Turkey has been outraged by recent incidents in Sweden where right-wing activists have publicly burned copies of the Koran. However, the Swedish defence ministry has said that these incidents have been manufactured by Russian agents. Carl-Oskar Bohlin, the Civil Defence Minister said: “Sweden is the target of a disinformation campaign supported by state and state-like actors with the aim of damaging Swedish interests … We can see how Russia-backed actors are amplifying incorrect statements such as that the Swedish state is behind the desecration.” The objective of the Russian agents is to disrupt Sweden’s attempts to join NATO by encouraging Turkey to oppose its membership.
In the espionage game this type of tactic (if it is happening) is known as using “agents of influence” – people who may not produce secrets for you but are ready to shape events in the target country. Sometimes these can be powerful individuals such as journalists, business leaders or politicians. Sometimes they can be fairly low-grade personalities – basic “agents provocateurs” as they used to be called. But they are all dangerous in their own right because your enemy controls them.
Every country does this of course (if it can afford to!) but the Russian and Chinese intelligence services seem to be making most use of them at the present time. For instance, according to a declassified CIA report released in September 2022, since 2014, Russia has spent more than $260 million on agents of influence in 24 different countries. As an example, Russia spent approximately $500,000 trying to influence elections in Albania in 2017 by buying the loyalty of key individuals. But there are plenty of other examples around the world from both of these services.
Africa is a key battleground because it is is rich in badly needed resources. But also, many countries there are politically volatile and that makes them perfect territory for the use of agents of influence. The current change of government in Niger (from pro-French to pro-Russian) and the presence of many Wagner Group personnel would tend to bear this out. We will see more of this.