String of mysterious attacks across Europe opens new front in Russia’s war on the West

Story by Joe Barnes

First, a warehouse in east London being used to supply aid to Ukraine burned down. Weeks later, an Ikea in Vilnius, Lithuania, mysteriously caught fire.

Swedish investigators were already looking into the possibility that several railway derailments could have been caused by a state-backed saboteur.

Then an inferno engulfed the largest shopping centre in Warsaw, Poland’s capital. It was Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, who began joining the dots to suggest the West was under attack by Russian espionage.

“We are examining the threads – they are quite likely – that the Russian services had something to do with the Marywilska fire,” he said last month.

His claims were further bolstered when a former Russian soldier was arrested north of Paris this week after explosives detonated in his hotel room.

Warnings from European intelligence agencies that Russia is plotting acts of sabotage on the Continent in its escalation of the stand-off with the Nato military alliance have been thrust into the limelight.

An intelligence assessment shared with Western governments claims that Russia’s notorious GRU military intelligence agency, known for its attacks on foreign soil using highly trained agents, is now turning to criminal gangs to carry out attacks in Europe.

The Kremlin’s spy network was dealt a blow in the weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb 24 2022, when more than 600 of its intelligence officers in Europe with diplomatic cover were expelled.

Britain used a similar tactic when James Cleverly, the Home Secretary, expelled Col Maxim Elovik, Moscow’s defence attache, after the allegedly Russia-linked arson attack on the east London warehouse that was being used by a business providing aid to Ukraine.

Four men will go on trial next year accused of setting fire to the commercial property, a court heard last month.

Lack of sophistication 

Alexander Lord, lead Europe-Eurasia analyst at Sibylline, a geopolitical risk firm, said: “The capabilities these gangs can provide are pretty low-level, but they can still achieve Russian foreign policy objectives, namely, destabilising the West, deterring European decision-makers against supporting Ukraine and exacerbating polarisation and societal tensions across not only Nato but the European Union.” 

The lack of sophistication is a particular worry for Western intelligence services, with the proxies now relied on by the Kremlin more likely to cause collateral damage because of their lack of skills with explosives.

A Western counter-intelligence officer told the Financial Times: “There is a greater chance of collateral damage and casualties as the proxies are not skilled in tradecraft, such as explosives.” 

Their theory was displayed earlier this week when the former Russian soldier, from Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, was badly burned in an explosion on Tuesday in a hotel room in Roissy-en-France, near Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport.

Investigators confirmed they had discovered bomb-making materials, as Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, arrived in France to join commemorations marking the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

It is a trend tracked from the beginning of the year, with intelligence officers going “tick, tick, tick down a list of all of the things that have been identified as stuff that Russia would do in advance of a conflict to immobilise,” said Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at the Chatham House think tank.

“And since then, that pattern has just got stronger,” he added. 

Unexplained explosions

Despite the lack of sophistication in some of the alleged acts of sabotage, military facilities have also been targeted. 

In Germany, two men were arrested for allegedly plotting to blow up a Nato site in the south of the country that is used to support Ukraine. The Russian-German dual citizens were arrested after they were caught carrying out what the interior ministry said was “surveillance” of the US military facility.

Poland arrested a man it said was suspected of helping Russian intelligence prepare an attack on Mr Zelensky. The country’s railways, which carry military aid east to Ukraine, have also been targeted.

A Western official said: “We are seeing sabotage continue as another ascent of Russia’s behaviour.” 

These more advanced incidents will further raise questions over the unexplained explosions at a BAE Systems munitions factory in Wales, which supplies shells used in Ukraine, and at a similar facility owned by German arms firm Diehl.

Russian agents were blamed for a similar attack on a Czech arms depot in October 2014, where weapons destined for Kyiv were also being stored.

Mr Lord said: “If we start to ask ourselves why this is happening now, the discussions in Western capitals around ever-growing Western involvement in Ukraine, I think what the Russians are seeing is a potential mission creep threat for them.

“Over the last two-and-a-half years, we’ve seen previous ‘red lines’ being crossed, and the Russians haven’t done anything to respond to that.”

‘Intimidation’ attempts

Nato, which is vying for a greater role in the supply of weapons and munitions to Ukraine, has taken a greater interest in the alleged malign acts by Russian-backed agents.

Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance’s secretary-general, recently said: “I can say that we have seen increased Russian intelligence activity across the alliance. Therefore we have increased our vigilance.”

Top Nato officials have warned the alliance could be at war with Russia in the next two decades, with those timescales drastically shrinking, to as little as two years, in similar warnings from national governments.

The Dutch government has warned of Russian attempts to “intimidate” both Nato and EU countries.

Kajsa Ollongren, the Dutch defence minister, recently told EU counterparts that electricity and water supplies, as well as undersea infrastructure, were particular weak spots.

Mr Giles said: “It’s something that everybody should be aware of because it is another example of Russian hostile activity that seeks to disrupt our countries and could be preparation for something more severe.”

It has also raised the question of whether the West is capable of handling malign threats from a hostile state, after so long focusing on counter-insurgency work in the Middle East.

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Mr Lord said: “There are capability gaps in this regard. The focus on counter-terrorism post-9/11 was incredibly important, but the relatively benign international situation, aside from the terror threats, after the fall of the Soviet Union has led to an element of complacency that great power, competition and confrontation was a thing of the past.

“The invasion of Ukraine has radically upended that notion and Western intelligence agencies, police forces and militaries are now scrambling [to] plug capability gaps considering the severity of the state actor threat.”

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