FILE — In this Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018 photo Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, dances with Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl as he attends the wedding of Kneissl with Austrian businessman Wolfgang Meilinger in Gamlitz, southern Austria. (Roland Schlager/Pool photo via AP)
BERLIN – Austria's government said Friday that a retired colonel in the country's military is suspected of having spied for Russia for decades, a claim swiftly dismissed by Moscow.
Austria investigates colonel suspected of spying for Russia for several decades
The man, who wasn't named, allegedly provided a Russian intelligence agency with information about Austria's military and political situation, officials said.
"According to our information this activity may have begun in the 1990s and continued until the year 2018," Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told reporters. "That means there's a case of espionage here."
Austria has a launched a probe into a colonel suspected of spying for Russia for several decades, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said Friday, the latest in a string of cases where Moscow has been accused of espionage in EU states.
"At the moment we're demanding transparent information from the Russian side," he added.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Austria of "microphone diplomacy" for making what he called "public accusations and demanding an explanation over an issue we know nothing about."
In addition, the FPOe Interior Minister Herbert Kickl admitted in September that Austria had been asked to take “trust-building measures” to retain cooperation with allied secret services.
"If a country has concerns or suspicions about another country's actions and its alleged involvement seen as a threat, it should directly ask for an explanation in line with the international law," said Lavrov.
Austria's Defense Minister Mario Kunasek said Vienna was warned several weeks ago by a friendly European intelligence agency about the suspected spy.
Kunasek said the colonel in question retired five years ago. He said the man, whose electronic devices, including a laptop, were being examined, had told investigators that his handlers were interested in weapons systems, recent migration to Austria and information about Austrian personalities.
Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, said that based on the information available so far "we can indeed assume at the moment that the suspicion (against the colonel) will be confirmed."
He was referring to the expulsion of four Russian agents by the Netherlands in April for allegedly planning a cyber-attack on the worlds chemical weapons watchdog in The Hague.
If that occurs, the case in Austria and recent allegations of Russian espionage in the Netherlands "don't improve relations between Russia and the European Union," said Kurz, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the 28-nation bloc.
He added that Austria's foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, has canceled a planned trip to Russia. Kneissl was criticized by Austria's opposition for inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to her wedding in August.
Kunasek said that under questioning, the colonel said the Russians had been interested “in weapons systems, in the migration situation here in Austria in recent years”.
The suspect, a 70-year-old retired colonel in the Austrian army who has not been named, is alleged to have passed secrets to Russian intelligence for 20 years in return for payments of €300,000 (£260,000).
Russian spying in Europe is unacceptable and must be condemned, Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, told a hastily assembled press conference in Vienna on Friday.
Austrias relationship with Russia has come under particular scrutiny since the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) entered government in coalition last December.
Of course, if such cases are confirmed, it will not improve relations between Russia and the European Union.
The suspect is believed to have been recruited by Russian intelligence in the 1990s, and passed information about weapons systems and key individuals to Moscow.
Although he retired from the military five years ago, he is believed to have continued to spy until earlier this year.
“We will call (the Austrian ambassadors) attention to the methods that must be used if you have questions to put to Russia,” Lavrov added.
We are demanding transparent information from the Russian side, and will discuss the way forward with our EU partners, Mr Kurz said.
Austria was alerted to the case by a tip-off from an allied intelligence agency, Mario Kunasek, the defence minister said.
Although officials have refused to comment on the identity of the intelligence agency involved, Austrias Der Standard newspaper reported the warning came from Germany.
The suspected officer told interrogators Russia had asked him for information on weapons systems and the migration situation in Austria, he said.
Russia supplied the colonel with an encrypted device, according to Austrian press reports. He also met regularly with a contact named only as Yuri, usually abroad.
He tried unsuccessfully to break off his relationship with Russian intelligence in 2006. Austrian prosecutors said on Friday the suspect was under formal investigation on charges of spying. If convicted, he could face up to ten years in prison.
Austria was one of few EU countries not to expel Russian diplomats over the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury, and in the past Mr Kurz has spoken of his desire for the country to be a bridge between Russia and the West.
But on Friday Karin Kneissl, the Austrian foreign minister, cancelled a planned trip to Russia in December and summoned the Russian charge daffaires to demand an explanation.
Ms Kneissl has a good personal relationship with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, who attended her wedding as a guest earlier this year and danced with her in front of assembled photographers.
We are accused and asked to apologise for something we know nothing about, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister said.
He described the allegations as an unpleasant surprise and said Austria should have spoken to Russia before making them public.
The case sent shockwaves through Austrian politics. Opposition parties accused Mr Kurzs junior coalition partner, the far-Right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which controls the interior an defence ministries, of being too close to Russia.
One of the biggest security risks is the links between with the Russian leadership and the FPÖ, Peter Pilz, leader of the opposition Pilz List party said.