Austria has launched a probe into an army colonel suspected of spying for Russia for decades, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has said, the latest in a string of cases where Moscow has been accused of espionage in European Union states.
The comments by the Austrian leader on Friday were quickly dismissed by Moscow.
Kurz told a press conference on Friday that the colonel, now retired, is suspected to have worked with the Russian intelligence since the 1990s and until this year.
“Of course, if such cases are confirmed, whether it be in the Netherlands or in Austria, it can’t improve the relationship between EU and Russia,” Kurz told reporters in Vienna.
He was referring to the expulsion of four Russian agents by the Netherlands in April for allegedly planning a cyber attack on the global chemical weapons watchdog at The Hague.
“Russian spying in Europe is unacceptable and to be condemned,” the chancellor said.
He said that Austria was “demanding transparent information from the Russian side” and that it would consult its European partners on further steps.
Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl summoned Russian authorities over the matter and cancelled an upcoming trip to Russia.
In response, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he was “unpleasantly surprised” by the revelation and accused Austria of “making an accusation [Russia knows] nothing about.”
“If a country has concerns or suspicions about another country’s actions and its alleged involvement [is] seen as a threat, it should directly ask for an explanation in line with the international law,” Lavrov said.
Russia’s foreign ministry summoned the Austrian ambassador to Moscow to discuss the issue, saying the suspicions had “exacerbated” the two country’s “previously positive ties”.
Equipment handed over
Austrian Defence Minister Mario Kunasek said the case came to light “a few weeks ago” as a result of information from another European intelligence agency.
“We can’t say for the moment whether this is an isolated incident or not,” Kunasek said.
He said that the colonel had handed over “technical equipment”, including his laptop which is being examined.
Kunasek said that during questioning, the colonel said the Russians were interested “in weapons systems, in the migration situation here in Austria in recent years”.
“Profiles of certain people were also created and passed on,” Kunasek said.
The case indicated that “even after the end of the Cold War, spying has continued and shows the need to tighten our security network, within Austria and within the defence ministry,” Kunasek said.
According to Austrian media reports, the colonel was paid an equivalent of $340,000 for his services.
Austria is not a member of NATO and asserts its status as a neutral country.
It was one of the few European countries not to expel Russian diplomats following the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain in March.
Austria’s relationship with Russia has come under particular scrutiny since the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) joined the coalition government last December.
The FPOe – which nominated Kneissl and of which Kunasek is also a member – has had a “cooperation pact” with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party since 2016.
In August, Kneissl caused controversy by inviting Putin as a guest of honour to her wedding.