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Map shows Russia’s campaign of terror, sabotage and hacking in Europe

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Putin’s campaign of spying, hacking and sabotage poses a threat the UK election and Europe’s military capabilities

Russia’s war in Europe has already started, with a wave of arson attacks, beatings, explosions and cyber raids taking place across the continent.

Several British citizens have been charged with helping Russian intelligence in the last two months alone.

In Poland, a NATO country which shares a border with Russia, police arrested 12 people suspected of plotting acts of sabotage on the Kremlin’s orders this week.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Moscow was ‘likely’ involved in the burning down of the largest shopping centre in the capital Warsaw.

And the country has upped security around its main transit hub for transporting foreign military aid to Ukraine amid concerns about potential Russian sabotage.

Previously Tusk has said: ‘There will be no leniency for collaborators of the Russian services.

‘We will burn down every betrayal and attempt at destabilization.’

But Poland is not the only European country grappling to deal with Vladimir Putin’s attempts at assassinations, sabotage and spying.

Russia has allegedly tried to kill people, burn down buildings, disrupt railways and spark tensions in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Czechia, Estonia, Lithuania and Bulgaria, among others, in recent months.

Alleged Russia-backed acts of sabotage, hacking and attacks in Europe (Picture: Metro Graphics)

Keir Giles, an expert on Russia’s military who wrote wrote a book on Russia’s influence and espionage campaigns, said: ‘It’s been perfectly normal for Russia throughout decades and centuries.

‘In Soviet times, and in Tsarist times before that, this is what Russia would do.

‘They would mount not only propaganda, disinformation and malign influence campaigns, but actually carry out active sabotage.’

Russia never stopped, even when the Soviet Union fell and Putin and his oligarchs rose to power.

He’s engaged in political repression at home, wars in Chechnya, Dagestan and Syria, and invasions of Georgia and Ukraine.

But Putin has also been operating a shadow war as part of what he sees as a clash of civilisations, in which he plays the defender of Christianity who will restore Russia’s greatness shattered by the collapse of communism.

European leaders, eager to avoid confrontation with Russia, may have been slow to recognise that Vladimir Putin already sees himself as at war with them.

Putin has also been operating a shadow war as part of what he sees as a clash of civilisations (Picture: Getty)

But the penny finally dropped with his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent expulsion of Russian intelligence agents from European capitals in 2022.

‘Now they’re having to recruit proxies to do their work’, said Giles, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House.

‘The Russian intelligence agencies, the ones that were in charge of these disruptive activities, assassinations and so on, have been extremely busy in Ukraine.

‘That will obviously cramp their style a bit for attacking anyone else. But that is probably what lies behind this move to recruiting sympathisers in the target countries to do their work for them.’

Giles described Putin’s ongoing campaign as a ‘practice run’ for if Putin ever escalates the conflict into a direct confrontation with European states other than Ukraine.

He said: ‘If Russia were to step up all of this simultaneously, it would immobilise Europe.

‘This is something who know Russia wants to do if there is a full-scale confrontation with NATO, and they want to stop NATO reinforcements from moving west to east to where they’re needed.

‘It’s easy to see this as a practice run for when Russia wants to shut Europe down.’

He also warned that Putin could start supporting terrorist groups across the continent.

Giles said: ‘The one thing that’s missing from the current campaigns, but which was normal for Moscow in previous times, is sponsoring armed terrorist groups to carry out attacks in European capitals.

‘That’s something which is inexplicably not happening, at least not discernibly happening at the moment, but it’s something to which Russia could very easily return.

‘And you have large disaffected populations who would be only too happy to be sponsored, organised and equipped to cause damage in that way.

‘I don’t know [why that’s not been happening]. But it is possible this is something that Russia has held in reserve. It’s something that we should be alert to the possibility of as a potential next phase of this.’

United Kingdom

Emergency workers had to wear hazmat suits to protect them from the deadly nerve agent Novichok after Russia used it in an attempted assassination by in Salisbury in 2018 (Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Putin has long sought to take out his critics who’ve found refuge in the UK.

Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB and KGB intelligence officer, died an agonising death after unwittingly ingesting Polonium-210, a highly toxic radioactive substance, in 2006.

Dawn Sturgess died after coming into contact with a perfume bottle containing Novichok in Salisbury in 2018.

The nerve agent had been used to target former Russian intelligence official Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, on Putin’s orders.

Russian hacker group Killnet knocked out the Royal Family’s official website for an hour-and-a-half in October 2023.

The Foreign Office’s emails and internal messages had also been accessed by Russian hackers, revealing the government’s day-to-day business, in 2021.

Dawn Sturgess, 44, was the unintended victim of an attempted assassination attempt against Sergei Skripal (Picture: Metropolitan Police/PA)

Hackers also accessed top secret security information on some of the country’s most sensitive military sites, including the HMNB Clyde nuclear submarine base on the west coast of Scotland and the Porton Down chemical weapon lab.

Tihomir Ivanchev, a 38-year-old Bulgarian national from Acton, west London, was charged with spying for Russia in February this year.

He is the sixth Bulgarian – including three other men and two women – to face similar charges.

British man David Earl, 20, was charged last month with plotting arson attacks on Ukraine-linked businesses in London after allegedly being recruited as a Russian spy.

Earl, who is alleged linked with Wagner, is accused of being the mastermind behind a huge fire on an industrial estate in Leyton, east London, on March 20.

In an unrelated case, Howard Michael Phillips, 64, was charged under the National Security Act on Thursday with helping Russian intelligence after his arrest in central London.

The Met Police has not released details of what he has been accused of.

An Afghan man who worked for the UK government, even accompanying Prime Ministers and members of the Royal Family, had his citizenship stripped after he was deemed to be an agent of Russian intelligence in 2019.

The ‘highly intelligent, quick-witted and cunning’ man, known only as C2, was headhunted by the Home Office in 2006 and claimed to have worked for MI6.

He lost an attempted appeal against the decision last week.

A Foreign Office spokesperson told Metro.co.uk: ‘The Government actively deters and defends against the full spectrum of threats emanating from Russia, working in partnership with our allies.

‘This includes new powers under the National Security Act, which ensure that the UK remains the hardest operating environment for malign activity undertaken by foreign actors.

‘We also recently expelled the Russian Defence Attaché and we are removing the diplomatic status from several Russian premises as part of a package to tighten defences against malign activity by Russia across the UK and Europe.’

Estonia

Flight tracking website Flightradar24 shows one of the Finnair flights turning around over Estonia, a former Soviet state that borders Russia

Finland’s airline Finnair cancelled all flights from its capital Helsinki to the Estonian city of Tartu until May 31 due to Russian interference.

The decision came after two commercial flights were forced to turn around after their GPS systems were jammed by Russia.

In a statement, Finnair said: ‘The approach methods currently used at Tartu Airport are based on a GPS signal.

‘GPS interference, which is quite common in the area, affects the usability of this approach method and can therefore prevent the aircraft from approaching and landing.’

The UK’s Defence Secretary Grant Shapps also fell victim to Russian jamming when his RAF jet’s navigational systems and WiFi were knocked out in March.

Journalists accompanied Shapps aboard the RAF flight (Picture: Cpl Tim Hammond/UK MoD)

Pilots safely navigated the plane using other means to determine its location, assuring Shapps the electronic attack posed no threat to the aircraft’s safety.

It happened as the plane flew near the heavily militarised Russian exclave of Kaliningrad as Shapps returned from Poland where he was watching NATO military exercises.

The attack raised concerns about the ability of NATO, and specifically US military, to transport troops and equipment to Eastern European countries bordering Russia should Putin choose to escalate the conflict and invade them.

Bulgaria

A weapons factory near Karnobat, Bulgaria exploded in June 2023, just days after the country announced it would be sending shells to Ukraine.

It wouldn’t be the first time these ammunitions warehouses, owned by EMKO, have been targeted in sabotage.

The facility was rocked by explosions just a year before, and its owner has been a target too.

Russian intelligence agents were blamed for an assassination attempt against Emilian Gebrev eight years ago with the same Novichok poison used in Salisbury.

Bulgaria, a leading producer of Soviet-standard ammunition, had sent more than £1.6billion of weapons to Ukraine in the 18 months before the explosion, Euractiv reported.

Lithuania

Navalny ally Leonid Volkov’s wounds after a hammer attack in Vilnius, Lithuania (Picture: X user @a_biryukova/AFP via Getty Images)

Leonid Volkov, an ally of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died in a Russian penal colony in February, had his arm broken in a hammer attack in Vilnius in March.

Three people were arrested for the attack, during which Volkov was hit 15 times with the weapon, leaving him with injuries to his face and leg.

Among them were two Polish citizens, linked to football ultra-fan groups.

Lithuanian intelligence said the attack as likely ‘Russian organised’.

Poland’s Prime Minister said the person who allegedly ordered it was ‘a Belarusian working for the Russians’.

Germany

Some 70 police officers and 11 state prosecutors were involved in a raid of offices in Munich, Mallorca and Berlin (Picture: fhm/Moment RF via Getty Images)

Police raided the offices of a leading far-right politician, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) MP Petr Bystron last week over allegations of bribery and money-laundering.

Bystron is accused of receiving money from a Czech-based, pro-Russia media outlet in return for influence.

Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, has agreed to lift his parliamentary immunity in order for criminal proceedings to be brought against him.

He denies the charges, and his party defended him.

AfD leaders Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla said: ‘So far, no proof has been presented for the allegations raised against Mr Bystron weeks ago.

‘The AfD hopes the investigation will be concluded swiftly to avoid creating the suspicion that this is an attempt to use authorities and prosecutors to influence the European election campaign.’

Another of the party’s lead candidates in next month’s election is under investigated for alleged payments from Russia and China.

Maximilian Krah denies any wrongdoing, the BBC reported.

His long-standing aide was recently arrested, accused of spying for Beijing.

A Russian man, 57, is suspected of killing two Ukrainian soldiers in a fatal stabbing in Bavaria last month.

Chechen war veteran Zelimkhan Khangoshvili was murdered in Berlin (Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Police are investigated whether the killing of the soldiers, in Germany for rehabilitation, was politically motivated.

Germany has been the site of assassinations in the past.

Former Chechen independence fighter Zelimkhan Khangoshvili was shot and killed in broad daylight in Berlin in 2019, Euronews reported.

He had claimed asylum in Germany after surviving numerous assasination attempts.

A Russian man, Vadim Krasikov, was found guilty of the murder, which prosecutors said was carried out on orders from Moscow.

Last year, another Russian man was convicted of plotting to kill a Chechen dissident in Germany on the orders of warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, one of Putin’s closest allies, DW reported.

Poland

Russia is suspected of being behind a massive fire that destroyed Warsaw’s biggest shopping centre (Picture: Dariusz Borowicz/Agencja Wyborcza.pl via REUTERS)

Poland is on high alert, and not just because Warsaw lost its largest shopping centre to a massive fire blamed on Russia.

Tomasz Szmydt, a judge who handled sensitive security issues, fled to neighbouring Belarus, Russia’s closest ally, this month after he was accused of spying and treason.

Usually people escape in the other direction, with thousands of Belarusians crossing the border to Poland in an effort to flee political persecution.

But Szmydt accused Poland of trying to start a conflict with Russia and Belarus, under US influence.

Linked with the former ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), Szmydt was previously involved in a smear campaign against judges who opposed the politicisation of the judiciary.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has blamed his predecessors for failing to properly confront Russian interference in the country.

He claims that party has been infiltrated by Russia, saying: ‘You all know the scale . . . We have been repressing this awareness for years.’

Czechia

Russia has made ‘thousands of attempts’ to sabotage railways in Europe, including by hacking signalling systems and disabling ticketing systems in Czechia.

Pro-Russia hacker groups have also launched cyber attacks on rail companies in Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Estonia, the Financial Times reported.

