It's yet another spy revelation like others embroiling Russia in recent years. This time it was discovered in Germany, which hasn't seen anything like it since re-unification. But it goes far beyond German borders. It hints at a level of international tension and espionage so shocking in scale it seems the Cold War never ended.
It all reportedly goes back to 1988 when the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall and the KGB were still standing. Two agents, we know them only by their codenames 'Andreas A.' and 'Heidrun A.', arrived in South West Germany. They had come from South America but carried fake Austrian passports. He purportedly started work as an engineer and they settled into a seemingly boring, bourgeois life near Stuttgart.
However when a special unit of the German police entered the house in October 2011 they caught Heidrun A. red handed. She was sat at her radio equipment communicating with Moscow. She was so shocked she fell off her chair dragging wires out of the wall with her. Andreas A was arrested elsewhere in Germany.
They had not been living a bourgeois life at all but had been busy stealing information on NATO and EU strategy and passing it to the SVR, the Russian foreign intelligence agency, a successor to the KGB. They had a contact inside the Dutch Foreign Ministry who passed them secret information via a dead letterbox. They were in constant contact with the SVR in Moscow and were being paid 100,000 euros a year to do their spying. They have now been charged with espionage, charges which they deny.
For the SVR and Russia it’s another potentially huge embarrassment. The network of spies that’s been uncovered is far larger than just Andreas A. and Heidrun A. They sat at the centre of web stretching across Europe and beyond. They played a linking role with other agents. They had informers in the German government supplying them with information on the politics, society and security Germany and the German people. They had their spy inside the Dutch Foreign Ministry. They were also linked to a Russian spy ring in the US broken up in 2010.
There have been other major Russian spying incidents in recent years too. In 2009 Hermann Slimm, an Estonian defence ministry official gave thousands of EU, Estonian and NATO documents to Russia. He is now in jail serving twelve and half years.
There should be concern from Europe and the US. As the head of Belgium’s security service summed it up to a European journalist, spying by Russia and China is being carried out at the same intensity and extent as it was in the Cold War.