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Living with Danger: The Russian Spies Next Door Exposed

Living with Danger: The Russian Spies Next Door Exposed

Russian News – Authorities claim that the peaceful married pair, who were posing as Argentine immigrants in Slovenia, were actually involved in Putin’s aggressive campaign to smuggle “illegal” spy agents into the West.

The young Argentine couple who lived in the pastel-colored house appeared to lead a typical suburban existence They drove a white Kia Ceed sedan around this tranquil capital of Europe paid their taxes on time and never once received a parking penalty.

Maria Rosa Mayer Muños operated an internet-based art gallery and informed her friends that she had left Argentina following an armed gang robbery at a red light in Buenos Aires.

Ludwig Gisch, her spouse, managed an IT start-up. Hailing from a middle-class neighborhood in Črnuče, the husband and wife were described as “normal” and “quiet” by their neighbors.

They seemed to be global citizens, seamlessly transitioning from speaking English and German with friends to accent-free Spanish with their son and daughter who were students at the British International School.

For the Western and Slovenian intelligence officers, almost every detail of the Primožičeva street family was made up.

Artem Viktorovich Dultsev is Gisch’s real name, according to the officials and court records. He was an elite officer in the SVR Russia’s foreign intelligence service, and was born in the Bashkortostan autonomous region.

Mayer Muños whose companion is a lower-ranking SVR official, is Anna Valerevna Dultseva, a native of Nizhny Novgorod.

The Russian Spies Next Door Exposed

The pair was able to securely interact with handlers in Moscow because the hardware on their laptops was encrypted so strongly that neither Slovenian nor American specialists could read it. They kept hundreds of thousands of euros’ worth of crisp bills in a secret section of their refrigerator.

In the upcoming weeks, a secret trial concerning the pair accused of espionage as “illegals” or deep-penetration agents—two essential components in Vladimir Putin’s rapidly developing covert conflict with the West—is anticipated to render its initial verdict.

Before they were apprehended in December 2022, according to officials, the two utilized Slovenia, a small European Union member state with a population of just two million, as a base from which to travel to neighboring Italy, Croatia, and other parts of Europe in order to pay suppliers and convey orders from Moscow.

With visa-free travel to most of Europe and a restricted capacity for counterintelligence the picturesque Alpine nation of lakes and mountains—where Melania Trump was born—was an ideal location for conducting operations.

Their two small children had even been trained by them. Slovenian officials say, telling them that one day their mom and dad may be captured.

Not long after Mayer Muños and Gisch were apprehended by Slovenian security services during an early-morning raid, a man and woman suspected of being illegal Russian immigrants who were carrying Brazilian and Greek passports abruptly left their lives in Rio de Janeiro and Athens leaving behind romantic partners and businesses that were unaware of their true identities.

The two were carrying passports bearing their names, Ludwig Campos Wittich and Maria Tsalla. Actually they were married Russian intelligence personnel who continued to create their legend—a fictitious history as a spy—separately in Greece and Brazil.

According to Western intelligence organizations this operation costs millions of dollars per individual. According to officials, managers called them back to Moscow because they were worried about a network collapse following the arrests in Slovenia.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, more suspected Russian illegals have come to light in other European countries, including the Netherlands, Norway, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria. This is the largest reveal of deep-penetration operatives since the FBI’s 2010 “Operation Ghost Stories,” which resulted in the capture of ten Russian spies in the United States.

Senior Slovenian and U.S. officials say that the fictitious Argentine couple, who are currently imprisoned in Slovenia and have their kids placed with foster parents may also be involved in any prisoner swaps arranged with Russia.

These exchanges could involve imprisoned Americans Paul Whelan and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. According to those acquainted with the subject the Kremlin has already indicated interest in bringing them back in negotiations overseen by Putin’s close associate Nikolai Patrushev.

Neither the Kremlin nor the SVR responded to requests for comment.

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Living with Danger: The Russian Spies Next Door Exposed/ Image Credit – wsj.com

With all court procedures and information highly classified, the case is being probed at the greatest levels of secrecy by both Slovenian and Western officials. It offers a unique window into one of the most valuable and covert components of Russia’s surveillance apparatus.

Unlike most spies illegals typically pretend to be people with no connection to Russia rather than diplomats.

