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On March 13, Austria announced the expulsion of two Russian diplomats for “actions that are incompatible with their diplomatic status.” Moscow frequently uses official diplomatic cover in order to mask its foreign espionage operatives, and in the past two years alone, Austria has shown the door to six Russian Foreign Ministry officials. Vienna’s attitude to the abundance of Russian spies on its territory finally appears to be evolving. For decades, Austria was a hotbed of Soviet and Russian espionage, with the Kremlin’s diplomatic mission always full of career officers from various intelligence services: first the Soviet-era KGB, and then the present-day SVR, GRU, and the FSB's Fifth Service. While other countries have expelled a total of approximately 700 Russian spies working under diplomatic cover since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Austria’s contribution stood at a mere four — at least until recently. The tide turned when the Austrian authorities created a new anti-espionage agency, which began taking Russian intelligence operations more seriously.

Content
  • “Our people” in Vienna

  • An open house

  • The end of neutrality

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“Our people” in Vienna

The Russian Embassy in Vienna is located in an old mansion on Reisnerstrasse, built in 1872-1873 for the banker Israel Simon. The mansion was provided to the Soviet Embassy in 1924, when the new Soviet state established diplomatic relations with Austria. In 1938, Austria became part of Nazi Germany, and Soviet diplomats were asked to leave. Until the end of the war, the building housed a Hitler Youth dormitory and then the Japanese Consulate General. In April 1945, after the liberation of Vienna, the Soviet diplomatic mission reoccupied the mansion. Even then, most of the diplomatic staff already had a special services background, and the rest of the personnel were subordinate to them. Little has changed today, and the Russian embassy in Austria is still a key center of the Kremlin's European spy network.

The Russian Embassy in Vienna
The Russian Embassy in Vienna

The official website of the Russian Embassy in Austria lists only 10 diplomats, although the actual headcount of the embassy includes 46 holders of diplomatic passports, not counting technical staff, drivers, cooks, and so on. Since 2015, the diplomatic mission has been headed by German studies scholar Dmitry Lyubinsky, whose father, Yevgeny Lyubinsky, spent many years spying in Europe under the cover of representing the Soviet foreign trade enterprise Avtotraktorexport.

Dmitry Lyubinsky
Dmitry Lyubinsky

The embassy’s public activities are mostly limited to pro-Kremlin propaganda and the promotion of a volunteer movement called S.O.S. Donbass, which purports to be collecting humanitarian aid all over Europe for the affected population of Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine: “Our humanitarian cargo sends a clear message that not all Europeans are against Donbas and against Russia,” asserts the head of the organization, Anna Novikova.

In reality, the core of the “Europeans who care” are Russian natives, and a partner organization of S.O.S. Donbass, the Eva Florencia Charitable Foundation, lists Moscow phone numbers for its employees.

The core of the “Europeans who care” are Russian natives

Meanwhile, as a former embassy official who wished to remain anonymous told The Insider, the Russian diplomatic mission is mostly run by the ambassador's two advisers: Semen Kovalev and Evgenii Ambrosii. Prior to Kovalev’s arrival in Austria in January 2019, he was registered at the GRU headquarters at 76 B Khoroshevskoye Shosse and was later provided with an apartment on Keramichesky Proyezd, according to Moscow's address database. In the early 2000s, the future “diplomat” served in a branch of Central Research Institute No. 18 (Military Unit 11135), which forms part of GRU's radio intelligence network, and he used cover documents from Russia’s State Courier Service.

The other advisor to the ambassador, Evgenii Ambrosii, has been working in Austria since December 2020. In Moscow, he is registered in the departmental house of the Foreign Intelligence Service on Vilnyusskaya Street. The apartment block is known for the mysterious death of Colonel Gennady Ambarnov, a high-profile SVR officer who allegedly fell from the 15th floor of the building in 2011. Ambrosii oversees the SVR's political intelligence residency in Austria with a special focus on local officials, deputies, public figures, and journalists.

Another SVR officer, Andrey Prosvirnikov works under the cover of the Embassy's 1st Secretary. He arrived in Vienna on Jan. 22, 2016, after serving in Military Unit 543939. This unit engaged in disseminating various forms of fake news online while working out of the so-called SVR Residents’ House on Goncharnaya Street in Moscow, which The Insider described in detail in a previous report.

