Wednesday

17th Aug 2022

Investigation

Unmasked: Who were Putin's spies in the Kingdom of Belgium?

  • Russian consul general (l) George Kuznetsov had FSB links (Photo: The Dossier Center)
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A humble "trade representative" with top-level Kremlin access, a "consul general" linked to Russia's largest spy service, and a "technician" with a background in wiretapping — the identities of 21 Russian diplomats kicked out by Belgium in April help tell the story of how Moscow made Brussels the 'spy capital' of Europe.

The expulsions, from Russia's embassies and consulates to "the Kingdom of Belgium" (the constitutional monarchy's official name), were just part of a much wider reaction to the horrors in Ukraine, which saw EU states eject hundreds of Russian diplomats in total on grounds of espionage.

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  • Russian deputy consul Sergey Spirin hailed from the GRU (Photo: The Dossier Center)

The most senior spy Belgium booted out was 46-year old Alexei Kuksov, a "deputy trade representative", who hailed from an elite unit in Russia's GRU military intelligence service.

After graduating from a military academy in 2001, Kuksov went to serve in the GRU's 5476 unit, according to documents unearthed by The Dossier Center — a London-based NGO funded by Russian oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which hunts Russian spies in Europe.

And four years later the GRU transformed unit 5476 into its Foreign Military Capabilities Research Centre, whose staff gather intelligence on foreign armies and whose reports have direct lines to GRU head Igor Kostyukov and Russian president Vladimir Putin's closest national security advisor, Nikolai Patrushev.

Russia's consul general in Antwerp, 44-year old George Kuznetsov (also expelled) is a former employee of the United Aircraft Consortium in St Petersburg, who joined the Russian foreign ministry in 2001.

But at some point, he also appears to have joined Russia's domestic intelligence service, the FSB (its largest by far), whose 5th Service also does foreign espionage.

Kuznetsov's address in Moscow used to be listed as house number five (code for 5th Service) in Varsonofievsky Lane, where the FSB has a Central Polyclinic and where Russia has been fictionally housing hundreds of FSB spies for decades to conceal their real addresses.

Meanwhile, the 46-year old Vadim Artyushov (expelled) was a "technician" in Russia's embassy to Belgium.

But he used to serve in the GRU's 47747 unit in Klimovsk near Moscow, which was once based in Cuba in order to intercept US signals, but which moved to Russia in 2001 and now trains people to wiretap local telecommunications networks abroad.

Artyushov was not the only one whose small Belgian job title masked bigger Russian credentials, in an insight into Russia's modus operandi.

The 40-year old Ivan Kvasha, for instance (expelled), was in charge of embassy "housekeeping" in Belgium, but the janitor wore the shoulder straps of a GRU colonel when at home.

And Igor Taut (expelled), a 51-year old embassy "electrician", was in fact a graduate of the FSB-linked Moscow Technical University of Communication and Informatics.

If Artyushov did do wiretapping, then two of his expelled colleagues were also communications specialists.

The 43-year old Dmitry Chulaev, an embassy "attaché" and an officer in Russia's SVR foreign intelligence service, was likely responsible for handling secure embassy communications with Moscow, according to a Russian source, who asked not to be named.

Chulayev graduated from the Moscow Aviation Institute's Aircraft Radio Electronics Department before going to work for a Russian online gambling firm called Jackpot Ltd., which later invested in satellite communications, including high-end Israeli technology, that was now being used by Russian intelligence services to stay in touch, the Dossier Center said.

And the 36-year old Aleksei Kozhevnikov, another "attaché", was a GRU officer with a similar background.

Kozhevnikov used to register his cars at 56 Volokolamskoye Shosse in Moscow, according to Russian police databases — the home of the GRU's 162nd Military Technical Information Centre, also known as Object T-500, which specialises in European and US satellite signals interception.

But not all of those Belgium kicked out had glamorous roles.

The 46-year old Alexey Strelkov, for instance, an "attaché" and SVR officer, used to work for VIM, an agro-engineering research centre in Moscow.

"Our foreign intelligence service is interested not only in military secrets but also in the latest technical developments in the civilian sphere, including agriculture," a Russian intelligence contact, who asked not to be named, told the Dossier Center.

Late Russian veteran Ivan Bashkatov (l) with expelled attaché and GRU colonel Sergei Karpushkin (Photo: The Dossier Center)

'Trained to be grey'

In a broader look at the Belgian expulsions, all of the alleged 21 spies were men, mostly in their 40s. The oldest was 62-year old Sergei Ignatov, an "attaché" and SVR officer, while the youngest was 28-year old Sergey Spirin, the Russian deputy consul in Antwerp and a GRU man.

In all, 10 of the Russians hailed from the GRU, nine came from the SVR, and two had FSB backgrounds.

The GRU is considered the most dangerous Russian service. It trains people in armed and unarmed combat, use of poisons and explosives, and it has orchestrated lethal operations in Europe.

These included poisonings of former Russian spies in the UK in 2018 and 2006, the shooting of a Chechen émigré in Germany in 2019, and explosions at Czech arms depots in 2014.

It has never used violence in Belgium. But "with the war in Ukraine, we are living in a new era of Russian recklessness in which everything is possible," a Western intelligence source, who requested anonymity, told EUobserver.

SVR officers are more genteel and better educated both in academic subjects and in spy-craft.

"You'd never find an SVR officer who goes to shooting ranges or does martial arts", for example, a second Western security source, who asked not to be named, said. "They are trained to blend in and to be as grey as possible," he said

The identities of the men give clues about what Russia was covertly doing in Brussels, which is also the Nato and EU capital, and in Antwerp.

