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International relations

Japan reveals Russia's 'dark power' in SoftBank spy incident

Surprise move aimed at checking Kremlin's espionage ahead of 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been in power for 20 years, during which time Russia's intelligence organizations have grown vastly.    © Reuters

TOKYO -- Russian espionage that targeted Japanese telecom SoftBank was recently revealed publicly by the Japanese government -- an unexpected move given Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent diplomatic overtures to Moscow.

The case, which involved the theft of classified information, was made public amid repeated reports of Russian espionage and covert actions in Europe.

Unit 29155 is an elite group of Russia's military intelligence agency under its armed forces, the GRU, according to a high-ranking European intelligence official who discussed the top secret unit in an interview.

The official said that authorities in Europe and the U.S. have pointed fingers at the approximately 20-member group for a series of shocking international incidents including the 2018 attempted assassination by poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain and the failed 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro.

The New York Times, citing multiple intelligence sources, has also reported on Unit 29155, causing speculation as to why typically tight-lipped spy agencies in the West have begun divulging knowledge of the ring. When asked about this, the official did not mince words: ''The threat that Russian covert operation poses to freedom and democracy has reached such a level that intelligence communities have to urge politicians to act robustly.''

Russia is no match for Europe and America on the militarily and economically coercive "hard power" front. The same can be said for persuasive ''soft power,'' which is based on culture and values. This leaves Moscow with little choice but to employ what might be called "dark power," or asymmetrical shadow operations.

The European official says that even after revelations of Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections -- mainly, cyberattacks and spreading of fake news -- Moscow has been emboldened by the West's tepid response.

One example in Europe leads credence to the official's remarks. German prosecutors announced in December that they were convinced of Russian government's involvement in the August 2019 daylight assassination in Berlin of a Georgian national. The prosecutor's statement led Chancellor Angela Merkel, who at first remained diplomatically silent on the matter, to finally expel two Russian diplomats that month.

Spanish authorities, meanwhile, began an investigation in November 2019 into suspected GRU interference in the 2017 independence referendum in the autonomous region of Catalonia. Even in pro-Moscow Serbia, the government has had to respond after a video surfaced online showing Russian operatives contacting an ex-military official.

Outgunned on the militarily and economically coercive "hard power" front, as well as outmaneuvered as regards ''soft power,'' Moscow has had to resort to "dark power" shadow operations.   © Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB spy, has been in power for 20 years, during which time Russia's intelligence organizations have grown vastly. Personnel at the GRU, FSB, or Federal Security Service, and SVR, or Foreign Intelligence Service, now total about 150,000. European intelligence authorities say the agencies, under Kremlin's general directives to disrupt Western society, have a great deal of autonomy and compete with each other.

Japan cannot afford to ignore this growing dark power, even if Russian espionage in Japan pales in comparison to that in Europe and the U.S. According to Japanese police, GRU and SVR spies are active in the country, and much espionage directed at politicians, bureaucrats and journalists never sees the light of day.

Still, out of consideration for relations with Russia, Japan has only watched as Europe and the U.S. expelled Russian diplomats over the poisoning in Britain.

So why is Japan just now publicly revealing the SoftBank incident?

Likely, it is an attempt to check Russia ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. There are strong suspicions that the country -- which has been excluded from the games over organized doping -- hacked the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. Now, Russia's alleged theft from SoftBank of information related to 5G networks has put nervous Japanese authorities on guard.

Shigeru Kitamura, secretary-general of Japan's National Security Secretariat, visited Russia for the first time in January for talks with Putin. This followed a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington. Previous to this, it would have been inconceivable for an NSS chief, who had served as head of the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office, to meet leaders of both the U.S. and Russia.

In order to survive on the increasingly crowded and cutthroat world stage, all nations have to jockey for advantage. A number of countries including China and North Korea follow the same path as Russia, engaging in shadow operations, and Japan cannot stand still. The country must construct a foreign policy that can defend society from "dark power," together with Europe and the U.S.

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