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One in four Russian diplomats in Switzerland is a spy, report claims

The Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation in Geneva
The Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation in Geneva is located close to the United Nations headquarters Hynek Moravec/Wikimedia Commons

A confidential intelligence report compiled for the Swiss government says that one in four Russian diplomats based in Switzerland is a spy, two Swiss newspapers have claimed. 

A Federal Council report published in MarchExternal link had warned of “well-founded suspicions” that over one-quarter of the diplomatic staff of an unnamed state were spies. 

According to a research by Le Matin Dimanche/SonntagszeitungExternal link reporters, who had access to the confidential evaluation, the country in question is Russia. 

The papers claimed in their article on Sunday that the Federal Intelligence Service (FIS)External link has put a special focus on Russia, as their current spying activities in Switzerland have never been so unrestrained. The media said the FIS had meticulously documented the number of Russian agents holding diplomatic passports and had found that dozens of Russian officials work or used to work full or part time as spies. 

The article said some agents were uncovered earlier in their diplomatic careers, while others were discovered by the FIS. It added that the focus of much of their activities is Geneva, where the Russian permanent mission opposite the United Nations has over 4,000 square metres of offices and accommodation. 

According to an official list that Russia provides to the Swiss foreign ministry, 83 diplomats work either at the Russian embassy in Bern or at consulates in Zurich, Lausanne and Geneva. In addition, 67 other Russian non-accredited officials work in Bern, the papers said.

The FIS refused to comment on the media report or to give additional details on the issue.

Alleged Russian cases

A week ago, the SonntagsZeitung/Le Matin Dimanche reported that the two Russians named by British authorities as suspects in the Novichok poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had travelled to Geneva at least six times in the run-up to the attack. 

The suspects, named as Russian military intelligence agents Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, also stayed in Geneva for long periods, according to the papers. In their defence, the two men claimed they ran a sports nutrition business and had travelled to Geneva to relax and for work. 

According to SonntagsZeitung/Le Matin Dimanche, there have been numerous other Russian spying operations in recent months in Switzerland. 

On Friday, the FIS confirmed a Tages-Anzeiger and NRC Handelsblad news report that two Russian agents had been arrested in the Netherlands and expelled in March after a joint operation by Britain, the Netherlands and Switzerland. 

Citing unnamed sources, the Swiss and Dutch papers said the suspected agents were heading for the Spiez laboratory near Bern which analyses chemical and biological weapons, including the nerve agent Novichok. 

Summons and denials

The Swiss foreign ministry said it had summoned the Russian ambassador to Switzerland to demand an “immediate end to spy activities on Swiss territory”. However, the Russian embassy has dismissed the allegations.

“We consider such false statements simply absurd and nothing other than another attempt to an stoke anti-Russian atmosphere,” it said.

On Saturday, it emerged that the same two Russian agents arrested in the Netherlands on suspicion of spying on a Swiss laboratory are also being investigated by Switzerland over an alleged cyberattack on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which has its European office in the Swiss city of Lausanne. Criminal proceedings were launched in March 2017 on suspicion of political espionage, the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland said in a statement. 

The Financial Times reported on Sunday that the Russian embassy in Bern had described the latest reports in Swiss media as a “groundless and unproven attack on Russia” in a Facebook post. 

It added: “Sunday’s article about Russian diplomats in Switzerland has no facts and now cites secret documents that nobody has seen and likely, were never written. The authors’ attempt to force their biased attitude to Russians working in Switzerland looks absurd.”

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More spies visiting Switzerland as diplomats

This content was published on The Swiss Federal Council has reported an increase in foreign espionage, particularly aided by technology and by spies posing as diplomats.

Read more: More spies visiting Switzerland as diplomats

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR