Austria hunts Russian ‘spy chief’

Austria hunts Russian ‘spy chief’

Austria has issued an international arrest warrant for a Russian on suspicion of espionage and working for Russia’s notorious GRU military intelligence.

The Austrian interior ministry said it was seeking 65-year-old Igor Egorovich Zaitsev, who is wanted for the “betrayal of state secrets, secret intelligence activities to the detriment of Austria and the intentional disclosure of military secrets”.

Zaitsev is being linked to the case against a retired Austrian army officer who was arrested in November on charges of spying for Russia for almost 20 years.

Austria claims Zaitsev ran a spy ring that stole military secrets for more than three decades.

The Salzburg authorities said Zaitsev was suspected of being the handler of “Martin M”, a colonel at the defence ministry. He is accused of providing Zaitsev with information on Austria’s military systems and its capabilities.

Austria is not in Nato but works with it within the Partnership for Peace agreement.

Martin M received large sums for the information, according to Austrian prosecutors.

Kronen Zeitung reported that he was being accused of providing personal information on senior Austrian officers with a particular interest in the air force and artillery.

“In the course of investigations by a foreign service an operative working meeting between the army spy and the Russian handler was observed. At this meeting, the Austrian was given almost €30,000 in cash by the handler in return for the disclosure of information,” the authorities said.

“The GRU handler is suspected of inducing a retired 70-year-old colonel of the Austrian army to carry out an intelligence operation to the detriment of Austria, to reveal state secrets and to deliberately give up military secrets.”

Before his retirement in 2013, Martin M worked at the structural planning department, which is responsible for procurement and personnel. He is accused of passing on secrets from 1992 until his arrest.

Prosecutors said the spy and the GRU agent used “highly complex satellite communications and further modern espionage techniques that required regular training of the spy and corresponding instructions by the handler”.

Martin M’s lawyer told the Austrian media that he denied the charges and had not identified Zaitsev. Sources said the colonel was unlikely to have had access to major secrets but the regular flow of information could have damaged the armed forces.

Another European intelligence agency lifted the lid on the scandal last year, increasing tensions between Austria and Russia. The two countries had been growing increasingly close. The two governments summoning each other’s diplomats and Karin Kneissl, Vienna’s then foreign minister from the far-right Freedom Party, cancelled a planned trip to Moscow.

Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s veteran foreign minister, said he had been “unpleasantly surprised” by the news from Austria. “Recently our western partners have made it a rule not to use traditional diplomacy but instead to use so-called ‘megaphone diplomacy’ by publicly accusing us and for explanations about matters we know nothing about,” Lavrov said.

Austria is not a Nato member. Picture credit: Wikimedia

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