‘British tip-off’ led to arrest of retired Austrian colonel suspected of spying for Russia

British intelligence provided the tip-off that led to the arrest of a retired Austrian army officer on suspicion of spying for Russia, an Austrian newspaper has claimed.

The tip-off was politically motivated and came amid British displeasure at the Austrian government’s refusal to distance itself from Russia in the wake of the Skripal poisoning, Kleine Zeitung newspaper alleged. 

British and Austrian authorities declined to confirm or comment on the claims. Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, said last week the case had been brought to authorities’ attention by a tip-off from a “friendly intelligence service”.

The suspect, an unnamed 70-year-old retired colonel in the Austrian army, is being held on charges of spying for Russia over a 20-year period. He is alleged to have passed details of Austrian weapons systems and other secrets to Russia in exchange for payments of €300,000 (£260,000).

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The case has severely shaken normally warm relations between Austria and Russia. Mr Kurz, who previously spoke of wanting his country to be a “bridge” between Russia and the West, has demanded an explanation from Moscow.

Initial reports last week suggested the tip-off came from Germany. But Kleine Zeitung quoted an unnamed “senior officer” in the Austrian army as saying it had come from Britain.

The officer believes British intelligence acted deliberately in order to distance Austria from Russia, the newspaper claimed.

Austria was one of few Western countries not to expel any Russian diplomats in the wake of the Skripal poisoning affair in Salisbury, and senior figures in the Austrian government have close links to Russia.

Vladimir Putin was a guest at the wedding of Karin Kneissl, the Austrian foreign minister, in August, and danced with her in front of the cameras. Ms Kneissl has cancelled a planned trip to Russia in the wake of the spying arrest.

Britain has not commented on the claims, but government sources said last week: “It is interesting that this a spying operation against a country that has a mixed reputation when it comes to its relationship with Russia. 

“This is another Russian intelligence operation against a European nation. An operation that was exposed, once again, as a result of European cooperation. Russian behaviour continues to be egregious and widespread. The threat is a reality.”

The British government was unhappy at Austria's refusal to distance itself from Russia in the wake of the Skripal poisoningCredit:
Chris J Ratcliffe/AFP

Austrian opposition parties have accused the far-Right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which is junior partner in the country’s coalition government, of being too close to Russia.

“One of the biggest security risks is the links between with the Russian leadership and the FPÖ,” Peter Pilz, leader of the opposition Pilz List party said last week.

While Ms Kneissl, who danced with Mr Putin at her wedding, is officially independent, she was nominated as foreign minister by the Freedom Party. The party also controls the Austrian interior and defence ministries.

Russia has reacted angrily to the allegations and accused Austria of “megaphone diplomacy”.

"We are accused and asked to apologise for something we know nothing about,” Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister said last week.

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