National Post

The seductive spy



ARussian spy posing as a jet-set jewelry designer infiltrate­d NATO’S naval headquarte­rs in Italy by sleeping with officers stationed there, it emerged Friday.

The agent — under the exotic but false name of Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera — became a fixture on the social circuit, targeting Allied Joint Forces Command in Naples, home to the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet.

The spy, real name Olga Kolobova, was deployed for almost a decade as a businesswo­man and socialite, making extensive connection­s that reached to the U.K. and as far as the Middle East.

Glamorous, impeccably dressed and driving an Audi convertibl­e, Maria Adela placed herself at the centre of Naples’ party scene.

She was a regular at the annual NATO ball and the U.S. Marine Corps ball and even managed to install herself as secretary of a charity linked to the NATO HQ.

But Friday Maria Adela was unmasked by the investigat­ive website Bellingcat as a spy working for the GRU, the Russian military intelligen­ce unit that tried to assassinat­e Sergei Skripal by poisoning him with the nerve agent Novichok on the streets of Salisbury, England, in March 2018. Six months later and believing her cover blown, Maria Adela bought a one-way plane ticket from Naples to Moscow and retreated back to Russia. Her close friends in the West have never seen her since.

Among them was Marcelle D’argy Smith, the former editor of the women’s magazine Cosmopolit­an, whom Maria Adela befriended in Malta in 2010 where the journalist had a flat. Friday D’argy Smith was coming to terms with Bellingcat’s revelation that the younger woman she had thought of as a “niece” or “goddaughte­r” was actually an agent of Vladimir Putin.

Maria Adela had told D’argy Smith, 70, that she was born in Peru in 1978, the love child of a German father and Peruvian mother, but astonishin­gly enough had been abandoned in the Soviet Union in 1980. Her mother had attended the Moscow Olympics and then left her there to be adopted by Russian foster parents.

Her money, Maria Adela would explain, came from a wealthy married Russian man with whom she had had an affair and who had died, leaving her an inheritanc­e.

According to Bellingcat, the GRU created Maria Adela’s fake persona in Peru, trying to register her as a citizen with a date of birth of Sept. 1, 1978. In fact Maria Adela was born in 1982, the daughter of a colonel in the Russian military, suspected of being a senior officer in the GRU. Maria Adela, it appears, had entered the family line of business, groomed from an early age to be a spy.

“I have zero interest in spies; I don’t bother with James Bond films,” said D’argy Smith Friday, clearly shaken by the revelation and having helped Bellingcat with its investigat­ion, “But we were such really good friends. She was like a goddaughte­r or a niece. It was upsetting to find out. She was very beautiful, very understate­d. I didn’t think other women liked her because they realized she could, if she chose, be a threat. She had lots of male friends but they never seemed worthy. She was so attractive and the men looked ordinary and I never understood it.”

From Malta, Maria Adela moved to Ostia, just outside Rome, taking classes in jewelry making. She would criss-cross Europe, taking the train from Moscow to Paris via Belarus, travelling on a passport that would later prove her undoing. The Russian passport was a fake and issued by the GRU.

In Paris in 2011, she set up her first jewelry business under the brand name Serein. Bellingcat believes this was the “likely seeding phase” of the GRU’S longterm plan to deploy their asset as a “socialite and businesswo­man.”

A year later, Maria Adela married in secret an Italian man with Russian and Ecuadorean passports. D’argy Smith was sent photograph­s of the wedding, her friend dressed in a strapless wedding dress, her black hair swept back.

Within 12 months, the husband had died in Moscow, his death at the age of 30 registered on July 13, 2013, and the death certificat­e recording double pneumonia and lupus.

After the wedding, Maria Adela made her move back to Italy, setting up her jewelry company Serein SRL, describing herself as a trader in jewelry and luxury goods. Later that year she flew to Bahrain, a posting on Facebook showing her meeting His Royal Highness Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the country’s then prime minister.

By 2015, Maria Adela had moved into a large apartment overlookin­g the Bay of Naples in one of the city’s more elegant postcodes.

Bellingcat says that over the next three years Maria Adela’s espionage career peaked. D’argy Smith remembers her friend picking her up from Naples airport in a “very flashy car, maybe an Audi convertibl­e; this beautiful dark haired woman wearing the most expensive leather jacket and I kept thinking: ‘Most men would kill to be me right now.’”

Maria Adela opened a boutique in Naples selling her branded Serein jewelry, the website claiming it bespoke and “made in Napoli.” In fact, according to Bellingcat, the jewelry was cheap stuff bought from Chinese wholesaler­s, and as much of a con as the woman selling it. D’argy Smith described the set-up as “amateurish.”

In the same year, Maria Adela became secretary of the fundraisin­g charity Lions Club Napoli Monte Nuovo, first establishe­d as a branch of the Lions Club by a NATO officer.

Through the club, the spy, who spoke fluent Italian and English with a discernibl­e Russian accent, “befriended a number of NATO officers.” One of them, who has not been identified, admitted to Bellingcat that he had had a “brief romantic relationsh­ip” with her. In an email to D’arcy Smith, she wrote that a U.S. Navy employee, who was a photograph­er, had “a little crush” on her. Another NATO employee said to be ‘close’ to her worked in data systems. NATO declined to comment.

The spy also became friends with Col. Sheila Bryant, the then Inspector General for the U.S. Naval Forces in Europe and Africa. Bryant told Bellingcat that she thought Maria Adela’s backstory was “confusing and unconvinci­ng” and questioned “why would anyone abandon their child in the Soviet Union.” Bryant was also mystified by the source of her wealth and as a result kept communicat­ions to arm’s length subjects of “social interactio­n” that usually involved Maria Adela discussing her “emotional issues with men.” During this time, the spy received invitation­s to all sorts of NATO or U.S. military events, including balls and fundraisin­g dinners.

In the wake of the Skripal poisoning in 2018, GRU’S operations had been exposed, their dealings uncovered by work carried out by MI-5, MI6, GCHQ and foreign intelligen­ce agencies. Within six months, the authoritie­s in the U.K. had a pretty good handle on GRU foreign operations both in Britain and across Europe. Maria Adela made a hurried exit.

In the following three years, she stayed in touch with her friends. As recently as last December, she sent Marcelle D’argy Smith a message on Whatsapp that read: “Dearest dearest Marcelle! There are [a] lot of things which I can’t (and never be able) to explain! But missing you a lot and very very much…”

The message was seemingly heartfelt, the closest the spy had come to a confession in the decade the Russian agent and the former Cosmo editor had been friends. “I don’t feel betrayed by her,” said D’argy Smith, “She is very resilient, very smart and a lateral thinker but once too often I saw her in tears. There was a vulnerabil­ity although it was never her undoing.”


 ?? MARCELLE D’ARGY SMITH ?? Maria Adela, centre, in Malta in 2010 with friends, including Marcelle D’argy Smith, the former editor of the magazine Cosmopolit­an.
MARCELLE D’ARGY SMITH Maria Adela, centre, in Malta in 2010 with friends, including Marcelle D’argy Smith, the former editor of the magazine Cosmopolit­an.

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