Greece’s National Intelligence Service is accusing a shop owner in Athens of being a Kremlin asset, as security services throughout Europe have been cracking down on alleged Russian spies dubbed the “illegals.”
An official statement from NIS pointed to “systematic investigations” that showed “a female person under the name ‘Maria T.’ who in the past few years pretended to be Greek and worked as a photographer and owner of a craft and knitting supplies shop in Athens, with Greek citizenship and an identity card since 2018, is in reality the foreign national ‘Irina A. S.’ who has been operating in our country under ‘deep cover’.”
Allegations of living a double life
Greek media reports suggested that Maria Tsalla, who traveled from Greece to Russia back in January, had not returned for two months, with intelligence officers reportedly asking about her at a haberdashery store she owns in Athens.
Intelligence officers, who reportedly spoke with an employee and also tracked down her partner, had been told she was facing a serious health issue, according to Greek City Times.
But NIS believes Tsalla, also said to ne known as Irina Alexandrovna Smireva, is a trained spy working for the Kremlin.
According to Kathimerini, the case made known by Greek Intelligence showed how “specific foreign services… methodically worked for many years, skillfully exploiting people, procedures and institutions.”
Personal data of deceased Greek citizens
“The countdown towards her exposure started after the detection of a third country attempt to gain access to personal data of deceased Greek citizens, an internationally known and established practice the intelligence services of a specific foreign country use for the creation of a special category of spies called ‘illegals’, Kathimerini wrote.
Access and use of personal data of deceased Greek citizens has been a big headache for Greek authorities.
The alleged network of illegals made news in January when two foreign nationals were arrested in Slovenia accused of spying for Russia, while two others were arrested in Germany
In mid-January, a Bulgarian national in Greece was detained in connection with fraud, after he had used the ID of a dead police officer to sell a car that he never delivered.
But the alleged network of illegals also made news in January when two foreign nationals were arrested in Slovenia on espionage charges, accused of spying for Russia, while two others were arrested in Germany.
Prosecutors in Ljubljana did not officially confirm the allegations but Politico reported that the Slovenian Intelligence and Security Agency had worked with security services of other countries “as the spy cell was reportedly also carrying out operations outside of Slovenia.”
German prosecutors said one suspect was “strongly suspected” of treason after he was accused of being a double agent, while the chief prosecutor in Berlin said the investigation was supported by the FBI.
Greek media also widely reported that Tsalla’s case was seen as a success for Greek Intelligence, bearing a dimension that goes beyond national borders and touches western countries overall.
European intelligence agencies have been on the lookout for “illegals” -an American reference to Russia’s spying program during the cold war- after Moscow ordered troops into Ukraine in late February 2022.
But allegations go back even further. In 2010 the FBI arrested 10 alleged Russian spies, saying they had been sent to live in the United States under false names with the intent of becoming Americanized and build relationships with sources in order to gather intelligence without raising suspicion.