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Russia's 'brazen' and intensifying sabotage campaign across Europe

Vladimir Putin is trying to undermine Western support for Ukraine, according to U.S. and European officials. “Russia is definitely at war with the West,” said an analyst.
russian sabotage warehouse fire east london england uk arson attack
U.K. prosecutors have accused a British man of masterminding a Russian-backed arson attack on a Ukrainian-linked warehouse in East London in March.London Fire Brigade via

Russia is conducting a sabotage campaign across Europe in an increasingly aggressive effort by President Vladimir Putin to undermine Western support for Ukraine, seeking to damage railways, military bases and other sites used to supply arms to Kyiv, U.S. and European officials say.

The attempted sabotage includes an alleged Russian-backed arson attack on a Ukrainian-linked warehouse in the United Kingdom, a plot to bomb or set fire to military bases in Germany, attempts to hack and disrupt Europe’s railway signal network and the jamming of GPS systems for civil aviation, according to European and British authorities.

The physical sabotage campaign is part of a broader strategy that includes a flood of Russian propaganda and disinformation, increased espionage by Moscow and efforts to exert political influence in Europe to sow doubts about Ukraine’s military prospects and divisions within the NATO alliance, according to Western officials and regional analysts.

“It’s very disturbing, and it’s not like Russia has finished this process. It’s still ongoing,” said Oleksandr Danylyuk of the Royal United Services Institute, a British defense and security think tank. “Russia is definitely at war with the West.”

German officials announced this month that they had uncovered an elaborate hacking campaign by Russian military intelligence operatives that penetrated the email accounts of the country’s Social Democratic party headquarters, the leading party in the country’s governing coalition. The hacking effort also targeted German companies in the defense and aerospace industries.

Beyond Germany, Russia has staged thousands of cyberattacks on Czech and European railways, including hacking into signals and ticketing services, according to a Czech official. The Financial Times first reported the attacks and the wider sabotage threat.

So far, there is no indication Russia has managed to seriously disrupt the supply of weapons, ammunition or other aid to Ukraine through sabotage, a Biden administration official said. But they warned that physical attacks in Europe represented a more aggressive approach and that Russia was “crossing new lines.”

Russia has denied it is spreading disinformation, conducting a sabotage campaign or trying to influence European officials.

Vladimir Putin walks to take his oath as Russian president during an inauguration ceremony in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow.
Vladimir Putin during an inauguration ceremony in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow on May 7.Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

The Kremlin dismissed the accusations of hybrid warfare from European governments when asked by NBC News at a daily briefing on Tuesday. 

“All these statements, all those demarches on the part of European capitals are totally baseless and we decisively refute all of them,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

In a statement after initial publication of this article, Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) said, "Such attacks are always of a purely tendentious nature, politically opportunistic and do not contain any arguments or evidence other than the notorious 'highly likely.' The Russian Federation consistently complies precisely with the norms of international law, and not “rules” promoted by the collective West to fulfill its own hegemonic aspirations. As a matter of principle, we do not interfere in sovereign affairs of foreign states."

Danylyuk, who has advised Ukraine’s government, was one of the authors of a report in February that warned of a mounting threat from Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU. The report said the GRU was building a clandestine network of operatives to conduct espionage and potential sabotage operations in Europe.

“The GRU is restructuring how it manages the recruitment and training of special forces troops,” the Royal United Services Institute said in the report, “and is rebuilding the support apparatus to be able to infiltrate them into European countries.”

The spate of reported sabotage reflects Russia’s brand of “hybrid warfare,” blending psychological, economic and political operations along with clandestine or conventional military force to weaken an adversary, experts and officials say.

“There is a much broader pattern of Russian malign activity across Europe,” said James Cleverly, the British home secretary, in remarks in the House of Commons this week.

He said Russia’s activity ranged from plans to damage military aid bound for Ukraine in Germany and Poland, conduct espionage in Bulgaria and Italy and mount disinformation campaigns to influence the outcome of European Union elections in June.

“Over a number of years, we have witnessed Russia and its intelligence services engage in yet more open and more brazen attempts to undermine our security, harm our people and interfere in our democracies,” said Cleverly, who announced the expulsion of a Russian diplomat from London who the U.K. said was a military intelligence officer.

U.K. prosecutors have accused a British man, Dylan Earl, 20, of masterminding an arson plot on a Ukraine-linked commercial property in March after allegedly being recruited as a Russian spy. Four other suspects have been charged in connection with the case.

In Germany, authorities have accused two German-Russian nationals of planning to target military and logistical sites, including U.S. military bases, on behalf of Russia’s intelligence services.

“The actions were intended in particular to undermine military support provided to Ukraine from Germany against the Russian war of aggression,” German prosecutors said. Germany has become the second-largest supplier of weapons to Ukraine after the U.S.

The case confirmed fears that the Kremlin has ratcheted up its offensive. “It suggests there’s a new quality to Putin’s hybrid tactics,” a German official told NBC News.

The head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, Thomas Haldenwang, has warned that the threat of sabotage from Russia — including cyberattacks — is mounting and carries “a high potential for damage.”

“We also assess the risk of state-controlled acts of sabotage to be significantly increased — especially against critical infrastructure in information and communication technology as well as in energy supply,” Haldenwang said at a security conference in April organized by the agency he oversees, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

Aftermath of the explosion of a Russian missile in Kharkiv
Emergency responders at the site of a Russian missile attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Friday.Anadolu via Getty Images

Biden administration officials say they are trying to expose and halt the Russian operations. “We are prioritizing efforts along with our allies to track these Russian activities, disrupt and expose them,” an administration official said, adding that “there have been significant successful European law enforcement efforts in recent months.”

Danylyuk said no amount of Russian sabotage could have caused as much damage to Ukraine’s cause as the recent six-month delay in U.S. military aid to Kyiv, which became bogged down in partisan politics and an internal feud among Republican lawmakers.

Last month, NBC News reported how some pro-Donald Trump Republicans in the Senate and House have parroted Russian propaganda, including false claims that Ukrainian leaders are buying luxury yachts.

Other Republicans have decried the practice. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Puck News he thinks “Russian propaganda has made its way into the United States, unfortunately, and it’s infected a good chunk of my party’s base.”

European officials are concerned that similar Russian propaganda campaigns are being conducted in advance of next month's European Union parliamentary elections to boost far-right parties that oppose arming Ukraine.

Moscow’s primary goal in its information campaign in European societies is to undermine popular support for assistance to Ukraine, according to E.U. officials.

“The Kremlin’s aim with interference and information manipulation is to manipulate the public debate,” Peter Stano, the E.U. executive’s spokesperson on foreign policy, said in an email.

Belgium’s prime minister, Alexander De Croo, last month accused Russia of trying to bribe members of the European Parliament to support its efforts to reduce European support for Ukraine.

De Croo said a Belgian investigation “shows that Moscow has approached and also paid European members of parliament in order to promote the Russian agenda.”