The high political cost of expelling Kremlin spies in Europe
The war in Ukraine has exposed EU member states’ ties to Russia, with diplomatic expulsions accompanied by accusations of espionage being the most obvious way to illustrate them.
This is particularly true in EU member countries which have closer ties to Russia and where public opinion is often more favorable to Moscow.
However, there are signs that European intelligence agencies are fighting back and that Russia’s attempt to control the narrative among its own is running out of steam.
March and April were marked by a series of expulsions of Russian diplomats accused of spying in EU countries. While the trend has subsided in most countries, EU members with close ties to the Kremlin continue to expel suspected agents.
Bulgaria said “personae non gratae”Tuesday (June 28), a record number of 70 Russian diplomats for activity incompatible with their diplomatic status.
It’s no surprise that such a number comes from an EU country where, alongside Slovakia, nearly half of respondents in a recent poll said they don’t consider Russia as responsible for the war in Ukraine. In March alone, Bratislava expelled 38 diplomats accused of spying.
However, ousted Prime Minister Kiril Petkov’s decision appears to have come at a high domestic political cost.
This week’s expulsions are reason enough for Kornelia Ninova, leader of the Russophile Bulgarian Socialist Party and Deputy Minister and Economy Minister of the deposed government, to announce that she will suspend government formation negotiations with the group “We let’s continue the change” by Mr. Petkov.
Ms. Ninova believes that it is “unacceptable” that Mr. Petkov decides alone on this expulsion, which affects two thirds of the employees of the Russian diplomatic mission in Bulgaria.
Mr Petkov’s cabinet lost power last week after a no-confidence motion backed by the ruling coalition collapsed. Mr Petkov is now trying to form a new government in this parliament with the support of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the Democratic Bulgaria party and independent MPs.
Russia has 118 people in its diplomatic mission in Bulgaria, while the Bulgarian embassy in Moscow has less than ten. The government justified the decision to expel the diplomats with a report on espionage by the State Agency for National Security and the principle of reciprocity of diplomatic missions.
Ms. Ninova’s party will nevertheless resume ministerial negotiations with Mr. Petkov’s “We continue the change” party in the event that the current Prime Minister does not occupy this position in a possible next government.
If he fails, Bulgaria’s political crisis will deepen and early elections could be looming on the horizon in September, heightening political uncertainty. Analysts predict that the pro-Russian nationalists of the Bulgarian Renaissance Party are also likely to have significantly more MPs in the next parliament.
Andrei Gyurov, the leader of the parliamentary group “We continue the change”, commented that the decision of the Prime Minister to expel the diplomats was ” completely normal “.
“We hope that the BSP will reconsider its decision. You can see that the formation of a government during this legislature is also a priority for Bulgarian citizens”said Mr. Gyurov.
The BSP’s decision brings the country closer not only to elections, but also to the threat of an increasingly uncontrollable situation and chaos, said co-leader of Democratic Bulgaria, Hristo Ivanov.
“I hope the Prime Minister made the decision to expel Russian diplomats on the basis of solid and reliable information and that he thought it through carefully, both in terms of scope and consequences”commented President Roumen Radev, who was in Madrid on Wednesday (June 29) for the NATO summit.
Kisses from Warsaw
At the same time, there are signs that intelligence services in member states, especially in Eastern European countries that have long been suspicious of Russia, are stepping up their own efforts.
Conversations between Russian soldiers stationed in Ukraine, which were intercepted by the Polish intelligence agency, show that their morale is extremely low.
This was confirmed by Stanisław Żaryn, spokesperson for the Coordinating Minister for Special Services, who spoke to the Polish News Agency about the gap between official Russian propaganda regarding a “special military operation” in Ukraine and the reality among the soldiers of the invading forces.
Signs of discouragement were heard in two separate recordings, one between a Russian official and a law enforcement official, the other between Russian military officers discussing the real reasons for the war in Ukraine.
In one of the recordings, an official questions the procedures for combatants who are sent home for medical reasons and who then invent excuses not to have to return to the combat zone.
In the other taped conversation, officers discuss how soldiers often question the competence of their superiors.
“There are also questions about the effectiveness of Russian intelligence, which, according to the conversation, could falsify reality”the spokesperson said, adding that “The conversations show that the soldiers sent to the front are increasingly aware that the Russians are suffering heavy losses in Ukraine. »
According to Mr. Żaryn, Russian soldiers are afraid to participate in battles with Ukrainians, and there is general criticism of the Russian army in their ranks.
The spokesman also pointed out that Russian soldiers were complaining that Ukrainians were supposed to “greet with flowers” and their “kiss the feet”. Some also claim, sarcastically, that the Russian intelligence services were ” on holiday “ during the preparation for the invasion.
Negative feelings towards the Kremlin also emerge from the recordings, with some claiming that the Russian government “treat conscripts like cannon fodder”.
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