Slovak prosecutors have charged four people with accepting thousands of euros from Russian spies posing as diplomats in exchange for spying on NATO activity with a specific emphasis on the war in Ukraine.
The charges were issued on Tuesday to crack down on alleged spy activity in Bratislava.
They came a day after the Slovak foreign ministry expelled three Russian diplomats accused of using their diplomatic credentials as cover for recruiting the Slovaks, including a Slovak army officer and a blogger for a recently closed pro-Russian website, who was filmed by Slovak intelligence meeting with a Russian spy.
According to two Slovak officials, military intelligence unwrapped the spy ring after observing Bohuš Garbár, who wrote for the popular conspiracy site Hlavne správy [which translates as ‘Headlines’], apparently being recruited by a Russian military attaché as an asset and talent spotter who could identify people sympathetic to Russia with access to classified information about NATO and Ukraine.
The diplomat, later identified as Col. Sergej Solomasov of Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency, the GRU, explained that he was planning to later recruit such people identified by Garbar.
“There are lots of people sympathetic to Russia,” Garbár told the GRU officer, according to a video leaked to the Slovak media and confirmed to VICE World News by two officials.
In the video, Solomasov says to Garbár he has told Moscow “that you are such a good boy” in an encounter described as “cringeworthy”.
“The problem is they’re irrelevant,” explained Garbár before asking for money because of “high gas prices.”
Undeterred by Garbár’s pessimism, Solomasov then paid the Slovak blogger €1,000.
The exact date the video was filmed could not be confirmed by VICE World News but the Hlavne správy website was shut by the Slovak government on 3rd of March, who said it was for national security reasons.
“It would be funny if it were just some idiot bloggers,” said a senior Slovak intelligence official. “But there’s a high-ranking army officer involved and people accepted tens of thousands of euros. The primary area of interest obviously was NATO activity and internal communications as well as anything related to Ukraine.”
Both officials refused to say if Garbár had cooperated with the investigation – one intelligence official from another country who watched the video said the audio appeared to be made with a high-quality directional microphone – but both said they expected him to plead guilty in court and Slovak media reported at least one unidentified defendant had entered a guilty plea already.
“The Russians are always interested in small countries like Slovakia that are part of NATO because they’re considered easier to penetrate. The Czech services, for example, don’t have the counterintelligence resources of the CIA or MI5, and [they] offer access to inside communications between the US and rest of NATO,” said a central European counterintelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“And obviously the American intentions towards Ukraine and how these are being communicated to NATO partners… even the discussions to build consensus, these are critical intelligence targets for the Russians,” said the official.
One NATO intelligence official in Brussels, agreeing to speak without being named, said there would be more arrests and expulsions in the coming months as NATO refocuses intelligence assets away from terrorism and towards countering Russian intelligence operations.
Russia has been conducting brazen operations in Europe and the UK for years, said the official, pointing to the 2006 murder of defected intelligence agent Aleksander Litvinenko with polonium-210, the 2015 attempt with nerve agent Novichok on a Bulgarian arms dealer, and the 2018 use of the same nerve agent in the British town of Salisbury, among countless other deadly operations, said the official.
“It was once thought that cracking down too hard on the Russians wasn’t worth the extensive problems it could cause,” said the NATO official. “Mr Putin’s recent conduct has made it much easier for the counterintelligence community to argue otherwise.”
All three officials suggested that suspected GRU operations in 2014 in the Czech Republic and 2015 in Bulgaria have been reexamined since the invasion. The attacks caused deadly explosions at arms depots supplying Ukraine’s fight against breakaway republics.
“The 2014 attacks [in the nearby Czech Republic] were Russian attacks on NATO over Ukraine,” said the Slovak official. “That’s how these things are perceived now and not just by intelligence officials, but by the public and previously reluctant politicians.”
The Slovak official said outrage over the Ukraine war had badly damaged Russia’s ability to recruit in Slovakia, a country that Russia invaded less than 50 years ago.
“There’s always these types of people who are attracted to these [authoritarian] ideologies or see it as a way to [get] money and influence,” said the Slovak official. “But once the Russians attacked Ukraine in this manner, it became very clear to a country that lived through a Russian invasion for many of the same reasons in 1968 that these abstract flirtations had been a mistake. I think it is much harder for a Czech or Slovak to justify this sort of betrayal than it was just six months ago.”