- Associated Press - Thursday, February 23, 2023

CANBERRA, Australia — A Russian spy ring posing as diplomats had been quietly expelled from Australia in recent months, a newspaper reported Friday after an Australian security agency revealed a major counter-espionage success.

The spy ring comprised purported embassy and consular staff as well as other operatives using deep-cover identities, The Sydney Morning Herald reported, citing unnamed sources with knowledge of the operation.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organization, the nation’s main domestic spy agency, revealed on Tuesday it had “detected and disrupted a major spy network.” ASIO has not named the country responsible.

ASIO’s secretary-general of security Mike Burgess described the network as a “hive” of spies because it was bigger and more dangerous than a “nest” of spies previously disrupted. Precise numbers have not been reported.

“Proxies and agents were recruited as part of a wider network. Among other malicious activities, they wanted to steal sensitive information,” Burgess said in ASIO’s annual report on threats posed to Australia.

“It was obvious to us that the spies were highly trained because they used sophisticated tradecraft to disguise their activities,” Burgess added.

ASIO “removed them from this country, privately and professionally,” he said.

The Russian spies were quietly forced out of Australia over the past six months with their visas not renewed or cancelled, the newspaper reported.

There were concerns that publicly expelling the spies could lead to retaliation against diplomats and other Australians living in Russia.

The Russian Embassy in Australia did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese would not say whether the spy network that ASIO had disrupted was Russian.

“I don’t comment on national security briefings, but I just say that ASIO do a very good job in defending Australia’s national interest and they have my absolute confidence and support in doing that job,” Albanese told reporters.

Before Albanese was elected to government in May last year, he had called for Russian diplomats to be expelled from Australia in retaliation for the invasion or Ukraine.

But Russian Ambassador Alexey Pavlovsky remains in the Australian post he has held since May 2019.

ASIO exploited successive government decisions to allow Russian diplomats to stay by continuing its counter-espionage probe and identifying the network’s members, the newspaper reported.

Burgess described the dismantling of the spy network as an example of his agency’s “more aggressive counter-espionage posture.”

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