Exposing and extradition
Senior Vice President, Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA, Warsaw and Washington)
The Kremlin has an imperial approach to the issue of Russia’s borders. Woe to those who try to break free (like Chechnya), weaken ties with the center (like Tatarstan) or stand up for the language and culture of the indigenous people (like Mari El).
In other countries – differently. One of the main tricks in the Kremlin’s arsenal of “active measures” is to incite separatist sentiments abroad. It began during the collapse of the Soviet Union and continues to this day. Among the results are “independent” enclaves in Georgia and Moldova, separatism in the Ukrainian Donbas and the occupation of Crimea. Less successful attempts abroad include the support of supporters of the independence of Texas and California.
Thanks to a intelligence document merged in the New York Times, we recently learned the details of how Russia tried to split Spain by fueling separatist sentiment in Catalonia. Of course, Catalan nationalism was not invented by the Russians. It stretches from ancient historical images, often reinforced by the heavy hand of the centralist Spanish government. But it also provides fertile ground for outside intervention. In 2019, Josep Luis Alai, chief adviser to Catalonia’s former president Carles Puigdemon (who himself fled into exile), traveled to Moscow to ask for help from current and former Russian politicians: to support Catalonia’s independence in banking, telecommunications and energy, and to create providing financial assistance.
Despite the efforts of both parties, nothing special came of it. The current leadership of Catalonia is distancing itself from the Russian game. And there is nothing strange in this. A few years ago, in private conversations with Catalan activists, I heard about Russia’s attempts (which, they emphasized, met with a strong rebuff) to make friends with them. I also researched Russia’s attempts, just as unsuccessful, to flirt with Scottish nationalists with the help of some suspicious bank and football club.
THE DOUBLE THREATS OF EXPOSURE AND EXTRADITION ARE ONLY THE BEGINNING OF THE WEST’S SYSTEMATIC RESPONSE TO RUSSIA’S ACTIVE MEASURES. MUCH MORE NEEDS TO BE DONE, ESPECIALLY IN EXPANDING THE TOOLS TO COUNTER THE THREAT (OFTEN MUCH THINNER) FROM CHINA. BUT IT IS GOOD THAT THEY HAVE ALREADY STARTED TO REACT
What really strikes us in this story is not the very information we reveal about Russia, but the example of the West’s new counteroffensive it demonstrates. Previously, Western intelligence could target the activities of Russian spies and thugs, but almost did not respond to it. This restraint was explained by two important reasons: fear of damaging business relations with Russia and unwillingness to “shine” the covert work of state security and intelligence agencies.
Now that has changed. The West’s patience with the Kremlin has run out. As well as hopes for productive trade and investment ties. In addition, intelligence services have better learned to use information as a weapon. Earlier, secrets were smoldering on the tables in the offices of politicians. Now they are flashing in the media.
Complicating the Kremlin’s problems is the work of open-source information investigators, such as Bellingcat. Careful use of search engines and databases raises the curtain on what would once remain shrouded in impenetrable secrecy, such as the real names of intelligence agents. As a result, if Russia tries to help separatists (far-left or far-right forces) in a country, it will be noticed: in the government or outside it. The event will seep into the news. And those who receive Kremlin aid will have to answer questions. Russian providers of this “aid” can also no longer hope for impunity, as recent events in Switzerland have shown.
Russian cybersecurity business tycoon Vladislav Klyushin, closely linked to the Kremlin, was arrested in March when he arrived (by private plane) to rest at a ski resort. The United States is seeking his extradition, formally on charges of insider trading, but (according to new material in the London Times) this may actually be on suspicion of his links to the GRU’s Fancy Bear group, through which Russia carried out hacker attacks on the US political system in 2016.
The double threats of exposure and extradition are only the beginning of the West’s systematic response to Russia’s active measures. Much more needs to be done, especially in expanding the tools to counter the threat (often much thinner) from China. But it is good that they have already started to react.