They delve deeply into their target area for years, building a web of information sources, identifying potential recruits (a process known as “talent spotting”), and accepting assignments as stand-ins for diplomat spies, who are typically closely watched by their host nations.

An earlier group of Russian illegal immigrants in the 1940s had been instrumental in obtaining American nuclear secrets. This story was created in the early days of the Soviet Union and depicted in the television series The Americans.

Stalin established specialized training programs and stationed the illegals in key Western capitals because he believed that they would be invaluable in influencing the policies of opponents and obtaining knowledge on possible threats.

Putin, who reportedly dealt with illegal immigrants while serving as a KGB spy in East Germany has brought new life to the program. He has been known to sing patriotic Soviet songs with operatives who were captured in the United States and sent back to Moscow in exchange for prisoners.

He declared, “These are unique individuals, of unique qualities, convictions, and character.” he said about illegal spies in a 2017 interview with state television.

According to Dan Hoffman, a former head of the CIA station in Moscow, it is very possible that Putin gets personally briefed on the exploits of illegal immigrants worldwide.

The FBI said that Russian illegal immigrants spent years creating what appeared to be a regular life for themselves in the United States: they got married, bought houses, raised families, and blended into American society in the “Operation Ghost Stories” case. One of them attended Harvard, while the other graduated from Seton Hall University with two master’s degrees. Two more had real estate jobs.

However, they were not only looking for people to recruit as future agents but were also actively collecting intelligence and sending it back to Moscow.

One of them worked as the company’s internal computer expert and infiltrated a well-known consulting firm with headquarters in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., according to the Journal. Some were even raising their own children who were born or grown in the United States as agents with even more cover, making them more likely to pass a background check by the U.S. government.

Compared to embassy-based operators, who operate under diplomatic immunity and are frequently quietly ejected if discovered, deep-cover spies are subject to higher risks. Long prison terms are likely to be imposed on illegals, which could result in a years-long wait for release or prisoner swapping.

After the invasion of Ukraine, over 700 alleged Russian intelligence officers operating under diplomatic cover were expulsed globally, making these shape-shifting spies an increasingly valuable asset for the Kremlin.

It was recently suggested by the Czech government that all Russian embassy employees in the EU be prohibited from traveling freely throughout the borderless travel area in Europe. This measure would make it more difficult for spies operating under diplomatic cover to communicate with foreign nationals who are not authorized.

Plans are being developed to tighten limitations on the mobility of Russian intelligence officers in Europe according to remarks made by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday.

As the distinction between espionage and warfare becomes increasingly blurred, illegal immigrants are once again becoming more significant for Moscow, according to Andrei Soldatov a Russian security specialist who has spent years researching Moscow’s espionage networks.

Slovenian officials have expressed their suspicion that the unusual number of Russian students, many of whom are in their 40s and 50s who have enrolled in the nation’s colleges in the last two years may be a front for more Russian operatives. Slovenian security officials claim that the government deported at least eight Russian students in March for spreading pro-Kremlin propaganda and posing as Slovenians online.

Sergei Lemeshev a Russian military attaché, was proclaimed persona non grata in the same month after it was revealed that he was conducting a disinformation campaign that involved paying “hundreds of sources” to distribute talking points that favored Moscow.

The Journal spoke with friends and neighbors as well as Slovenian, Western, and Latin American officials in order to piece together the truth about the quiet couple who lived double lives as Russian spies while assiduously pursuing their new roles. Additionally hundreds of sealed documents, such as marriage and birth certificates, flight logs, Interpol notices, and Argentine court records, were examined.

Reporters discovered a convoluted web of falsehoods along the route, ranging from forged paperwork to the appropriation of the identity of a baby who passed away in a small Greek village more than 30 years ago.

The state secretary for international affairs and national and international security of Slovenia, Vojko Volk, stated, “We know they were important, serious agents.” “It’s similar to ‘The Americans,’ but in Slovenia.”

Building a legend

The cover story starts with the couple’s 2012 bus ride over Uruguay’s border with Argentina, where they started their ten-year project of creating a completely fictitious identity.

A secretive collection of Argentine court records reveals that Gisch arrived from Uruguay using a tourist visa, while Mayer Muños arrived from Mexico not long after.