It appeared to be looking for military and trade secrets, protecting Russian business interests in Belgium, and keeping an eye on Russian expats in the country.

Each Russian spy is normally tasked with grooming and handling at least three foreign assets, a Belgian security source, who asked not to be named, said. "This gives an idea of how large their network was," he said.

Belgium's domestic security service, the VSSE, is in charge of doing Russia counter-intelligence.

And former VSSE investigations also show the kind of people Russia was seen to be targeting.

The VSSE, in recent years, opened files on the brother of a Belgian government minister, a Belgian colonel with top-level Nato security clearance, a Belgian baron who mixed at royal events, a former Belgian ambassador to Venezuela, a reservist in Belgium's ADIV military intelligence service, and a suspected Russian plant in Belgium's finance ministry, according to EUobserver's sources.

In one example, Kuznetsov, the ex-Antwerp consul, used to have friendly links with far-right Belgian politician Philip de Winter, who denied any wrongdoing when it came to light in Belgian media.

Kuznetsov's deputy, Spirin, was also active in Antwerp public life — he arranged excursions to the Consulate General, held open Russian language lessons, spoke about culture and life in modern Russia at seminars, and supervised Russian-speaking volunteer groups in Flanders.

The Russian consulate's Instagram pages show Kuznetsov and Spirin mingling at public events and Kuznetsov's LinkedIn profile had a shared connection with Vladimir Kara-Murza, a now jailed Russian dissident, who used to come to Brussels to give anti-Putin speeches.

Kuksov, from the elite GRU unit, once awarded a prize at a gala dinner in Antwerp to Svetlana Samsonova, the head of the Antwerp Seaport of the Future project, a Russian enterprise.

And 47-year old Sergei Karpushkin, another expelled attaché and a GRU colonel, made friends in Belgium's Russian expat community by helping to take care of a famous Russian war veteran, Ivan Bashkatov, who lived in Belgium and died last year at the age of 100.

The focus on Antwerp is likely due to Russian business interests in the city's huge port and its diamond-trading centre — the largest in the world, which handles up to one-third of Russian diamond exports.

And one former VSSE investigation centred round a Belgian firm co-owned by an SVR officer that specialised in diamond and petrol smuggling from Russia, via Belgium, to the US.

Russian embassy to Belgium in the leafy Uccle district in Brussels (Photo: Kurzon)

How many left?

Belgium, in concert with the EU institutions, also expelled a further 19 so-called diplomats accredited to Russia's embassy to the EU in April.

And it expelled eight others from Russia's embassy to Nato last year, posing the question: How many Russian spies are left in the country?

Russia still has well over 100 diplomats accredited in Belgium and "about half" of these are spies, Belgian security sources estimated.

It is also thought to have several dozen "illegals" — spies under non-diplomatic cover, such as businessmen, journalists, or lobbyists — EUobserver's sources said.

The Belgian foreign ministry declined to say precisely how many Russian diplomats were still accredited, citing data protection rules.

The VSSE declined to comment, but its former head, Alan Winants, told EUobserver already 10 years ago that Brussels had become the "spy capital" of Europe due to Russian and Chinese activities.

The latest Russian expulsions did make an impact, a retired GRU officer, who asked not to be named, told the Dossier Center.

"I think that now the work of our military intelligence service in Belgium is practically paralysed for many years. I don't know how our neighbours in the SVR and FSB are doing, but we are left without 'eavesdroppers' and satellite intelligence specialists," the ex-GRU officer said.

But others were less sanguine about the remaining Russian threat.

"The Russians are very active in Belgium. They do what they want," one of the Belgian security sources said.

"For instance, it's no problem for them to organise surveillance operations, such as a team to follow you home after you visited the Russian embassy," he said.

"The Russians are still very powerful in Brussels," the Western intelligence source said. "A lot more needs to be done".

And all that left the question of what Belgium's neighbours were also doing.

The Swiss intelligence service, in a recent report, warned that Geneva, which has not expelled any Russian 'diplomats', now risked becoming a new spy hub in Europe, from which Russian operatives carried out cross-border operations.

Belgium's neighbours France, Germany, and the Netherlands expelled 41, 40, and 17 Russians in April, respectively.

But its other neighbour, Luxembourg, which hosts dozens of Russian diplomats, expelled just one, creating a potential Geneva-type risk.

"The decision to expel a Russian diplomat, under Article 9 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, was taken on the basis of confidential information from the relevant departments," Luxembourg's foreign ministry said.

It declined to say why it expelled just one.

Alexander Smushko (circled) was a GRU officer expelled from Russia's embassy to Nato last year (Photo: mil.ru)

Gloves off

Russia has also ejected Western diplomats in tit-for-tat moves since April.

It had levelled grandiose accusations of Western interference in its internal politics for years before the Ukraine war.

Spy expulsions don't normally see those involved being publicly named in what amounted to a "gentlemen's agreement" between intelligence services, the Western intelligence source said.

It means "those expelled can quietly go home and be posted somewhere else", he said.

But the fact the 21 Russian names were leaked to EUobserver is another sign of how Russia's aggression has altered the security environment.

The names of the eight spies accredited in Russia's embassy to Nato were also leaked earlier this year.

"If they [Russian spies] are publicly identified, it means their careers are burned. They can try to create new identities, but this is easier said than done," the Western intelligence source said.

Author bio

This article is the second in a series of stories on Russian espionage in Belgium and the EU institutions in a project supported by journalismfund.eu, a Brussels-based NGO.

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