Courtesy of John Schindler, here are a few Russian spy stories, because we all need a break from the Russo-Ukrainian War.
2016, May: Portuguese Spy & Russian Illegal
Schindler has the basic facts:
Last weekend, in the latest development in the secret espionage struggle between Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin and the West, a major Russian spy was arrested in Italy. On Saturday, Frederico Carvalhão Gil, a senior intelligence official from Portugal, was picked up by Italian police along with his Russian intelligence handler, whom he was meeting clandestinely in Rome.
Suspicion usually leads to investigation, and when investigation warms up, it can lead to investugation. Depending on what the investigation finds, the spy is either turned or rolled up. Carvalhão was rolled up.
Once SIS realized Mr. Carvalhão may have gone rogue, he was moved to a less sensitive position at work, where he had access to fewer secrets and was placed under surveillance. By last autumn, he was being watched and his phones were tapped as his employer looked for evidence of his betrayal. They soon discovered that Mr. Carvalhão made regular trips across Europe, which SIS assessed were actually clandestine meetings with the SVR to pass secrets to the Russians outside Portugal. That was less risky than meeting Russians on his home turf, as the career spy knew from his own service with Portuguese counterintelligence.
This culminated in the top secret operation in Rome last weekend which led to Mr. Carvalhão’s arrest. In coordination with Italian partners, SIS watched his movements as he took a flight to Rome last Friday, in preparation for the next day’s planned meeting with the Russians. That clandestine rendezvous was spoiled for Mr. Carvalhão when Italian police appeared at the Roman café, downtown on the Tiber, to bring him into custody on espionage charges proffered by Lisbon. He did not resist arrest.
And there was a bonus:
Neither did the Russian he was meeting. In an interesting twist, his SVR handler was not in Rome under official cover, posing as a diplomat or trade representative—the default setting in espionage circles. Rather, his SVR handler was what the Russian term an Illegal, meaning he was operating without any official protection. He therefore was subject to arrest, whereas a Russian spy pretending to work at their embassy could claim diplomatic immunity to avoid police detention.
An illegal is quite a catch, in espionage terms. More explanation at the link. Most intelligence officers abroad in hostile nations (at least Russians and American ones) are covered as diplomats for their own safety; Sweden estimates a full third of the accredited Russians there are spooks.
2015, January: Russian Illegal, New York
In January 2015 the FBI rolled up another Russian illegal (John explains the terminology at the link, but in the Russian service “legal” and “illegal” spies roughly correspond to our “official cover” and “non-official cover” officers. They’re all terms of art, because of course espionage is always illegal, everywhere, whether your guy is an immune diplomat who can only be PNG’d, or just a schmo that you can toss in prison). Evgeny Buryakov (almost certainly not his real name) was tasked on economic targets and was under observation for a long time before a counterintelligence dangle brought him in. Schindler has the espionage angle, and recommends Eddy Elfenbein on the financial angle.
2010: Interview with a Soviet Spy
This 2010 interview in the German magazine Der Spiegel is, unshockingly, in the German language, and in an Estonian prison. Herman Simm betrayed his country to the Russians, as it turned out, because a corruption accusation put his nose out of joint.
Here is an excerpt, our translation. We pick it up after the traitor, Simm, has denied any fellow-feeling for Russians, and insisted he always felt himself Estonian:
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So how did you let yourself be recruited by the SVR, the successor organization to the KGB, in 1995?
Simm: At that time, I had lost my job as a police chief due to false accusations. Among other things, I had bought four Russian armored cars for 93,000 crowns for the Police, and suddenly, they’re saying that I should not have paid, because the vehicles already belonged to Estonia. But the Russians had gotten all their collected materiel out of the country, and we needed the cars.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And then you flew to Tunisia?
Simm: I was frustrated and needed some space. In front of the Hotel Kaiser in Sousse, where I stayed, my later case officer Valery Senzov spoke to me. I knew him from the old days in Talinn. He said he was on vacation, and we went and had a beer. I was astonished how well informed he was about me.
Imagine that. A chance meeting with a foreign intelligence officer who’s remarkably well informed about you. And Simm was a lifelong cop, if not a spook himself. Think he didn’t know what just happened?
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did he recruit you right then?
Simm: No, only on the next meeting. He said, we need your help, you’ll be paid, and think about it, we have other possibilities, too. He didn’t directly threaten violence against my daughter, but I knew their methods and had no doubt about it.
Classic KGB tradecraft right there. Note, though, that Senzov never threatened Simm. Simm did that himself deep inside his own head. The whole threat-to-the-daughter thing? Smells to us like a rationalization, not a reason. In that, it’s typical of this interview: a self-serving paean to a crapweasel, by his ownself.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And suddenly you made a career in the Defense Ministry.
Simm: If you call it a career. At the beginning I sat all alone in an office…
Awwww. The poor little backstabbing weasel, his sense of self-importance was not sufficiently stoked. #firstworldproblems to eleven.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: …and rose to be Head of the National Security Administration. Was it hard for you, to work for the Russians at the same time?
Simm: At the beginning it was very hard to smuggle information out. But the higher I rose, the easier it got.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How does a spy live, what does he feel?
Simm: It’s like a continuous ride on the a knife’s edge. I was already nervous if I encountered the same person twice in one day.
This English book excerpt has more on Simm, including some tradecraft. It suggests he — and possibly others? — was a “human landmine” planted in NATO as Russia retreated.
Every titbit he gathered was passed on in the classic spy manner. He placed films, and later memory sticks, into small juice cartons of a particular brand and colour and left them in rubbish bins in designated parks to be picked up.
He was cautious to a fault. Each dead-letter box was used once only. Meetings with his handler took place in ten different countries.
He is, in the end, an illustration that while “the spy’s reward” is not always one in the neck, or a blindfold and a last smoke, it tends not to be any more rewarding than that of any other criminal….
[T]here came a time… when he feared the Estonian authorities were on to him and he was under surveillance. He was right. The net was closing around him.He asked the Russians to get him out. They had promised him a comfortable retirement in Moscow with the rank of colonel and now was the time to deliver.
But the Russians refused. By now he had retired from his Defence Ministry job and no longer had the high-level access he had once enjoyed and exploited so successfully on their behalf. He had served his purpose. They ‘hung me out to dry’, he said.
Ha, hah. You [bleeped] up. You trusted your case officer.
It was a call from his case officer — who was already in the bag, and chose to defect and cooperate rather than face prison — that sent him to his last personal meet. Instead of his case officer, he met lots of Estonian cops. He’ll be a very old man when he gets out of prison, broke and untrusted by anyone, on any side. That KGB colonel’s pension? That dacha and the bank account in Moscow? Didn’t exist, chump.