Re­tired Aus­trian army colonel ac­cused of spy­ing for Rus­sia

The Daily Telegraph - - World news - By Justin Hug­gler in Ber­lin

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.

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