Sunday

27th Sep 2020

Investigation

Did Russia get Nato's cosmic-level secrets?

  • Suspected spy was 'au courant with the whole defence policy of our country and those of our Nato allies' (Photo: nato.int)

It took Belgian intelligence years to decide if a top colonel was spying for Russia, potentially exposing Nato to "grave damage".

And even if he was innocent, leaked files painted a picture of the Nato and EU host state as a playground for Ferrari-driving spies and shisha-smoking criminals.

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Nato has four levels of classification.

The highest one, called "cosmic top secret", covers information that could cause "exceptionally grave damage" to the Western alliance if it got out, Nato guidelines say.

The Belgian colonel's "cosmic" security clearance meant, for instance, that he was "au courant with the whole defence policy of our country and those of our Nato allies," according to one leaked file.

"This is especially valid in the case of the Ukraine conflict and the Atlantic alliance's policy vis-a-vis Russia. He assists in all the briefings in this area," the files said.

The colonel knew about "movements of Russian troops in Ukraine" and "the presence of unidentified submarines in Norway".

He knew about Nato and EU overseas military operations.

And, given how Nato and EU secrets are generally circulated in member states' IT systems, the colonel had "access to all the messages received and sent by the Belgian army", the files said.

"It goes without saying that if he does work for the Russians ... it would pose a great danger for our country and our allies," one of the leaked files noted.

EUobserver has not named the colonel because he was never judged to have been guilty.

But he was the subject of multiple suspicious activity reports about his behaviour, filed between 2014 and 2015 in the bowels of Belgium's homeland security and counter-intelligence service, the Veiligheid van de Staat (VSSE), and seen by this website.

The VSSE reports were based on several human informants.

They were also based on surveillance operations on some of the suspects' homes and wire-taps on their phones.

The suspicion revolved around the colonel's relationship with a Belgian reservist officer in the country's military intelligence service, the Algemene Dienst Inlichting en Veiligheid (ADIV).

The two men were former army buddies and the colonel was godfather to the reservist's son.

But the reservist was spying for Russia, Belgian spy-catchers believed.

He was in a diamond and petrol-smuggling gang with a Russian oligarch "close to [Russian president Vladimir] Putin", a Chechen mobster who was a "close friend" of Chechen governor Ramzan Kadyrov, and a third man, who was a Russian foreign intelligence officer, the VSSE files said.

The reservist even had an American Express credit card that was "fed by a bank account in Chechnya", a November 2014 VSSE file noted.

And when Belgian counter-intelligence looked more closely, the cosmic-level colonel also appeared to have wealth beyond his means.

The colonel was "suspected of collaboration with Russian services" in one black-and-white statement in a VSSE report in March 2015.

And he was caught out in June later that year in a wire-tap sting, another VSSE file indicated.

The ADIV, one day, suddenly fired the reservist and took away his security clearance.

The reservist phoned the colonel to ask for protection, but the colonel shut down the conversation, a Belgian security source told EUobserver.

"He [the colonel] personally knows Russo-Chechen mafiosos and put this whole little world into encrypted communications," a June 2015 VSSE report seen by this website also said, referring to the world of the reservist, the colonel, and the reservist's shady associates.

British and US intelligence tried to help the VSSE to crack the encryption, but it was too sophisticated, the Belgian source noted.

And then the whole "little [Russian] world" seemed to vanish off Belgium's radar.

Building in Swiss town of Berne, which lent its name to European security club (Photo: Martin Frey)

Colonel's reply

Fast-forward to today, and the Belgian colonel still has his top-level Nato clearance, but he has left the army, he said when recently contacted by EUobserver.

The colonel denied any wrongdoing in a stridently worded, 10-page letter to this website, but he did not want to be quoted.

He also denied having taken part in the suspicious phone conversation with the reservist-spy referenced in the VSSE report on "encrypted communications".

The colonel was deemed innocent by an internal Belgian inquiry in 2017, he told EUobserver.

And he was himself surprised it took so long to clear his name, he added.

Meanwhile, the reservist, whom EUobserver also has not named, was never tried in court for treason.

And he is now director of a minor Belgian company, according to its declaration at the National Bank of Belgium.

