Photo illustration by John Lyman

#Russiagate, European Parliament is a Den of Spies

Amidst European political institutions lies a web of foreign spies, which has been exposed through a series of investigations in recent months. The latest clearly shows evidence of Latvian MEP Tatjana Ždanoka’s communications with her Russian handlers, which has led to an investigation into acts of espionage over a decade. Now ‘Russiagate’ is flooding the halls of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, as members of the political group Renew Europe call for stricter measures to limit the ability of spies and prosecute those caught.

Many of these investigations have been led by the Russian news outlet The Insider in cooperation with other news organisations. Their investigations have implicated European political figures with ties to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), including Ms. Ždanoka. Other conspirators include Vladimir Sergienko, a German aid who attempted to limit military assistance to Ukraine, and a high-ranking German Intelligence Officer, Carsten Linke, who acted as a mole selling classified information to the FSB.

Further reports have implicated Italian politicians who met with an FSB Officer to plan an international money laundering ploy in return for political influence. However, Russia is not alone; in December 2023, former Belgian senator Frank Creyelman was exposed as a puppet for the Chinese Intelligence Agency (MSS). Together, these investigations show the tip of an iceberg we are yet to realise fully.

The European Parliament finds itself among the democratic institutions targeted by Russia and China. According to Margaritis Schinas, the Vice-President of the EU Commission, “The Kremlin’s war of ideas is a multi-million euro weapon of mass manipulation. It is used to mislead and deceive our citizens, to divide, polarise, and exploit the vulnerabilities of our societies.” Despite such political subversion assaults, these institutions lack effective tools for self-defence. Russia and China seek to counteract sanctions and legislation which are not in their best interest. They are accomplishing this through corrupt officials who enact various forms of lawfare, a tactic leveraging legal systems to damage or delegitimise opponents.

Leaked email exchanges between Ždanoka and her two FSB case officers, Dmitry Gladey and Sergei Beltyukov, between 2004 and 2017 show a continuous supply of information to the Kremlin. While Ždanoka denies the allegations of espionage, it is a suspicion that colleagues and fellow Latvians already held due to Ždanoka being considered a Russian agent of influence, partially due to her participation in monitoring the 2014 Crimea elections and talks with the Syrian Assad regime in 2016.

According to a Western intelligence source interviewed by The Insider, her motivation is rooted in ideology. Ždanoka was chosen not due to her access to sensitive material, which would be limited, but as someone who could point the FSB to people with the desired access. This means that the story and corruption do not end with Ždanoka, who is compromised remains unknown.

There have been concerns about her connections to Irish MEPs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace, who have declined to comment when asked to elaborate on their relationship with Ždanoka. Latvia’s Chief of Counterintelligence, Normunds Mežviets, affirmed an ongoing investigation into Ždanoka. One which has been underway since as early as last year.

While on a parliamentary fact-finding trip to Ireland in 2023, a country which remains a common target for Russian intelligence services, Ždanoka was under surveillance by specialist Irish police officers at the request of Latvian security services. Despite Latvia’s domestic counterintelligence agency knowing of Ždanoka’s ties to the FSB, she has escaped prosecution as her actions were not illegal until 2016, and parliamentary immunity shields Ždanoka until the conclusion of her MEP term. While Ždanoka’s political career faces an abrupt end due to a recent Latvian Parliament amendment targeting “pro-Kremlin-oriented persons and political organizations,” a larger geopolitical game unfolds in the backdrop.

Harrys Puusepp, the Head of the Bureau at Estonia’s KAPO Internal Security Service, told The Insider that Ždanoka was part of a “Kremlin-coordinated divisive operation.” One that comes under the purview of a unit within the FSB, informally known as the Fifth Service, due to its origins in the agency’s predecessor, the KGB. Led by Sergei Beseda, its official name is the Service for Operational Information and International Communications. Unlike most FSB operations, its focus is on former Soviet states, where Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, SVR, is barred from operating due to agreements after the fall of the Soviet Union—their mission is to monitor the Russian diaspora and disrupt democracy abroad.

The Fifth Service has played a role in operations across Europe and Asia. Like much of the Russian Intelligence Services (RIS), the Fifth Service has been actively involved in Ukraine since 2014, reportedly playing a critical yet near-fatal role in the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, which nearly cost Beseda his life and led to a top Ukrainian security official being charged with treason. Yet, since 2015, their focus has devolved beyond the old Soviet states. The UK confirmed that the FSB has been responsible for multiple cyber-attacks in the UK since 2015, and other RIS operatives were charged with tampering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The RIS is also responsible for multiple assassination attempts, including the 2018 Salisbury attack and the 2020 attempt on the late Alexei Navalny. Just last month, Russian defector Maxim Kuzminov was murdered in Spain, most likely at the hands of Russian operatives. RIS operations will continue to expand throughout Europe if left unchecked.

While the West has focused on Russia, Chinese tactics are not dissimilar or new, evidence has shown how the MSS has influenced American politics as early as 1991, utilising its diaspora more than any other country. A Chinese MSS operative, known as Daniel Woo, told ex-Belgian Senator Frank Creyelman, “Our purpose is to divide the U.S.-European relationship.” China is known for its industrial espionage worldwide, but the Chinese political agenda and the resulting international scrutiny and sanctions have led to the MSS prioritising political institutions. Unlike Western intelligence agencies, there is no public oversight of MSS activities, giving them free rein on any target they deem in their purview.

Dr. Stephan Blancke, a fellow of RUSI, believes China has become a more significant threat due to the West’s focus on Russia. Furthermore, Dr. Blancke stated that as Russia increasingly turns towards China due to the international situation, “both states are working pragmatically and not in a value-orientated way…[Which] could pose a major threat to the West.” With significant elections scheduled in 2024, there are valid security concerns about what Russia and China might plan to influence and support candidates who are sympathetic to their agendas, especially in Ukraine and the South China Sea.

Security services are under-equipped to handle the sustained attempts to recruit assets, and the legal system cannot adequately deter them. Marc Polymeropolous, a former CIA officer, said, “Germany, in particular, has to up its counterintelligence game.” Dr. Blancke explains that German intelligence services are hampered due to “eternal reorganisations and increasing legal and political restrictions.” Germany is not alone, through the international Five Eyes program, intelligence agencies heavily rely on the U.S. and UK services. However, the necessary and intensive cooperation is still lacking.

The same can be seen in the legal system, which failed to prosecute a case involving members of Italy’s Lega Nord party and Russian officials who met in Moscow in 2018. The group planned to launder $65 million in return for sympathy to Russian interests. While the Italian courts investigated, in the summer of 2023, the court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to convict, it took until February 2024 for the media to prove that one of the known members at the meeting was a high-ranking member of the FSB. While there is hope that this new evidence will reopen the investigation, it should have been caught by the European intelligence services.

As Ždanoka will likely escape criminal prosecution, the Advisory Committee on the Code of Conduct investigation can deliver little more than a slap on the wrist. The Renew Group is pushing for a motion for a resolution to combat the threat of foreign intelligence groups, “We have to enhance the security culture in this parliament,” French Renew MEP Natalie Loiseau told EUobserver. Yet, there is no substantive EU legislation to combat foreign espionage, which remains a clear and present threat to global security that must be addressed.