5 October 2023
The Sixth Man
Austria’s spy problem.
By Neil Tidmarsh
So the alleged mastermind behind a spy-ring apparently operating in the UK for the last three years (five Bulgarian nationals were arrested in February and appeared at Westminster magistrate’s court this week accused of spying for Russia) is an Austrian? Well, that’s no surprise.
Austria has always had a spy problem. An ex-head of Austria’s former intelligence agency the BVT (the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism), Peter Gridling, admitted in an interview with Peter Conradi in The Sunday Times last week that Vienna is a “hot spot” for espionage, “the capital of a neutral country where spies can ply their trade with relative impunity”.
Austria’s spy problem is a product of three things: Austria’s geographical position between Eastern Europe and Western Europe; its political and diplomatic balancing act between its Western allies and its Eastern neighbours; and the weakness or non-existence of its laws against espionage. Indeed, spying doesn’t seem to be illegal in Austria (unless targeted against the Austrian state), so Vienna is stuffed full of Russian, Chinese, Iranian, Israeli, US, British, Saudi etc intelligence operatives all frantically spying on each other – a situation acknowledged in last year’s annual report from Austria’s own secret service (the DSS – the Directorate of State Security and Intelligence – which replaced the BVT in 2021): “The current legal situation in Austria, specifically the very limited legal possibilities for countering espionage, and the limited criminality of such offences, leads to a very high number of foreign intelligence and secret service operatives in our republic.”
But sometimes the problem strikes closer to home. Peter Gridling was at the heart of a serious conflict between the BVT and the government five years ago. He’d been investigating the FPӦ (the Freedom Party – a populist, nationalist, far-right, pro-Russia party founded by ex-Nazis and with neo-fascist roots) for its links to the Kremlin and its ties to right-wing extremists – and then the FPӦ gained power in 2017 as part of a coalition government. The party leader Heinz-Christian Strache became Vice Chancellor and another prominent party member Herbert Kickl became the interior minister. So Peter Gridling and his agency found themselves accountable to the very people they were investigating – an impossible situation.
It blew up in 2018 with the interior minister suspending Herr Gridling and ordering a police raid on the BVT’s headquarters which seized secret and sensitive material about the agency’s investigations into alleged links between Austria’s far-right and Russian politicians and criminals. Files about the agency’s foreign operations and containing information which other national intelligence agencies had shared with it were also seized.
The possibility that such information had fallen into the hands of Austria’s far-right, suspected of having links with dangerous extremists, sympathy for Putin and contact with Moscow, sent shock waves through Western intelligence agencies. Such was the loss of trust that Austria’s allies including Britain then refused to share information with Vienna. So the country found itself frozen out of the international struggle against terrorism, extremism and organised crime, no doubt leaving it weak and vulnerable.
Herr Gridling had the last laugh, however. A year later the FPӦ dramatically lost power when footage emerged of party leader and vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache apparently disgracing himself in a villa in Ibiza; he appeared to offer motorway-building contracts in Austria to “a Russian oligarch’s niece” in exchange for a political donation from her “not entirely legal” cash fortune and for press support via the purchase of an Austrian newspaper. He apparently boasted about his “strategic collaboration” with Moscow and expressed a contempt for the “decadent” West, a dislike of press freedom and an admiration for Victor Orban for muzzling such freedoms in Hungary. And he seemed to make particularly scandalous and salacious claims about the Chancellor of Austria, his coalition partner.
The film was the fruit of a devastating sting operation – meticulously organised and well-resourced – which all commentators agree must have been executed by a professional state-run intelligence agency a few months before the FPӦ came to power. Heinz-Christian Strache resigned, interior minister Herbert Kickl was sacked and the rest of the FPӦ resigned from the government in protest.
Peter Gridling was reinstated and spent the rest of his time as head of Austria’s intelligence services trying to restore its reputation and undo the damage which the Freedom Party’s actions had inflicted on Austria’s relationships with its allies. He even postponed his retirement by two years. But trust once lost is very difficult to regain, as he admits in his new book Surprise Attack, and Austria is still being left out in the cold by the intelligence agencies of its allies.
Those agencies are also frustrated by Vienna’s apparent reluctance to do more to combat espionage activities launched against them by hostile forces from bases within Austria. Peter Gridling has expressed equal frustration with a legal system which prevents Austria’s security services from obliging its allies in this way.
The issue has become more pressing with the Russian invasion of Ukraine; Russia is suspected of establishing a massive signals intelligence capability across Vienna recently, for example, with electronic surveillance technology capable of listening in on the rest of Europe. And yet Austria has expelled only four Russian spies since the war began (at least sixty known Russian spies remain, according to Western intelligence, and it’s suspected that there are many more) while the rest of Europe has expelled four hundred.
For the last six months, the country’s three largest opposition parties have been pushing for a change in the law to make espionage illegal at last. But the Austrian government continues to drag its heels about implementing such amendments, twice suspending a parliamentary vote on the issue and then postponing the matter until later in the year.
Elections are due next year, but a change of government may well make things worse because it’s likely – believe it or not – that the Freedom Party might be back in power. The FPӦ (now led by none other than Herbert Kickl, the former interior minister who crossed swords with Peter Gridling) is leading in the polls even though its pro-Kremlin stance has become increasingly blatant. This week Karin Kneissl, who was appointed foreign minister by the FPӦ when it was in government, announced that she has actually moved to Russia. Apparently she didn’t need a removal van because the Russian air force kindly put a military transport plane at her service. President Putin was the guest of honour at her wedding in 2018, she’s a regular contributor to Russia’s state-backed news channel RT, she was a board member of the state-owned oil company Rosneft and she will now run a think tank at St Petersburg university.
And the mysterious Austrian businessman who allegedly masterminded the suspected Russian spy-ring accused of carrying out surveillance activities and planning abductions in the UK for three years until it was smashed last February? Jan Marsalek is one of Europe’s most wanted men. He’s currently on trial in absentia in Germany for fraud – he was the chief operating officer at Wirecard, the financial services company which went from being one of the biggest players in Germany’s tech sector to being one of Germany’s biggest scandals when it collapsed in 2020 with missing assets worth €1.9 billion. It’s claimed that he holds eight passports, speaks three languages and has contacts in the Russian secret services. He’s apparently an admirer of Russia; he was a member of the Austrian-Russian Friendship Society, his grandfather was suspected of working for Russian secret services and a journalist claims that he flourished the chemical formula for Novichok at a lunch a few months after the attack on the Skripals in Salisbury. He’s currently on the run, his whereabouts unknown, but it’s suspected that he’s in Russia as a guest of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence outfit.
He was named by prosecutors when the five suspects were charged at Westminster magistrate’s court earlier this week. The five will appear again for a hearing at the Old Bailey next week, on Friday 13 October, when further revelations may well make it a lucky day for all fans of real-life spy thrillers.