Ireland isn’t usually considered a nest of spies, yet the lush, rugged edges of the emerald isle are exactly where a KGB ring spied on US submarines during the Cold War.
Dublin was swept up in the chaos that followed the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings north of its border - an event that proved to be a magnet for Soviet spies and set alarm bells ringing at the CIA, MI6 and J2, Ireland’s military intelligence unit.
In late 1972 the KGB organized Operation Splash - a weapons dead drop for the Official IRA, a paramilitary group with Marxist leanings, according to the widely respected The Sword And The Shield, The Mitrokhin Archive and The Secret History Of The KGB.
The Reduktor, a Soviet ship that could pass for a fishing trawler, parked 50 miles off of Northern Ireland’s coast to unload. In all, the crew dropped 70 automatic rifles, two machine guns, 10 Walther pistols and 41,600 cartridges concealed in waterproof wrappings. The arms drifted down in a net, eventually settling on a sandbank 130 feet below water.
Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB, didn’t want the arms traced back to Moscow so none were made in the Soviet Union. KGB ‘technical experts’ ensured West German oil lubricated the Walther pistols and the packaging was supplied by agents worldwide. The KGB even planted a foreign-made buoy in the water to mark where the guns were waiting.
Several hours after the Soviet departure, a fishing boat loitered by the sandbank and hauled up the weapons. It was the first Soviet arms drop for the Official IRA, but it wouldn’t be the last.
The embassy set-up
Paddy Donegan, then Ireland’s foreign minister, was determined to stop the Soviet Union from establishing its first Irish embassy in 1973. Negotiations had been going on for years, but they were stalled over security concerns. The way Donegan saw it, if the USSR sent 22 diplomats to Dublin they’d come with 22 spouses - and 30 of the lot would-be spies.
Andrei Gromyko - known as ‘Mr Nyet’ for refusing to bend to Western diplomats - was Donegan’s counterpart in Moscow. He was also the former Soviet ambassador to the US, and knew how to play hardball.
The David-and-Goliath negotiation ended when Ireland agreed to send a six-person team to Moscow. The Soviet Union settled for 17 staff in Dublin. The deal was finalized at the UN headquarters in New York, laying the foundation for the KGB’s new base in Western Europe.
Moscow’s opening move
Moscow appointed Anatoli Kaplin as its first Irish ambassador. Guennadi Saline was tapped to be first secretary and press attaché, while Viktor Lipassov moved to Dublin as the second secretary with his wife, Irina. Russia was assembling its chess pieces.
The Soviet delegation lived in comfortable quarters in Orwell Road, reportedly spending $720,000 for a complex spread across five acres. Within two years, however, the Soviets filed a planning application to demolish the embassy and erect a modern building with 18 flats, a cinema and a library. The application sparked concern that Moscow was expanding its foothold in Ireland and Europe, Michael Quinn writes in Irish-Soviet Diplomatic and Friendship Relations, 1917-1991.
Ireland’s J2 military intelligence had their hands full monitoring the comings and goings on Orwell Road. MI6 spies, meanwhile, were determined to take down the IRA in Northern Ireland. Every option was on the table: forged letters, propaganda, sabotaging IRA weapons - even assassination. Still, British Prime Minister Ted Heath wanted more, according to Rory Cormac, author of Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces.
“Planted stories included tales of IRA embezzlement, fraud and witchcraft; of Soviet rocket launchers arriving in Ireland; of how bomb-making causes cancer,” Cormac wrote in the Irish Times.
The CIA was also paying attention. In what The Washington Post describes as ‘the intelligence coup of the century’, the Americans and Germans covertly worked with Crypto AG, a Swiss company run by Russian-born inventor Boris Hagelin. Hagelin created encryption machines like the CX-52 (above), which was developed around 1952 and later refined.
The spies sold Hagelin’s encryption inventions to intelligence agencies, then eavesdropped on their own clients. Ireland reportedly paid $1.25m in the early 1980s for Crypto equipment that enabled the CIA to decipher Dublin’s most confidential, coded intelligence.
