BERLIN — When two men suspected of poisoning former Russian spy Sergei Skripal appeared on Russian television earlier this month, the bizarre interview set the stage for another round of Western-Russian accusations. Viewers around the world subsequently mocked the pair, who had quickly become the world’s most famous suspected Russian spying duo.
Their appearance came against a backdrop of what seems to be a string of defeats in Europe for Russia’s military spy agency, the GRU, and mass expulsions of Russian diplomats and spies earlier this year shortly after the Skripal poisoning.
On Friday, in the latest incident, Norwegian authorities arrested a 51-year-old Russian man on suspicion that he unlawfully gathered information during an inter-parliamentary seminar on digitization this month in Norway. After the detention was made public by authorities Sunday, the Russian Embassy in Norway rejected the accusation as “absurd."
Earlier this month, Estonia arrested a military officer and his father — both Russian-Estonian citizens — and accused the two of having spied for Russia for more than half a decade. About 300,000 of Estonia’s 1.3 million citizens belong to the country’s Russian-speaking minority, and officials have struggled to bridge the divide between the two groups ever since Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Amid its proximity to Russia and its complicated history, tiny Estonia has charged at least 12 alleged spies over the last 10 years. But Estonian officials say the high detention numbers are also due to the less than hush-hush approach to dealings with accused spies. Whereas some other countries have hesitated to make cases public, Estonia says it has “chosen a path of transparency,” according to a government statement provided to the Moscow Times.
Recent public accusations in Norway and several other European countries may similarly indicate a more confrontational approach to counterespionage as well.
Swiss officials confirmed two weeks ago that Dutch authorities had arrested and expelled a pair of suspected Russian spies earlier in the year over accusations that they had been trying to hack a Swiss laboratory. The targeted Bern-based Spiez lab is associated with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which was involved in the investigation into the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter with a banned nerve agent.
The alleged hacking attempt prompted Switzerland to summon the Russian ambassador, although Moscow denied any involvement. Using similar language to that employed after last Friday’s arrest in Norway, the Russian Embassy in Switzerland subsequently called the allegations “absurd.”
Skripal’s poisoning and the more or less obvious link to Russia triggered questions of whether the perpetrators behind the attack even wanted to escape without a trace or whether the inevitable exposure was always part of the plan, possibly to send a clear warning to potential traitors willing to abandon the GRU for Western agencies.
In any case, the subsequent investigation appears to have provided European agencies with a number of details. Investigative journalism sites Bellingcat and Russia Insider reported last week that the passport files of the two men accused of poisoning Skripal -- Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov -- shared similar features with a number of other files that are believed to be associated with Russian spies, including phone numbers tied to military facilities and a similar passport issuing authority and number.
Other individuals with passports sharing similar features allegedly had ties to a coup attempt in the country of Montenegro as well as other, prior expulsions, according to the two media outlets.
All this at the very least suggests that Russia’s spies in Europe, at least those with the GRU military agency, might be well advised to look for new passports.