Earlier this month, experts convened in Brussels for a conference titled 'The Second Cold War: Heating Up?' Even among the plethora of current 'New Cold War' themed events, this one stood out: the organiser, Latvian MEP Tatjana Zdanoka, has been accused of being a Russian agent of influence – a spy.
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Zdanoka, who is also chair of the EU Russian-­Speakers Alliance, insists there is no truth to the allegations, adding that the accusation was part of a ‘dirty tricks’ operation against her at home by domestic opponents – a tactic familiar from the Cold War days to those who remember them. In any event, the criminal investigation against her has been closed, Latvia’s DP intelligence service says. Yet the allegations point to the new – or revived – espionage game that is now playing out in Europe. Intelligence agencies everywhere are upping their games, with Western agencies putting particular efforts into data collection – “snooping”.

The West’s efforts, though, pale into insignificance compared to those of Russia. Germany’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution reports growing instances of Russian espionage, and a spokesman for Sweden’s Säpo intelligence agency says that Russia has increased its intelligence agencies’ activities in Sweden since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. A senior European intelligence official estimates that intelligence agency employees now account for one third of Russia’s diplomats.

Of course, after the Cold War, espionage never completely ceased. Last month, Heidrun Anschlag, a Russian spy who had arrived in Germany with her husband in 1988, was released from prison after serving a year’s sentence. The two had spied on Germany for more than 20 years, until they were caught two years ago.

Even more ambitiously, Russia has successfully reintroduced the Soviet practice of so-called ‘influence operations’, which feature Westerners and Russians expats doing Moscow’s bidding. “Currently, the Russians’ aim is to whisper criticism of Western activities in Ukraine and argue for economic sanctions to be abolished,” explains Piotr Zochowski, a security expert at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), a Warsaw think tank. But it’s only one part of a broader strategic target – persuading the West to recognise Russia’s right to shape the political situation in former USSR countries. During crises, of course, all intelligence services naturally intensify their efforts. But the Russians are beginning to do this on an industrial scale. Germany even has a neologism for talking heads explaining Russia in an overly friendly fashion: Russlandversteher, “those who understand Russia”.

Along with assorted MEPs and eurocrats, the list of speakers at Tatjana Zdanoka’s Cold War conference included Russia’s deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, the European representative of the Russkiy Mir Foundation, and the deputy director of the Fund for the Legal Protection and Support of Russian Federation Compatriots Living Abroad. The Russkyi Mir Foundation, established by the Russian government in 2007 to promote Russian language and culture abroad, gives grants and organises conferences and events. But the Fund for the Legal Protection and Support of Russian Federation Compatriots Living Abroad, central European intelligence agencies allege, has a more specific mission: supporting and funding Russia-friendly foreign NGOs.

Not that influence operations are a new trick. “In the 50s, the Soviets put huge resources into newspapers, news agencies and contacts with academics in the West, and the Brits and Americans responded with similar efforts,” notes Paul Lashmar, head of journalism at Brunel University, who specialises in the relationship between intelligence agencies and the media. “It didn’t peter out until the 70s. From the 2000s onwards the Russian intelligence agencies have been back in the game, using the same techniques as their Soviet predecessors.”

Moscow says that some Western NGOs and media outlets are “agents of influence” against the Kremlin. But that’s seriously doubted. As Lashmar notes, if taxpayers in the West got wind of nefarious influence operations by their own secret services, there would be an outcry.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union recruited Western communists as agents of influence: a small category that had the additional disadvantage of not being particularly popular. Signing up as an unofficial KGB megaphone voice for the media involved a certain ideological commitment as well. Some observers say it is easier for Moscow now, as Russia is less interested in ideology than raw power. “The same people keep coming back to the same position as Moscow, though not all the time as it would damage their credibility. For that reason, the Russians use different influence agents at different times,” says Joakim von Braun, a Swedish expert on Russian intelligence, pointing out that in the past five years Russia’s influence operations in Sweden have increased noticeably and have become more obvious.

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