a GRU officer, while Bulgaria identified officers of either the FSB or the SVR. This confirms that the Soviet approach of placing officers from different intelligence services with different official covers under a single embassy roof is still employed. What is more, these people can also be specialists within the field of their official post, considering the aforementioned requirements to join the SVR.
The case can be the same with Russian representatives in different international organizations and enterprises, and even regular private companies.
Compared to Soviet times, globalization has opened up the borders, offering more possibilities for even more people to move from country to country. It would be foolish to think that Russian intelligence services do not exploit this.
What concerns non-official covers, nothing much has changed when compared to the USSR, but the only difference is that now the possibilities to get from one place to another are much greater.
Here’s a concise and harsh summary – Russian intelligence officers range from diplomats within Russia’s embassies to janitors or suppliers of goods in private companies.
To give a brief illustration before we move on, we should mention what was said in an article on apollo.lv: it is assumed that the proportion of foreign intelligence officials within diplomatic missions in Latvia ranges from 10% to 30% of the total number of diplomats.9 If almost a third of all the diplomats in Latvia are spies, what could this proportion be in Belgium, where the NATO headquarters and different EU institutions are located? Public information suggests that roughly half of Russian diplomats in Belgium are intelligence officers.10
In addition to ensuring domestic security and combating foreign spies, Belgian authorities also protect EU and NATO buildings. These intelligence services also provide security for the 47,000 EU and NATO employees residing in Belgium.
The Belgian GISS and VSSE are comprised of roughly 1,300 employees. Domestic services are responsible for NATO and EU objects. But if the action takes place somewhere else, it is only logical that Belgian counterintelligence services should engage as well.
Intelligence expert Mark Galeotti in an interview with EUobserver already noted that Belgium has fulfilled its international obligations in a shockingly flawed manner. He admitted that when talking to officials in Europe he often hears that Brussels is seen as the weak link between the EU and NATO.11
Regarding funds, Belgium spends mere 0.01% of its GDP for its intelligence services, and this is the lowest figure among NATO member states.12
If we look at all of this, it is evident that the government of Belgium has – unintentionally or deliberately – created conditions that make the work of Russian intelligence services much easier. And this is happening at a time when Russian services still operate in the “Cold War” regime, attempting to acquire any kind of information, and it is nothing short of foolish to expect that something will change in this regard.
What are the solutions? First, we need to understand whether the government of Belgium is interested in improving the work of its counterintelligence services. If the answer is yes, it is clear that the Russian spy problem is no longer Belgium’s domestic issue, considering the presence of key EU and NATO institutions. If, however, the Belgian political elite with their idleness are deliberately creating conditions for the successful activities of Russian spies, EU and NATO security institutions should review the current procedures, focus more on internal vetting of employees and make it nearly impossible for information to be illegally brought outside the walls of a particular building. In conclusion – there are countless ways to acquire information of interest, but there are just as many ways of preventing this information from being acquired.
*Zintis Znotiņš is an independent investigative journalist.