Mon. Jul 22nd, 2024

Russia Recruits Online Sympathizers for Sabotage in Europe, Officials Say

By meerna Jul11,2024
Russia Recruits Online Sympathizers for Sabotage in Europe, Officials Say

MUNICH — When a man was spotted last October taking photos of a U.S. military garrison in a Bavarian city where Ukrainian soldiers train to operate M1 Abrams tanks, it triggered an investigation that provided the first evidence that Russia was planning sabotage attacks in Germany, security officials said.

The suspect, a German citizen born in Russia, had discussed potential targets in Germany, including an encrypted messaging app and a US facility in the city of Grafenwoehr, with a person linked to Russian military intelligence, according to six Western security officials.

Dieter Schmidt, 39, and an alleged co-conspirator were charged with espionage in April, the first arrests in Germany of alleged saboteurs working for Moscow. Europe has been grappling for months with a surge in sabotage attacks or plots led by Moscow as Russia focuses on increasing the cost of Western support for Ukraine.

“Russia is fighting the West in the West, on Western territory,” said a senior NATO official, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive material. “Our attention is really focused on that.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on May 31 in Prague vowed to respond to the Kremlin’s escalating “hybrid attacks” on frontline states and NATO members. (Video: The Washington Post)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “virtually every ally” at a NATO meeting in Prague last month raised the issue of “the Kremlin… escalating its hybrid attacks on frontline NATO members, torching and sabotaging supply depots, ignoring maritime borders and demarcations in the Baltic, launching more cyberattacks, continuing to spread disinformation.”

The question of how far Moscow will escalate its actions and how the West should respond will consume much of the NATO summit in Washington this week. Western officials say the Russian operations they have uncovered appear designed to stay below the threshold of open armed attack, while stirring public concern and growing numbers.

In Britain in April, four men were charged with setting fire to a London warehouse that was storing aid for Ukraine; authorities said the attack was paid for by Russian intelligence. In early May, a fire broke out at the Diehl arms factory just outside Berlin — and investigators said they were looking into possible links to Russian intelligence. In Poland, also in May, an arson attack burned down a shopping mall near Warsaw, and Polish police arrested nine men shortly afterward who said they were part of a Russian network involved in “beatings, arson and attempted arson,” including a paint factory in Wroclaw and an Ikea store in Lithuania.

Arsonists burned down the Marywilska 44 shopping mall in Warsaw on May 12. Polish police have arrested nine men allegedly involved in a Russian criminal network. (Video: Wawa Hot News 24 via Storyful)

In June, French police arrested a Russian-Ukrainian citizen who allegedly planned violence after materials intended to build explosive devices were found in his hotel room near Paris following an apparently accidental explosion in his room. Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said a Latin American man accused of trying to set fire to a Prague bus station last month was “probably” financed and hired by Russian agents.

The Kremlin’s treasury of documents obtained by European intelligence services and reviewed by The Washington Post show the scale of Russia’s efforts to identify potential recruits.

The documents show that in July 2023, Kremlin political strategists analyzed the Facebook profiles of more than 1,200 people they believed were employees of two large German plants — Aurubis and BASF in Ludwigshafen — to identify workers who could be manipulated to incite social unrest.

The strategists prepared Excel spreadsheets in which they analyzed each employee’s profile, highlighting posts that demonstrated employees’ anti-government, anti-immigration, or anti-Ukrainian views.

At the BASF chemical plant, special attention was paid to employee attitudes toward the closure of several plants at the plant in spring 2023 due to rising production costs, including natural gas price hikes, leading to the loss of 2,600 jobs. At the Aurubis metallurgical plant, strategists noticed anti-immigration views in posts by some employees, one document shows.

“We can focus on inciting ethnic hatred,” wrote one strategist. “Or organizing strikes against social benefits.”

German officials say they are not aware of any incidents at BASF or Aurubis that could be linked to Russia, but they add that they take the Kremlin’s actions very seriously and believe they show how Moscow is using social media to recruit agents.

Daniela Rechenberger, a BASF spokeswoman, declined to discuss any employees but said the company “continuously strengthens its capabilities to prevent, detect and respond to security threats.”

Christoph Tesch, a spokesman for Aurubis, said: “We have no evidence of this – nor are we aware of any social unrest within the company.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told The Post that accusations of Russian sabotage were “nothing more than fanning Russophobic hysteria.”

“All these assumptions and accusations have no basis whatsoever,” he said, adding that the authenticity of the claims is “more than questionable.”

The expulsion of hundreds of suspected Russian intelligence officers who served under official cover as diplomats in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was intended to limit Moscow’s ability to conduct covert operations. But increasingly, officials say, Moscow is operating through proxies, including those it recruits online.

“The way we tried to respond was the way we would have done during the Cold War. But that’s not the way Russia is doing things now,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said in an interview. “Social media alone provides a lot of opportunities to find people who can help them with their activities. So you might not even need a handler in NATO countries if you can do it online.”

While operating through social media poses a greater risk of detection, Moscow appears willing to cast an infinite net in search of allies. Communications through encrypted apps and a seemingly random set of targets increase the challenges of uncovering Russian operations, officials said.

“It’s extremely decentralized,” Landsbergis said. “It could be refugees, it could be people who are unlucky. It could be criminals, basically anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to make a few thousand euros (by sabotaging Russia) and that the risk isn’t too high.”

Russia may also believe that outsourcing such operations gives it a degree of deniability while maximizing the potential to create chaos, the officials said. “They are doing what they can,” said one senior European security official.

A Russian scientist with close ties to senior Russian diplomats insisted that Moscow could not be linked to all the incidents cited by Western security officials. “But if this conflict continues, each side will increasingly resort to such perverted methods of warfare,” he added.

Schmidt, a man arrested for surveilling a U.S. military facility in Germany, posted on Facebook about his exploits fighting Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine between 2014 and 2016. His deployment appears to have been a successful case of identifying potential ideological allies, German security officials said. Law enforcement officials said they were still investigating whether Schmidt received any financial compensation for his efforts.

Schmidt, who holds both German and Russian citizenship and moved to Germany as a teenager, was also tasked with finding other people from the German-Russian community in Bayreuth, his hometown in Bavaria, who could help with the sabotage mission, investigators said.

One such recruit was Alexander Jungblut, another German of Russian origin, who was arrested in April along with Schmidt and also charged with espionage.

“Jungblut was mainly involved in internet research and supported Schmidt,” said a German security official, including information about an American company with branches in Bavaria.

Attorneys for Schmidt and Jungblut did not respond to requests for comment.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in June that the alliance’s defence ministers had agreed to increase intelligence sharing, strengthen protection of critical infrastructure and introduce further restrictions on Russian intelligence agents in a bid to curb Moscow’s activities.

But Lithuania’s Landsbergis said a much bigger effort is needed. “From our perspective, it doesn’t look like Russia is deliberately avoiding casualties,” Landsbergis said. “It’s just a coincidence that there haven’t been any yet. We’re going to have to respond… When Russia escalates into our territory, the best way to respond is to allow Ukraine to escalate.”

Belton reported from London and Rauhala from Brussels. Cate Brown in Washington and Ellen Francis in Brussels contributed to this report.

By meerna

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