LE PECQ, France (AP) — The French chief of counterintelligence has given new details about a Russian spy ring broken up by France in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, saying the six intelligence agents were caught red-handed interacting with a source on French soil.
The director of the DGSI counterintelligence and counterterrorism agency, Nicolas Lerner, was speaking to a French parliamentary enquiry looking into foreign efforts to influence or corrupt political parties, leaders and opinion-makers in France. His testimony was delivered behind closed doors in February. But the website of the National Assembly, France’s lower house of parliament, published his comments this week.
Lerner described the unmasking of the Russian agents as “one of the most significant counter-intelligence operations carried out by the DGSI in recent decades.”
The six intelligence officers were “caught in the act of treating with a source on the national territory” and expelled, Lerner said, without giving more details.
At the time, in April 2022, France’s Foreign Ministry said the Russian “clandestine operation” was unmasked by “a very long” DGSI investigation. It said the six agents posed as diplomats and that their activities were “contrary to our national interests.” Its statement made no mention of a source in France.
France’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, also made no mention of a French source for the spies in his tweet last April that hailed the “remarkable counterespionage operation” by the DGSI which “obstructed a network of Russian clandestine agents.”
A week prior to those expulsions, as the horrors of war crimes committed by Russian forces in Bucha, Ukraine, were coming to light, France also expelled 35 Russian diplomats. saying their activities were ” contrary to our security interests. “
Expulsions, including tit-for-tat retaliations by Moscow, have been a feature of the deepening gulf between Russia and countries opposed to its war in Ukraine. Sweden this week expelled five Russian Embassy employees suspected of spying. Norway expelled 15 Russian diplomats earlier this month. Russia this week responded by ordering 10 Norwegian diplomats in Moscow to leave.
In his sworn testimony, Lerner told lawmakers that Russia had long been running the largest spy operation in France, using intelligence officers posing as diplomats.
“The country that historically has the most important system is Russia. This tradition continued to the present day. In each Western country, several dozen officers — their number has diminished significantly since the start of the Ukraine crisis — from the three Russian intelligence services carry out intelligence and interference actions under diplomatic cover.”
He added that China also “maintains a network under diplomatic cover that is much less developed than Russia’s.”
Lerner suggested to lawmakers that they also should be on their guard about the risk of intelligence agents seeking to ensnare them. He said the DGSI was in regular contact with lawmakers to alert them and “if necessary to let them know who they are dealing with.”
“In recent months, we have done this several times, after detecting contacts with Russian intelligence officers under diplomatic cover,” he said.
More broadly, the French counterintelligence chief said that previous unwritten rules that rival countries observed in the Cold War were collapsing in a new era of more aggressive and direct confrontation.
“From 1945 to the fall of the Berlin Wall, certain tacit rules, which one can like or disagree with, governed relations between nations,” he said.
“Each bloc broadly respected the other’s sphere of influence. All of that has disappeared. Now, the way some countries see it is that the only rules are the fait accompli and the law of the strongest.”
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