One cannot ignore the misfortune of others in counterintelligence—international cooperation is necessary. Ignoring unacceptable actions that occur elsewhere or failing to discuss them at home means more victims in the future.
In recent times, news about the activities of Russia’s special services are published each month or even more frequently. Thus, my friends and students as well as journalists are asking more and more often what to do about this. The issue is not entirely new, several approaches have been tested over time and certain experiences about what works and what does not have been gained.
On 13 February 2004 there was an explosion in the otherwise safe and well-secured city of Doha, capital of Qatar. In the car that was destroyed by it, three people died instantly, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, the president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in exile, among them. From a distance, the incident did not cause much of a stir. All kinds of things can happen: the neighbourhood seems somewhat fishy, Islamists, terrorists, perhaps even a settling of scores among emigrees or debts of some kind may have been involved.
For the security forces of Qatar, which had thus far kept the country free of terrorist acts, the investigation was also a matter of honour. The car of the people that planted the bomb was found in a couple of hours; the terrorists were handcuffed six days later. They were Russian citizens Anatoly Yablochkov and Vasily Pugachyov, who later turned out to be Russian military intelligence officers (GRU, Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation) and were captured with evidence directing to the crime together with Aleksandr Fetissov, first secretary of the Russian Federation’s embassy.
In hindsight, we may say it was a historic event. Seemingly to emphasise this, the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation’s (SVR) public relations, General Boriss Labussov, announced to the press that the KGB’s first chief directorate (i.e., the USSR’s foreign intelligence service) or its successors had not performed such operations since 1959 when Stepan Bandera was “liquidated” in Germany.
It might not have been entirely true and he did not speak for GRU but, indeed, no such incidents have been recorded outside Russia since the end of the Cold War. Whether something may have been done in the territory of the erstwhile Soviet Union in the 1990s and what it might have been remained unclear even then; for example, Georgian statesman Eduard Shevardnadze survived as a many as three assassination attempts in 1992, 1995 and 1998… whoever was behind them.
The small but extremely rich Qatar wanted to prove that it would not tolerate terrorist acts on its territory and criminals would be punished. Russia did not have diplomatic, economic or military means to help its officers in 2004. But it found other opportunities. On 28 February, two Qatar athletes exited a plane at the Sheremetyevo international airport for a connecting flight on their way from Belarus to Serbia. The official reason for arresting them was said to be transporting undeclared currency.
Fettisov, who had diplomatic immunity, was extradited from Qatar in March, allegedly in exchange for freeing the athletes. Yablochkov and Pugachyov got a life sentence in June; after diplomatic activity following a telephone call between the Qatar emir and Russian president they were transferred to serve their time in their homeland in December. Naturally, they did not serve the full sentence and it was officially confirmed that they had been freed the next February. The following years have brought dozens of published cases of Russian intelligence officers getting caught in various countries. In addition to collecting information the incidents have involved acts of diversion and murders. The most well-known of them are, of course, killing Aleksandr Litvinenko in London in 2006 and the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018. Russian officers have been justifiably (at least based on public sources) associated with poisoning Emilian Grebev in Bulgaria in 2015, and shooting Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin in 2019.
Setting a Good Face on a Bad Matter
In these circumstances, it is natural to wonder what to do. Most countries do not have the luxury of being rich beyond imagination (i.e., essentially immune to bribing), at the same time being entirely safe from Russian military aggression and owning security forces that hold authorities of a rather wide scope (not entirely compatible with democracy).
Surely it must be the case that in many an instance concerning espionage, the solution is setting a good face on a bad matter and burying the incident, but it is not always possible. Even president of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić, who otherwise gets on well with Russia, had to ask the following rhetorical question at a press conference in 2019 after a Russian spy was captured in the state: “I only have one question to our Russian friends. Why?” Suppressing information is often impossible if casualties are involved.
A diplomatic note is a trusty and true tool, but it usually does not yield results. A good solution would be to convict the perpetrators of the murders or assassination attempts in court and enforcing the judgements. Unfortunately, authorities usually fail to capture the people and even in the exceptional Qatar case the final punishment amounted to ten months of imprisonment, which seems short for an act of terrorism.
As the recorded cases show, the murderers or diversionists depend on either the informational or logistic support of the intelligence officers that work under the protection of Russian embassies. Declaring them a persona non grata is an option that has been practiced for quite a long time. The most extreme case from the Cold War era was extraditing 105 Soviet intelligence officers working undercover in diplomatic service from the United Kingdom in 1971.
Did it help? As we know today, it did not. To cover the gaps in collecting information, the USSR used the embassies of other Eastern Bloc nations in London, and Brits were approached by intelligence officers working under the protection of Soviet embassies in third states. Thus, decisive measures in one country were not enough even in the much less globalised world of the past.
Has the West learned its lessons? To some extent. After the assassination attempt in Salisbury in 2018, more than 150 Russian intelligence officers working undercover in diplomatic service were sent home from nearly 30 countries and several international organisations (or their mission was not renewed).
Did it work? Perhaps to some extent, but as the 2018 FIFA World Cup took place in Russia the same summer, and none of the Western states wanted their citizens killed in an act of terrorism, they were quick in renewing their acquaintance with Russian special services.
Although the alarm clock seems to buzz often, we should not continue to slumber, also in the case of the 2014 Czech incident that was recently published, where GRU probably had a hand in the explosions of ammunition warehouses that caused the death of two people, in addition to substantial economic loss. Although this does not seem a matter close to us, historical experience shows that one cannot ignore the misfortune of others if they themselves are currently happy. Ignoring unacceptable actions that occur elsewhere or failing to discuss them at home means more victims in the future.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).