Russia Conflict Part 3: Threats to Organizations and Individuals
By TorchStone Senior Analyst, Ben West
While most Western companies have either reduced their presence in Russia if not abandoned the market entirely, Russia still poses a threat to business continuity around the world.
This series of reports will outline ways that Russia threatens stability and business continuity based on scope.
This final section focuses on threats to companies and individuals, including espionage and official harassment of individuals.
These threats have the potential to elevate to national or even global threats in the future, but for the time being, they appear to be much more focused on organizations and individuals.
Western countries oversaw a mass ejection of 574 Russian diplomats over the course of 2022, mostly linked to unauthorized spying.
By comparison, the next highest number of Russian diplomatic expulsions came in 2018, when 20 countries expelled 123 Russian diplomats in the wake of the Skripal poisoning incident in the UK.
The United Kingdom’s foreign intelligence agency estimated that half of Russia’s intelligence presence in Europe working under diplomatic cover had been forced to leave by July 2022.
Countries announce ejections of additional Russian diplomats caught spying on a near-weekly basis.
A major Australian counterintelligence operation forced multiple Russian operators of an intelligence network out of the country over the last six months of 2022.
The Netherlands also announced restrictions in February 2023 on Russian diplomats at its embassy in The Hague, accusing Moscow of “trying to secretly get intelligence agents into the Netherlands under cover of diplomacy.”
Despite 2022’s historical counterintelligence effort against Russia, Moscow will not simply abandon its intelligence objectives—it is more likely to reinforce its intelligence efforts given the vast challenges facing the country.
In January 2023, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency warned that Russia is increasing its espionage activity in Germany and around the world.
During an interview, the chief of Germany’s domestic security agency claimed that, “Russia’s intelligence interest here in Germany is not only unbroken but is also increasing as the effects of the war continue.”
He went on to warn of an increase in Russian cyberattacks and influence operations, including disinformation campaigns and other methods aimed at influencing public opinion, the outcome of elections, or political decisions in a targeted country.
As countries reduce Russia’s ability to use diplomatic cover for its spies, operatives are likely to exploit foreign companies to pursue their targets.
As countries around the world continue to eject Russian diplomats and intelligence officers, Moscow is likely to increase reliance on non-official cover intelligence operatives to make up for the gap.
Non-official cover operatives (or “illegals”, as Russia refers to them) more typically use business, academic, or journalistic pursuits as cover to conduct espionage rather than diplomatic status.
Intelligence operatives under non-official cover are more likely to use employment or relations with a reputable company to conduct their clandestine activities.
And while intelligence targets will likely remain mostly focused on governments, foreign companies are very much in Russia’s target set.
Any company remotely linked to the conflict in Ukraine remains a viable target of Russian aggression, as demonstrated in previous attacks on a Spanish weapons producer and a Polish logistics company.
Given the central role that oil and gas has played in the conflict so far, Russian intelligence agencies are almost certainly targeting Western energy companies in preparation for both physical and virtual intelligence collection efforts.
Western sanctions limiting the export of technology and critical electronic components have also increased Moscow’s already high interest in collecting intelligence on the tech sector.
Slovenia announced a counterintelligence operation in December 2022 that illustrates a Russian intelligence operation involving non-official cover operators.
Slovenian authorities arrested two Russian nationals who had gone to great lengths to develop an Argentinian identity.
The couple moved from Argentina to Ljubljana with their two children in 2017 and integrated with the community.
The husband set up an IT company and his wife opened an art gallery.
Neighbors had no idea that the family was supporting a Russian-backed espionage campaign from their home and offices, where police found large amounts of cash.
As part of the EU but with less sophisticated counterintelligence capabilities, Slovenia proved a permissible country for traveling through Europe to support operatives without raising too much suspicion.
Similar arrests in Montenegro in recent months demonstrate that the family in Slovenia is not an isolated case.
Threat to Foreigners in Russia
The personal safety of foreigners in Russia is under greater threat now even compared to the relatively high threat before the invasion of Ukraine.
Citizens of Western countries that support Ukraine and have sanctions against Russia are at particular risk.
In February 2023, the U.S. Department of State renewed recommendations for U.S. citizens to leave Russia immediately, citing the threat of potential harassment or wrongful detention by Russia’s security services.
That recommendation has been in place since January 2022, when Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine.
The risk to U.S. citizens is highlighted by the case of U.S. professional basketball player Brittney Griner, whom Russian authorities detained in February 2022 in possession of hashish oil.
The U.S. Department of State determined that Ms. Griner was wrongfully detained: while possession of hashish oil is illegal in Russia, there was evidence that authorities were going to extraordinary lengths to pressure Ms. Griner by extending pre-trial detention and seeking unusually long sentences for her relatively minor crime.
It was clear that she was being used as leverage to negotiate concessions from the United States.
In December 2022, the United States traded convicted Russian weapons dealer, Viktor Bout, for Ms. Griner.