The embassy's other 1st Secretary, Alexander Golovashkin, arrived in Vienna in November 2021 and has a background working at the Moscow Intelligence Center of the GRU (Military Unit 46188). Located in Moscow's Sokolniki District, the center has branches in Kursk, Tver, and Voronezh and is now fully focused on gathering intelligence in Ukraine.

An open house

Up until the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Austrian security services did not get in the way of Russian spies and even sometimes abetted them.

In June 2007, a high-profile diplomatic scandal broke out between Russia and Austria. The reason was the detention of Roscosmos employee Vladimir Vozhzhov, who had arrived in Vienna for a United Nations event titled “50 Years of Space Age.” Vozhzhov was detained at the request of the German security services, which believed he was a GRU career officer who supervised an agent network that included German engineer Werner Greipel of Eurocopter and Austrian Air Force officer Harald Sodnikar. Previously, these two figures had provided Vozhzhov with classified drawings of the new Eurocopter Tiger attack helicopter and a container of gear oil. The GRU opened a bank account for Sodnikar and transferred him money for luxury cars. Vozhzhov was arrested at the train station in Salzburg carrying a large amount of cash. Sodnikar and Greipel were subsequently arrested as well, and the latter confessed. The situation was all the more sensitive considering that Vozhzhov was married to Olga Tsomaeva, the younger sister of Vladimir Putin's wife Lyudmila. The Kremlin reacted instantly, summoning the Austrian ambassador in Moscow to the Russian Foreign Ministry and handing him a note of protest. The Austrians took Moscow's threats seriously and allowed Vozhzhov to return home despite Germany’s indignation.

Another outrageous incident involved the appointment of Vasily Chizhov as the First Secretary of the Russian Embassy in Vienna in 2020. Chizhov had been expelled from his position as attaché at Russia's representative office to NATO in Brussels for espionage, but the Austrians did not bat an eye: in Vienna, he was not suspended until two years later.

In 2009, Austrian security services failed to prevent the contract killing of Umar Israilov, a former bodyguard to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Israilov had told European media about torture and secret prisons in his home republic, and as a result, a group of Chechen fighters turned up in Austria to kidnap Israilov and bring him to Grozny, the Chechen capital. Israilov resisted so fiercely when he was captured that they shot him dead. His murderer, the contract killer Lecha Bogatirov, left Austria unhindered. Austria launched a formal police investigation but never found who ordered the murder. However, a document from the Austrian prosecutor's office reviewed by The Insider shows the last two phone numbers dialed by Bogatirov before Israilov's execution. A search using Telegram bots shows that both belong to Russian politicians of Chechen origin: MP Adam Delimkhanov and Putin's current “environmental advisor” Ruslan Edelgeriev.

In 2020, another critic of Ramzan Kadyrov, the blogger Mamikhan Umarov (Anzor from Vienna), was shot dead on the outskirts of Vienna. He had received numerous threats on the eve of the murder, and Austrian authorities granted him state protection. How the killer managed to shoot Umarov right under the noses of the police remains a mystery. This time, however, the killer was caught and sentenced to life in prison — while Anzor's security guard was sentenced to 14 years for attempting to shoot the fleeing killer (even though his pistol would not fire).

Finally, as The Insider revealed in a recent investigation, Russian intelligence services have for years used Austrian intelligence contacts recruited by former Wirecard COO Jan Marsalek. Since at least 2018, employees of Austria's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism helped Marsalek and Russian intelligence agencies find relevant information and spy on various people, including Christo Grozev, a former Bellingcat employee who is now The Insider's lead investigator.

The end of neutrality

The tables were turned on Dec. 1, 2021, with the creation of the Austrian Directorate of State Security and Intelligence, headed by professional police officer Omar Haijawi-Pirchner. The first accomplishments of the new special service include the detention in Vienna of a “Russian Greek” who had worked for the GRU for years, along with the expulsion of four Russian diplomats suspected of espionage. Two of these “diplomats” were part of Russia’s permanent mission to the UN, and two others were Russian embassy staff.

Although official confirmation is still lacking, The Insider's source in the Austrian Foreign Ministry asserts that the persona non grata list now includes GRU officer Alexander Golovashkin, who serves as the embassy's First Secretary, and the ambassador's counselor, Evgenii Ambrosii, who is from the SVR departmental house.

Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry has already reacted to the expulsion of the “diplomats,” stating that: “As Austrian authorities are yet to present evidence of any violations by the expelled Russian diplomats, the responsibility for the degradation of bilateral relations falls on Vienna.” The Russian ambassador to Vienna, Dmitry Lyubinsky, made a similar statement on social media.

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