“Russian Sleeper Agents: A Comprehensive Guide”
Russian sleeper agents, also known as “illegals”, have been a problem for years, with more being activated in recent years for various tasks including espionage. Since the invasion of Ukraine, sleepers have been activated to gather information on NATO’s efforts to support the Ukrainian war effort. European counterintelligence agencies have created profiles of potential sleepers, making it easier to detect and arrest them.
NATO governments, particularly in Eastern Europe, have been more forthcoming about Russian espionage operations, particularly the use of assassination against those seen as enemies of the state. This has increased since the invasion of Ukraine and has led to more Russians fleeing their homeland.
In 2019, a French newspaper article detailed the operations of Russian Military Intelligence’s “Unit 29155”, which had been operating out of a secret logistics base in France near the Swiss border. From 2014 to 2018, the unit carried out espionage, sabotage, and assassination operations with at least 15 undercover agents. A joint intelligence operation involving the UK, Switzerland, France, and the US tracked the unit and its activities. The base was frequently moved around Western Europe to avoid detection and focus on specific tasks.
One of these tasks was assassination, including an attempt on the life of Sergei Skripal in the UK in 2018 using the nerve agent novichok. This incident caused international outrage and led to the US imposing its first round of sanctions on Russia for the use of nerve gas. British investigators identified the Russian agents involved and the novichok container was eventually found. Analysis by four different labs confirmed that the substance was novichok, a chemical weapon only known to be produced in Russia.
In response to the attack, Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats suspected of being intelligence agents and Russia expelled 23 British diplomats. Other nations also expelled Russian diplomats.
In addition to assassination and espionage, Unit 29155 has also been linked to a failed coup in Montenegro, an attempted revolution in Moldova, and cyberattacks against the World Anti-Doping Agency and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Overall, Russian sleeper agents pose a significant threat to national security and efforts to track and disrupt their operations are ongoing.
- Russian Military Intelligence: Unit 29155 (https://www.bellingcat.com/resources/articles/2019/04/24/russian-military-intelligence-unit-29155/)
- The Secret Life of Russian Sleeper Agents (https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/09/the-secret-life-of-russian-sleeper-agents/569788/)