Switzerland a magnet for Russian, Chinese spies, Bern says

AFP , Monday 26 Jun 2023

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has made Switzerland, the home of several international organisations, a hub for Russian and Chinese espionage, the Swiss intelligence service said Monday.

File UN Building Switzerland
In this file picture, The United Nation flag waves in the wind on the top of an UN building in Geneva, Switzerland Monday, June 14, 2021. AP

"Russia has destroyed the rules-based order for peace in Europe," the Federal Intelligence Service, which is in charge of Switzerland's counter-intelligence efforts, said in its annual report.

"The effectiveness of international forums for maintaining peace and security, such as the UN or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has continued to decline; there are no signs of a stable new world order," the FIS said.

Overall, Switzerland's security picture is being impacted by the growing rivalry between major powers, which has been heightened by the war in Ukraine.

The FIS said it was shifting towards a bipolar world order fashioned by the systemic rivalry between the United States and China.

But for the moment, it said Russia's war in Ukraine would remain the focal point in Switzerland's security environment.

- Russian 'diplomats' -
"The threat to Switzerland posed by foreign espionage, mainly Russian and Chinese, remains high," the FIS said.

"In Europe, Switzerland is one of the states with the highest numbers of Russian intelligence officers operating under diplomatic cover, in part due to its role as a host to international organisations," it said.

The United Nations' European headquarters is in Geneva, as are the headquarters of several UN agencies, and hundreds of diplomats regularly gather in the city to take part in their various meetings.

"Of the approximately 220 people accredited as diplomatic or techno-administrative staff in the Russian missions in Geneva and Bern, probably at least a third work for the Russian intelligence services," FIS chief Christian Dussey told a press conference.

The Swiss secret service, for its part, has 450 employees.

The FIS said the war in Ukraine was forcing it to extend its monitoring to regions that had gotten little attention before now, such as Turkey, India and the Eurasian Economic Union, because Russia was using companies in such nations for procurement.

- Chinese cover stories -
Besides Russia, Swiss intelligence believes China has also sent dozens of spies to the wealthy Alpine country.

Unlike Moscow agents, however, China's agents rely more on non-diplomatic cover, the FIS said, mainly described officially as scientists, journalists or business executives.

Dussey said China's intelligence operation would doubtless become stronger in Europe, saying he believed it had growing means and resources.

"We are doing the maximum, on the ground, to show the lines" not to be crossed, the FIS chief said, saying espionage operations had a negative impact on Geneva's international importance and were detrimental to Switzerland's credibility.

Switzerland's current first-ever spell on the UN Security Council "increases the espionage threat for Swiss individuals" working on the council's dossiers and presenting decisions, the FIS said.

Dussey was cautious about the lessons to be learned from this weekend's mutiny by the Wagner mercenary troops operating in Ukraine, which threatened to undermine Russian President Vladimir Putin's grip on power.

He called the incident "a great internal challenge" for Russia.

Instability in a nuclear power is inevitably worrying, which explains the "calibrated" Western reactions, Dussey added.

But there was no question of intervening or taking advantage of the situation, he said.

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