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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Henry Samuel

As invasion of Ukraine falters, Russia ‘turning to wives of spies and younger agents’ in fresh intel offensive

Russian former spy Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned

The wife of an agent of the elite Russian military intelligence unit behind the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal tried to slip into France this summer, it emerged yesterday .

The news comes amid reports that Moscow has ramped up an espionage offensive in Europe as its army founders in Ukraine and is potentially turning to women and younger agents to avoid detection.

French consular services have seen a rise in visa requests from Russia wishing to temporarily leave the country. This could be to escape sanctions, to dodge the partial draft or simply to travel. Among these requests, they reportedly received one this summer from a woman called Yulia Chivmanovitch.

But the application was rejected due to an “unexplained” refusal from French secret services, according to Le Monde. The applicant was reportedly the wife of Alexander Kulagin, a spy from Unit 29155, a paramilitary force working for Russian military intelligence, the GRU, which is considered responsible for the nerve agent attack in Salisbury in 2018.

Two of the unit’s hitmen were accused of poisoning Mr Skripal, a former Russian military officer, and his daughter by means of the Novichok nerve agent. The pair survived.

Unit 29155 has operated for at least a decade, focusing on subversion, sabotage and assassination beyond Russia’s borders. However, Ms Chivmanovitch’s request under her own name is the latest evidence that it may have changed tactics and could be picking less obvious people to work as spies, intelligence sources told Le Monde.

According to intelligence sources quoted in Le Monde, Ms Chifmanovitch’s husband was a member of the group sent in 2016 to Montenegro to mount a coup, which failed.

French secret services have been tracking him after detecting his presence in the French Alps along with several other GRU agents who used the area as a “base” for carrying out covert operations across Europe. “Between 2014 and 2018, at least 11 GRU officers from Unit 29155, among them Kulagin, stayed in France near Geneva,” one senior source told Le Monde. French intelligence has since confirmed that Ms Chivmanovitch was with her husband during his time in the French Alps.

In another sign of Russian espionage activity, agents have reportedly sought to buy French military secrets via online classified ads.

A ministry source told Le Monde it had detected “approaches of French national websites like by case officers working for Russia’s foreign intelligence service SVR” in the past two years.

Each time agents targeted “soft but high-potential profiles”, including graduates from specialised universities or young professionals who had placed ads offering tutoring in maths or French. Targets, including one young employee who had just started working for a civil-military AI company, were offered €200- €300 in exchange for “notes” on areas of interest.

Such approaches have led France’s domestic security service to expel at least one Russian agent. Others have simply received warnings not to do it again.

In one case, the Russian agent concerned reportedly turned up to his “lesson” to find his young teacher had been replaced by an unamused intelligence official who told him that the game was up. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)

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