The man accused by Dutch intelligence of trying to secure an internship at the international criminal court developed an elaborately constructed false identity over many years, marking him out as one of Russia’s prized program of “illegals” – a spying program that originated during the cold war .
The program – dramatized in recent years in the hit TV show The Americans – has been revived extensively under Vladimir Putin.
But western experts say that for all the effort Russia puts into it, the number of illegals in operation at any one time is estimated at between 10 and 30 – and often they fail to achieve positions of significant influence.
A group of 10 illegals was unmasked by the FBI in the US 12 years ago, but while they had been in the country for more than a decade, they had largely failed to produce intelligence useful to Moscow partly because they had been closely monitored.
Their at times bumbling attempts to infiltrate high policymaking circles made them figures of fun to many Americans. One of them – Anna Chapman – became such a celebrity that a New York newspaper lamented her departure and asked if the city could keep her.
On their return from America, the expelled agents put the president, Vladimir Putin, and reportedly sang patriotic songs together. Many of them were then given lucrative advisory positions in state companies, and Chapman herself was made an adviser to the CEO of a Russian bank.
While the other former spies disappeared into the shadows since, Chapman becomes a public figure, and positioning herself as a patriotic role model, as the Guardian reported in 2014.
The GRU is one of two Russian intelligence agencies that run illegals, the other being the foreign intelligence SVR. But it is the GRU that has been particularly active in a string of clumsy spying operations in Europe, including the poisoning of defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in 2018 with the nerve agent novichok, which led to the death of another Briton, Dawn Sturgess.
The two agents accused of that crime also showed a penchant for irrelevant detail when they were interviewed by Russian television, explaining that they had only visited the Wiltshire city to admire its cathedral with its “123-metre spire”.
Shortly after the poisonings, four GRU operatives then tried to stage a cyber-sabotage attack on the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, also in The Hague, which was investigating the nerve agent used in the attack.
The four were foiled in an attempt to hack into the network from outside the building using wifi, and expelled to Moscow.