President Vladimir Putin has accused foreign intelligence services of beefing up activities in Russia, announcing that hundreds of spies were stopped in 2018 alone. Without going into details, he said “129 staff members and 465 agents of foreign special services were foiled”. Russian spies have themselves been accused of several plots, including the poisoning of ex-agent Sergei Skripal. Dutch, Czech and Swedish intelligence all say they have foiled attacks. Russia has also been accused by the West of trying to interfere in elections. Without naming Russia, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, warned on Tuesday that “anti-European forces” might try to target EU Parliament elections in May. In his speech to officers of Russia’s FSB security service, Mr Putin said their work had to be efficient, especially in protecting data on the development of weapons systems. “We see foreign intelligence agencies trying to increase their activity towards Russia, seeking by all means to access political, economic, scientific and technological information,” he said. After EU leaders agreed with the UK that Russia was highly likely to have been behind the Skripal attack in Salisbury last year, more than 25 countries expelled Russian diplomats.
The head of the British army, Gen Mark Carleton-Smith, said last year that Russia was seeking to “exploit vulnerability and weakness wherever they detect it”. Several intelligence agencies have acted against alleged Russian spy networks. In December, the Czech Republic said it had broken up a group that used the Russian embassy as cover. Dutch security services said two months earlier that they had foiled a plot to hack the global chemical weapons watchdog OPCW. The allegations of spying have all come against a backdrop of a worsening climate between Russia and the US. First the US and then Russia have suspended participation in a Cold War missile treaty. At the weekend deputy defence minister Valery Gerasimov accused the US and its allies of using the “protest potential of a fifth column” along with precision weapons as part of a goal of destabilising countries. Last month, Mr Putin said Russia would start developing a new type of medium-range missiles and said they would be aimed at Western capitals, if the West deployed missiles in Europe.