Austria has a launched a probe into a colonel suspected of spying for Russia for several decades, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said Friday, the latest in a string of cases where Moscow has been accused of espionage in EU states.
Kurz told a press conference that the 70-year-old army official, now retired, is suspected to have begun working with Russian intelligence in the 1990s and carried on until 2018.
The public prosecutor’s office in Salzburg province confirmed the colonel was being investigated for the crime of revealing state secrets.
Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl has summoned the Russian charge d’affaires over the matter and cancelled an upcoming trip to Russia.
Russia’s foreign ministry meanwhile said it was calling in the Austrian ambassador to discuss the issue.
“Of course if such cases are confirmed, whether it be in the Netherlands or in Austria, it can’t improve the relationship between the EU and Russia,” Kurz told reporters in Vienna.
He was referring to the expulsion of four Russian agents by the Netherlands in April for allegedly planning a cyber-attack on the world’s chemical weapons watchdog in The Hague.
“Russian spying in Europe is unacceptable and to be condemned,” the chancellor added.
He said that Austria was “demanding transparent information from the Russian side” and that it would consult its European partners on further steps.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he had been “unpleasantly surprised” by the news from Vienna.
“Recently our Western partners have made it a rule not to use traditional diplomacy, but instead so-called ‘megaphone diplomacy’ by publicly accusing us and for explanations about matters we know nothing about,” he told a press conference.
“We will call (the Austrian ambassador’s) attention to the methods that must be used if you have questions to put to Russia,” Lavrov added.
Equipment handed over
Austrian Defence Minister Mario Kunasek said the case came to light “a few weeks ago” as a result of information from another European intelligence agency.
“We can’t say for the moment whether this is an isolated incident or not,” Kunasek said.
He said that the colonel had handed over “technical equipment” including his laptop which was now being examined.
Kunasek said that under questioning, the colonel said the Russians had been interested “in weapons systems, in the migration situation here in Austria in recent years”.
“Profiles of certain people were also created and passed on,” Kunasek said.
The case indicated that “even after the end of the Cold War, spying has continued and shows us the need to tighten our security network, within Austria and within the defence ministry,” Kunasek said.
According to Austrian press reports, the colonel was paid 300,000 euros ($340,000) for his services.
Austria is not a member of NATO and sets great store by its status as a neutral country.
As such it was one of the few European countries not to expel Russian diplomats following the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain in March.
Austria’s relationship with Russia has come under particular scrutiny since the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) entered government in coalition last December.
The FPOe — which nominated Kneissl and of which Kunasek is also a member — has had a “cooperation pact” with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party since 2016.
In August, Kneissl caused controversy by inviting Putin as a guest of honour to her wedding.
In addition, the FPOe Interior Minister Herbert Kickl admitted in September that Austria had been asked to take “trust-building measures” to retain cooperation with allied secret services.
It followed reports that Western secret services were increasingly wary of sharing information with Austria over concerns it could be passed to Moscow.
Earlier this week the Austrian Falter weekly published what it said was a document from the Finnish domestic intelligence agency in which it asked for information from partner countries but specifically excluded Vienna’s BVT agency.
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