Might a tragic death in Kyiv indicate a regrettable opportunity for the UK to leverage an undoubted strength – its intelligence and security services – to assist its partners in Central and Eastern Europe, gain influence, and also help constrain regimes engaged in persecution and subversion abroad?
As of writing, it is still unclear whether the death of Vitaly Shishov – found hanging in a park in Kyiv – was the responsibility of the Belarusian KGB. Given his outspoken opposition to the regime of Alexander Lukashenko and his leadership of the Belarusian House in Ukraine, an organisation that helps those fleeing it, that is a strong possibility. His associate Yury Shchuchko has said that he was warned by Ukrainian intelligence officials that hit squads had been sent to Ukraine to ‘liquidate’ them.
Hit squads and snoopers
It would certainly fit the KGB’s increasingly aggressive profile. They have for some time been involved in monitoring the activities of anti-government activists across Europe, and appeared to have tracked dissident journalist Roman Protasevich onto the plane from Athens that was forced down in Minsk in May, where he was arrested. Belarusian opposition activists in Poland claimed that they were warned KGB agents were encouraging violent neo-fascists to attack them. Indeed, as far back as 2012, they appear to have been discussing the assassination of dissidents abroad.
As indicated by the retention of its old name of the Committee for State Security, even compared with its Russian counterparts, the Belarus KGB is scarcely reformed since Soviet times. Now that Lukashenko has launched what is a virtual war against the opposition, the degree to which they can operate fairly freely across much of Europe is a serious problem. The bulk of their foreign operators work under diplomatic cover in Belarusian embassies and consulates, but some others masquerade as everything from journalists and businesspeople to students and tourists (albeit rather fewer of these since Lukashenko all but closed his country’s borders).
Back in 2018, I spoke to an officer from the Slovak Information Service, the national security and intelligence service, about claims that KGB officers were using Bratislava as a base to spy on Belarussian dissidents, generally in other Schengen Area countries. He shrugged: they knew little about Belarusian operations, he said, especially as the KGB was largely working outside the country. They had enough to do dealing with direct threats to their own security, from Russian spies to potential terrorists.
This is not in any way to traduce the Slovaks. It is a familiar story, as over-stretched and under-resources counter-intelligence agencies across Europe naturally focus on direct threats, actual and potential. While there are Western European countries that shockingly under-spend on their security agencies, this is a particular problem in Central and Eastern Europe, where the challenges are often greater and the money scarcer.
Time to act
While numerous KGB officers have been placed under British, European Union (EU) or American sanctions, this is hardly a real deterrent. They – like Lukashenko himself – know that they are too steeped in the blood and tears of their victims to have a future in the West. Some individual KGB officers have been expelled, but there has been no wide-scale and coordinated programme to shut down the rezidenturas, the intelligence stations inside Belarus’s embassies. This is something on which the UK could undoubtedly take the lead – as it showed in the aftermath of the Skripal attack in Salisbury, the Foreign Office still has the status and finesse to broker multi-national actions that go beyond the usual alliances.
Beyond that, though, London ought to consider being more active in supporting such countries both with expertise but also with products from its own gathering and analysis operations. Of course, this is already happening, both through direct service-to-service contact and also through wider structures such as NATO. However, there does appear to be a genuine appetite in many countries for more.
This seems to reflect three particular interests and concerns. The first is simply in the hope that this assistance might help stave off the effects of their shortfalls in budgets or personnel. Britain’s strengths in both technical and human intelligence, as well as its analytic capacities, mean that it is a very useful partner; as one Bulgarian State Intelligence Agency told me, ‘they simply have sources we could not access.’
The second is that the UK also offers an alternative and time-tested model for developing and managing these capacities to the US one. Especially (but not only) for the countries which used to be in the Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact, a second or third wave of intelligence service reform is now following the initial convulsions of the 1990s. While Washington is often a generous and helpful patron, there is also a wariness in some countries of becoming too dependent on one ally.
Finally, they recognise that they often lack the capacity to address what to their political masters and publics might appear peripheral challenges – such as the Belarusian KGB. It is not that these countries do not care about Minsk’s thugs operating within their borders; it is rather that they cannot themselves afford to make this a priority.
Of course, there are risks in passing intelligence materials and analytic products to countries perhaps less able to protect them, and this will need to be managed carefully. However, the political and also practical opportunities are considerable.
It is a chance to help these countries help themselves, and to limit the freedom of operation of the intelligence agencies engaged in the most aggressive operations abroad: not just those of Belarus, but others from Russia’s to China’s, Iran’s to North Korea’s. They often cooperate in an informal ‘Repressintern’ of authoritarians. Democracies need to be as mutually supportive.Finally, as well as deepening partnerships with countries whose security and development matter to the UK, it is also worth noting that all intelligence-sharing is transactional. Many of these intelligence services also have niche capabilities and specialised areas of interest. Better partner services will be all the more able and willing to provide insights or information that could well also be of real use to us.
Dr Mark Galeotti is Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also Director of Mayak Intelligence Ltd.
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