As for the KGB, they were finding Ireland’s gossipy pubs ideal for eavesdropping and gathering intel about IRA plots, British troop movements, NATO forces and US submarines. Around 90 KGB agents had been turfed out of Britain in 1971. In comparison, convivial Ireland was proving much easier to penetrate.
The KGB did have a big problem, however. The Dublin embassy was supposed to function as a clearinghouse for a major international spy ring, yet Ireland was keeping them on a tight leash.
Soviet embassy staff had to inform the Department of Foreign Affairs - in triplicate - if they planned to travel outside of a 25-mile radius around the central General Post Office, supplying a full itinerary, motor vehicle registration and other details.
Guennadi Saline (codenamed Silver) and second secretary Viktor Lipassov were monitored closely, but Viktor’s wife Irina - sometimes known as Irona or Evdokia - wasn’t under constant watch.
Irina could dart in and out of the travel zone unnoticed, as long as she was careful. In fact, Mrs Lipassov was later suspected of being the KGB mastermind in Dublin, quietly moving in and out of Northern Ireland to organize the supply of Soviet arms and ammunition to outlawed paramilitaries.
The Lipassovs were also suspected of transmitting information to Soviet submarines while the couple holidayed in Donegal, Ireland and relaying US secrets in the most mundane setting: the suburban Stillorgan shopping mall in Dublin.
On September 11, 1983, the Soviet embassy’s charge d'affaires was told that three of its citizens were involved in “unacceptable activities” that “weren’t in accordance with standards expected of diplomatic staff” - that’s Irish diplomatic language for spying.
Three KGB spies were expelled. First Secretary Saline, Second Secretary Lipassov and his wife, Irina, were told to pack their bags.
Published accounts indicate the three had also sought information about NATO nuclear submarine forces, contacted agents, collected intelligence from countries outside of Ireland for transmission to Moscow and bugged other embassies in Dublin.
The US State Department had initially pressured Ireland to expel the Soviet airline Aeroflot from Shannon airport, which Moscow used for state visits and as a refueling hub for Aeroflot commercial flights - there was an entire village for Soviet airline crews built nearby in the 1980s.
US President Ronald Reagan also wrote to Ireland’s leader, Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, asking him to put an end to Aeroflot stopovers after the Soviets shot down a Korean passenger jet in Russian airspace on September 1, 1983. All 269 aboard died including arch conservative US Congressman Larry McDonald.
Losing Aeroflot would have cost Ireland dearly however, FitzGerald later wrote in his autobiography. Instead, FitzGerald offered up the KGB spy scandal, banned Soviet flights temporarily and kept the lucrative Aeroflot contract.
Has much changed in Ireland since the Cold War? The KGB may be gone but the shadowy spy games remain. Ireland sent another diplomat packing in 2011, accusing the Russian intelligence service of using six Irish identities to make counterfeit passports for spies operating in the US.
The Russian embassy, meanwhile, has filed another planning application to upgrade its Dublin embassy complex - this time Russia also wants to build an underground parking lot reportedly four times larger than the 20,000 sq ft embassy itself. Plans are on hold amid concerns that Russia will actually build an underground signals intelligence bunker to transmit intel on European countries to Moscow.
The Russian embassy in Dublin told SPYSCAPE that media reports of signet bunkers and embassy searches are nonsense, however: “The subject of the embassy renovation has been manipulated more or less on a regular basis in the Irish and British media. We have seen quite a number of ludicrous ‘spy stories’ associated with the project. In real life, the renovation of the embassy is only about making the working and living conditions of its staff better.”
“There is nothing secret about it,” the embassy added. “There is nothing in the project that could be even remotely linked to the issues of security, particularly to ‘the security and defense of the (Irish) State’ as it was alleged by the Irish authorities.”
As for Saline and the Lipassovs, the Cold War spying ring, the Russian embassy had no comment. Nyet.