Sunday, July 14, 2024

WORLD | 18-06-2024 17:04

Russian spies on trial for impersonating Argentines face up to 8 years in jail

Trial of accused – María Rosa Mayer Muños and Ludwig Gisch, whose true identities are Artem Dultsev and Anna Dultseva – being held behind closed doors; Both lived for years in Belgrano, before moving to Slovenia, where they were arrested.

Two Russian spies who claimed for years to be Argentines face up to eight years behind bars at a maximum security prison if convicted in a behind closed doors trial in Slovenia.

María Rosa Mayer Muños and Ludwig Gisch, whose true identities are Anna Dultseva and Artem Dultsev, are both high-ranking officials from the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), according to Slovenian prosecutors. 

They stand accused of espionage and of using false information in public documents.

The duo, who used Argentine passports and passed themselves off as Argentine expats, running an online business while living a regular suburban life in Ljubljana, were arrested by Slovenian authorities in December 2022. 

Their story was a lie, however, was a lie, according to witness testimony and documents revealed by The Wall Street Journal that same month. 

Dultseva and Dultsev were accused of espionage, allegedly operating as deep cover agents for Putin’s security services in the West. The couple have two children, aged 8 and 11, who are now in state custody.

The arrest took place after the Slovenian Security and Intelligence Agency (SOVA) received information from an allied agency. 

Vojko Volk, Slovenian Secretary of State of International Affairs and National and International Security, said the operation had been undertaken in “the utmost secrecy.”

Janez Stusek, former head of the SOVA, in turn alleges that “they were longstanding illegals. They had a long-term mission trying to infiltrate Slovenia as an entry point to Europe.”

The couple’s secret actions included espionage on the Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators (ACER), a body of the European Union based in Ljubljana which became relevant after the invasion of Ukraine. 

“We know that they were important and serious agents. It’s like the series The Americans, only in Slovenia,” Volk said, referring to the popular TV series that followed the lives of two Russians working under deep cover in the United States.

Security analysts are already speculating that the alleged Russian spies may be traded for US prisoners being held in Russian jails.

The Kremlin has already expressed an interest in repatriating them. Last December, Putin said at a press conference that he was willing to listen to an offer from the White House, though he did not mention either of the two accused by name.


Double life

The supposed spies had built a double life in Argentina dating back to 2012. Five years later, they moved to Slovenia as a family with two small children. 

An investigation involving multiple intelligence services revealed forged documents and identity theft, including fraudulent birth and marriage certificates, assisted their efforts.

Dultsev and Dultseva arrived in Argentina from Uruguay and Mexico respectively, before obtaining false documents that allowed them to become Argentine citizens. While in the country, the couple even got married, even though they had already tied the knot in Russia and already had two children. 

During their stay, the family lived in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Belgrano and kept a low profile. “They were very polite, respectful,” one local shop-owner told the Wall Street Journal in 2022. “They always paid cash”, he added.

Argentine authorities collaborated with Slovenia and Interpol to reveal the true identities of Mayer Muños and Gisch. The efforts were confirmed by comparing fingerprints which matched the records of the Russian immigrants.

In the meantime, the family had moved to Slovenia. Just as in Buenos Aires, in their new home in a suburb of Ljubljana, the couple lived an apparently normal life, paying taxes and sending their children to the local British international school. Majda Kvas, a 93-year-old neighbour of the couple, told the Wall Street Journal: “They were very reserved, they didn’t even say hello.”

In their new home, the couple kept hundreds of thousands of euros in a secret compartment of their fridge, investigators discovered. Probes of banking records showed suspicious transactions and a cash flow intended to keep their cover. In addition to engaging in espionage, they founded an online art gallery and an IT company.

The investigation by the authorities eventually provided enough evidence to show that they were actually SVR agents and had used their Slovenia residence to conduct operations all over Europe, travelling to Italy and Croatia, among other countries, while communicating with Moscow. 

The duo’s computers contained hardware to safely communicate with their superiors in Russia that was encrypted. Neither Slovenian nor US technicians were able to decipher it, according to reports.


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