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Ukraine invasion turns spotlight on Russian spies in Brussels

The NATO headquarters on the outskirts of Brussels (Flickr/Free licence)
05:43 02/03/2022

Brussels, home to many international organisations such as the European institutions and Nato, has long been known as a hotbed for Russian espionage. Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has now turned the spotlight once again on the army of Russian intelligence officers operating in the Belgian capital, reports Bruzz. "Since the Cold War, Brussels has been a magnet for Russian spies," says Kristof Clerix, an investigative journalist and security expert.

The number of spies in Brussels soared with the relocation of Nato headquarters from Paris to Evere in 1967. "In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, our country expelled 90 Warsaw Pact spies, including 60 Russians," Clerix says. "They always worked under a cover, for example, they were diplomats or consuls, but there were also journalists from Tass news agency, Aeroflot travel agents, students and translators who were spying."

Belgians were also recruited by the Russian secret service. "For example, in the 80ss there was Guy Binet, a colonel of the Belgian army who passed on secret information to the Russians," says Clerix, who writes for Knack magazine.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Cold War ended, espionage continued. "Only a new element has been added, the cyber dimension."

"In 2018, a Bruges diplomat was convicted of espionage activities,” he continues. “In the same year, the Criminal Court of Brussels also convicted some Russian intelligence officers. That was a very punishing story, because it was about a Russian spy couple who had surreptitiously obtained Belgian nationality. They were perfectly integrated into Belgium, called themselves Maurice and Irène, and were married in Ixelles. They looked like ordinary Belgians but belonged to the most secret category of Russian spies. You can compare it to the couple from the TV series The Americans."

In 2019, the Belgian military intelligence service Adiv had to dismiss one its own employees because of contacts with dubious figures from Russia.

For a very recent case, Clerix refers to the article ‘Who were Russia's spies at NATO HQ?’ written by EUObserver journalist Andrew Rettman. In it, Rettman reveals the identities of the eight Russian diplomats at Nato who were expelled in October by its secretary general Jens Stoltenberg for "activities that are not in line with their accreditation." Among them, for example, was a Russian lieutenant general with good connections in the Kremlin and a big data specialist.

Many spies pose as diplomats

Diplomacy is still an important cover for spies today. "Western intelligence services assume that one in three Russian diplomats in our country is in fact an intelligence officer," says Clerix.

In his article, Andrew Rettman even talks about a hundred Russian diplomats being spies, meaning every other diplomat in Belgium could be an intelligence operative, supplemented by at least as many Russians and also EU residents who use a different cover for their espionage activities. According to Clerix, they pass on political, economic and military information that is not yet in the public domain. "It can be interesting to know someone's negotiating position two days in advance," he says.

How do they do this? "Like any secret service works, the Russians use the MICE model: Money, Ideology, Compromise, Ego. They try to bribe people, persuade them with ideology, compromise them or act on their ego, for example by responding to the frustrations of a civil servant who does not get a promotion."

In order to expose the spies, Nato and the EU now have their own security services. They work together with the Belgian State Security and Adiv.

"Belgium does not have a particularly large intelligence apparatus,” says Clerix. “The state security has roughly 600 people, Adiv about the same number and both have put the emphasis on counterterrorism in recent years. In the meantime, fortunately, there is the realisation that foreign espionage also poses a threat, against which we must arm ourselves. This is one of the reasons why state security will be expanded to 1,000 people by 2024."

Have Russian espionage activities in our country increased in recent weeks? "I put the question to the state security, but received no answer,” says Clerix. “What I do know from sources in European security services is that the spies of the Russian military intelligence service GROe were given carte blanche during the previous Ukraine crisis in 2014 with regard to running security operations in Brussels."

Written by Nick Amies