Nato said it was up to Belgium to answer any questions, because Belgium was responsible for the security of international institutions on its territory, under bilateral treaties.

The VSSE declined to comment when asked to corroborate the colonel's version of events.

But speaking off-the-record, one Belgian official took the colonel's side, saying all the suspicious activity reports were a storm in a teacup.

And for his part, a senior EU security source voiced respect for the VSSE.

"They [Belgium] are relatively small and they're dealing with a large threat," the source said, referring to Russian, as well as Chinese, espionage.

Belgian intelligence were "sensible" and were taken "seriously" by their Western partners, the EU source said.

"They [Belgium] recently chaired the Club de Berne," for instance, the source added, referring to an informal club of European intelligence chiefs, which holds summits, and which goes back to 1971.

But even if the colonel was innocent, the leaked Belgian files painted a scary picture of the security environment in the country.

For one, the Belgian reservist fired for Russia espionage blew a hole in the ADIV's foreign operations.

The reservist, who had "secret" level security clearance, "knows the whole list of reservist officers in the [military] intelligence branch," an October 2014 VSSE report said.

"Some of the officers are operational in Russia and to divulge their names to Russian services would be catastrophic," the VSSE file warned - seven months before the reservist finally lost his ADIV rank and security access.

The Chechen man's 'comportment while he was in the office ... was rather unusual: He smoked a shisha' (Photo: Christine Tran)

Hidden world

The leaked files also painted a picture of a hidden world in Belgium in which hostile agents were having the time of their lives.

The ADIV recruited people like the reservist officer, who had high-value Russian contacts, so that they would spy on them for the West.

And the reservist used to brag about his oligarch patrons, including, at one point, about Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian former oil baron, who now lives in the UK.

The reservist once drove to work in a Ferrari which, he claimed, Khodorkovsky had given him because the Russian "didn't like the colour of the seats".

But wherever the Belgian really got his car, Khodorkovsky told EUobserver that the reservist's anecdote was "entirely fake".

The reservist travelled back and forth to Russia and former Soviet countries.

He and the Belgian colonel also hunted antelopes, deer, and wolves in Austria, Belgium, and the Czech Republic.

One of the reservist's Russian friends once bought him a night-vision rifle sight in the US, but the gift got stuck in Belgian customs because it was graded "military use only".

And some of the reservist's other associates were equally colourful.

One was legally domiciled at the Belgian's home in 2014.

But "one can hardly imagine a Chechen oligarch sharing a small family house of this type," a VSSE file said, amid signs the Chechen visitor was really staying at a five-star hotel near Place Stephanie in Brussels.

And in any case, the Chechen guest's "comportment while he was in the office of ... [a Belgian firm] was rather unusual for a businessman: He smoked a shisha," a VSSE report said.

Declassified Nato image of Russian troop movements in Ukraine (Photo: nato.int)

Cordon sanitaire

The story of how Russia might have targeted Nato secrets and what Belgium did to stop it comes at a time of heightened geopolitical tension.

Russian and Chinese services are believed to have hundreds of under-cover operatives in Belgium.

And Nato states are also spying on their adversaries in a neo-Cold War, as the leaked Belgian file on military intelligence "officers operational in Russia" showed.

News of suspected Chinese espionage at EU institutions and Belgian science institutes was recently uncovered by French and German newspapers and by EUobserver.

But amid the China headlines, Russia continued to pose a threat, the Belgian files indicated.

The Russian threat was different due to its intimate relations with organised crime, the VSSE files showed.

But despite the Kremlin's efforts, Nato and EU allies also collaborated on counter-intelligence in less formal ways than those codified in treaties.

And Brussels was maybe too small a world to keep cosmic-scale suspicions under wraps, the VSSE leaks showed.

On one occasion in early 2015, when multiple VSSE reports on the colonel had already piled up inside its intestines, Nato held a high-level meeting on how to react to Russia's latest aggression in east Ukraine.

But, to his own "surprise", the Belgian colonel was "not invited", a VSSE report noted.

"This measure appeared to be part of a joint [Nato] plan to form a 'cordon sanitaire' around him", the report said.

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