Hackers, Spies and Contract Killers How Putin’s Agents Are Infiltrating Germany. Source: Spiegel International

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Dimitri Badin, who is wanted by the U.S. and Germany for hacking into the Bundestag, and the suspected Russian spy known as Adela K.
Dimitri Badin, who is wanted by the U.S. and Germany for hacking into the Bundestag, and the suspected Russian spy known as Adela K. [M] Ole Schleef / DER SPIEGEL; Schoening / ddp, Xander Heinl / Photothek / Getty Images

Hackers, Spies and Contract Killers How Putin’s Agents Are Infiltrating Germany

Russian secret service agencies have been targeting the West for years. They infiltrate computer systems, spy on politicians, conduct sabotage operations and even kill those who have fallen afoul of Moscow. Why did Germany wake up to the danger so late?

By Maik Baumgärtner, Floriana Bulfon, Jörg Diehl, Roman Dobrokhotov, Matthias Gebauer, Christo Grozev, Roman Höfner, Martin Knobbe, Roman Lehberger, Ann-Katrin Müller, Frederik Obermaier, Sven Röbel, Marcel Rosenbach, Fidelius Schmid und Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt

01.09.2022, 15.56 Uhr

Five months after her sudden disappearance, Maria Adela K. provided a sign of life. She had been trying to hide from herself, she wrote to her friends in an emotional post on Facebook. But now she had to “reveal the truth.” She had cancer, she wrote.

Thirty-two of her Facebook friends promptly responded. They showed concern, said they were happy to hear from her and also offered words of encouragement. But shortly after that, K. disappeared again, leaving her friends in the dark. DER SPIEGEL 35/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 35/2022 (August 26th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL. SPIEGEL International

There is much to suggest that the news about the cancer from 2018 was fabricated, like so much in the life of Maria Adela K. Everything, really. Concealment and deception are apparently key elements of her profession: The purported businesswoman, it would seem, is actually a spy serving the Russian Federation.

  • Joint reporting by DER SPIEGEL and the investigative platforms Bellingcat and The Insider, along with Italian daily La Repubblica, suggests that K. acted as an agent of the Russian military intelligence agency GRU and targeting employees of the NATO base in Naples and the U.S. Navy base there. It’s possible that K. was also supposed to spy in Germany.

As is so often the case in espionage cases, there is a lack of definitive proof, but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. K. used passports that appear to be from a series issued by the GRU. She pursued Peruvian citizenship using false information and sought proximity to employees of the two military bases – until she invented the cancer story to go underground.

  • According to our reporting, her real name is Olga Vasilyevna K., born in June 1982 in rural southern Russia. Just before her stirring Facebook message, a brand new Audi A3 was registered in her name in Moscow.
  • “Illegals” are what Russian spies like K. are called. They’re men and women who live inconspicuously in the West for years with elaborately constructed life stories, and they integrate firmly into the societies they spy on.

Dozens of them were deployed in the Soviet era; the series “The Americans” even created a cinematic monument to them.

Demoralize, Divide, Unsettle

“Illegals” like Adela K. belong to the network of agents who work for Moscow around the world, snooping, sabotaging, even murdering. They are the clandestine combatants in a broad offensive against the West. Putin’s intelligence services influence political parties, manipulate elections, control Telegram channels and foment protests in the West with misinformation. They infiltrate the computer networks of Western governments and hack into highly sensitive facilities. Their goal: to demoralize, divide and unsettle Russia’s adversaries. Few other world leaders have empowered their secret service agents to the degree that Russian President Vladimir Putin has, himself a former KGB officer.

Tens of thousands of people working for the FSB, the SWR foreign intelligence service and the military’s GRU are waging a shadow war against the West. It is a struggle for power and influence, for raw materials and money – and it has been underway for far longer than the visible conflict in Ukraine.

  • Germany, Europe’s most economically powerful democracy, is one of Moscow’s primary targets. For years, counterespionage efforts were subdued at best, but the country’s political leaders are slowly waking up from a decades-long slumber.

“What is happening here is an attack on our liberal democracies, on our entire Western society,” says a member of cabinet from a major European country.

“From election interference campaigns to assassination operations, Russia treated Europe like its playground,” says Marc Polymeropoulos, who led the CIA’s operations in Europe and Eurasia from 2017 to 2019. He says his warnings about Moscow’s clandestine operations repeatedly fell on “deaf ears.”

“With the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, the threat of Russian espionage, disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks has taken on another dimension,” says German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).

The Invisible War

Just how close the visible and invisible war are to one another could be observed on Feb. 24, the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Suddenly, a huge number of customers of the American telecommunications provider Viasat lost their satellite internet connections. At the same time, 5,800 wind turbines in Germany were suddenly no longer able to communicate with their network hub.

The real target of the attack, though, was a different Viasat customer: the Ukrainian military and its command and control network. The perpetrators used a vulnerability to penetrate the service provider’s network administration. From there, they instructed customers’ satellite modems to overwrite their flash memory, rendering them useless. Viasat had to send its customers nearly 30,000 new devices.

The digital battle began before Russia even launched its first missiles. The European Union and the United States have since blamed Russia for the cyberattack, saying the aim had been to disrupt Ukrainian command structures during the invasion.

What else might be in store for Germany? It’s a question on which the German government is currently focusing its attentions. In July, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party said she is concerned about attacks on German power grids. And recently, Interior Minister Faeser presented a revamped cybersecurity agenda. Her ministry also warned that, given Germany’s federal system, powers at the federal level are inadequate for addressing the current threat situation.

But Germany’s reaction to Moscow’s spies was long reminiscent of its approach to Russian natural gas imports. Whereas Eastern European states, the U.S. and the UK have warned for years about the operations conducted by Russian intelligence services, governments in Berlin, Paris and Rome preferred to turn a blind eye to the gathering storm.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the desire for friendship with Russia has been significant in Germany. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2011, Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, the BND, even shut down its counterespionage operations, the theory being that Germany now had to focus its attentions on a new type of enemy. In 2001, Vladimir Putin gave a speech in the federal parliament, the Bundestag, for which he received a standing ovation – and this despite the fact that Russian soldiers had reduced the Chechen capital Grozny to rubble only a short time before. Western governments sought proximity to Putin, and not just economically.

Counterespionage Neglected

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, there was a widespread belief that the West and Russia had a common goal in security policy, the fight against Islamist terrorism. Counterintelligence got short shrift, with many considering it a relic of the Cold War. But while the Soviet Union may have perished, its intelligence apparatus was alive and well, a fact that was overlooked by many. This complacency would come at a cost.







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