As per Wall Street Journal – The pair then started assembling documents—many of which were false—nearly right away in an attempt to become citizens. Gisch was granted expedited citizenship because he stated he was born in Namibia to an Argentine mother and was an Austrian citizen. Mayer Muños presented a birth document stating she was born in Greece, despite her claims to be Mexican.

After relocating to the Argentine capital, the couple started living the myth residing in the middle-class Belgrano district and drawing little notice from the other 146 residents of their building Mayer Muños completed a public relations course and received an excellent score.

Gisch established bank accounts with Banco Macro and Banco Galicia. They were regarded by locals and neighbors as a reserved pair who skipped tenant meetings at the property. They came and went at regular intervals Gisch frequently wearing a tie, according to the concierge. Gish filed for Argentine citizenship in 2012, and Mayer Muños followed a year later. Sophie the couple’s daughter, was born in 2013.

“They were really courteous and respectful” stated Jamonería del Virrey, where the couple would buy raw ham and cheese. “They always paid in cash.”

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Living with Danger: The Russian Spies Next Door Exposed/ Image Credit – wsj.com

After obtaining citizenship in November 2014, Mayer Muños welcomed his son Daniel in August of that same year.

A month later, in a modest ceremony attended by two Colombian nationals, the couple wed in the local registry office. Gisch was identified as a retailer, and Mayer Muños as a planner of events.

The Journal’s investigation of Interpol, Argentine court, and Slovenian officials’ records reveals the couple’s identities are Artem Dultsev and Anna Dultseva, indicating a possible Russian marriage prior to their arrival in Argentina. According to espionage specialists, illegal immigrants are frequently transported outside in pairs, sometimes following an arranged marriage while undergoing training in Russia.

A year following their marriage in Argentina, Mayer Muños’ mother’s nationality was changed from Austrian to Mexican on the marriage certificate. The family was about to relocate to Europe, where Austrian government background checks might expose a gap in their story.

Gisch emptied his Banco Galicia account as they were about to depart the last statement revealed a balance of 18,784 Argentine pesos, or just $21.

In the summer of 2017, the family used tourist visas to enter Slovenia, a country about the size of New Jersey, in preparation for the next chapter of their double lives, which would take place in the European Union.

Gisch founded DSM&IT, an online IT company that offers cloud hosting and domain names for sale. Three people followed the company on X, including the account of his wife’s online business, Art Gallery 5’14, which primarily purchases and sells modern art.

The gallery boasted of working with ninety artists and maintained active social media pages with nearly daily photo posts. While his wife drove the family car, Gisch would take his bike the short distance into downtown Ljubljana from the Črnuče area.

They started the process of becoming citizens in 2019 when they were granted Slovenian residency permits.

Using Ljubljana as a base, Mayer Muños traveled throughout Europe sharing photos of art fairs and exhibitions in cities like Edinburgh and Zagreb Her face is hidden as she adjusts paintings next to a step ladder in this image from the 2019 Art Fair Zagreb.

The 5’14 gallery hosted the Life in Quarantine online picture competition in 2020, offering a €500 cash prize. Though hundreds of images were shared on social media, none of them had a clear picture of Mayer Muños or Gisch. However one photo appeared on Facebook in December 2020, during the peak of the pandemic, and appears to have been taken near the family home’s front gate. four face masks dangling from a washing line.

Recalling her as “always in a good mood and joyful, and had lots of fun together with other artists,” Mayer Muños was introduced to Croatian fine art photographer Marko Milić at a Zagreb art fair. Both businesses seemed to be built with minimal attention to detail.

They were registered among dozens of other foreign businesses, including financial advisers, interpreters, and accountants, in an unremarkable building on the outskirts of Ljubljana.

Slovenian company records show that the pair immediately paid their taxes and filed yearly tax filings. In 2021, Art Gallery 5’14 declared revenues of €25,220, whereas the IT company reported €43,785.

The fact that neither received government money nor did they do business with organizations located in tax havens may have given Slovenian authorities cause for concern.

According to neighbors, the parents conversed with their son and daughter in Spanish at their two-story house. Majda Kvas, ninety-three recalled them having at least two family picnics in the backyard but she never saw any guests. She remarked “They kept to themselves.” “They didn’t even say hello; they were quiet.”

