Australia’s support for Ukraine and its rise as a global player through partnerships such as AUKUS have transformed the nation into a prime target for Russian spying in a major change from just five years ago, a former American intelligence chief says.
and revealed on Friday that a highly active “hive” of Russian spies posing as diplomats had operated in Australia for more than 18 months before it was dismantled as part of a sweeping counter-espionage offensive by ASIO.
Mike Rogers, who headed the US National Security Agency and Cyber Command during the Obama and Trump administrations, warned that Australia would become an even more alluring honeypot for foreign spies when it acquired top-secret nuclear-powered submarine technology from the United States and United Kingdom.
Rogers, a retired four-star US Navy admiral, said the AUKUS pact would require Australia to urgently fortify its cyber defence and intelligence-gathering capabilities.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is expected to announce the details of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine program next month, possibly with a trip to Washington.
Rogers said that when he had asked his counterparts in the Australian intelligence community five to 10 years ago about Russia’s local espionage and foreign interference operations, they would tell him that, unlike in the US, these were not a major concern.
“I would normally hear – it didn’t matter if it was ASD [Australian Signals Directorate], ASIO, ASIS [the Australian Secret Intelligence Service] – that we just don’t see much Russian activity in the southern hemisphere. That has really changed,” he said.
“The Russians see an Australia that is much more globally involved from a national security perspective,” he said, pointing to AUKUS, Australia’s role in the Quad alongside the US, Japan and India, and its deepening ties to NATO.
Australia’s military support for Ukraine, which the federal government extended this week by promising $33 million worth of drones, had also made the nation a significant adversary in Russia’s eyes, he said.
“The Russians see that, and I think they say to themselves, ‘we’ve got to become more aware of Australia’s capabilities, their intent’, and so you’re seeing them increase their level of focus on Australia as a target.
“I would argue the Chinese have long been focused on Australia as a target, Russians perhaps not as much, but that dynamic is changing, clearly.”
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said it would not “come as a surprise to anyone that certain countries are involved in [espionage] activity on a daily basis”.
“It’s not just Russia, not just China, but many other countries as well,” he said.
Ukrainian ambassador Vasyl Myroshnychenko declined to comment on details of the spy hive during an appearance at the National Press Club, saying: “It’s pretty clear we know how spies work. We know what they’re doing here.
“Given the current circumstances, we think that Ukraine still has a very strong case to be given that plot of land to build Ukraine’s embassy.”
The federal government, through the National Capital Authority, revoked a lease last year that granted Russia access to prime real estate in Canberra for a new embassy.
Ukraine has suggested it gain the land, which includes partly constructed Russian buildings, for its own embassy.
Asked if the Australia should expel the Russian ambassador, he said that was a matter for Australia.
‘The Russians see an Australia that is much more globally involved from a national security perspective.’
Mike Rogers, a former American intelligence chief
A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said the government was considering expelling diplomats from the Russian embassy.
Former senior Defence Department official Peter Jennings said the government should have expelled Russia’s ambassador from Australia even if such a move invited retaliation from Moscow.
“I think what we’re seeing here is a failure of DFAT risk management,” he said. “I just don’t see that we get value in being in Putin’s Moscow right now.”
Rogers said European countries such as Germany and the UK had expelled dozens of Russian embassy officials for spying, underlining that Australia was part of a global espionage campaign.
“What you generally see is they want to gain information on military activities, they want to gain information on what kind of political choices Australia is going to make vis a vis Russia, they want to understand personalities” he said.
“You sometimes also see them on a very human basis trying to identify individuals who could be susceptible when approached by the Russians.”
Rogers, an adviser to cybersecurity company CyberCX, said it was vital that Australia became a responsible steward for the sophisticated and sensitive assets it was about to acquire from the US and UK in nuclear-powered submarines and other possible military technologies.
“Australia, the ecosystem here, becomes an even more attractive cyber target,” he said.
The year-long Ukraine war, the first conflict in history to involve large-scale cyber operations, offered important lessons to countries such as Australia, he said. Russia’s attempts to disrupt Ukraine’s cyber networks have proved far less effective than expected at the beginning of the war.
“The number one takeaway for me from a cyber perspective of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that Ukraine shows you that you can achieve a high degree of cyber resilience in the face of significant efforts to attempt to penetrate your networks,” he said.
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