The Compatriots: How Russian organizations in Europe work for the propaganda and foreign intelligence of the Russian Federation

Center for science, culture, and intelligence

As early as the Soviet Union era, Russian intelligence services considered cooperation with compatriots abroad as one of the priorities of their covert activities. They recruited not only emigrants who fled the “prison of nations” but also descendants of White Army soldiers and those who found themselves abroad on solitary tourist or business trips.

So there is no big secret that the current Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo) is, in fact, the successor of all Soviet services working with emigrants. It serves as a cover for agents from various intelligence agencies, primarily the Foreign Intelligence Service. Employees of the “Russian Houses” or Russian Centers for Science and Culture, as the local offices of Rossotrudnichestvo are called, often serve as staff members of this very organization.

For example, we discovered at least 15 heads of Rossotrudnichestvo offices worldwide in a recent release of the OSINT agency Molfar’s database of intelligence officers. Active officers of the Foreign Intelligence Service were included in the “Bacteria of the Russian World” database, such as former head of the local “Russian House” in Vienna, Dmitry Sokolov, current head in Berlin, Pavel Izvolsky, current head in Warsaw, Igor Zhukovsky, and former deputy head in Belgrade, Yevgeniy Dyomin. Analysts from the Lansing Institute have previously reported on the affiliation of Darya Pushkova, the head of the “Russian House” in Rome, with the Foreign Intelligence Service. Elena Yepishina, the head of the Russian Center for Science and Culture in Bratislava, previously worked as a military attaché at the embassy, which is impossible without a rank in the intelligence services.

The employees of the organization often admit that the very idea of “balalaika diplomacy” — spreading Russian culture in the most remote corners of the Earth — has been a failure from the beginning. Because few people are interested in the heroism of the grandfathers at Stalingrad or the magnificent works of Pushkin in poetry in Africa and Asian countries. Instead, intelligence work and recruitment of agents for political and economic influence are carried out behind the decorative round tables, conferences, and exhibitions.

Useful compatriots

Rossotrudnichestvo establishes agent networks just like throughout the entire Soviet period, under the guise of cultural propaganda and promotion of Pushkin and Dostoevsky.

See also: War for the Arctic or energy sabotage: why Russian spies have become more active in Norway

The first link in such networks is a network of coordination committees/councils of compatriots in various countries. These are informal associations that are usually not registered as legal entities or public organizations. However, this does not prevent them from playing the role of influential “umbrella” for organizations of Russians living abroad, initiating the receipt of grants from Rossotrudnichestvo, coordinating “Immortal Regiments,” promoting narratives of Russian propaganda, and periodically assisting Moscow in creating “information campaigns” in the form of rallies and petitions, as well as organizing conferences and round tables. The worldwide coordination council of compatriots is headed by Mykhailo Drozdov (residing in China), and the European regional council is led by Radian Pukhaev. He, along with Russian media, refers to himself as the “representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of South Ossetia in the Benelux countries” and is engaged in promoting Ossetian culture in museums of the region through the EU-registered company Renaissance-Sandidzan. It is not difficult to guess that the “exhibitions of Ossetian artists at the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands” are part of the Russian propaganda of “cultural ties” in the unrecognized occupied part of Georgia. Another issue is that, unlike the representative offices of the terrorist “DPR-LPR,” which were regularly opened and then quickly closed in Europe from 2014 to 2019, there are apparently no claims to the “representation” of South Ossetia in Brussels.

There are also “Legal Aid Centers” for compatriots operating under the coordination councils, whose activities have intensified after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the “surge of Russophobia” in Europe. They are coordinated by the specialized Foundation for Support and Protection of the Rights of Compatriots under the leadership of former Russian Ambassador to Lithuania, Alexander Udaltsov.

In most cases, the coordination councils do not even hide their affiliation with the sphere of influence of the “Russian House.” The majority of events are held directly on the premises of the Russian Centers for Science and Culture, and representatives of Rossotrudnichestvo (along with the Foreign Intelligence Service) maintain direct contact and regularly participate in their activities. They allocate funds to Russian schools, theaters, and other “interest-based clubs.”

Compatriots pay special attention to “memorial societies” that take care of the graves of Soviet soldiers. Firstly, such monuments serve as a gathering point for mobilizing loyal compatriots during “military” holidays, and secondly, they serve as a controlled political pretext for escalating tensions in relations with the host country. In 2020, there was even a scandal in the Czech Republic allegedly related to the relocation of the monument to Marshal Konev in Prague. The acting head of Rossotrudnichestvo in the Czech Republic, Andriy Konchakov, who was supposedly “appointed” as the country’s top official responsible for the monument’s relocation, was arrested for transporting the poisonous substance ricin.

