Russia has rebuilt a spy network abroad and launched a hunt for regime opponents

After failing to prepare for the invasion of Ukraine and having suffered the expulsion from Europe of about 400 diplomats (many of whom were spies), the Russian security services began to rebuild their foreign network and began actively hunting for opponents of Vladimir Putin’s regime. Undercover operatives followed anti-war and fleeing mobilization Russians to countries in Europe, Central Asia and Transcaucasia, representatives of European intelligence services told The Wall Street Journal.

Putin deliberately kept the borders open to send his spies to Europe and other parts of the world along with Russians fleeing mobilization and war.

Proof of their renewed activity was the murder in February in Spain of Maxim Kuzminov, a helicopter pilot who surrendered to Ukrainian forces. By intensifying the hunt for those whom the Kremlin calls traitors, Putin is returning the country to Stalinist times, when the security services themselves and by the hands of recruited foreigners liquidated and kidnapped opponents of Soviet power. This is despite the fact that under the KGB man in power, Russia has already become a world leader in the extraterritorial persecution of its citizens.

According to U.S. and European intelligence officials, Russian security services are acting with increasing shamelessness and ingenuity in suppressing dissent abroad. The lines between the three main services — the FSB, the GRU (Main Directorate of the General Staff), and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) — are increasingly blurred, making it difficult to determine who is responsible for any given operation.

«They used to be very separate, but now they exchange both employees and recruits, just like under Stalin,» when three counterintelligence structures were created during the war under the common name «Smersh» («Death to Spies»), says Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russian intelligence services.

Before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the FSB significantly increased the staff of the Department of Operative Information (DOI), which is part of the Fifth Service. After the invasion, the DOI officers were supposed to ensure the overthrow of the legitimate government of Ukraine and participate in the establishment of a government loyal to Moscow.

After that operation failed, Putin placed some FSB leaders under house arrest but then released them, deciding not to purge the ranks. Now, security analysts told WSJ, the largest FSB unit has become the Department of Military Counterintelligence (DMC, or Third Service), which has grown tremendously since the war began. The DMC supervises the Central Apparatus of the Defense Ministry and the General Staff and is tasked with preventing desertion of servicemen. Representatives of the DMC are located in each military district and a number of military units.

Ukraine and Western countries are actively recruiting Russians to their side. The CIA in three videos urges them, especially intelligence officers, to cooperate. If this work had no effect, the directorate, according to its representatives, would not continue making the videos. «Our doors are always open,» Richard Moore, head of Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency, said in Prague last year. «We will always keep» the secrets of Russians who choose to cooperate, he added.

In turn, Ukraine opened a hotline «I want to live». It was through her that Maxim Kuzminov, who served in the 319th separate helicopter regiment, requested asylum. On August 9, 2023, he took off from near Kursk and flew at low altitude to the territory of Ukraine.

Kuzminov received $500,000 (Ukraine pays money up to that amount to Russian servicemen who defect to its side with valuable military equipment) and decided to settle in the Spanish town of Villajoyosa.

His apartment was in a house located only 150 meters from the police station. Police officers responded quickly to a call in mid-February, but when they arrived, Kuzminov was already dead. His killer had fled, running over the body, where the doctor found marks from five bullets, one of which had hit him directly in the heart.

After the initial chaos of the failed takeover of Ukraine and the expulsion of spy diplomats from their seats in Europe, confidence has returned to Russian security services and they have rebuilt a foreign network, European security analysts told the WSJ. The Stalinist practice of doing other people’s dirty work has also returned, such as the way Spanish communist Ramon Mercader, recruited by the NKVD, assassinated Lev Trotsky in Mexico in 1940.

Last year, for example, 16 foreigners (from countries «east of Poland,» including Ukraine and Belarus) were charged in Warsaw with spying for Russia. They confessed that they had collected information about arms supplies to Ukraine and planned sabotage.

In April 2023, the son of the then Krasnoyarsk governor Artem Uss escaped from house arrest in Milan with the help of a Serbian criminal group. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Uss and his associates built clandestine supply chains through which he smuggled electronics for fighter jets, missile systems, smart munitions, radar, satellites, and other military developments into Russia in violation of U.S. export controls. After his escape, he arrived in Serbia, from where he had already flown to Moscow.

British investigators revealed a network of five Bulgarian — Russian agents operating between 2020 and 2023. They had fake documents, were tracking various people, and helping Russian intelligence services to kidnap them — both in the UK and other countries. They were led by Jan Marsalek, chief operating officer of the German payment system Wirecard. After its bankruptcy, Marsalek, whom Western intelligence agencies believe to be a Russian spy, fled to Moscow.

In Cyprus, since the end of 2022, the arrival of Russian intelligence officers disguised as Russians fleeing mobilization has been regularly recorded. Some of them pretend to be «good Russians», but there are also those who behave discreetly and extremely cautiously. Most of them have settled in Limassol and Nicosia. A few Russian spies have settled in areas adjacent to British military bases, which makes sense.

According to the legend, they are «IT specialists» and «businessmen.»

Opponents of Putin’s regime living in Cyprus, especially the most active ones, should take measures to increase their security.

Against the backdrop of the increased activity of Putin’s intelligence services in the world, the most effective way to eliminate or significantly weaken Moscow’s reconstituted global spy network would be a total ban on Russians visiting other countries. The question of introducing a ban on visits to European Union countries by citizens of the aggressor country has been long overdue and needs to be resolved as soon as possible.