Sweden: The spectacular case of Russian espionage

After a year in custody, two Swedish brothers of Iranian origin were accused of years of spying for Russia. One of them held temporary positions in the Swedish civil and military intelligence services. Meanwhile, a Russian agent operating under a false identity was exposed in Norway.

The headquarters of the Russian military intelligence service in Moscow in a photo from 2018. The service is currently linked to espionage cases in Sweden and Norway.

Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

After an extensive investigation, the public prosecutor’s office in Sweden on Friday officially charged two Swedish citizens of Iranian origin with years of espionage for Russia. What is spectacular about the case is that, according to media information, one of the two accused, a 42-year-old man, ran both the police information service Säkerhetspolisen (Säpo) and the army and the military intelligence service Must from 2011 to 2015, before being imprisoned, he was arrested in the fall of 2021 .

The other, who is the 42-year-old’s younger brother by seven years, was also arrested a few weeks later. He is said to have been responsible for liaising with the Russian military intelligence service (GRU), passing on information and receiving payments. The espionage activities of both allegedly stretched from 2011 to 2021. However, suspicions were raised against the older man apparently already in 2017, so he was monitored by Säpo (where he no longer worked).

Strictly confidential

Both brothers deny the accusations. Her lawyers told the media they believe the prosecution is on shaky ground. The prosecutor’s office seems to see things differently.

From the information that the police gave to the public, it follows that various electronic traces were secured. For example, on the day the older brother was arrested, the younger brother was seen putting the broken hard drive in a bin at a bus stop in the Uppsala suburb where they live. The police immediately fished them out again. During the investigation, the police also discovered documents with the younger of the brothers, which were interpreted as an emergency escape plan.

However, little is probably known about the specific case. Because it is information with the highest level of secrecy. During his time with the secret services, the 42-year-old apparently even had professional contact with the central office that runs the Swedish network of secret agents.

Prosecutors say the case directly affects Swedish security. Therefore, the government was also informed. The newspaper “Expressen” wrote that parts of the evidence were so secret that they were not made available to the court in advance, but only presented in the courtroom. Negotiations are scheduled to begin in the second half of November and will mostly take place behind closed doors.

“Illegal” in Norway

Less spectacular in terms of threats to national security, but just as effective, is the espionage case that currently keeps the Norwegian public on edge. This is an alleged Brazilian researcher whose papers are in the name of José Assis Giammaria. He is said to have done academic work in Malaysia and Canada, for example in the field of Arctic security policy, and most recently participated in the hybrid warfare research group at the University of Tromso.

Image of Arctic explorer José Assis Giammaria, who Norwegian intelligence believes is a Russian spy.

Image of Arctic explorer José Assis Giammaria, who Norwegian intelligence believes is a Russian spy.

Twitter/Bellingcat

However, Giammaria turned out to be Mikhail Mikushin, as the Norwegian newspaper “VG” wrote after examining the relevant file from the PST intelligence service. The PST found evidence that Mikushin could be a high-ranking GRU agent. Research by the well-known investigative network Bellingcat supports this thesis. Giammaria/Mikuschin was arrested in Tromso at the end of October and held in custody for at least four weeks. He is accused of illegal intelligence activities to obtain Norwegian state secrets.

Mikushin, with his fabricated Brazilian past, would be a typical “illegal”; a spy who is smuggled into another country under a false identity, leads a “normal” civilian life there, and is then activated at some point. The arrest of a number of such Russian “illegals” by the FBI in the US in 2010 caused an uproar; the theme was later taken up by a Cold War television series.

The Giammario/Mikushino arrests took place in an atmosphere already charged with nervousness following various incidents of drone activity by Russians, sometimes near critical infrastructure. The PST Intelligence Service had the alleged researcher on their radar for some time. Suspicions that he was not who he claimed to be were reinforced when the “Brazilian” chose English as the language for the first interrogation, despite the availability of a Portuguese interpreter. He is said to have once told colleagues at the university that he grew up in Bolivia, which is why he only speaks Spanish. Determining his supposed real identity was made easier by the fact that he left electronic traces under his real name during domestic visits to Russia.

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