About one month ago, several people were arrested in Lithuania on suspicion of spying on behalf of Russia. Although Moscow firmly rejected this accusation it is undeniable that Russia after 2014 has intensified its espionage activities in the Baltics. In view of this, how is the Russian threat perceived in Lithuania and how does the Russian intelligence attempt to influence the Baltic region?
During a joint news conference held on December 19th 2018 by the Lithuania’s State Security Department, the Prosecutor’s office and the Police, the uncovering of a Russian spy network was announced. Therefore, several Lithuanian citizens and one Russian citizen had been arrested and charged with spying, allegedly gathering information on assignment from Russian special service.
The precise number of detainees was not disclosed to the public, but during the conference, Prosecutor general Evaldas Pasilis revealed two names of the people arrested: Algirdas Paleckis, a Lithuanian citizen former diplomat and politician and Valery Ivanov, a Russian citizen and former anti-independence leader.
Concerning Valery Ivanov, he had been detained for weapon possession and released from custody after 48 hours, excluding actually his involvement in the spies’ network.
With regard to Algirdas Paleckis, the case is clearly different due to the fact that the politician has been detained since October and because it is not the first time that the politician faces judicial matters. Paleckis was a parliament deputy in 2004-2007 and in 2007-2008 a deputy of the Mayor of Vilnius. In 2008 he was expelled from the Social Democratic Party due to conflict with the authorities of the Party and later he established his own party: the Front party. In 2012 Paleckis was prosecuted and condemned for denying and ignoring URSS’ aggression against Lithuania in 1991 and was sentenced to a fine of 3000 Euro. Paleckis is currently detained, despite some demonstrations in favor of his release.
The reaction from Moscow
Moscow’s reaction to this news was of strong denial. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova firmly rejected the accusation and declared that this operation is a further move of the “russophobic” policy implemented in Lithuania. Russian Ambassador in Lithuania, Udaltsov Alexander Ivanovich, claimed that the new espionage scuffling that had taken place in the Country was another serious anti-Russian action of the Lithuanian authorities.
Previous spy episodes in Lithuania
It is not the first time that this kind of episode involving espionage takes place in Lithuania. As a matter of fact, since 2014 there have been some relevant cases of individuals arrested in suspicion of espionage for the Russian Federation.
In 2014 Romualds Lipskis, a Lithuanian citizen of Belarus origin, was arrested and condemned to five years in prison for providing Belarus with information about NATO matters.
Another significant case concerns the arrest of Serghei Pushin, a Lithuanian citizen and Army officer, and Sergei Moiseyenko, a Russian intelligence officer, both arrested in 2014. Moiseyenko has been accused of creating in Lithuania a circle of trusted people, including Pushin, that collected, sometimes unintentionally, information for Russian intelligence. Indeed, since Pushin worked in an air base close to Šiauliai, where a NATO air base and intelligence sharing hub is located, he was able to pass information to Moiseyenko on military operations in exchange of money. Pushin was sentenced to five years and Moiseyenko to ten years and half.
In 2015 Nikolai Filipchenko, a Russian FSB operative, was arrested for attempting to recruit the bodyguard of the Lithuanian President with the objective of placing spying devices in the President’s office. After finding him guilty, a court in Vilnius sentenced Filipchenko to ten years in prison.
In 2016 Andrei Oshkurov, a Lithuanian citizen, doctor in the Lithuanian army, was condemned to three years in prison, for having gathered information about army morale intended for Belarus intelligence.
Finally, in 2017 three Lithuanians had been detained on suspicion of spying and two different criminal cases have been launched. Concerning the first, two suspects are related to the army and accused of having sold information to Russian intelligence. In the second case, the Lithuanian citizen is suspected of gathering public information in the Klaipeda region.
The perception of the Russian threat in Lithuania
Lithuania was the first country to declare independence from Moscow in 1990 and was one of the few ex-Soviet States to join the EU and NATO in 2004.
Given the historical events and the geographical proximity – Lithuania is located between the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and the Republic of Belarus – it is understandable that Lithuania, within the European Union, is one of the States at the forefront of the battle to counter Russian hostile influence operations and is constantly calling for an increasing NATO military presence in order to deter Moscow. In 2017, NATO members decided to reassure the Baltic States by deploying around 5,000 military service personnel from different NATO allies, with, in particular, the deployment of 1.000 German-led battle troops just in Lithuania.
In the national security assessment presented yearly by the Lithuanian’s State Security Department it is specified that the major threat to Lithuania’s national security arises from Russia’s intentions and action, defined both by the government as aggressive and determined to change the global power balance in the Baltic region.
According to the national security assessment, the Russian intelligence and security services – namely the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the Main Directorate of General Staff of the Armed Forces (GU) and the Federal Security Service (FSB) – collected information about Lithuania’s internal, foreign, economic, security, and defence policies and for these reasons is considered as the greatest intelligence threat for the Lithuanian State. Moreover, the assessment states that one third of Russian diplomatic personnel in Lithuania are related to Russian intelligence services, using therefore Russian diplomatic missions in Lithuania as their cover.
Another concern for the Lithuanian government is the increasing dependence of Belarus’ foreign and security policy from Moscow, together with the activities of the Belarusian intelligence services, that act under the orders of Russian intelligence services and provide them with the necessary support.
Espionage activities in the Baltic States
Overall, during the last ten years 28 people have been arrested in the Baltic States on suspicion of being involved in espionage. In addition to the 8 arrests occurring in Lithuania, since 2008 at least 17 people have been arrested in Estonia on suspicion of spying for Russian intelligence services while there have been 3 arrest in Latvia.
Amongst others, one of the Baltic States’ approaches to this issue is using the principle of “naming and shaming” and publicly exposing individuals charged with espionage, often giving the name of the suspects to the media, along with photos and videos from the arrest or the investigation.
The concept that intelligence services are only interested in State secrets is no longer valid or relevant. Spies in Baltic countries are interested particularly in NATO-related information (since the deployment of NATO forces in these States), the preparation of national armed forces, industrial and technological espionage, sensitive information about both internal and European Union policies.
Obviously, the issue of “Russian spy networks” in Lithuania and in the Baltic States is constantly evolving. It will be interesting to see if there will be further development also in Russians attempts to influence the public opinion in the run-up to the 2019 Lithuanian presidential elections as well as in the European elections that will take place in May 2019.