Retired Austrian army colonel accused of spying for Russia
RELATIONS between Russia and the West were plunged into a new controversy yesterday as Austria placed a senior military officer under investigation on suspicion of spying for Moscow.
The suspect, a 70-year-old retired Austrian army colonel who has not been named, is alleged to have passed secrets to Russian intelligence for 20 years in return for payments totalling €300,000 (£260,000).
“Russian spying in Europe is unacceptable and must be condemned,” Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, told a hastily assembled press conference in Vienna yesterday. “Of course, if such cases are confirmed, it will not improve relations between Russia and the European Union.”
Russia denied all knowledge of the case and accused Austria of conducting “megaphone diplomacy”.
The suspect is believed to have been recruited by Russian intelligence in the 1990s and passed information about weapons systems and key individuals to Moscow. Although he retired from the military five years ago, he is believed to have continued to spy until earlier this year.
“We are demanding transparent information from the Russian side, and will discuss the way forward with our EU partners,” Mr Kurz said.
Austria was alerted to the case by a tip-off from an allied intelligence agency, Mario Kunasek, the defence minister said. Austria’s Der Standard newspaper reported the warning came from Germany.
“We can’t say for the moment whether this is an isolated incident or not,” Mr Kunasek said. The suspected officer told interrogators that Russia had asked him for information on weapons systems and the migration situation in Austria, he said.
“Profiles of certain people were also created and passed on,” he said.
Russia supplied the colonel with an encrypted device, according to Austrian press reports. He also met regularly with a contact, named only as “Yuri”, usually abroad. He tried unsuccessfully to break off his relationship with Russian intelligence in 2006.
Austrian prosecutors said yesterday the suspect was under formal investigation on charges of spying. If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison.
The case has severely shaken relations between Russia and Austria, which was one of few EU countries not to expel Russian diplomats over the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury, and in the past Mr Kurz has spoken of his desire for the country to be a bridge between Russia and the West.
But yesterday Karin Kneissl, the Austrian foreign minister, cancelled a trip to Russia planned for next month and summoned the Russian charge d’affaires to demand an explanation.
Ms Kneissl has a good personal relationship with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, who attended her wedding as a guest earlier this year and danced with her before the cameras.
Russia reacted angrily to the accusation of spying and summoned the Austrian ambassador in turn.
“We are accused and asked to apologise for something we know nothing about,” Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister said.