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28th Feb 2020

EU warned on 'vigilance' after Davos spy fail

  • One of the Russian diplomats said he was a plumber in what Russia called a "stupid joke" (Photo: European Commission)

European counter-intelligence services need to "seriously raise the level of vigilance" on Russian spies, UK activist Bill Browder has said after news of a botched operation at Davos in Switzerland.

"The Swiss informed me that they were aware that I was coming to Davos, they knew the Russians were furious about me being publicly critical of Russian corruption and the Swiss believed that there was a heightened risk to my security at this year's forum as a result," Browder told EUobserver on Tuesday (21 January).

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  • Browder: "I have to be very careful about my travel in Europe" (Photo: davos.ch)

He spoke on the first day of the World Economic Forum, an elite yearly gathering at a Swiss ski resort, after being briefed by Swiss security services about a Russian plot.

"There is a consistent pattern of Russian lawlessness from this and all the other operations that the Russian intelligence agencies have organised around Europe. The obvious lesson is for the Europeans to seriously raise the level of vigilance," Browder also said.

Swiss authorities, last August, intercepted two Russian men suspected of doing "preparatory work" for an operation at this week's event, they also told Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger and French news agency AFP.

"It was a regular police check. Both men had Russian diplomatic passports but were not formally registered as diplomats in Switzerland," a Swiss police spokeswoman said.

One of the men also said he was a plumber, but they were, in fact, laying the groundwork for a wiretapping or hacking operation, the Swiss authorities added.

And they avoided police action only because Russia had "threatened diplomatic consequences if the men were arrested", Swiss officials reportedly said.

A Russian embassy spokesman, Stanislav Smirnov, denied everything.

"There is no evidence of spying", the two men might have been Russian diplomats accredited outside Switzerland, and the plumber claim was a "stupid joke", the Russian spokesman said.

Swiss authorities were already investigating allegations that Russia was planning a cyber-attack on a laboratory in Bern and on the Swiss office of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

The laboratory works for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international institution in The Hague, which was the target of a Russian hack in 2018.

And WADA has recently shamed Moscow on drug abuse at sports events.

The multiplying alerts come after the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, in the UK two years ago, raising the stakes.

"I have to be very careful about my travel in Europe and elsewhere because there is both the risk of being arrested on Russia's request and the risk of violence, kidnapping, and other physical harm," Browder, the London-based activist, said.

"I won't travel to countries that are either friendly with [Russian president Vladimir] Putin or share physical borders with Russia," he said.

Browder was the former employer of a Russian anti-corruption whistleblower called Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison.

His transatlantic campaign has seen the US impose targeted sanctions, called Magnitsky Acts, on some Russian officials and their relatives, as well as mobsters, torturers, and other rogues from round the world.

EU states recently agreed to impose similar measures at European level, but without referring to Magnitsky's name.

"It's absurd that anyone in the EU is trying to appease Russia," Browder said on the EU sanctions name debate.

"It only emboldens Putin to take more aggressive actions," Browder said.

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