Spies Next Door: Are Putin’s ‘Sleeper Agents’ Back With a Vengeance?

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? 

ANNA CHAPMAN, Russian Sleeper Spy
  Anna Chapman, one of 10 Kremlin operatives traded in a US-Russia spy swap in 2010


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 Americans, Russian spies next door
            The Americans TV series focuses on Russian sleeper agents - the ‘spies next door’

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.

Two Bulgarians accused of being Russian sleeper agents
        UK suspects Dzhambazov (L) and Ivanova organized ex-pat events and helped Bulgarians vote

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.

Spies Next Door: Are Putin’s ‘Sleeper Agents’ Back With a Vengeance?

BY
Caroline Byrne
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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? 

ANNA CHAPMAN, Russian Sleeper Spy
  Anna Chapman, one of 10 Kremlin operatives traded in a US-Russia spy swap in 2010


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 Americans, Russian spies next door
            The Americans TV series focuses on Russian sleeper agents - the ‘spies next door’

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.

Two Bulgarians accused of being Russian sleeper agents
        UK suspects Dzhambazov (L) and Ivanova organized ex-pat events and helped Bulgarians vote

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.

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                      ‘Maria Adela’ sought access to Nato’s Allied Joint Force Command in Italy


Invisible threats in the shadows

Maria Adela, a Lima ‘jewelry designer’, applied for a Peruvian passport using a baptism certificate from a church that didn’t exist at the time. Instead, she traveled on a Russian passport numbered 643258050 - only a few numbers away from ‘Sergey Fedotov’, one of the senior officers of GRU black-ops unit 29155, Bellingcat investigators allege. “This was likely the seeding phase of a long-term plan by the GRU to deploy their illegal spy as a self-sufficient businesswoman and socialite.” 

Spanish-Russian freelance journalist Pablo González, who has reported for Voice of America and TV channel La Sexta, was accused of espionage by the Internal Security Agency, the Polish counterintelligence service. He has been held in custody since February 2022. Evidence of the allegations against him aren’t public.

Sergey Cherkasov allegedly posed as Brazilian citizen Victor Muller and attempted to penetrate the International Criminal Court in The Hague, according to a US indictment. Dutch intelligence deported Cherkasov to Brazil where he was convicted of falsely obtaining and using Brazilian documents and jailed for 15 years. The US is hoping to extradite him.

A Russian-born Swedish man in his 60s was arrested by elite police who reportedly rappelled into his home from two Black Hawk helicopters. He is accused of passing hi-tech equipment to Moscow and denies any wrongdoing.

The arrest of a Kyrgyzstan-born woman who grew up in Cork, Ireland, caught the attention of Professor Glees who said: “Perhaps the most important [technically proficient] of these agents was Marina Sologub, a Kazak, but with Irish citizenship, who worked for Irish politicians and then for the space industry in Australia.”


Cork Ireland
Cork, Ireland, known as the ‘Rebel Country’


Russian spy or suburban mom?

Beyond Ireland's emerald landscape lies a realm of espionage cloaked in mystery. During the Cold War, Russia stationed KGB operatives under a diplomatic façade at its Russian Embassy on Dublin’s Orwell Road and embedded a spy ring on the rugged island’s edges to monitor US submarines.

In the past five years, Moscow has reduced the Kremlin's diplomatic footprint in Dublin from 30 - including four senior diplomats expelled in 2022 for activities ‘not in accordance with international standards’ (diplomat-speak for suspected espionage). Only 13 Dublin-based Russian diplomats remain, which limits Moscow’s intelligence capabilities.

A similar scenario has played out across Europe where an estimated 400 Russian diplomats have been expelled since the start of the Ukraine war in February 2022, depleting Moscow’s ranks. Some experts believe Moscow has resorted to recruiting civilian spies and activating embedded Moscow sleeper agents to make up the numbers’ shortfall, but are Western counterintelligence officers chasing Russian ghosts or real threats? 

Marina Sologub, 39, an ethnic Russian raised in Cork, Ireland, worked with Irish politicians and the country’s National Space Center before moving to Adelaide and the Australian Space Agency. Sologub, detained in 2023 and fighting deportation, acknowledges that she spoke to a ‘Kremlin mystery man’- a Russian believed to be an intelligence officer working under diplomatic cover - but denies spying allegations.

“I am starting to lose my patience,” Sologub snapped during an interview with 60 Minutes in Australia.

"Do you know how many friends I have on Facebook?" Sologub said. "I have people from America with whom I worked as well. From Europe. We exchange 'Happy Birthdays'. That's it. This is a normal working relationship. It's not a friend."


The Russian Bear


Stealing secrets

There are also questions about how much intelligence (if any) the new wave of suspected Russian spies are delivering to the Kremlin or whether that’s even their goal. If they’re after state secrets, they’ve got their work cut out for them, Barsky believes.

“Even the best intelligence services are hamstrung when under a dictatorial government where the spy services are afraid to deliver bad news to the top,” Barsky told SPYSCAPE. ”I don't believe that Russians have become any better in HUMINT than in my days. However, they have gotten very good at social media-based misinformation, particularly via the use of sophisticated deepfakes.”

Deepfakes are essentially videos manipulated by artificial intelligence. Tech analysts predict state-orchestrated disinformation, foreign interference, fraud, and conspiracy will worsen as digital forgeries become indiscernible from reality.

Gordon Corera, the BBC journalist and author of Russians Among Us, noted that the FBI was initially slow to recognize what is, essentially, a shift toward tech sleeper spies - using technology and social media deepfakes (fake profiles) to post messages or videos that influence events such as the US election. “It was only looking back after 2016 that US intelligence officials would understand the extent of Russian ambition and put all the pieces together.”

“Matt Skiber was one of the new illegals,” Corera writes. “He got involved in politics in May 2016 even though he didn’t exist - a ghost controlled by a person in a computer in St. Petersburg.”


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.

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