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Done flying. How war with Ukraine outed Aeroflot's GRU spies and where they are now

Prior to the war with Ukraine, Aeroflot served as the primary “front” for Russian foreign intelligence operations. A significant portion of the airline's foreign offices were led by individuals with backgrounds in the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate) and SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service). However, following the implementation of the flight ban on Russian aviation, these officers were compelled to return to Moscow, while their extensive network of agents remained in their respective positions. Notably, Aeroflot not only provided a convenient cover for working abroad but also served as a means for conducting espionage on foreign entities. The Insider provides an account of how Aeroflot's “representatives” engaged in spying activities across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, detailing the nature of the information they acquired and shedding light on their current endeavors.

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Content
  • Europe

  • Asia

  • The Middle East and Cuba

  • Double agents

During the Soviet era, numerous officers from the KGB's First Main Directorate and the GRU, often assuming roles such as representatives abroad, pilots, flight mechanics, and stewardesses, engaged in espionage activities under the guise of being affiliated with Aeroflot. These individuals, referred to as “undercover agents” in the secret service jargon, operated according to secret directives issued by the Central Committee of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) and internal orders from the KGB. Legends still circulate within the walls of the Lubyanka building, the headquarters of the KGB, about the exploits of “special stewardesses” who were strategically “planted” to gather compromising information on politicians from various countries.

During the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, the law “On Foreign Intelligence” was enacted, which mandated state-owned companies to provide assistance to the SVR, GRU, and FSB (Federal Security Service). In 2001, under Putin's leadership, Lev Koshlyakov, a former KGB-SVR general, was appointed as the deputy general director of Aeroflot. Koshlyakov subsequently brought in his former colleagues from the Yasenevo intelligence base. According to sources, conflicts arose between the “undercover” officers of the SVR and GRU, leading to a series of mutual entrapments and confrontations. However, after Putin intervened, the two intelligence services reached a reconciliation and divided the majority of positions within Aeroflot's foreign offices between themselves.

Before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a third of the airline's foreign offices were led by seasoned GRU officers. These officers were part of a wide-reaching espionage network that extended across various countries, including Cuba, Hong Kong, Angola, and Switzerland. The GRU provided financial compensation to these “representatives,” while Aeroflot covered the expenses related to their offices, accommodations, and transportation.

Europe

Vadim Kolomyichenko, based at the GRU headquarters on 76b Khoroshevskoye Shosse, known among GRU personnel as “Aquarium,” served as the head of the Aeroflot office in Vienna. Before his assignment in Austria, Kolomyichenko engaged in espionage activities in Delhi and Venice, assuming the cover of an airline employee and successfully gathering classified information pertaining to military aviation. Within the “Aquarium” office, Kolomyichenko earned the nickname “Vadya the Barbell” due to his serious involvement in powerlifting, even participating in tournaments held in Moscow.

Following the European Union's decision to restrict Russian flights, Barbell, along with his wife Olga and their young son Fyodor, returned to Moscow. It appears that Kolomyichenko, after his time in Vienna, became quite relaxed and had run-ins with traffic police officers. The website of the Savelovsky district court contains records indicating that on March 22, 2023, the GRU officer faced administrative penalties for traffic violations. According to The Insider's source in military intelligence, “Kolomyichenko has now been reassigned to the Ukrainian direction, but he hasn't fully adjusted to being back from Europe and seems to be aimlessly lingering.”

Maria, daughter of GRU officer Kolomyichenko, at the elite Hahnenkamm resort in Austria
Maria, daughter of GRU officer Kolomyichenko, at the elite Hahnenkamm resort in Austria

Nikolai Gruzin, originally from Uzbekistan, was involved in espionage operations while stationed at the Aeroflot representative office in Lisbon. He graduated from the Military Diplomatic Academy (VDA), known as the “Conservatory” within the GRU. Due to his proficiency in Portuguese, Gruzin was assigned to the GRU's 4th Directorate, responsible for Africa, the Middle East, and Israel. In 2005, Gruzin was deployed to Angola, a former Portuguese colony, where he operated from the Aeroflot office. In 2010, he joined the Federal Military Technical Cooperation Service, which employed military intelligence personnel. In 2017, Gruzin was reassigned to Aeroflot once again, and prior to the onset of the war with Ukraine, he provided additional support to the GRU's operations in Portugal.