They didn’t make enough noise.

The couple was back in Argentina on February 24, 2022, the day Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine. They applied for an expedited passport application, or a “clean” passport, and then left for Slovenia right away via Frankfurt.

A few months later, an ally agency tipped off Slovenia’s intelligence agency, SOVA, or “Owl,” to investigate Gisch and Mayer Muños.

‘A puzzle’

Top security officers in Slovenia contacted partners, who then set about retracing their steps in Ljubljana, Buenos Aires, and around Europe as part of an international cell. Volk, the state secretary, stated, “We collaborated in the strictest confidentiality.” “It was a riddle,”

The couple’s text conversations and other data were gathered by investigators using wiretaps, which revealed that they were meeting sources in European nations. Slovenian authorities were able to determine that their businesses were fronts, funded by money taken from their handlers, money from prepaid cards, and transfers between the two organizations to create the appearance of cash flow.Interpol’s Dultseva then dispatched them to Argentina for comparison with Gisch and Mayer Muños. They were alike.

Police discovered Gisch had never lived in the place he had mentioned on his passport application when they visited it in Argentina. Nobody knew them at the addresses provided by the Colombians who attended the couple’s wedding Slovenia forwarded the fingerprints of Anna and Artem Dultseva to Argentina for comparison with those of Gisch and Mayer Muños after requesting them from Interpol. They were alike.

The Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators, or ACER is the sole major EU organization headquartered in Ljubljana that coordinates regulatory operations across the bloc on electricity and natural gas. What was more disturbing was that the couple had started spying in Slovenia.

The organization, whose main office is about five kilometers from the couple’s residence, gained notoriety following the Ukraine invasion as energy became an especially acute topic for the continent and Russia used its gas supply to squeeze European industry. ACER didn’t respond to a request for comment.

It became apparent to the Slovenians and their sympathizers that the pair was not merely fabricating a backstory. Volk stated, “They had been awakened.”

After midnight on December 5 2022 masked police wearing tactical gear broke through the family’s fence and set up shop outside the windows. The officers stormed in and arrested the couple as soon as they opened the shutters. A former official stated that Gisch and Mayer Muños refused to provide any information to the investigators following their detention.

According to Argentine court records their two children, who are currently eight and eleven years old, were given over to the state and transferred to a different school. They are permitted to see their parents in prison on a regular basis.

Russia made contact soon after the arrest and acknowledged that the couple was employed by the SVR and saying it wanted them back. Slovenia was eager to quickly trade and to avoid antagonizing the Kremlin, but a deal couldn’t be reached. Slovenian officials had “prayed to get rid of them,” one senior official said.

While Mayer Muños and Gisch remained silent, Slovenia and its allies were gathering further information about their actions and those of other possibly related operatives. Greek officials learned Maria Tsalla had registered her birth on the island of Evia, claiming the identity of a newborn reported as dead in 1991, when she left Greece soon after the arrests.

Authorities discovered that Tsalla had been attempting to replace the handwritten registry in the Athens suburb of Marousi one of the first municipalities to digitize records, with a new one. This was evident from the revised handwritten registry, which provided evidence of her deceit.

Tsalla supposedly didn’t tell her boyfriend in Athens that she wasn’t Greek. When Greek officials learned she was actually married to another illegal Russian, Campos Wittich, who had lived for some two years in Rio de Janeiro with his Brazilian girlfriend—a veterinarian who worked for the country’s ministry of agriculture. She helped coordinate the social media search for him when he disappeared—only to learn that he was working undercover for Russian intelligence.

At this point, Gisch and Mayer Muños have spent more than 18 months incarcerated in Slovenia. The pair may be released after four years provided they behave well, according to officials, while the maximum penalty under Slovenia’s espionage legislation is eight years.

A few months prior to the couple’s apprehension, Janez Stusek, the SOVA chief until the middle of 2022, stated They were long-term illegals. “Their long-term goal was to sneak into Slovenia and use it as a gateway to Europe.”

A new couple has moved into 35 Primožičeva street. Two kids badminton rackets are hung on the veranda, and two bikes are parked on the porch. After attempting to get in touch with them the house’s owners declined to comment. According to neighbors and officials, the new couple is also Russian. Analysis complete.

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