Russia Steps Up a Covert Sabotage Campaign Aimed at Europe

Russia Steps Up a Covert Sabotage Campaign Aimed at Europe

U.S. and allied intelligence officials are tracking an increase in low-level sabotage operations in Europe that they say are part of a Russian campaign to undermine support for Ukraine’s war effort.

The covert operations have mostly been arsons or attempted arsons targeting a wide range of sites, including a warehouse in England, a paint factory in Poland, homes in Latvia and, most oddly, an Ikea store in Lithuania.

But people accused of being Russian operatives have also been arrested on charges of plotting attacks on U.S. military bases.

While the acts might appear random, American and European security officials say they are part of a concerted effort by Russia to slow arms transfers to Kyiv and create the appearance of growing European opposition to support for Ukraine. And the officials say Russia’s military intelligence arm, the G.R.U., is leading the campaign.

The attacks, at least so far, have not interrupted the weapons flow to Ukraine, and indeed many of the targets are not directly related to the war. But some security officials say Russia is trying sow fear and force European nations to add security throughout the weapons supply chain, adding costs and slowing the pace of transfers.

NATO and European leaders have been warning of the growing threat. Prime Minister Kaja Kallas of Estonia said last week that Russia was conducting a “shadow war” against Europe. Prime Minister Donald Tusk of Poland announced the arrest of 12 people accused of carrying out “beatings, arson and attempted arson” for Russian intelligence.

And Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store of Norway said Russia posed “a real and serious threat,” after his country warned about possible attacks targeting energy producers and arms factories.

Amid the growing concern about sabotage, NATO ambassadors are set to meet next month with Avril D. Haines, the U.S. director of national intelligence. Ms. Haines will provide an intelligence briefing on Russia’s war in Ukraine, but she will also discuss Moscow’s covert sabotage campaign in Europe.

Security officials would not describe their intelligence linking the sabotage to the G.R.U., but American and British spy services have penetrated the G.R.U. deeply. Before the war in Ukraine, the United States and Britain released declassified pieces of intelligence exposing various G.R.U. plans to create a false pretext for Russia’s invasion.

Despite the risk-taking reputation of the G.R.U., U.S. and European security officials said Russia was treading somewhat carefully with its sabotage. It wants to draw attention to the mysterious fires, but not so much attention that it would be directly blamed.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former U.S. intelligence official, said Russia’s plan might be to weaken European resolve. While that outcome may be doubtful, she said it was important for Europe and the United States to come together to respond to the sabotage campaign.

“Russia’s strategy is one of divide and conquer,” said Ms. Kendall-Taylor, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Right now, it’s not a very costly strategy for Russia because we are all responding separately. That is why it is important that over time, we collectivize the response.”

Hoping to do just that, British and other European diplomats have been pressing countries to call out Russian covert operations more aggressively.

One of the first of the recent sabotage acts attributed to Russia was a March fire at a warehouse in London. Authorities say the warehouse was connected with the effort to supply Ukraine but have provided few details.

Security officials briefed on the incident said G.R.U. operatives used a Russian diplomatic building in Sussex, England, to recruit locals to carry out the arson. Four British men have been charged with arson in the attack, and one of them has been charged with assisting a foreign intelligence service.

In response, Britain expelled a Russian military officer working for intelligence services and closed several Russian diplomatic buildings, including the G.R.U. operations center in Sussex.

The use of local recruits, security officials said, has been a hallmark of the recent sabotage campaign. U.S. and European officials said that is partly to make attacks more difficult to detect, and to make them appear to be the result of domestic opposition to supporting Ukraine.

Sabotage acts by Russia in Europe are not unknown. In 2014, Russian military intelligence blew up an ammunition depot in the Czech Republic, although the country did not publicly blame Russia until seven years later.

European governments expelled Russian spies from their capitals after a former Russian intelligence officer was poisoned in Salisbury, England, in 2018 and again following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The expulsions dramatically curtailed Russia’s ability to mount attacks, said Max Bergmann, the director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“There has been a lot of disruption of Russian intelligence activities in Europe,” Mr. Bergmann said. “That caused a pause, and Russian intelligence was consumed by the war in Ukraine. Now they have their footing back and are probably trying to build back up.”

Since the invasion, Russia has appeared intent on not expanding the war into NATO territory. But Ms. Kendall-Taylor said Russia wanted to undermine the alliance and its support for Ukraine.

In the first part of the war, the Russian military performed poorly, and its intelligence agencies were too distracted to conduct covert operations in the West. But with its recent gains on the battlefield and a rebounding military industry, it has dedicated more resources to covert operations.

“They want to take the war to Europe, but they don’t want a war with NATO,” Ms. Kendall-Taylor said. “So they are doing all these things that are short of conventional attacks.”

Forging a proper response, however, will be difficult. The United States and Europe have already imposed sanctions on Russia and expelled Russian spies.

“We are in a very delicate situation because things are already on edge, the Kremlin is already paranoid,” Mr. Bergmann said. “So Western leaders have to tread very carefully with how they respond.”

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