Vladimir Kraskevich, who attended the same class at VDA as Gruzin, also departed from Aeroflot's Zurich office. In 2020, he took over the position previously held by another “undercover agent,” Vladimir Safonov. Prior to this assignment, Kraskevich had already conducted successful espionage activities in Washington and Amsterdam. However, his cover was blown five years ago when he was identified by the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine), and his name appeared on an internet-published list of 79 GRU spies. As a result, Kraskevich was swiftly relocated to the neutral territory of Switzerland, where the local counterintelligence agency turned a blind eye to Russian spies. In Zurich, the GRU operative enjoyed unrestricted access to flight databases and copies of documents belonging to foreigners traveling on Aeroflot flights.

Alexander Makhalov, another person listed by Ukraine, found refuge in Serbia, a country known for its friendly stance towards Russia. Before his relocation to Belgrade, Makhalov served in the Berlin residency. However, with the flight restrictions imposed on travel to Europe, he is currently in reserve. Sergei Neshto, another GRU officer and a graduate of the Borisoglebsk Higher Military Aviation School, was assigned to Sheremetyevo airport after his cover was blown. Neshto had previously conducted espionage operations under the guise of being associated with Aeroflot in cities such as Brussels, Damascus, Kyiv, and Tashkent.

Anatoly Kachan and Alexei Mironenko were forced to close down the Aeroflot offices in Berlin and Lyon. Currently, they are in Moscow awaiting reassignment to another region. Kachan, a graduate of VDA, previously served as the head of the Aeroflot office in Baku before his posting in Germany. On the other hand, Mironenko had a background in the Defense Ministry's International Cooperation Directorate and was responsible for monitoring reports on new military advancements in prominent French media before joining Aeroflot.

Alexei Mironenko
Alexei Mironenko

However, the Aeroflot representative office in Istanbul, which serves as a major transit hub for many Russian travelers, remains operational. Heading the office is Maxim Lagutkin, a native of Serpukhov. Prior to his assignment in Turkey, public tax records indicate that Lagutkin was employed by a private security company called Nortel Security, responsible for safeguarding the Prosecutor General's Office building. The founder of this security company is listed as Nikolai Chinenny, who resides in the housing complex built for security service personnel on Michurinsky Prospekt in Moscow.

Asia

In the brotherly nation of China, two “undercover agents” were simultaneously present: Sergey Salov, serving as the head of the Aeroflot office in Shanghai, and Maxim Grekhov, overseeing operations in Hong Kong. A former GRU officer, who had a lengthy tenure in the Shanghai residency, believes that despite the apparent camaraderie, Moscow actively maintains its espionage activities within China.

“In the realm of intelligence, there are no true friends, only temporary allies. No matter how frequently Putin meets with Xi, China, alongside the United States, Europe, and Japan, remains among our primary targets of interest, particularly in terms of scientific and technological advancements. While the superiors have cautioned against being too self-assured in China, there is substantial interest in the country: arms exports, joint special operations against the Americans, and now, even import substitution.”

Salov, who conducted espionage operations in Shanghai, received his education from the “Chinese faculty” of VDA. On the other hand, Grekhov, the head of the Aeroflot office in Hong Kong, previously served in the 40th Marine Brigade stationed in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (military unit 10103) before joining the GRU. In March 2022, the brigade, along with other invading forces, participated in the Ukrainian war and left their mark in Hostomel and Vuhledar. During the fighting, they suffered the loss of over 30 soldiers and a significant amount of military equipment. Currently, Grekhov and Salov are in reserve, eagerly anticipating regular flights to the Celestial Empire.

Denis Kazarin, who previously conducted espionage activities on behalf of Aeroflot in Hong Kong, was subsequently reassigned to Ho Chi Minh City. Serving in Communist Vietnam is considered a favorable position, as the country is abundantly populated with people who have strong ties to the Kremlin. Many of these people were recruited while studying in Soviet universities or graduated from specialized institutions such as the “Conservatory” for the armies of friendly nations like Cuba, Syria, Venezuela, Angola, and Algeria.

While the “undercover agent” Kazarin recruited informers, his wife Kseniya actively participated in various social activities. In Hong Kong, she worked in cooperation with the Russian Language Study Center and played a significant role in organizing the Russian Ball. After their relocation to Vietnam, Kazarina established a children's choir at the Russian Orthodox Church in Ho Chi Minh City. The church community consists of approximately one hundred Vietnamese Orthodox Christians, many of whom express support for Putin's policies and the aggression against Ukraine. The Kazarin family's eldest daughter, Olga, is currently studying at MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations) and has achieved the title of a master of sports in bullet shooting. The younger daughter, Sofia, regrets having to leave the exotic surroundings of Vietnam for the colder and more humid climate of Moscow.

