The attack on a Russian opponent in Vilnius raises fears of Kremlin infiltration in Baltic countries

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been warning for years about Moscow’s attempts to destabilize these nations and persecute Russian citizens on their territory

Atentado a Vilnius
A police officer inspects an area near the site of the attack against Leonid Volkov, this Wednesday in Vilnius (Lithuania).Mindaugas Kulbis (AP)

The attack on a Russian opponent on Tuesday night in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, has raised fears of infiltration by Russian secret services in the Baltic countries. The Lithuanian government accuses the Kremlin of being behind the attack in which Leonid Volkov, a former assistant to the late Alexei Navalny, was injured. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have repeatedly warned in recent years of Moscow’s intentions to carry out destabilizing actions on their territory and to persecute Russian citizens sheltering there.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the only three former Soviet republics that are part of the EU and NATO, are in a period of maximum tension with their expansionist neighbor. In addition to having emerged as some of the strongest defenders of the Ukrainian cause in Brussels, the three countries, especially Estonia and Latvia, have ethnically Russian minorities — which the Kremlin insists are discriminated against — and have been threatened by Moscow countless times since the invasion of Ukraine.

In the last two years the three Baltic republics have arrested dozens of Russian citizens accused of spying or preparing attacks on the orders of the Kremlin. A couple of months ago, the European Parliament launched an investigation into Tatjana Zdanoka, a Latvian MEP suspected of having worked for Moscow for the last 13 years. Last year, Latvian authorities arrested a dozen people for their alleged links to Russian espionage.

In the case of Estonia, Kaja Kallas, the prime minister, announced in late February that the Baltic country’s security forces had aborted “a hybrid operation” by Moscow on its territory. Kalles, who has had a search and arrest warrant against her issued by the Kremlin for the destruction of Soviet monuments — a move that also affects dozens of other Baltic politicians — reported the arrest of a dozen “people who worked for the Russian secret services” and damaged the vehicle of Interior Minister Lauri Laanemets.

The head of the Estonian Security Service, Margo Palloson, stated that some of the defendants had been recruited by Moscow through social media, and that Russian authorities did not care what might happen to them. “They used them as tools,” Palloson told Estonian public television. In January, the Estonian government also announced the arrest of a university professor who was allegedly spying for Russia.

The leaders of the three Baltic republics not only fear destabilizing actions. In recent weeks they have expressed concern about the possibility that Russia might dare to attack them directly, or even invade a small portion of their territory, to test NATO’s principle of collective defense, a cornerstone of the Alliance.

Impunity in the heart of Europe

The Kremlin has demonstrated countless times that its agents can act with impunity in the heart of Europe. Former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in 2006 by his own people in the United Kingdom with an isotope of polonium, in one of the first murders orchestrated by the Kremlin in European territory after Vladimir Putin came to power. The main suspect, Federal Security Service agent Andrei Lugovói, is today a lawmaker in the Russian Parliament. In 2018, Sergei Skripal, another former spy who had betrayed Moscow, was poisoned in southern England, along with his daughter Yulia, with Novichok (the same nerve agent that was used against opposition leader Navalny in Siberia in 2020).

In Germany, Austria, France, Belgium and Spain, Russian deserters and dissidents, several of them Chechens, have also died violently in recent years in attacks in which investigators have blamed the Kremlin.

British police collected samples after the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March 2018 in Salisbury.
British police collected samples after the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March 2018 in Salisbury.Ben Stansall (AFP)

Although Russian attacks on European territory have occurred over the past two decades, the large-scale war in Ukraine has completely disrupted the network of spies that the Kremlin had painstakingly deployed in Europe and the rest of the West since the end of the Cold War. Hundreds of employees in Russian diplomatic offices on EU territory have been expelled in the last 24 months, accused of being undercover espionage agents.

Kevin Riehle, an expert in intelligence services at Brunel University in London and former counterespionage advisor to various U.S. administrations, explained in a recent analysis that Russian intelligence activity has been greatly diminished by the expulsions of its covert personnel throughout Europe, but that “the most significant change has occurred in the objectives pursued by its intelligence.” According to Riehle, Russian espionage in Europe is now focused “more on the tactical level than on the strategic one,” trying to influence, for example, the main countries that supply weapons to Ukraine.

One of the most notorious incidents was the arrest in December 2022 of Carsten Linke, an employee of German foreign intelligence, who was leaking reports to Russia until Berlin was alerted by British espionage. Another very prominent case was that of Olga Kolobova, known as Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera, an alleged jewelry designer who rubbed shoulders with the most select circles of the NATO Joint Forces Command in Naples. The spy disappeared in 2018, just after the Skripal poisoning. Russian spy agents have also infiltrated European politics. The German magazine Der Spiegel and the Russian magazine The Insider revealed that a lawmaker from the far-right party Alternative for Germany was coordinating with Moscow to protest against aid to Ukraine.

Speaking from Bulgaria on Wednesday, former Russian lawmaker Guennadi Gudkov asked European governments to guarantee the security of the exiled opposition following the attack in Lithuania. “A hunt has been declared against the most prominent representatives of Russia in exile,” said Gudkov, who worked in security agencies before devoting himself to politics and now assures that the Russian Federal Security Service has created a special department to “counter” the influence of opponents abroad, individuals that the Kremlin considers “enemies.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

Tu suscripción se está usando en otro dispositivo

¿Quieres añadir otro usuario a tu suscripción?

Si continúas leyendo en este dispositivo, no se podrá leer en el otro.

¿Por qué estás viendo esto?


Tu suscripción se está usando en otro dispositivo y solo puedes acceder a EL PAÍS desde un dispositivo a la vez.

Si quieres compartir tu cuenta, cambia tu suscripción a la modalidad Premium, así podrás añadir otro usuario. Cada uno accederá con su propia cuenta de email, lo que os permitirá personalizar vuestra experiencia en EL PAÍS.

En el caso de no saber quién está usando tu cuenta, te recomendamos cambiar tu contraseña aquí.

Si decides continuar compartiendo tu cuenta, este mensaje se mostrará en tu dispositivo y en el de la otra persona que está usando tu cuenta de forma indefinida, afectando a tu experiencia de lectura. Puedes consultar aquí los términos y condiciones de la suscripción digital.

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS