Russia trying to recruit spies in Latvia, says security service

The interests of the Russian special services last year were to recruit and train persons to carry out harmful activities not only in Ukraine, but also in the Baltic countries, including Latvia, according to the 2023 activity report of the State Security Service (VDD). 

The VDD predicts that persons who regularly travel to Russia or Russia's allied countries will continue to be exposed to a high risk of recruitment. Similarly, the Russian special services will continue their attempts to recruit Latvian nationals in the Internet environment. 

The cases of espionage identified and investigated by the VDD last year confirmed that information about Latvian military facilities and critical infrastructure, as well as the personnel and resources of the armed forces, is particularly important for the Russian special services.

Such information can provide Russia with significant advantages in the event of war, VDD says. Also, last year, the special services of Russia and other hostile countries were interested in obtaining publicly unavailable information about political, economic and social processes in Latvia, as well as the personnel, abilities and resources of state security institutions and operative services.

Although Russia has transferred significant intelligence resources to the Ukrainian front, it was still able to ensure the activity of special services against Latvia at the previous level of aggression and activity. According to the information at the disposal of the VDD, in 2023 Russian special services simultaneously evaluated several potential scenarios of the development of events, and "a military conflict with NATO cannot be ruled out in the Kremlin's perception."

War planning and weak points

Taking into account the above, the priority for the Russian special services was to obtain current information about strategically important objects on the territory of Latvia, which would be targets of military importance in the event of a war. 

Last year, VDD, in cooperation with the Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIDD), detained several persons who were engaged in the survey and research of such objects on suspicion of espionage for Russia. At the same time, the former interests of the Russian special services in Latvia remained relevant last year: the political decision-making process, the presence of allied forces on the territory of Latvia, the security situation and infrastructure on the Russian border, the personnel, capabilities and resources of the state security institutions and operative services, the mood of the population in various regions, the potential for provoking riots.

According to the information obtained by the VDD last year, an important goal of the Russian intelligence services was to check Latvia's stability and resilience. Russian special services purposefully looked for "weak points" in order to undermine the unity of Latvian society and faith in the idea of ​​a nation state.

Latvia's efforts to strengthen the role of Latvian as the national language, reducing the role of Russian content in the Latvian public space, and promoting energy and economic independence from Russia are obviously not in accordance with the foreign policy interests of the aggressor state.

Also, the Russian special services were looking for ways to promote apathy towards Russia's crimes in Ukraine, and to reduce the sanctions regimes introduced against Russia as a result.

1,000 people visit Russia every month

Despite travel restrictions and regular risk warnings from the VDD, an average of 1,000 Latvian residents continued to visit Russia every month, opening wide opportunities for Russian special services to recruit and obtain information, the VDD notes.

The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) was particularly active on the border between Latvia and Russia, conducting checks and interrogations of travelers. According to the information available to the VDD, FSB representatives paid special attention to Ukrainian citizens and Latvian nationals with intelligence potential.

Faced with intense opposition from NATO and European Union (EU) countries and limited opportunities to operate in the territories of Western countries, Russian special services last year looked for new channels for recruiting sources of intelligence information. Increasingly, social networking sites and instant messaging apps served this purpose.

According to the cases found by the VDD, the communication platform Telegram was most often used to recruit new sources of intelligence information. A vivid example of this is the channels created by the pro-Kremlin organization "Baltic Antifascists" on the Telegram platform.

In 2023, several so-called "illegals" were discovered in NATO countries – spies sent abroad, who hide their connection with their country of origin, pretending to belong to another country. In Latvia, the activity of such agents cannot be completely ruled out, and caution is recommended against sudden, unusual attempts by foreigners to establish contact and gain information.

In the past year, the Russian special services were interested in recruiting persons who either have direct access to publicly unavailable information, or have opportunities to obtain such information from acquaintances, former colleagues or cooperation partners. The VDD established that the employees of Latvian state and local government institutions often do not adequately assess the risks associated with various informal requests and reminds that disclosure of undisclosed information is punishable as a criminal offence. 

Innocent contact may not be so innocent

Along with obtaining intelligence, one of the basic tasks of Russian military intelligence is the creation of support positions for so-called kinetic operations – sabotage, diversions and the like. Therefore, the Russian special services can contact Latvian residents not only for obtaining information, but also for apparently legitimate tasks, such as renting or maintaining premises, storing an object or placing an object in the urban environment. The execution of such tasks can provide significant support to the Russian special services in the implementation of harmful activities against the Latvian state, according to the VDD.

In the past year, Russia continued to feel the negative effects of restrictions on the import of technology, dual-use goods and production equipment imposed by Western countries. For the sustainability of the military-industrial sector, the establishment of schemes to bypass these restrictions is important for Russia, according to the Ministry of Defense. Russian special services also actively cooperate in this direction. They are trying to create cover companies and networks of trusted persons in the Western countries in order to covertly export to Russia "forbidden" goods, which are necessary for Russia's military resources.

Russian espionage efforts likely to intensify

The VDD predicts that this year, too, the biggest threat to Latvia's national security will be Russian special services. The main form of intelligence will remain intelligence from the territory of Russia, with special services employees working on the territory of their own country and recruiting Latvian nationals as well as citizens of other countries for intelligence gathering.

Persons who regularly travel from Latvia to Russia or Russia's allied countries will continue to be exposed to a high risk of recruitment, VDD predicts. At the same time, the Russian special services will continue their attempts to recruit Latvian nationals on the Internet. They will be interested in recruiting persons not only for obtaining intelligence, but also for building support positions and implementing harmful activities in Latvia or elsewhere in Europe, including Ukraine.

"The intensity of Russian espionage in relation to Latvia could increase even more in the near future. In the event of a military conflict, the units of the troops stationed in the specific Russian [western military district] would be responsible for hostilities in the Nordic countries, the Baltic States and Poland. The reorganization [of this military district] envisages dividing this area into two areas, redistributing resources and creating new formations of the armed forces. It can be predicted that in connection with these changes, the Russian armed forces will have to develop new operational plans, which will lead to the renewal of military intelligence on the territories of potential hostilities, including Latvia," the VDD concludes in the annual activity report.

The threat of cyber intelligence will also remain high in 2024, notes the security service. Cyber ​​groups of countries hostile to Latvia will continue to carry out attacks with the aim of obtaining the intelligence information they need.

The special services of Belarus and China will also maintain their interest in Latvia, but their activities will not reach the level of intensity and aggression characteristic of the activities of the Russian special services, according to the VDD.

The findings of the VDD tally closely with those of the Constitution Protection Bureau in its recent overview of its activites, the full text of which is available here in English.

The VDD is one of the three Latvian Security and Intelligence Services alogside the Constitution Protection Bureau (SAB) and Defence Intelligence and Security Service (MIDD).


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