In neighboring South Korea, the leadership of the airline's office was entrusted to Alexander Sychugov, an officer of the GRU and a graduate of the Stavropol Higher Military Aviation School for Pilots and Navigators. Since its establishment in 1994, the Aeroflot representative office in Seoul has consistently been under the purview of the GRU. The local counterintelligence service primarily focuses on countering the intelligence activities of North Korea and China, paying little attention to the presence of Russian spies.

For example, in 2021 Yevgeny Umerenko was appointed as an advisor to the Russian ambassador in Seoul. Prior to this role, Umerenko had served at SVR residencies in Berlin and Stockholm. However, in 2019, an incident occurred that significantly impacted his career trajectory. Umerenko was apprehended during a clandestine meeting in the heart of Stockholm with Kristian Dimitrievski, an engineer employed at the Scania plant. Dimitrievski received a three-year sentence for divulging corporate secrets, while Umerenko was subsequently deemed persona non grata. The capture of the Russian spy garnered widespread attention across European media, creating the impression that his espionage career had reached its conclusion.

After spending six months at his dacha in Kotelniki, Umerenko unexpectedly made his way to Seoul with the intention of obtaining confidential information from prominent South Korean companies. Accompanying him on this mission was his wife Tatiana, whose father, Albert Galutin, had previously served as a KGB colonel and spent many years clandestinely operating within Europe. While they were residing in Stockholm, Tatiana took on the role of a librarian at a school affiliated with the Russian embassy. Donning a black coat, glasses, and a hat, she organized engaging “Book Detective” investigative games for children.

Sergey Kidisyuk, a former Aeroflot representative, who had studied foreign languages at the Military University and had previously engaged in espionage activities in Toronto, Canada, was recalled from his assignment in India. During his time in Delhi, he openly discussed with the local media the growing influx of foreign travelers visiting India, Nepal, and Bangladesh: “Our airline has created a powerful transit network between Europe and Asia.” However, sources within the Russian embassy in Delhi revealed to The Insider that Kidisyuk was removed from his position due to his “pro-Western sentiments” and his numerous connections with relatives residing in Ukraine. Furthermore, it was disclosed that Kidisyuk did not belong to the GRU but rather served as an officer within the SVR's scientific and technical intelligence division.

Sergey Kidisyuk
Sergey Kidisyuk

Following Kidisyuk's departure under suspicion, Andrei Alimov assumed his position in India. Prior to his assignment in India, Alimov had served at Aeroflot's office in Copenhagen and subsequently at the Moscow office of the Swiss company SITA. SITA specializes in delivering IT services to air passengers and providing support to flight crews, assisting them in navigating turbulence, avoiding icy conditions, thunderstorm areas, and enhancing fuel calculation accuracy. However, approximately a month after the onset of the war in Ukraine, SITA decided to withdraw from Russia and implemented a ban on its subsidiaries from servicing Russian aircraft.

The Middle East and Cuba

In 2019, Sergey Prosvetov, a graduate of the “Conservatory”, assumed the position of head of the Aeroflot representative office in Beirut. Interestingly, during his time at the academy, Prosvetov resided not in the officers' dormitory on Narodnogo Opolcheniya Street, but rather in the campus of the Russian State Humanitarian University located at 25 Kirovogradskaya Street in Moscow. Along with Prosvetov, approximately 30 GRU officers who had previously served in conflict zones as part of subversive units “resided” at the student dormitory. It is believed that this group of “students” underwent specialized training for covert operations in Europe and the United States.

Notably, among the students were Anatoly Chepiga, who later used the alias Ruslan Boshirov in the poisoning incident of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, and Konstantin Bakhtin, who promptly departed from the Russian Embassy in the Netherlands following the arrest of four unsuccessful GRU hackers in The Hague.

Prosvetov, a former subversive operative, arrived in the city of Beirut shortly before the devastating explosion at the ammonium nitrate warehouse in the port. The explosion resulted in the tragic loss of 210 lives and left approximately 6,000 people injured. The ammonium nitrate originated from the Rustavi Azot plant in Georgia, and the intended recipient of the shipment was identified as the Mozambican company Fabrica de Explosivos de Mocambique, specializing in the production of explosives. The containers carrying the explosives were being transported aboard the Rhosus, a vessel leased by Igor Gechushkin, a native of Khabarovsk who resided in Cyprus. Among the crew were eight Ukrainians and one Russian citizen.

