Vladimir Putin’s Spy Army Targets Australia
THE AUSTRALIANFEBRUARY 21, 2015 12:00AM
RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin has increased Moscow’s spy operations against Australia, boosting his country’s espionage to levels not seen since the Cold War.
The move is part of a growing push by Mr Putin to use his overseas foreign intelligence services more aggressively in a bid to steal hi-tech military, scientific and economic secrets from the West.
Australia has been among those countries recently targeted by Moscow as part of a broader intelligence campaign against the West driven by Mr Putin, himself a former KGB agent, security sources have told The Weekend Australian.
During the Cold War, Russia posted undeclared intelligence officers to Australia under diplomatic cover while others have worked here pretending to be business people or other professionals.
Some have been agents for Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, SVR, and others for the country’s military intelligence agency, GRU.
As part of its push to glean military, technological and scientific secrets, Russia is also understood to have recently stepped up cyber warfare against Australian government organisations.
It comes as tensions between Australia and Russia remain high following the shooting down by suspected pro-Russian rebels of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine last July. A total of 298 people, including 38 Australians, were killed.
That was followed by a fraught visit to Australia by Mr Putin for the G20 summit in Brisbane in November before which Tony Abbott had threatened to “shirt-front” the Russian President.
During that same visit, Russia sent a naval task group to waters off Australia’s northeast coast in a display of brinkmanship, prompting Canberra to send two navy frigates and a P3 Orion maritime patrol plane to shadow the Russian flotilla.
The government does not comment on the espionage efforts of specific countries but in ASIO’s most recent annual report, the agency warned that espionage activities against Australian interests were now “extensive”.
“Nations use a range of clandestine or deceptive activities, including undertaking espionage and other forms of foreign interference, in order to advantage themselves, to protect or project their national interests or to harm adversaries,” ASIO said in the report.
“Espionage and clandestine foreign interference activity against Australian interests is extensive.”
However, the agency also warned that the extra resources involved in countering Islamic extremism was limiting its ability to tackle the growing problem of foreign espionage. “Resourcing pressures will remain in relation to the organisation’s non-counter-terrorism focused areas,” ASIO said.
Professor Paul Dibb, a former director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, said it wouldM not surprise him if the Russians had recently increased their espionage activity against Australia. “Does it surprise me that Putin may be up to his old tricks in relation to espionage? No it doesn’t,” Professor Dibb told The Weekend Australian.
“Australia is one of America’s very closest allies in the world and the Russians here at their embassy will be after the usual sort of stuff and that is trying to probe through us American intelligence secrets and military operation secrets.
“We know that despite the demise of the Soviet Union, Russian intelligence capabilities, including their signals intelligence and their cyber-warfare capabilities, are first class and most likely better than those of China.”
Despite Mr Putin’s attempts to boost espionage efforts against Australia, China remains the country with the most extensive espionage network targeted against Australia.
Beijing is believed to increasingly glean its information through state-sanctioned cyber espionage supplemented by agents, as well as sources within the local Chinese community.
News of the heightened Russian activity in Australia came as three Russians were charged in New York last month for working as covert agents for the SVR in the US.
The charges followed a four-year investigation which stemmed from the uncovering of a large Russian spy ring in the US in 2010, which saw 10 Russian agents arrested.
One of these, Anna Chapman, returned to Russia where she became a celebrity and a catwalk model.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich criticised the recent arrests, accusing the US of “once again resorting to their favourite tactic of building up spy hysteria”.
“Russian-US relations have been going through quite a complex period due to Washington’s antagonistic stance,” Mr Lukashevich said.
Meanwhile, in Britain an inquiry is being conducted into the 2006 poisoning of Russian Alexander Litvinenko by suspected Russian intelligence agents.
Litvinenko, himself a former Russian spy who had become an outspoken critic of Moscow, died after being poisoned in London by a radioactive isotope, polonium-210, contained in a cup of tea.
Litvinenko’s widow said her husband was the victim of an “assassination by agents of the Russian state”.