Russia plotting sabotage across Europe, intelligence agencies warn

European intelligence agencies have warned their governments that Russia is plotting violent acts of sabotage across the continent as it commits to a course of permanent conflict with the west. 

Russia has already begun to more actively prepare covert bombings, arson attacks and damage to infrastructure on European soil, directly and via proxies, with little apparent concern about causing civilian fatalities, intelligence officials believe. 

While the Kremlin’s agents have a long history of such operations — and launched attacks sporadically in Europe in recent years — evidence is mounting of a more aggressive and concerted effort, according to assessments from three different European countries shared with the Financial Times. 

Intelligence officials are becoming increasingly vocal about the threat in an effort to promote vigilance. 

“We assess the risk of state-controlled acts of sabotage to be significantly increased,” said Thomas Haldenwang, head of German domestic intelligence. Russia now seems comfortable carrying out operations on European soil “[with] a high potential for damage,” he told a security conference last month hosted by his agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.  

Thomas Haldenwang, president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution
Thomas Haldenwang has warned that Russia is comfortable carrying out sabotage on European soil. © Christian Marquardt/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Haldenwang spoke just days after two German-Russian nationals were arrested in Bayreuth, Bavaria, for allegedly plotting to attack military and logistics sites in Germany on behalf of Russia. 

Two men were charged in the UK in late April with having started a fire at a warehouse containing aid shipments for Ukraine. English prosecutors accuse them of working for the Russian government. 

In Sweden, security services are meanwhile investigating a series of recent railway derailments, which they suspect may be acts of state-backed sabotage.

Russia has attempted to destroy the signalling systems on Czech railways, the country’s transport minister told the FT last month. 

In Estonia, an attack on the interior minister’s car in February and those of journalists were perpetrated by Russian intelligence operatives, the country’s Internal Security Service has said. France’s ministry of defence also warned this year of possible sabotage attacks by Russia on military sites. 

“The obvious conclusion is that there has been a real stepping up of Russian activity,” said Keir Giles, senior consulting fellow at Chatham House, the think-tank.

“One cannot tell if that’s a reflection of the fact that the Russians are throwing more resources at it; whether they are being more sloppy and getting caught; or whether western counter-intelligence has simply become better at detecting and stopping it,” he added. “Whatever it is though — there is a lot going on.”

A defendant alleged to have violated EU trade restrictions in connection with deliveries of electronic components for military equipment to Russia enters the courtroom at the Higher Regional Court
A defendant in Baden-Württemberg who is alleged to have violated EU trade restrictions in connection with deliveries of electronic components for military equipment to Russia. © Bernd Weißbrod/dpa

One senior European government official said information was being shared through Nato security services of “clear and convincing Russian mischief”, which was co-ordinated and at scale. 

The time had come to “raise awareness and focus” about the threat of Russian violence on European soil, he added.

Nato issued a statement on Thursday declaring its deep concern about growing “malign activities on allied territory” by Russia, citing what it said was an “intensifying campaign . . . across the Euro-Atlantic area”.

The growing fears over Russia’s appetite for physical damage against its adversaries follow a spate of accusations against Russia over disinformation and hacking campaigns.

On Friday, Germany vowed consequences for Moscow — in a statement backed by the EU and Nato — over a 2023 hacking attack on the social democratic party of chancellor Olaf Scholz.

A scandal exposing Russian attempts to co-opt far right European politicians ahead of upcoming European elections is meanwhile still unfolding.

One intelligence official said Moscow’s sabotage efforts should not be seen as a distinct from other operations, saying the ramp-up in activity reflected Russia’s aim to exert maximum pressure “across the piece”.

Putin is currently feeling “emboldened” and will seek to push lines as hard as he can in Europe, on multiple fronts, he said, whether through disinformation, sabotage or hacking. 

Increased aggression from Russian intelligence also reflects the desire for the country’s spymasters to reassert themselves after their most serious setback since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the weeks following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, more than 600 Russian intelligence officers operating in Europe with diplomatic cover were ejected, dealing serious damage to the Kremlin’s spy network across the continent. 

In a recent report, analysts at the UK’s Royal United Services Institute highlighted the efforts to which Russia had gone to reconstitute its presence in Europe, often using proxies. Those include members of the Russian diaspora as well as organised crime groups with which the Kremlin has long-standing ties.

A key strategic shift has also occurred, with so-called “Committees of Special Influence” coordinating intelligence operations country-by-country for the Kremlin, drawing together what were previously piecemeal efforts by the country’s fractious security services and other Kremlin players. 

The Royal Ordnance Factory at Glascoe, Wales.
The Royal Ordnance Factory at Glascoe, Wales. BAE Systems is investigating an explosion in April. © David Goddard/Getty Images
Frefighters at Diehl Metal Applications in Berlin, Germany.
Firefighters at Diehl Metal Applications in Berlin, Germany. © Lisi Niesner/Reuters

With Russia’s stepping up operations, security services have been on high alert over threats and are looking to identify targets they may have missed.

Questions have been raised, for instance, over a so-far unexplained explosion at a BAE Systems munitions factory in Wales that supplies shells used by Ukraine. In October 2014 a Czech arms depot where weapons for Kyiv were being stored was destroyed; Russian military intelligence agents were later revealed to have planted explosives at the site. 

A huge fire broke out on Friday at a factory in Berlin owned by the arms company Diehl, which also supplies Ukraine. More than 160 specialist firefighters were called to tackle the blaze, with residents in a huge swath of the west of the capital told to keep windows closed due to possible toxic fumes. 

“As ever with Russia, it’s wise not to look for a single explanation of why they are doing anything. There’s always a combination of things going on,” said Giles.

“These pinprick attacks we’ve seen so far are of course to create disruption, but they can also be used for disinformation. And then there is what Russia learns from these attacks if they want to immobilise Europe for real . . . They’re practice runs.”

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