Before it arrested a Wall Street Journal reporter Thursday, Russia suffered a string of embarrassing setbacks to its foreign intelligence operations, with hundreds of suspected Russian spies’ being expelled or charged with espionage in Western countries.
Poland arrested nine Russians this month, accusing them of plotting possible sabotage of rail routes carrying Western military aid to Ukraine. Last week, U.S. authorities unmasked an alleged Russian spy who posed as a Brazilian graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and who prosecutors say tried to land a job at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Sweden, Norway and Germany say they have uncovered and disrupted attempted Russian spying in recent months, and officials in Greece told news outlets that the owner of a knitting shop in Athens was actually a suspected Russian spy.
The head of Britain’s MI6 foreign intelligence service says roughly half of Russia’s spies working under diplomatic cover in Europe were expelled within six months of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The FBI and the CIA have helped allied countries arrest an unusually large number of Russian spies since the war began, a former senior U.S. counterintelligence official familiar with the matter said. The arrests have targeted Russians operating as “illegals” with fictitious names and passports, unlike Russian spies posted to embassies, who enjoy legal protections.
A U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak on the record about sensitive intelligence cases abroad, said it was not always the case that the U.S. played a role in the arrests. “Many countries have robust capabilities to counter Russian intelligence efforts all on their own,” the official said.
But former intelligence officials said it’s too soon to say what prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime to detain U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich on Thursday and charge him with espionage, which his newspaper and the U.S. government dismissed as totally baseless.
Putin could be playing to his domestic audience to reinforce the message that the West is plotting to weaken Russia, or he could be looking for a bargaining chip to win concessions from the West, including possibly securing the release of Russians charged with spying abroad.
“Often it’s internal political dynamics in Russia driving these decisions. Even though Putin controls things, he clearly wants to create these narratives that foreigners are causing trouble. Arresting a foreign reporter and claiming they are a spy — which we know is not true — feeds the narrative that the West is undercutting us from the inside and there are enemies everywhere,” said John Sipher, a former senior CIA officer who was based in Russia and is a co-founder of Spycraft Entertainment.
Wall Street Journal reporter detained in Russia and accused of spyingMarch 30, 202302:04
“A lot of things are coming together here, and it’s hard to say what this is, but it’s clearly part of the arsenal of weapons for the Kremlin. They can use it to trade for somebody,” Sipher said.
Russia arrested U.S. professional basketball player Brittney Griner last year on drug charges and sentenced her to nine years behind bars. She was released in a swap in December for Viktor Bout, an arms dealer who was serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Thursday ruled out a rapid prisoner exchange involving Gershkovich.
“I wouldn’t even consider this issue now, because people who were previously swapped had already served their sentences,” Ryabkov said, according to Russian news agencies.
A congressional official briefed on the matter said: “It’s plausible that the pressure being applied by the U.S. and its allies to Russian spy services around the world is one factor here, but it’s too early to tell. We just don’t know.”
In the past, European authorities often played down cases of suspected spies in public statements. But since the invasion of Ukraine, there have been a slew of high-profile arrests accompanied by public vows from senior European officials to foil attempted Russian espionage.
“The Russian intelligence services are under pressure, and they need to show that they are doing something,” Sipher said. “When there are this many, especially illegals, being wrapped up, it suggests more Russians are talking — there are more sources for U.S. intelligence.” (By “illegals,” Sipher means Russians sent to live in a country undercover permanently under fake identities without diplomatic cover, as opposed to spies who pose as diplomats.)
Still, it remains unclear how much damage suspected Russian spies may have inflicted before they were rounded up, including an alleged senior-ranking mole inside the German intelligence service accused of passing secrets to Moscow.
In some cases, the details of alleged Russian spying appear amateurish, with the accused failing to effectively cover their tracks, according to Western officials and former U.S. intelligence officers.
When Sergey Cherkasov, the Russian national charged last week by U.S. authorities with spying for Moscow under a Brazilian alias, learned he had been accepted to the prestigious School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, he was ecstatic, according to court documents.
“We won, bro. Now we are in the big-boys league,” he told his Russian handler, according to the criminal complaint filed in federal court.
He described ambitious plans to embed himself among Washington’s political elites in messages reminiscent of the television show “The Americans.”
But authorities eventually gained access to Cherkasov’s computer and electronic devices, discovering a gold mine of emails to his Russian supervisors, records of illegal bank transfers and arrangements for where to leave secret messages, or “dead drops,” according to court documents.
Cherkasov has been charged with acting as an agent of a foreign power, visa fraud, bank fraud, wire fraud and other counts stemming from his alleged illegal activities in the U.S., prosecutors said.
He is incarcerated in Brazil on fraud charges.