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Europe’s Bombshell Spy Scandal Sparks Hunt for More Traitors

Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

Lawmakers in Europe have been shaken by allegations that Tatjana Ždanoka, a Latvian member of the European Parliament, has been working undercover as a Russian spy.

Since at least 2003, Ždanoka worked to arrange in-person meetings with her Russian intelligence contacts, from Moscow to Brussels, according to a joint investigation conducted by The Insider, Delfi Estonia, the Re:Baltica journalism center, and Sweden’s Expressen newspaper. The investigation cites emails and other correspondence, and alleges that Ždanoka also requested funding from the intelligence officers, and shared draft initiatives and press releases with them on several occasions.

The European Parliament has opened an investigation into the matter—and lawmakers in Latvia are warning that there are other Russian spies in their ranks.

“We are convinced that Ždanoka is not an isolated case,” Sandra Kalniete, Roberts Zīle and Ivars Ijabs wrote in a letter, according to Politico. “There are other MEPs… knowingly serving Russia’s interests.” There are “public interventions, voting record[s], organized events, as well as covert activities,” the three lawmakers wrote.

The head of the legal affairs committee and a Spanish parliamentarian, Adrian Vazquez Lazara, has called for a review process to determine what policies allowed Ždanoka to fall so far from grace.

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“It would be intolerable if there were deputies paid by the Kremlin working to destroy European democracy from within,” Lazara said on social media. “Any links with Russia and its satellites must be uncovered and pursued.”

Russia has long prized well-placed assets in European countries, and Ždanoka is by no means alone. Estonian officials recently arrested a professor accused of spying for Russia. Last year, a former intelligence agent was sentenced to prison for passing sensitive information to Russia. In 2022, German authorities arrested a man in the country’s foreign intelligence agency for sharing secrets with Moscow. A Hungarian member of the European Parliament was charged with spying on the EU for Russia in 2017. Other recent examples abound, from Austria to Poland.

For Russia, the alleged recruitment of Ždanoka is par for the course, Bill Evanina, a former head of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told The Daily Beast.

“Russia spends a lot of time, effort, and resources recruiting members of not only NATO countries, but neighboring countries, intelligence services, and body politic. Especially at the lower level because they assume they’re going to rise up in rank.”

Years in the Making

Counterintelligence leaders frequently work to track who is vulnerable to possible recruitment from enemy intelligence agencies, including in NATO countries. Evanina previously chaired the National Counterintelligence Policy Board, and the Allied Security and Counterintelligence Forum, where he worked with counterintelligence leaders from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the U.K. on these very issues. Evanina also chaired the NATO Counterintelligence Panel.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, European nations have collectively expelled approximately 400 Russian spies, according to Britain’s MI6.

“When I was in my old role,” Evanina said, “part of my job was being the lead for counterintelligence for NATO. We would always discuss Russian recruitment, not only in Brussels and Belgium and in and around NATO, but in the host countries. What does it look like, who do they look for, who’s vulnerable?”

A photograph of Latvian European Parliament membert Tatjana Zdanoka in the press room of the Parliament in 2004.

Latvian Member of the European Parliament Tatjana Ždanoka talks to media in the press room of the European Parliament on July 21, 2004, in Strasbourg, France.

Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

Ždanoka, for her part, represented Latvia in the European Parliament from 2004-2018 and from 2019 until now.

Behind the scenes, she communicated in secret with two handlers, according to The Insider investigation. First, she worked with a man named Dmitry Gladey, but in 2013, her handler appears to have changed—Gladey introduced her by email to a man who went by the alias “Sergey Krasin,” according to the investigation. Both were allegedly Federal Security Service (FSB) officers. In correspondence, she reportedly sent along information that she labeled as “reports,” and on occasion referenced her apparent task to gather intelligence as “the promised information.”

In response to the allegations, she claimed that she has met “thousands of people.” When asked for comment about her second handler, she admitted to knowing Gladey, citing a meeting in the 1970s, The Insider reported.

“I cannot consider this text to be questions put to me because it is based on information that you supposedly have, which by definition, you should not have,” Ždanoka told The Insider.

Ždanoka has long espoused pro-Russia views. She was one of the international observers at Russia’s “referendum” in Crimea in 2014, a referendum which the Kremlin has used to legitimize its illegal annexation of Crimea. In 2022, she was one of the few lawmakers who voted against the European Parliament’s condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

On the Radar

Counterintelligence officials have traditionally considered money problems, ego, ideology, or vulnerability to coercion as factors that could motivate government officials to become spies. Contemporary spies, however, have a somewhat different approach, Evanina said.

“In the modern day, recruitment has evolved and is a little bit different than that,” Evanina told The Daily Beast, adding that ideology is often a primary factor.

“The Russians’ activities and their efforts are astonishing with their ability to drive the political narrative and the media narrative towards Russia’s best interests, and to push that construct in every way possible—in social discord, in meetings, in rallies, in media articles that get forwarded. Driving small narratives that get to become big narratives.”

In the future, lawmakers in Europe and elsewhere ought to consider improving the training lawmakers receive from the intelligence community to counter recruitment, elicitation, cyberoperations, or honey traps, Evanina said.

For now, it’s not entirely clear what will happen to Ždanoka, since she has parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Last year, parliament passed an amendment prohibiting “pro-Kremlin-oriented persons and political organizations.” European Parliament President Roberta Metsola “takes these allegations very seriously and is referring the case to the Advisory Committee on the Code of Conduct,” a spokesperson for the president said.

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Ždanoka’s fate In Latvia, too, looks precarious. Last year, Latvia adopted a new amendment that would penalize people for acting against the Latvian state. Consequences are coming, Saeima deputy Māris Kučinskis (United List) warned. “The file on Tatjana Ždanoka is very thick, and it will not remain without consequences,” Kučinskis said on Latvian television this week.

The Russians are most likely fuming, and looking for ways to get rid of her. She’s burned now, and has likely lost all her utility for the FSB, Dreeke said. “They’ll probably most likely dump her though—she’s overexposed. She’s a handling issue,” Dreeke told The Daily Beast. “Her usefulness for the Russians has diminished.”

And for Russia, it might not matter much. They likely have several other assets already working for them, and others in development. Ždanoka, Dreeke said, likely helped spot other potential recruits.

“Russia doesn’t operate on [the idea that] ‘OK we have one, so we don’t have to look, no,” Dreeke said. “They’d rather have 1,000. They’re actively trying to get them on board.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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