Eelco Bosch van Rosenthal
Eelco Bosch van Rosenthal
The seventeen Russian intelligence officers deported by the Netherlands at the end of March were spies, according to an investigation by NOS and news hour. The men’s activities included encrypting secret messages, counter-espionage and gathering technology for the Russian army.
Did the Dutch services know what these men were doing? And why were they not expelled from our land much earlier? Below is the story of the complex relationship between Dutch intelligence services and Russian spies.
There is a thin layer of snow in The Hague when Vice Consul Roman Nefedov loads the moving truck in front of his apartment in early April. He returns to Moscow with his wife and two young children. A few days earlier, he was told that he is no longer welcome in the Netherlands.
According to the Dutch intelligence services, Nefedov works for the so-called KR line in the Russian foreign intelligence service SVR. It is the department that deals with counterintelligence. Nefedov collects information about Dutch and other foreign services and tries to get sources there. But he also keeps an eye on his compatriots: his colleagues, to make sure they are not overstepped, and some other Russians in the Netherlands.
His work at the state consulate is primarily a cover. That Nefedov works on the visa service is practical. That way, he can see all visa applications and can keep an eye on who wants to travel to Russia.
He is the only spy at the consulate. Most of his colleagues work a little further down in the large Russian embassy area. In addition to the embassy, residential buildings, a school and a tennis court, the white villa of the SVR and the military intelligence service GRU are also located here.
The spies who work here are expected to seek out and approach people who work in the State Department, the defense, academia or industry – to get classified information.
The information collected ends up with two colleagues who work full time in reference of SVR: the safe room in the white villa where the information is encrypted with encryption equipment and sent to the headquarters in Moscow.
All colleagues are expected to have very little private contact with the Dutch. But there is an even stricter regime for this sensitive position: they are not allowed to leave the embassy grounds unaccompanied, for fear of being overrun.
Deactivation is not an option
It has been a thorn in the side of the Dutch intelligence services for years: the Russian one official front pages – spies who can move freely in the Netherlands thanks to their diplomatic visas. But expelling Nefedov and his colleagues has not been an option for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs until then. If Holland is such a spy Moscow is expected to immediately do the same with a Dutch diplomat. That price is too high for the Dutch embassy in Russia, which would then have almost no diplomats left.
And so the Dutch security services AIVD and MIVD have no choice but to try to follow the intelligence officers of the SVR and GRU as best they can and to disrupt their espionage activities.
It is not easy, because no other country has as many spies working in embassies as Russia. There are at least twenty, spread over several locations in The Hague and Amsterdam. So much so that the counterintelligence teams of the Dutch services cannot possibly keep an eye on them full time. And then as many GPS trackers as possible are used and telephone conversations are tapped.
It is a game between Russian and Western services that has been played since the Cold War. When Nefedov applied for his diplomatic visa two years ago, the AIVD and MIVD already knew that a new spy was on his way to the Netherlands. But the bar for denying a Russian entry is high.
Only if someone is known by foreign services as a spy with unusual qualities, or has already been expelled to another country, will he be rejected by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the advice of the services. This happens on average once a year, usually as a result of a warning from a foreign sister service. In all other cases, the spy simply lands at Schiphol and the tracking and interception can begin.
That Vice-Consul Nefedov is in fact a spy can be established quite easily by the Dutch services, as with the other intelligence officers. He spends part of his time on activities that match his position as vice consul. But otherwise his everyday life differs from that of his colleagues at the consulate.
His CV is also different; he did not study at the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow like most of his colleagues. Also sitting official front pages usually on a fixed ‘castle’: eg. the positions of deputy consul and first secretary are filled as standard by SVR. Four attachés at the trade representation in Amsterdam are GRU officers.
Nefedov’s neighbor already thought his behavior was suspicious:
“How is that possible, a diplomat who doesn’t speak English?”
Despite their diplomatic visas, the spies cannot operate completely freely. As soon as one of them is caught by the Dutch intelligence service for espionage, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is sometimes prepared to expel someone. Two SVR officers, who too visibly collect information about technology for the Russian army and pay their sources for it, had to leave two years ago.
It also happened in 2018, when the GRU flew in four diplomats to hack into the systems of the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) in The Hague. The men hoped to gather information about investigations into Russia. The MIVD thwarted the hacking attempt and the diplomats were deported.
But not every time a Russian spy is caught, the services issue a press release. For example, an uncertain case with a foreign official never comes out. The AIVD discovered a few years ago that this official had been contacted by a Russian spy. The security service asks the official to cooperate with the spy to learn more about his modus operandi. The spy is eventually kicked out.
And not all operations succeed. Two years ago, things went wrong when the Dutch services placed a GPS tracker under Mikhail Klimuk’s car. Outwardly, he is the Russian defense attaché, but he is also head of the GRU in the Netherlands – they resident. The MIVD wants to know who its sources are in the Netherlands or abroad.
But the Russians find the clue. Angry, the Russian Foreign Ministry sends a message to the world. The Cabinet or the services have never acknowledged that Holland was behind this act.
End of tolerance policy
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Western intelligence agencies increasingly have problems with the presence of Russian spies. After the raid, the services in the Netherlands are also making a priority list of intelligence officers they want to expel. To the relief of the services, the State Department accepts the expulsion of all 17 diplomats, ending a period of decades of tolerance. How many times in all those years the Russians have managed to get confidential information, they only know in Moscow.
On April 10, the intelligence officers with their wives and children are picked up by a Russian government plane at the Belgian airport Zaventem. Back in Moscow, the wife of Nefedov’s colleague Matveev posts a poem on a poetry website: “Airplanes, suitcases. A little sense, a lot of drama. It’s a shame, but life won’t change.”