The Czech cyber security agency, NUKIB, said: ‘One of the last year’s prominent trends has been the growing interest of malicious attackers in the energy and transportation sectors.’

France

Red hands were spray-painted on the wall of a Holocaust memorial on the anniversary of the Nazis’ first major round-up of French Jews (Picture: Ait Adjedjou Karim/ABACA/Shutterstock)

Investigators are exploring whether Russia was responsible for antisemitic graffiti on the wall of Paris’ Holocaust memorial last week, The Guardian reported.

Some 20 red hand symbols were spray-painted outside the memorial, leading President Emmanuel Macron to condemn it as ‘odious antisemitism’.

They appeared on the anniversary if the first major-round up of French Jews under the Nazis in 1941.

Video footage captured up to five people arrive around 3am on May 14 before two of them used spray paint and stencils to deface the memorial.

They have since been identified as Bulgarians who left Paris for Brussels by coach that same morning.

Now France is investigating the possible involvement of Russian security services in the suspected destabilisation operation.

They’re also looking into a possible connection to the appearance of 60 Stars of David, which appeared on walls in and around Paris in October.

A Moldovan couple – alleged to have been handled by a pro-Russian businessman from Moldova – were arrested for that case.

Will Putin interfere in the UK’s General Election on July 4?

Russia has no clear preference for a winner of the next UK general election, but that doesn’t mean it won’t meddle (Picture: Toby Melville/Reuters)

‘The risk is always the same one,’ Giles said, ‘that democratic processes can be subverted and that Russia can influence the result of a vote in this country towards the outcome that Russia would actually likely to have.’

Russia has been accused of playing some role in the Brexit referendum of 2016, but the extent of this is fiercely debated.

Disinformation campaigns on social media and through Russian-state operated broadcasters like RT and Sputnik may well have swayed voters’ views.

But the UK government deliberately made no effort to find out what role Russian influence played in the vote, according to a report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee in 2020.

It claims the government and the UK’s intelligence services ‘underestimated the response required to the Russian threat and are still playing catch up’.

Chinese-backed hacker group APT31 stole 40,000,000 voters’ personal details from the Electoral Commission in 2021 and 2022, highlighting the vulnerability of democratic institutions in the UK.

‘If you vacuum up a lot of data, you can consolidate it and then use that for mass targeting of demographics,’ Professor Alan Woodward, a cyber security expert at the University of Surrey, told Metro.co.uk.

But while Russia clearly favoured Leave in the Brexit campaign, and Trump in the 2016 and 2020 US presidential elections, ‘it’s not as clear cut now’, Giles said.

‘For as long as Jeremy Corbyn was leader of the opposition, there would have been a clear, obvious preference.’

The current incarnation of the Labour Party under Keir Starmer’s leadership is far more prepared to support NATO, maintain defence capabilities and nuclear deterrents.

It’s also vocal in its criticism of Russia in a way Corbyn wasn’t.

He hesitated to blame or condemn Russia for its involvement in the Salisbury poisonings, and he calls on Ukraine to compromise with Putin.

That leaves less space between the policy positions of the Conservatives and Labour when it comes to their approach to Russia, security and foreign policy.

‘But that doesn’t stop Russia stirring the pot anyway’, Giles said.

‘If they can sow division and discord within British society, damage trust in democratic processes and undermine faith that it is a genuine election, then that for Russia is a positive outcome anyway.’

A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission said: ‘The integrity of elections and the public’s confidence in it are central to our work, but there are limits to the activities we can lead – our legal powers and our remit stop at the UK’s borders.

‘We have to look to others to lead important activities outside of political finance regulation, such as ensuring that elections are free from foreign interference.

‘We support the UK Government and security services in their work in this area.’

Perhaps more significant are the European elections next month, in which far-right groups sympathetic to Putin stand to make gains.

Russia will also be keenly interested in the outcome of the US presidential election later this year when a potential return of Donald Trump could see an end to military support for Ukraine.

Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at webnews@metro.co.uk.

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