Europe has deported an estimated 400 Moscow diplomats since 2022 and arrested at least 15 suspected spies, some whispered to be sleeper agents - Russian ‘ghosts’ using fake IDs taken from the dead.
When Britain charged three Bulgarians suspected of spying for Moscow in August, 2023, the neighbors were astonished. ‘Ordinary' folks had infiltrated the suburbs, allegedly hoarding fake passports and cultivating secret networks to conceal a web of espionage. “It is a bit freaky,” a northwest London barber said.
Although tabloid headlines speculated about ‘thousands’ of Russian sleeper agents in the suburbs, former Mi6 officer Harry Ferguson downplayed the arrests: “One of the problems with these sorts of breaking stories is that somebody says ‘spy’ and everybody wets their trousers.”
So what’s really going on?
Operation Ghost Stories
Moscow developed its ‘illegals’ program a century ago after the 1917 revolution began and its ‘sleeper agents’ became the giants of espionage, possessing stolen birth certificates and backstories forged in the KGB's Directorate S, awaiting the call of duty for years or even decades.
Britain uncovered the Portland Spy Ring in the ‘50s, run by KGB sleeper agent Konon Molody who masqueraded as Canadian businessman Gordon Lonsdale. He ran two British spies with access to naval intelligence and two Americans, Lona and Morris Cohen, who trained the next generation of US sleeper agents including former KGB officer Jack Barsky.
In 2010, the FBI’s Operation Ghost Stories revealed a network of more than 10 Moscow spies who’d burrowed into US society for years including the notorious Anna Chapman who operated undercover as a New York real estate agent. The network’s goal? Climb the social ladder, get close to power, and report back to Moscow.
Russia has always played the long game, so is Putin up to his old tricks again? “I don’t know if there are more of them,” said former CIA officer Doug Patteson, but “I do think we’re getting better at catching them.”
The Amercians - the spies’ next door
The Cold War's ghostly return, embodied by the Russia-Ukraine War since 2022, feels like an unsettling re-run of The Americans television series.
Peruvian 'jewelry designer' Maria Adela infiltrated Nato circles before buying a one-way ticket to Moscow. ‘Brazilian academic’ José Assis Giammaria studied Arctic security in Canada before his arrest in Norway. Kyrgyzstan-born Marina Sologub was a fixture in Irish politics and aerospace before her arrest in Australia.
All are suspected of spying for Russia’s GRU military intelligence (and all protest their innocence or have fled). But is there another invisible link between the suspects who also include: a 20-year-old Polish premier league ice hockey player; a ‘Greek’ photographer with a birth certificate belonging to a deceased child; an unremarkable couple picked up in Slovenian, and; the three Bulgarians arrested with multiple passports, press cards, and the help of British intelligence service MI5?
“It's now clear that what we were told was a coup for MI5 was clearly part of a far wider sweep, over the past two years, almost certainly led by the CIA, involving the arrest of a 'Brazilian' researcher and graduate of Calgary University in Canada in Norway, etc,” said Professor Anthony Glees, a security and intelligence expert at the University of Buckingham in England.
“It now also seems certain that the GRU was running these people, most of whom were not Russians but citizens of countries which had strong pro-Russian elements; most were spying on Nato members and one on the Nato Mediterranean base in Naples,” he added.
The suspected undercover Russian spies are accused of cultivating networks in countries that belong either to Nato or the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (the US, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand). Yet not everyone believes Vladimir Putin’s GRU is running rings around the West.
Spies like us?
“With regard to those illegals, none of them appear very strong,” said Jack Barsky, the former KGB sleeper agent embedded in New York during the ‘80s. “The Bulgarians clearly do not gain an advantage by organizing events for the Bulgarian exiles. They also will have a problem - lower middle class, probably heavy accents - getting to the right people who have access to secrets.”
MI6's Harry Ferguson points out that the Bulgarian suspects were investigated by MI5 and counterintelligence officers for six months but only charged with possessing forged documents: "In espionage terms, that's the equivalent of speeding in a 30-mile-an-hour zone.”
So are we looking at a round-up of 15 forgettable minnows and innocents? Not necessarily.
“It is common for illegals to be dispatched abroad as couples,” said Kevin Riehle, author of Russian Intelligence. “They were Bulgarians not Russian, which fits the illegals’ profile. There’s not a lot available about them, so it is hard to draw a firm conclusion at this point.”
The stories involving the other dozen or so suspected detainees are equally intriguing.
Could you be an undercover spy?
Undercover spies do not always work under the guise of embassy diplomats or officials. They come in various guises:
Illegals - Sleeper agents who use a fake identity and false backstory. They distance themselves from the Russian government and Russia.
Russian undercover agents - Russian agents like Anna Chapman who work undercover but do not deny their Russian origins.
Co-optees - Russians or Russian sympathizers (often former Soviet bloc nationals) who are not trained officers. They are co-opted in to help. These may be students or businessmen who don’t necessarily know they are working for Russian intelligence.
NOCs (pronounced ‘knocks’) - Operatives under Non-Official Cover (NOC) operate without official ties to the government for which they work. They assume covert roles in organizations and do not have diplomatic immunity. The US, for example, deploys NOCs whose ranks have included Amaryllis Fox, a former CIA officer.
Deepfakes - A video or photo of a person in which their face or body has been digitally altered so they appear to be someone else, typically used maliciously or to spread false information.