Representatives of communities of compatriots are also regularly used by Russian propaganda media to create the image the Kremlin needs.

One of the tasks of compatriot organizations, together with state structures of Russia, is the cultural infiltration of ideas promoting the greatness of Russia and the necessity of “eternal friendship” with it at the level of childhood and adolescence. That is why Rossotrudnichestvo actively encourages children to attend Russian schools abroad, supports Russian language courses, the development of theater, film screenings, and more.

See also: Foreign voices of Russian propaganda: who and how justifies Putin in the world

Even amidst the war in Ukraine, compatriots in EU countries perpetuate myths about Russia, instilling a specific “critical thinking” in adolescents. For instance, in November 2022, local organizations “Soyuz” and the Institute of Intercultural Relations in Greece organized a series of events as part of the initiative by the Association of Russian Diplomats called “Russia’s Contribution to the Creation of Modern Greek State: History and Future of Relations.” Members of the “Young Diplomats” club in Patras were taken on tours to places of “military glory” from the time of World War II, during which they were, of course, presented with narratives of “history falsification” and “glorification of Nazis.”

At the same time, “compatriots” can be fully integrated into local communities. One example is Oleg Sotnichenko, the head of the coordination council of compatriots in the United Kingdom. Originally from Latvia, he has been facilitating the lives of Russian-speaking citizens in Great Britain for over 15 years while actively participating in internal affairs.

For example, in 2016, he was one of the local organizers of the Remain campaign to keep the United Kingdom within the European Union. He also ran for local office in Derby as a member of the Labour Party. As a result, in 2018, Sotnichenko and his organization, the Eastern Europeans Network, became involved in a scandal with the local police, which allocated £75,000 for crime prevention and reducing social tensions among immigrants (providing consultations on citizens’ rights when dealing with the police and a hotline).

The thing is, the local police chief was also a supporter of the Labour Party, so they accused him of nepotism. Meanwhile, the astute Russian compatriot, at the expense of British taxpayers, increased the visibility of his organization among the Russian-speaking diaspora, creating an image of a defender of their rights. This, presumably, later allowed him to become the head of all diaspora organizations in the United Kingdom.

Examples of “integration” of representatives of the “Russian world” into local structures are widespread. Moreover, there is often a business component to such connections. For instance, Larysa Shyoke is the head of the Russian-Hungarian Association in the town of Paks, Hungary. According to her resume posted on social media, her latest known position is the head of the expansion department at the nuclear power plant in Paks, which is one of the international projects of Rosatom.

Another interesting character is Yulia Gavrilova, the coordinator of the “Immortal Regiment” in Alexandroupolis, Greece, and the head of the local association Russian House. She is the wife of Konstantin Gabaeridis, an advisor to the mayor of the town and the leader of the Association of Greek Repatriate Businessmen. He has been an active lobbyist for friendly relations with St. Petersburg and business projects involving occupied Crimea. The reason for Russian interest in this “county center” with a population of 60,000 is its geography. It has a port where a terminal for liquefied gas supply is being constructed, and it is located on the border with Turkey, making it a suitable location for expanding the TurkStream project.

See also: “Bulgaria for peace.” The Kremlin found a new job for “anti-vaxxers”

“Scientific interest”

We have already mentioned, in a recent review of the threats perceived by the intelligence agencies of Baltic and Scandinavian countries from Russia, that one of the dangers Europeans consider is industrial and technological espionage. It is noted that spies may come to European universities under the guise of students and professors participating in exchange programs to gather information about technological advancements. Additionally, Russians may also be interested in developments in the field of green energy, which reduces the EU’s dependency on Russian energy resources.

One example of involvement in this process by the offices of Rossotrudnichestvo is provided by the Danish newspaper Information in a recently published series of articles on the de-anonymization of expelled Russian spies from Copenhagen. It specifically mentions the regular organization of contacts between Artem Markaryan, the head of the Russian House in Denmark, and the Technical University of Denmark. Professors were invited to conferences on space and Arctic research, attended by representatives of Russian scientific institutions. They also organized “Science Days.”

Moreover, journalists discovered that Markaryan even managed to place an employee of the Russian House in the university as a staff member. Several other employees of Russian origin at the university were later exposed as spies who were passing information about green technologies from the scientific institution and its commercial partners to Russian intelligence services.

In this context, the lists of partner universities of the Russian World Foundation in Europe, as well as the networks of international cooperation between universities, which include Russian educational institutions, look quite different.

Originally posted on Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

See also: How “Russian peace” is being built in Turkey and how it threatens Ukraine’s partner

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