News

2020.02.14 15:23

Russian couple face treason charges over alleged links with Baltic intelligence

RFE/RL, LRT.lt2020.02.14 15:23

Russian couple face treason charges after wedding photos identifying an FSB agent in Kaliningrad were picked up by the Latvian intelligence services. Lithuanian intelligence also allegedly attempted to recruit her several years ago.

A Russian newspaper says that a married couple faces criminal charges for photographs taken at their wedding five years ago and published online that reveal the identity of a counterintelligence officer with Russia’s main security agency.

Read more: Russian spies recruit tourists, undermine minorities in Lithuania – report

Kommersant reported on February 11 that Konstantin Antonets and Antonina Zimina were detained in July 2018 in the Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad. The couple have denied the allegations.

According to the newspaper, the Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, has been investigating how details of a Kaliningrad FSB officer had been obtained by the intelligence agency in Latvia.

Among the guests who attended the couple’s wedding in April 2015 was an FSB counterintelligence officer who was a friend and former university classmate of Zimina's. The officer spoke openly about his employer, and at the wedding, he also handed out business cards and posed for photographs with guests, Kommersant said.

Zimina's father, Konstantin, told the newspaper that it was common knowledge where the FSB officer, whom he named as Maksim, worked, and that Maksim made no effort to hide it.

Other guests in attendance were relatives of Zimina’s, who were from Lithuania.

Read more: Lithuania and Russia conduct unprecedented spy swap

Some videos and photographs from the wedding were later published on social media, and reportedly were included in an unspecified Baltic television program, at which time the FSB opened a criminal investigation, Kommersant said.

At the time of her arrest, Zimina served as director of a nongovernmental organisation, the Baltic Center for the Dialogue of Cultures, and Antonets had been employed as a government lawyer in Kaliningrad, and then later in a private firm in Moscow. Zimina was also affiliated with an organisation that advocates for public diplomacy, and her professional interests were identified as "the policy of the Baltic countries towards Russia" and "the identity of the political elite of Latvia."

Zimina has been held in the Lefotovo detention center since her arrest. Her husband’s whereabouts were not immediately known.

Lithuanian connection

Zimina's Baltic Centre NGO was allegedly working together with Gorchakov Fund, which has the sole aim to "spread Russian propaganda," Vytautas Makauskas, spokesperson of the Lithuanian intelligence service (VSD), told reporters in 2015.

Zmina's father Konstantin told Newkaliningrad.ru that she had many Lithuanian, Latvian and Polish friends, and also supported the Russian government. Konstantin claimed his daughter was barred entrance to Lithuania after attending a Gorchakov Fund’s conference. LRT.lt could not verify the claim.

Read more: Lithuania begins trial of two Russian spies in absentia

Aleksejus Greičius, head of a youth organisation in Lithuania's port city Klaipėda, told Russian media Dozhd that Zimina was deported from Lithuania after an Gorchakov Fund event in Vilnius, which was attended by Russian embassy representatives.

Lietuvos Ryto TV filmed the event at the time, where they also captured Zimina in attendance.

Dozhd also quoted an anonymous friend of Zimina who said she was stopped at the Vilnius airport in 2017 and was barred entrance to Lithuania.

According to the same source, Zimina claimed she was approached by Lithuanian intelligence services who offered to allow her entry to Lithuania in return for her cooperation. LRT.lt could not verify this information, either.

Social Media Concerns

Russian military and intelligence agencies have grown increasingly concerned about social media and how content posted online by soldiers, officers, or security personnel to platforms such as Facebook or VK can be used to identify people, their affiliations, or even military movements.

In 2017, the Defense Ministry called for legislation to ban contract soldiers serving in the Russian military for posting content to social media sites. Last year, parliament passed related legislation that also banned soldiers from using smart phones, or similar devices—measures that echoed restriction in place in other countries.

Read more: Norwegian freed in Russian-Lithuanian spy swap returns to divided community

The issue of wedding photos inadvertently revealing Russian intelligence officers got renewed public attention in October in a joint report published by RFE/RL and open-source researchers Bellingcat.

In that report, two men linked to a notorious Russian military intelligence unit were identified using photos and videos taken at a wedding in 2017 and published online.l

The two men were members of unit linked to a series of assassination attempts in England, Bulgaria, and other activities in Europe.

The photos have since been taken down.

The story originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The lead paragraph, and 'Lithuanian connection' section was added by LRT English.