The journey to Africa, however, encountered technical difficulties, and as a result, the ship remained stranded at the port of Beirut for an extended period. Prior to the incident, Lebanese intelligence services had compiled a report for the government, highlighting the inadequate security measures surrounding the hazardous cargo and the presence of a breach in the warehouse fence, allowing unauthorized access. The investigation explored three potential scenarios: negligence, accidents, and external interference. However, the precise cause of the explosions is yet to be determined.

Explosion in Beirut
Explosion in Beirut

In 2020, there was a personnel change at Aeroflot's current office in Dubai. Alan Mardenov, a civilian aviation specialist, was replaced by the undercover operative Vitaly Ogurtsov from Moscow. During his training at VDA, Ogurtsov resided in the GRU officers' dormitory in the northern part of the capital. Later, he was allocated an apartment provided by the agency on Moscow's 800th Anniversary Street.

According to The Insider's source in Dubai, since the beginning of the so-called SMO (special military operation), “Ogurtsov has been busy as a bee. In addition to his operational responsibilities, he has been assigned to assist our defense enterprises in circumventing sanctions.” The successful importation of dual-use products into Russia through parallel import channels suggests that the GRU officer Ogurtsov is effectively accomplishing his assigned objectives.

The Emirates harbor a significant presence of Russian spies, with some operating within the Russian embassy (the list of “diplomats” is available at our editorial office). Russian intelligence agencies maintain a wide range of interests, including U.S. arms shipments, the ruling elite, oil reserves, and the country's economic potential. Recently, GRU officers assigned to the embassy have taken under their wing several Russian IT specialists who managed to evade mobilization and secured positions within subsidiaries of major multinational corporations in the UAE.

All intelligence gathered by military spies is channeled to Alexander Shashok, the GRU resident in the Emirates, and his deputy Anatoly Krasnikov. They operate within the Russian embassy under the guise of advisors. Shashok previously conducted espionage operations in the United States and later served as the head of the civil aviation projects directorate at the Ministry of Economic Development, overseeing the production of the Tu-204SM superjet. Colonel Krasnikov spent eight years as an official representative of Roskosmos in Astana, closely monitoring Kazakhstan's space program.

Anatoly Krasnikov
Anatoly Krasnikov

In the distant land of Cuba, there was yet another “undercover agent” stationed there: the head of the local Aeroflot office, Yevgeny Voskoboynik, who serves as a GRU officer. Similar to Chepiga-Boshirov, Voskoboynik had been registered as a Russian State Humanitarian University campus resident, while his family resided in the GRU dormitory in Tushino, Moscow. It appears that Voskoboynik, a graduate of VDA's “American Department”, was assigned a specific and undisclosed mission in Havana.

Double agents

Sometimes, Aeroflot representatives are caught red-handed while engaging in espionage activities. The most recent incident occurred in 2018 in Latvia, involving Sergey Sokolnikov, who was subsequently expelled from the country. Foreign Minister Edgar Rinkevich said, “This individual was engaging in activities in Latvia that went beyond his official duties. His actions constitute illegal gathering of information.” Following his expulsion, Sokolnikov assumed the position of Aurora Airlines' representative in Irkutsk, a city that offers direct flights to various destinations such as China, Turkey, Thailand, and more.

In another case, Dmitry Fedotkin, who served as Aeroflot's representative in London, was apprehended by the FSB during his visit to Moscow. According to investigators, he was working for British counterintelligence and had compromised several valuable GRU agents. As a result, the Moscow City Court sentenced Fedotkin to 13 years in a strict-regime penal colony and imposed a fine of 300,000 rubles ($3,640) on him.

Incidentally, Nikolai Glushkov, the former deputy general director of Aeroflot, met a mysterious fate in the same location, the UK. On March 12, 2018, he was scheduled to appear at the Commercial Court in London for a hearing of his case, but he failed to attend. The following day, Glushkov's daughter, Natalia, visited his residence on Clarence Avenue and discovered him with evident signs of strangulation. The circumstances surrounding Glushkov's death garnered significant attention, particularly as it occurred only eight days after GRU officers Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin employed Novichok to target Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

Nikolai Glushkov
Nikolai Glushkov

Glushkov, who had a close association with Boris Berezovsky, faced charges of embezzlement from Aeroflot and was subsequently placed on the federal wanted list in Russia. In 2006, he relocated to the United Kingdom and was later granted political asylum. According to The Wall Street Journal, Glushkov not only intended to establish his innocence in the Aeroflot embezzlement case but also planned to disclose the airline's extensive connections with Russian intelligence agencies during the court proceedings. Despite huge efforts, including the interviewing of approximately 1,800 witnesses and reviewing over 2,000 hours of surveillance footage, the British police were unable to identify the suspects, leading to a standstill in the investigation.

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