“Pragmatic” talks, including a visit to Moscow by the head of the Swiss secret service, have helped iron out some of the problems stemming from the alleged Russian spying in Switzerland, according to both countries’ foreign ministers.
Swiss Foreign Affairs Minister Ignazio Cassis and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, were all smiles for the press after a working lunch in Geneva on Wednesday on the margins of the Afghanistan Ministerial Conference at the United Nations.
Alleged Russian spying in Switzerland was one of the main items on their menu, alongside the political situations in Ukraine, Afghanistan and Syria.
Relations have been strained between the two countries after a series of revelations of alleged spying by Russians in Switzerland, which Moscow continues to deny. Swiss authorities believe that two Russian spies targeted a Swiss chemical weapons testing facility outside the capital, Bern, while prosecutors are also investigating a cyberattack against the offices of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in Lausanne.
In September, two Swiss newspapers also reported that a confidential intelligence report compiled for the Swiss government suggested that one in four Russian diplomats based in Switzerland was a spy. Russia roundly dismissed the claims.
In Geneva, the Swiss minister said the spying problems had been partly resolved.
“Sensitive, difficult questions like espionage can be discussed between friends,” Cassis told reporters. “We were happy to observe that after our meeting in New York, the situation became calmer and improved, ending delays in the attribution of visas for Russian and Swiss diplomats.”
The two ministers previously held talks about the spying allegations at the UN General Assembly in New York on September 25.
Cassis and Lavrov agreed that a visit to Moscow at the beginning of November by Jean-Philippe Gaudin, the director of the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service, had helped defuse tensions.
“It allowed him to establish contacts with intelligence officials and should allow us to talk directly to them when there are elements that we don’t appreciate in the future,” said Cassis.
Nonetheless, the Swiss minister maintained a firm line in front of the cameras, insisting that there is a clear difference between illegal spying and legal intelligence gathering. “Switzerland doesn’t tolerate illegal spying activities,” he declared. “Spying activities by diplomats is not allowed, whether it’s Russia or it’s other countries, and we need a correct relationship in this regard”.
In October, the Federal Council (executive body) gave the green light for the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland to pursue a criminal probe against two Russian citizens suspected of spying on the Swiss government-run Spiez facility, near Bern, which analyses chemical and biological weapons.
In March 2017, the federal prosecutor’s office had already opened an investigation against two Russians suspected of carrying out a cyberattack against the World Anti-Doping Agency’s office in Lausanne.
It is thought that these same two men were part of a group of four Russians expelled from the Netherlands in April 2018. The Dutch authorities said they had disrupted their attempt to hack into The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
It is claimed that the agents detained by the Dutch and expelled to Russia were planning to travel on to the Spiez laboratory used by the OPCW. The Swiss government-run facility analyses chemical and biological weapons, including the nerve agent Novichok, which Britain says Russia used to try to murder former double-agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in March 2018, and suspected poison gas deployed in Syria.
Protests and denials
In protest, the Swiss foreign affairs ministry summoned the Russian ambassador to demand an “immediate end to spy activities on Swiss territory”. In a tit-for-tat response, Switzerland’s ambassador to Moscow was summoned by the Russian foreign ministry in September for an explanation over “unfounded accusations” of Russian spying.
Russia maintains its innocence. Last week, its ambassador to Switzerland, Sergei Garmonin, again denounced Swiss accusations of espionage, and said that due to lack of evidence, and to preserve relations between the two countries, the charges should be dropped.
On Wednesday, Lavrov said professional and pragmatic talks were the only way to resolve problems. But he insisted that “lots of countries accuse Russia of all kinds of wrongs but with no facts, always with the same ‘highly likely’ approach of Theresa May [comments made after the Skripal poisoning]”.
“We learnt from mass media that Switzerland had concerns about Russian activities,” said Lavrov. “We were very surprised as there is a tradition of friendly talks… but the Swiss government didn’t ask for any explanations from the Russian government [about the spying]. Someone from the Swiss government perhaps simply shared this information with the press. They were not looking for any kind of clarification but just wanted to spread a scandal in the press.”