Russian intelligence officers use new practices of economic espionage in France, writes Le Monde. They recruit young engineers through job boards. According to the publication, employees of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation contact young specialists who do not yet have good earnings, so they are forced to work as tutors. Thus, the largest website in France with such announcements - Leboncoin - became a platform for collecting information by Russian employees of the Foreign Intelligence Service.
According to the publication, Russian intelligence is aimed at graduates of the best French schools or young professionals who in the future can take high positions. In fact, this is a long-term investment, the authors note. Naivety, lack of experience and ignorance of the methods of Russian espionage make young people easy prey for experienced officers. According to information collected by Le Monde, French authorities estimate that there are about 75 Russian secret agents operating under false diplomatic status - officially they are employees of various Russian organizations, such as the Russian Trade Representation in France.
One of the "victims" of the SVR was an engineer who had just been hired by a large French military technology company specializing in artificial intelligence. In 2020, he taught math courses and posted an ad on Leboncoin. He was contacted by a "Czech consultant" who wanted to improve his knowledge. Classes were held every three weeks in a restaurant, the bill was paid in cash. The time and place for the next lesson was always determined at the end of the current one.
French authorities estimate there are about 75 Russian secret agents recruiting young professionals
The “Czech consultant” was actually named Valentin Vladimirovich Zakharov, Le Monde reports, citing diplomatic sources. After a few lessons in mathematics, Zakharov offered the young engineer an increase in course fees in exchange for reports and documents on scientific research in certain advanced technological areas. At first, the engineer didn't see any malice in the questions, as the questions related to research done by his father's consulting firm. Apparently, this was a test for susceptibility to questions outside the scope of the course, the authors of the investigation note.
In November 2020, Zakharov was caught red-handed while transferring money to an engineer - the latter, however, eventually became alert and turned to the police. Doubts arose when Valentin Zakharov insisted on receiving secret information directly related to the work of an engineer in a military technology company. Valentin Zakharov is also a member of the board of directors of a private steel company based in St. Petersburg. On February 26, 2021, the Trade Representation of Russia in France and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation announced the decision to close the company.
Another SVR officer who worked at the Russian embassy in Paris approached a young graduate of an elite school who was teaching French. The Russian did not hide the fact that he is a Russian diplomat. The “diplomat” tried to avoid any electronic traces of their meetings, explaining that he was “isolated like a Russian in the French diplomatic field.” Gradually, the topics of the lessons changed - the "diplomat" began to pay €200-300 for essays on various issues of domestic and foreign policy, as well as on energy issues, such as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project.
Gradually, the topics of the lessons changed - the “diplomat” began to pay for essays on energy issues
Another SVR employee attached to the Russian trade mission in France used the Leboncoin.fr website to recruit a former parliamentary aide and public relations adviser for French startups. He offered private economics lessons to high school students. After a few classic private lessons, the “apprentice” explained to the young man that he wanted to understand the French entrepreneurial world and was willing to pay generously for notes on topics of interest to him. As in other cases, electronic means of communication were prohibited.
Another Russian agent posed as a foreigner of Italian-Slovenian origin. He responded to an advertisement for a young political science graduate giving private French lessons. As a result, for a substantial fee, the teacher began to collect information about the foreign policy of France for the "foreigner". Also, the Russian agent promised the young graduate to participate in the competition for the highest French civil service and a "bonus" in case of successful completion. Such competitions require financial costs, which stimulated the graduate to write paid reports for a Russian agent.
According to Le Monde, the French authorities used rather mild methods of struggle against the uncovered employees of the SVR. They were declared persona non grata and asked to leave the country. In other cases, Russian agents under diplomatic cover were secretly warned about the need to stop operations hostile to French interests.