But Russia continues to detain U.S. citizens like Paul Whelan, Marc Fogel and journalist Evan Gershkovich on dubious charges of espionage and drug trafficking.
Authorities will continue to apply additional scrutiny to foreigners in the hopes of collecting more bargaining chips to use against western rivals.
Threat to Russian Nationals Abroad
The Washington Post estimated that, as of February 2023, as many as 1 million Russians had fled their country since the invasion of Ukraine.
This is in addition to the millions of Russians who lived and worked abroad prior to the invasion.
While their immediate safety may be more secure outside of Russia, they are still vulnerable to official harassment and penalties.
Companies who employ Russian nationals abroad should be aware of the threats to their employees and should consider ways to support them in the face of increasing Russian crackdowns on dissent.
There are growing signs that Moscow may start making life more difficult for Russians living abroad as the war in Ukraine grinds on and authorities erode personal liberties at home.
A Feb 2023 report by the Middle East Media Research Institute cites several suggestions by Russian policymakers and pundits calling for restrictions on Russian nationals who have left since 2022.
They have called on authorities to seize property and assets of Russian nationals living abroad and proposed to end work-from-home agreements that allow Russian nationals to continue working for firms in their home country while avoiding military service.
The report comes after several recent anecdotes suggesting that Russian diplomats have denied basic consular services to Russians living abroad: In one specific case, a Russian woman in Canada claimed that the Russian embassy in Ottawa refused to assist her due to her support for the Russian opposition.
According to the woman, Embassy officials canceled her meeting to update documents for her children because they considered her a security threat for her support for Russian opposition leader, Alexy Navalny, on her Facebook page.
These recent incidents indicate that Russian policymakers could be choosing to pressure Russians living abroad to return to Russia to claim assets or update legal documents.
However, those Russians who have fled military conscription, criticized Putin’s government from abroad, or not supported the war effort, face potential harassment, and even arrest upon returning to Russia.
As Moscow’s war effort drags on, there will likely be more scrutiny on Russians living abroad forcing them to choose between sacrificing their possessions or risking a return home.
Sudden Russian Death Syndrome
At least 24 notable Russians died in 2022 under mysterious circumstances, both in Russia and abroad, suggesting that not all of them may have been quite as natural as presented.
While there is no concrete evidence of a conspiracy to assassinate high-profile Russians, the growing number of deaths makes it difficult to dismiss them as coincidence.
The Atlantic reporter Elaine Godfrey coined the term, “Sudden Russian Death Syndrome” to describe the phenomenon.
Godfrey suggests the trend could be the result of some nefarious actors in coordination with pressure campaigns to convince certain persons to commit suicide.
The tempo of suspicious deaths as well as the violence associated with some of them is concerning enough that those who associate with wealthy or influential Russians living abroad should use caution in their presence.
After a year of Russian leaders in the energy, finance, and defense sectors dying under extraordinary circumstances, a Russian businessman and local politician Pavel Antov died after falling from a window at a hotel in India Dec 2022 during a trip that saw one of his companions also die under suspicious circumstances.
Earlier in 2022, Antov had been involved in a scandal over a social media post indicating his opposition to the war in Ukraine.
Antov’s death came just two days after fellow Russian Vladimir Budanov died at the same hotel from an alleged stroke.
Both Indian police and the Russian General Consul in Kolkata insisted there was no sign of foul play.
Many of the individuals who died were openly critical of the war in Ukraine and while most of them died in in Russia, several also died abroad.
In September 2022, the chairman of Russia’s Lukoil, Ravil Maganov, died after falling from a hospital window in Moscow after referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “tragedy” and expressed sympathy for victims of the war.
In addition to the two suspicious deaths in, Russian oil magnate and property developer Mikhail Watford (formerly Tolstosheya) was found dead at his home in Surrey, England in February 2022.
Russian campaigns against alliances, states, companies, and individuals perceived as hostile to their interests are nothing new.
Nearly all the threats outlined in this report predate the invasion of Ukraine.
However, the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine has amplified the threats—both because Russia likely increased the tempo of its hostilities due to the war and because its targets are increasingly emboldened to speak out against the threats from an increasingly isolated regime.
There is currently no end in sight to the fighting in Ukraine and the situation is evolving into a drawn-out conflict.
The threats associated with the broader conflict between Russia and the West are only likely to intensify as maneuvering on the actual battlefield becomes more difficult.
Over the coming year, Russia is likely to identify targets “upstream” from the immediate conflict as it seeks to disrupt the flow of weapons into Ukraine, undermine popular support for Ukraine, and intimidate leaders into abandoning the fight.
These efforts will invariably impact a broad target set of organizations and individuals far removed from the front lines in Ukraine.
Companies can mitigate the impact of these efforts by working now to identify how they may be vulnerable to the broader conflict and preparing for efforts to target them.