The elaborate cover stories, high level of training and the length of their missions make illegals incredibly difficult to track down.

London: It’s as old as the hills—a man is seduced by an attractive woman and is then blackmailed for money or information. Men are nearly always the target, but during the Cold War, the East German intelligence agency used men to blackmail women. Marcus Wolf, the head of Stasi, employed handsome, well-mannered men, known as “Romeo spies”, to exploit the solitude of unmarried, powerful women in the West German government in order to obtain valuable intelligence from them.
Kompromat is straight from the old Soviet playbook and is better known in the West as “Honeypot” or “Honeytrap”. As a former diplomat, who worked for years in Moscow, it was abundantly clear that Kompromat was alive and well, which is why the embassy ruled that wives must always accompany their husbands when travelling around the country. On the rare occasion when travelling solo, there always seemed to be many unaccompanied gorgeous young ladies with plunging necklines and short skirts dining at adjacent tables in restaurants. The KGB was forever hopeful.

Maria Adela

Last week, reports emerged of yet another attempt by Moscow to obtain NATO secrets by Kompromat. This time it was a Russian agent using the exotic name of Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera, whose real name was Olga Kolobova, a member of Russia’s GRU foreign intelligence service. Kolobova was part of Russia’s infamous “Illegals” programme, a network of agents who undergo years of intensive training to prepare them for long-term assignments abroad. Agents are given carefully crafted fake identities and are inserted into a country where they spend years, or even decades, leading a double life. In Kolobova’s case, her back-story was that she was born in Peru in 1978, the love-child of a German father and Peruvian mother, but had been abandoned in the Soviet Union. Her mother had attended the 1980 Moscow Olympics and while there had put her up for adoption. Maria explained that her money came as a result of a love affair with a wealthy Russian man, who had died leaving her an inheritance. None of this was true, of course. She was the daughter of a senior colonel in the GRU.
Glamorous and impeccably dressed, Kolobova, now Maria Adela Rivera, first travelled to Malta and then on to Ostia, just outside Rome, where she took classes in jewellery making. In 2011, she set up a jewellery business in Paris and began her new life as a businesswoman and “socialite”. In July 2012, she was secretly married in Rome to an Italian man with Russian and Ecuadorian passports, according to her friends, none of whom attended the event but were all sent photos of her dressed in a strapless wedding dress with her long black hair swept back. A year later, the unnamed man mysteriously “died alone” in Moscow of a sudden illness and Maria Adela, now a “grieving and vulnerable young widow”, moved to Naples where she set up her business again as a trader in jewellery and luxury goods. She was now living in the target area, NATO’s naval headquarters in Italy and home to the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet.
Maria quickly developed an extensive network of friends in Naples, and had relationships with several NATO employees. It was here that her career as a Russian illegal spy peaked. Over the next three years she became a fixture on the local social scene. She became secretary of the fundraising charity Lions Club Napoli Monte Nuovo, and it was through this club that she befriended and had relationships with a number of NATO officers, one of whom, she told a friend, was a photographer who had a “crush” on her. Another was a data systems administrator at the NATO command centre in Naples. While she certainly had direct “personal” access to many NATO and US Navy officers, and exchanged “home visits” with several of them, it’s not clear if she ever obtained physical access to the NATO base. But it is known that she attended many events organised by NATO or the US military, including NATO annual balls, various fund-raising dinners and the annual US Marine balls.
According to Maria Adela’s Facebook postings, she regularly travelled to Bahrain, under the pretext of attending an annual luxury goods and jewellery expo, and on one occasion she posted a photo of herself gifting cufflinks to the then prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa. Her movements in Bahrain are not known, but notably the country is home to the US Fifth Fleet and other US military centres, where some 7,000 US officers and troops are based.
Then suddenly Maria Adela, the GRU agent, departed Italy without telling any of her friends or giving any reasons for her decision. Believing her cover blown, she had purchased a one-way ticket to Moscow. Two months later she posted one last cryptic, yet leading post on her Facebook page, telling her friends that she had discovered she was suffering from cancer, but “after chemo”, she was pleased to tell them her hair was growing back. And that was that. In fact, unknown to her friends, Olga Kolobova was spending time behind the wheel of her latest-model Audi car and eyeing a move into a brand-new luxury apartment in an upscale Moscow neighbourhood. Olga Kolobova is yet the latest example of an attractive Russian agent working under-cover in the West. Twelve years ago, Anna Chapman, whose real name was Anna Vasilyevna Kushchenko, was described as Russia’s most glamorous spy when she was arrested in New York. Like Kolobova, Kushchenko was part of Moscow’s illegals programme. More recently another illegal, Maria Butina was convicted in 2018 of acting as foreign agent of Russia within the US. Butina had worked to infiltrate the US National Rifle Association in an effort to promote Russia’s interests in the 2016 US presidential election. Today, Butina has been rewarded with a place in Russia’s parliament, the Duma, while Chapman is a popular TV presenter, promoting Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The elaborate cover stories, high level of training and the length of their missions make illegals incredibly difficult to track down. Kolobova was never caught and it was likely that she was recalled from Naples by her superiors in the GRU. Western intelligence agencies are naturally secretive about the information they gather, but fortunately, Bellingcat, the brilliant Netherlands-based investigative journalist group founded by a British journalist Eliot Higgins in 2014, provides an abundance of intelligence based on open-source information.
In the case of Olga Kolobova, Bellingcat discovered that the GRU had issued a series of passports to its foreign spies under fake names but had lazily printed them with consecutive number batches. Kolobova’s passport number, 643258050, differed from that of a senior GRU officer by just one digit. The ringleader of the attempt to assassinate Sergei Skripal with Novichok in Salisbury UK in March 2018, was Denis Vyacheslavovich Sergeev, identified by Bellingcat from his passport number, 643258060. Knowing these numbers, Bellingcat was able to track Russia’s spies’ travel around the world, blowing the cover of many GRU agents.
Honeytrap activity is not only confined to western countries. Two years ago, India’s Minister of State (Defence) Shripad Naik warned that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence was using Honeytraps to target Indian Army officers. In the wake of several Honeytrap incidents, the Army warned personnel to be cautious and avoid being friendly with “women of foreign origin”, claiming that it had identified around 150 profiles used by Pakistan to seduce Indian Army personnel for high-grade and sensitive information.
In his autobiography, Marcus Wolf claimed that his Romeo spies were “sharp operators” who realised that a lot could be achieved with sex. No doubt Olga Kolobova, Anna Kushchenko and Maria Butina, as well as countless other unknown Illegals deeply embedded within western society, would agree.

John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.