MS Risk Blog

Russian and Chinese Intelligence Operations in the UK and Germany (April 2024)

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Key Judgements:

Over the course of April 2024, there have been multiple incidents of Russian and Chinese backed espionage operations which have occurred in the regions of Western and Southern Europe. Of course, intelligence agencies such as Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (the SVR), Russia’s Military Intelligence Service (the GRU) and the Chinese Intelligence Agency, the Ministry of State Security (the MSS) have a history of launching espionage operations across Western and Southern Europe for the purposes of destabilising and undermining security in the region. As recently as March 2024, a Russian hacking group known as APT29 or “Cosy Bear”, targeted German opposition politicians by sending them malware laced emails, inviting them to attend a dinner party and to fill out an online questionnaire. ATP29 who works for the SVR, used the incident in an attempt to gain access to sensitive computer systems run by Germany’s Christian Democratic Party (CDU) in an effort to compromise and influence the German political landscape. Fortunately, the SVR’s operation was detected by Mendicant, a US cyber security company, who raised the issue with Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. In response, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution issued a warning to all German political parties making them aware of the SVR’s malicious activities.

Like the SVR, the GRU have also been active in Western and Southern Europe, with one source noting that “there is now growing evidence that Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service… and its Military Intelligence Agency… are aggressively trying to rebuild their human espionage networks – particularly with an eye toward military aid going to Ukraine.” Looking towards the MSS, between 2019 and 2022, Daniel Woo, an MSS Officer actively pushed a former Belgian senator, Frank Creyelman to directly use his status to influence discussions in Europe on multiple issues including “China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong to its persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang”. What’s clear from these historical examples are that Chinese and Russian backed operations are widespread from an operational perspective and that they actively aim and achieve to undermine the security of nations across Western and Southern Europe. This trend as we shall see has continued to rear its ugly head over the course of April 2024, serving as a reminder that both Russia and China are gearing towards a more aggressive and active stance in their operations across the region.

Over the duration of April 2024, Germany saw a surge of arrests of suspected spies for the Chinese and Russian Intelligence Agencies, with six suspects being arrested across the nation. In one of these cases, two German-Russian nationals only identified publicly as Dieter S, 39 and Alexander J, 37 were arrested in the southern German state of Bavaria on suspicion of spying for the GRU. Both men are accused of scouting and conducting reconnaissance on a US military base “at Grafenwöhr, Bavaria, where Ukrainian soldiers are being trained to use M1 Abrams tanks”, and at other industrial/transport sites in Germany with the aim to conduct arson and explosive attacks on these sites in an attempt to undermine Germany’s military exports to Ukraine. Dieter S has specifically been accused of “a string of offences, including plotting an explosion, arson and maintaining contact with Russian intelligence”, while Alexander J is accused of helping Dieter S since March 2024 to “identify potential targets for the attack”. Other Prosecutors believe that Dieter S is alleged to have discussed potential sabotage operations in Germany with his GRU contact since as early as October 2023. Given that Germany “is the second largest donor of military aid after the US, earmarking some €28 billion since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022”, it should come as no surprise that the GRU is keen to inflict as much harm and damage as they can on military exports to Ukraine coming from Germany and by proxy, the US. Because of Germany’s large military exports to Ukraine, the country has become an attractive target for the Russian Intelligence Services, with one source noting that “Germany has emerged as a leading target for Russian clandestine operations in Europe.” German officials summoned Russian ambassador Sergei Nechaev in response to the foiled GRU operation, however, the Russian Embassy in Berlin claimed that he was presented with “no proof” that the suspects are connected with the GRU. Moreover, the Russian embassy denounced and dismissed German accusations that the GRU were planning to attack military and industrial facilities, calling the accusations “absurd and ridiculous” whilst also commenting, “we made it clear that any unfriendly actions against Russia will not go without consequences.”  Whilst the foiling of this clandestine operation may be seen as a short-term victory for German counterintelligence, the fact that Germany is a high value target for Russia’s Intelligence Services unveils the possibility that more attempts by the GRU to undermine Germany’s military exports to Ukraine are highly likely to occur both now and in the near future.

The MSS, like the GRU have also been active in Germany over April 2024. Out of the six individuals apprehended in Germany in over the month on espionage charges, 4 out of the 6 are linked to the MSS. Thomas R, Herwig F and Ina F were arrested by German authorities on April 17, 2024, for allegedly supplying information and intelligence on military technology to the MSS. All three suspects are “strongly suspected of having worked for the Chinese Secret Service since an unspecified date before June 2022”. In an official press release, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office stated that “Thomas R acts as an agent for the employee of the Chinese Secret Service MSS who is staying in China. On behalf of this person, Thomas R obtained information on military-usable innovative technology in Germany”. Thomas R is alleged to have cooperated with  Herwig F and Ina F who ran a company in Düsseldorf which was used to contact people within German science and technology research organisations. Through an MSS employee and the Düsseldorf-ran company, the trio were able to gain, collect and pass on sensitive information “including designs for an engine suitable for use of combat ships” onto China. This project was directed and financed by the MSS. At the time of their arrest, “the accused were in further negotiations on research projects which could be useful for the expansion of China’s maritime combat power in particular”. The trio are also accused of creating “a special laser from Germany on behalf of and with payment of the MSS and exported it to China without permission”. The laser is banned under the EU Dual Use regulations which prohibits sending goods which can be used for both military and civilian purposes to certain countries.

In a separate and unrelated incident, which occurred in the UK in April 2024, Christopher Cash, 29, a parliamentary researcher and Christopher Berry, 32 were charged under the Official Secrets Act with allegedly spying for China after they allegedly handed over information which could be considered to be “useful to an enemy”. The pair have been accused of passing on “articles, notes, documents or information” to China. A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy commented “I would like to already reaffirm that the claim that China is suspected of ‘stealing British Intelligence’ is completely fabricated and nothing but malicious slander”. Circling back to Germany, a German employee for the European Parliament and a member of the German political party Alternate for Deutschland (AfD), Jian Guo was arrested in April 2024 in Dresden, for repeatedly passing on information about German parliamentary decisions to Chinese intelligence services. Guo is a duel German Chinese citizen and is alleged to have committed espionage activities by “posing as a critic of the Chinese Government and joining dissident groups of Chinese expatriates in Germany. He would then provide information about the activities of these groups to Chinese intelligence”. In similar fashion to the unrelated case in the UK, China yet again dismissed any accusations that came its way as nonsense.

Both officials in Germany and the UK have branded the foiling of these cases as a success in the realm of counterintelligence yet one must bear in mind that these incidents in fact show that both Russia and China have actively sought to increase their meddling and degrading of the security of Western and Southern Europe, especially since the inception of the Russo Ukraine war. Whilst successes must always be seen as a good thing, especially in the world of intelligence, one must be aware that there are and will be plenty of more opportunities for the Russian and Chinese Intelligence Services to continue to disrupt and exploit the security and political landscapes of Western and Southern Europe both now and in the near future. With a string of individuals being arrested in both Germany and the UK over the course of the month for espionage related activities, one can draw the conclusion that it is highly likely that clandestine operations of this nature which are backed or directly funded by the MSS and Russia’s Intelligence Services are likely to press on into the future, repeating and reappearing with both surprise and frequency whilst simultaneously continuing to be a pressing security issue for regions across Western and Southern Europe.