“He was sometimes there, he was smiling,” said Tiny Kox, a Dutch politician, speaking of a Russian spy he used to see around in the corridors of the Council of Europe building in Strasbourg, France.
“He was no James Bond,” Kox added, referring to a British spy-movie icon.
“He was there, but not saying or doing anything. I’m not sure if that’s part of the behaviour of spies,” Kox said.
“I never speak with secretaries but they always accompany their delegations,” he added.
Kox is currently president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
The low-key Russian was Valery Levitsky, who used to be secretary of Russia’s 80-strong delegation in Strasbourg, as well as an officer in Russia’s GRU military-intelligence service.
France expelled him in 2018 on grounds of espionage.
Levitsky described Kox as a friend of Russia in internal Russian documents revealed in September this year by Dossier Center, a London-based NGO, prompting suspicion.
But Kox denied having known him or having ever had pro-Russian leanings.
“There was no relationship between me and whatever spy Russia might have sent to the Council of Europe,” Kox said.
“I’ve been involved in quite a lot of romances, although I’m now 45 years with my wife, but a romance with Russia I was never engaged in,” the Dutch socialist also said.
Russia was expelled from the Council of Europe shortly after its invasion of Ukraine, in a move Kox endorsed.
“If you cross the borders of a neighbouring state with your army then you cross the borders of the Council of Europe, then you’re out,” he told EUobserver.
And if Russia had been counting on him for friendly ties as PACE president, then its support “boomeranged”, Kox said.
PACE, on his watch, also named the Russian regime a “terrorist” entity and called to create a special tribunal to try Russian president Vladimir Putin for the crime of “aggression” against Ukraine, Kox noted.
“It would be important the EU also comes to the same conclusion,” he said, as MEPs in the EU Parliament prepared to vote on a resolution on Russia’s “terrorist” status on Wednesday (23 November).
The new “aggression” tribunal would go after the Russian government, which had also inflicted loss on its own people, Kox said.
Some 84,600 Russia soldiers have reportedly died in the war, he said, and while they were “not victims but perpetrators of violence”, the figure still left him “cold”, he added.
The UN already had war crimes tribunals for military commanders and soldiers, so that no one would top unpunished, Kox said.
“We’ve seen one atrocity after another [committed in Ukraine],” Kox said, referring to reports of mass rapes of Ukrainian women and murders of civilians.
Asked why Russian soldiers were behaving so egregiously, he said: “It’s hard to judge at this stage”.
“Atrocities take place in all wars committed by soldiers who used to be sons and fathers and lived normally and this has to be investigated what’s behind this,” Kox said.
Going back to Levitsky, the Dossier revelations suggested he was part of a wider pro-Russian clique that also included Bruno Aller (a French ex-PACE secretary general) and René van der Linden (a Dutch former PACE president).
But when asked if he thought the Council of Europe had a serious Russian espionage problem in the years before the war, Kox disagreed.
Aller and van der Linden’s reputations were beyond reproach, he said.
“Not only the Russians in diplomacy have their relations to secret services,” he added.
But in any case, the Council of Europe had no internal security team to rely concerns to people like Kox up in the hierarchy, he noted.
Council staff checked people’s basic credentials and delegates had to sign a code of conduct on what they did in Strasbourg.
But security-vetting or investigations into allegations of wrongdoing, such as espionage or corruption, were up to national authorities, