This week marks the opening of what's been described as the biggest Swedish espionage case since the end of the Cold War, as tensions rise in the face of the Russian war in Ukraine.
STOCKHOLM — “Disappear in Sweden,” “Prosecuted before questioning,” “Spy.”
These are a few examples of the 28 internet searches Payam Kia did shortly before being arrested in November 2021, according to Stockholm based daily Aftonbladet.
Two months earlier, his older brother Peyman, a former employee of the Swedish armed forces and security services, had been arrested on charges of aggravated espionage. The two brothers, who lived together in Uppsala, about an hour north of Stockholm, had long been suspected of sharing classified information. But it was only on November 11 that prosecutors brought charges against them, after having gathered enough evidence to support what has been described as Sweden’s largest espionage case since the end of the Cold War.
The trial of the brothers was set to begin Thursday behind closed doors at the Stockholm District Court; and while prosecutors believe financial gain was the motive, the case is drawing extra attention in Sweden and beyond for reasons that extend well beyond individual greed.
Over the last decade, due to rising geopolitical tensions, the threat from spies has increased all over Europe. According to a study published by the Swedish Total Defence Research Institute in May, the most active spies are in Northern Europe and the Baltics, and work in their vast majority on Russia’s behalf. No doubt the beginning of the war in Ukraine has raised the stakes, and activity, for those working undercover on both sides.
Brothers on the spot
On Tuesday, Swedish special forces arrested two people in their 60s in a residential area in Stockholm, suspected of having carried out damaging illegal intelligence activities for 10 years.
For Peyman and Payam Kia, it is not clear how, as the prosecution contends, they may have gotten caught in Moscow’s web. Originally from Iran, the Kia brothers came to Sweden as young children, and obtained Swedish citizenship in 1994. Peyman, 42, began his career within the government administration as a customs crime investigator, before moving on to the Security Service and then to the Military Intelligence and Security Service, where he also worked at the top-secret Office for Special Intelligence, an agency which, among other things, works with its own agents abroad and recruits spies outside Sweden's borders.
Payam, seven years younger, wasn’t as successful. He started studying at the police academy, dropped out after one semester, but somehow also ended up working for the Security Service for a short period.
Both are now accused of spying on behalf of Moscow between September 2011 and September 2021. Peyman and Payam Kia, who could each face a life sentence, deny the charges.
According to the prosecutors, the brothers worked on behalf of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service: Peyman collected classified information through his work in the Swedish Armed Forces and the Security Services, while Payam was in charge of planning the operation with their liaison contacts and managing the financial compensation.
A 2018 photo of Swedish Marines during amphibious assault rehearsal in Korso, Sweden.
With its geographic position, sharing the Baltic Sea coastline, Sweden is particularly exposed: The Security Service estimates that one third of the staff at Russian embassies are usually intelligence officers, which means that about 10-15 people at the Russian Embassy in Stockholm are believed to be actively spying.
Russian spying in Sweden does not limit itself to counterintelligence, but also includes industrial espionage: Last year, a 47-year-old man was sentenced three years in prison for spying for Russia by selling secret information from truckmaker Scania.
This is not a new phenomenon as such, and the general sentiment in the Nordics towards Russia has traditionally always been distrust, even fear. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and Sweden’s subsequent NATO application have deepened tensions, a threat that the authorities take very seriously.
Sweden, which has not experienced a war on its territory in over 200 years, has been forced to abandon the non-alignment policy that used to be the foundation of its foreign policy for decades.
In a country that sees itself as a global model for humanitarian leadership, waking up to the reality of a dangerous world order marks the end of Swedish exceptionalism.
As Gunilla Herolf, a senior associate research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, told The Guardian recently: “We have maintained one doctrine for 200 years. That’s a big deal. It means something to people. It becomes an identity issue.”
Meanwhile, as the country reflects on the changes in the air, the counterintelligence war silently carries on.