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European governments struggle to respond to surge of Russian sabotage attacks

Just before midnight on 20 March, CCTV footage showed a car with four men inside pulling up at an industrial estate in Leyton, east London. A fire broke out at a warehouse on the estate shortly after, with dozens of firefighters dispatched to tackle the blaze.

The investigation was initially handled by police before counterterrorism officers became involved when the target was established: Ukrainian logistics firm, Meest, which has sent dozens of trucks of aid to Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February 2022.

Five men were arrested over the incident and two young British nationals were charged with working with Russian intelligence, becoming the first suspects to be tried for offences under the National Security Act that was introduced last year to counter “hostile acts” from foreign powers.

As the war in Ukraine drags on through a third year, European leaders and intelligence agencies report a surge in Russian sabotage attacks across the continent, striking at military facilities, transport networks and critical infrastructure, utilising new techniques and local recruits, which political authorities and law enforcement are struggling to counter.

Czech transport minister, Martin Kupka, recently alleged that Russia has carried out “thousands” of attacks on European railways. Last month, Poland claimed to have busted a sabotage ring suspected of acts of arson – having previously arrested 14 alleged saboteurs accused of placing cameras on rail routes used to carry weapons to Ukraine.

German security officials said Russian assets were responsible for a recent attack on a plant owned by a defence contractor producing air defence systems in Berlin. In June, French police arrested a Russian-Ukrainian national with explosives they said a saboteur for Moscow. Finnish airline Finnair has been forced to suspend routes due to alleged Russian jamming attacks.

Russian agencies have “regrouped” after the expulsion of more than 600 diplomats as suspected spies after the invasion of Ukraine, says Andrei Soldatov, Russian investigative journalist and founder, which reports on state intelligence and security services.

“Back then, everybody thought it would significantly affect Russian operations in Europe. But now, Russian agencies are finding new ways to make up for these expulsions…There is a new clear emphasis on so-called ‘active operations,’” he told i, referring to sabotage and attacks on Russian dissidents abroad, including Leonid Volkov – an ally of late opposition leader Alexei Navalny who was assaulted with a hammer in Lithuania.

President Vladimir Putin has given freer rein to his security services during the war in Ukraine, and reinforced a message that Russia is at war with the West, said Mr Soldatov. “Russian intelligence agencies have found a new sense of purpose. They feel they are in the third round of a 100-year war with the West.”

Russia has disguised covert actions through recruitment of foreigners, says Dr Marina Miron of King’s College London’s defence studies department, author of a forthcoming book on Russian sabotage.

“With cases in Poland, Russian agents were supposedly recruiting among immigrant youths, including Ukrainian immigrants, and saying, do you want to earn money?” she said, adding that encrypted messaging app Telegram and fees paid in cryptocurrency left no trail for investigators.

Identifying recruits is often a “coordinated effort where hackers go into specific databases on the darknet where you can get all sorts of information on people through various data breaches due to cyber attacks,” Dr Miron added.

A city employee is at work to clean the "Wall of the Righteous" (Mur des Justes) covered with Red hands graffitis outside the Shoah memorial in Paris, on May 14, 2024, after the monument was vandalized overnight with the president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF) denouncing the act as antisemitic. (Photo by Antonin UTZ / AFP) (Photo by ANTONIN UTZ/AFP via Getty Images)
A city employee cleans a holocaust memorial in Paris (Photo: Getty)

Some operations, such as planting cameras on weapons supply routes to Ukraine, appear to have a military purpose. Others may be psychological warfare, Dr Miron suggests.

“Unlike terrorism, sabotage doesn’t need to be spectacular, it doesn’t seek to instil fear. But it has a psychological effect of saying: ‘We have access to this. We are present. We have the capability, and you cannot do anything about it.’”

Other suspected Russian operations, such as vandalism of a Holocaust memorial in Paris at the height of tensions over Gaza, and cyber campaigns promoting marginal and extremist parties in European elections, seem intended to foster division.

John Foreman, a former British defence attache in Moscow, said Russia’s covert operations “seek to divide nations and alliances, stir social, ethnic and religious discontent, weaken the transatlantic alliance and EU, and in particular at present weaken resolve and dissuade the West from continuing to fund and arm Ukraine”.

The Kremlin wants to extract a cost from European countries for their support for Ukraine, Mr Soldatov said, “to show there is room for escalation from the Russian side, apart from the nuclear option”.

Even foiled Russian attacks, or attacks wrongly attributed to Moscow, heighten insecurity in Europe and inflate Russian power, the journalist added, noting that the attention on Russian hacking around the Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory was seen as a propaganda coup.

The shadowy nature of sabotage has fostered a sense of “helplessness” among European authorities, says Dr Miron, with a lack of clarity over how to handle foreign recruits with little evidence tying them to Russia, including on whether suspected offences are a police or military matter.

Legislating against Russia without cracking down on the intelligence activities of every nation operating in the UK is another challenge, she adds.

Western intelligence services have toyed with the idea of escalating covert activities in Russia in response to so-called “hybrid warfare” without committing to it, said Dr Miron.

Former Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg has suggested such attacks could be cause to invoke the alliance’s Article 5 mutual defence treaty, but this has been dismissed by other leaders. “We are not going to fire missiles at Russia because of a rather small-scale incident,” said Latvia’s President Edgars Rinkēvičs last month.

“The amorphous, transnational nature of the threat is causing great concern across Europe but our openness makes them hard to tackle,” said Mr Foreman. “To date, European nations have tended to deal with the attacks individually without concerted action at the EU or Nato level.

“Police and intelligence vigilance has increased, Nato is more vigilant, but more coordinated civilian security work is required – probably via the EU – to make our democracies, infrastructure, finances, and systems more resilient.”

The former official suggests the most effective course of action could be to address weaknesses in western societies that Russia is exploiting.

“One of the biggest weaknesses in the breakdown in trust in our leaders and institutions,” said Mr Foreman. “The breakdown of trust is leading to an increase in populism, disillusionment and division. Without action to strengthen trust, external actors will continue to find fertile ground to continue these attacks.”

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