Journalists sometimes muse over the choice for “spy capital of Europe”. Any place that is easy for Russian spies to blend with the rest will attract representatives of other agencies.
Over the years, Geneva has been singled out for Switzerland’s lax banking regulations and rigorous neutrality. New York is another, for being the world’s financial capital and seat of the UN providing diplomatic cover for thousands. Vienna has been named for its closeness to the former Soviet Bloc and its lax regulations in regards to spying.
Berlin, the backdrop for films and books, was seen as the epicentre of Cold War spying. With the looming presence of the Berlin Wall, it symbolized East-West tensions. And, of course, the Glienicke Bridge – Bridge of Spies – the site of famous prisoner exchanges. Faux nostalgia made Berlin the stage of dramatic spy activity.
For focusing on the U.S.A., Mexico City has been named as a Russian (also Chinese, Iranian, and Cuban) spy destination. It’s close to its target. But why not Canada? It’s thought to be less aggressive in counterintelligence than its neighbour. But Canada’s intelligence service, CSIS, sharing info with its US colleagues, has been a capable counter-foil.
Brussels is now the serious contender for the ‘Spy Capital’ title. It’s reported that the city is the operational base for some 250 Chinese and 200 Russian spies. The count is not unrealistic. Brussels hosts both the European Union and NATO.
The E.U. External Action (SEAE) has warned European diplomats about specific locales in the European quarter, such as a restaurant and popular coffee shop close to the European Commission and the SEAE building. Chinese and Russian operatives are protected from prosecution due to most enjoying diplomatic immunity as embassy officials and trade representatives.
The Russian Embassy is located on a 46,000 square metre lot, protected by a 900 metre electric fence, surrounded by trees and a multitude of security cameras. Large satellite receivers festoon the roof. The communication centre and other technological installations are clearly meant for more than day-to-day diplomatic activity. Anybody outside showing the slightest curiosity is filmed, and an alert is triggered.
The embassy compound is home for a closed community, self-sufficient, with sports facilities, schools and apartments. Of the 220 accredited diplomats stationed there, some 70-80 had been identified as either FSB, SVR, or GRU operatives before the expulsions of 21 spies in April of 2022.
While institutions in Brussels are prime targets for spying, Budapest, for other reasons, has been a recent staging area for Russian spies. A former Ukrainian Interior Ministry worker was arrested in November by Ukrainian special forces as he was about to cross into Hungary. His destination, the Russian embassy in Budapest.
He was delivering a USB drive containing information about Ukrainian police personnel, military, intelligence, and armed forces, military bases, ammunition depots, etc. Why Budapest? It’s considered a secure location for arranging the transfer of info. While Hungary’s Viktor Orban recently stated that he is reconsidering the country’s relationship with Russia, his long-standing pro-Kremlin stance has emboldened Russian intelligence. They have exploited Hungary’s laissez-faire environment. In essence, Orban had accepted to be a hostage of Russian fossil fuels.
Russian spies have taken Budapest as a safe haven for operations and a welcome destination due to the ‘golden visa scheme’. The visas that Hungary issues for Russians are valid not only for Hungary, but for all of the Schengen Area in the EU. While almost all EU member states expelled Russian spies after the Russian attack against Ukraine, Hungary has yet to act. In fact, in the fall, the Russian embassy numbered 56 accredited diplomats – up from a previous 46. At the same time, Prague has allowed only six, Warsaw tolerates thirteen, and Bratislava agrees to three. Russia’s clandestine capability in Budapest has been greatly enhanced.
Since Hungary is part of both the EU and NATO, any threat to Hungary is also troublesome for the Western alliance. Russia has been able to intercept the Protected Foreign Network containing classified domestic and NATO-related activity. It’s said that Hungary has yet to reassure the EU and NATO, nor has it tightened its own national security.
Two weeks prior to the war, Hungary refused to accept additional NATO troops as a possible deterrence to Russia. It did relent after the invasion. Orban also refused any military aid to Ukraine, rejected weapon transfers across Hungarian territory, and opposed a NATO no-fly zone over Ukraine. (As a contrast, it must be noted that as of September 2022, Hungary has allowed 2,443,583 war refugees from Ukraine to enter – mostly women and children in transit to other destinations. Over 29,170 had applied for Temporary Protection status.)
Russian intelligence activity at the Budapest embassy concentrates on regional coordination and support of operations against neighboring countries. This makes Hungary a logistical resource for Russian spies, with car rentals, safe houses, or exchange of money and information. A former Austrian military officer, spying for Russia, used to meet his handler in the Hungarian town of Heviz. The Budapest Russian embassy was a stop-over for two GRU agents on their way to the Czech Republic to blow up an ammunition depot.
To be Continued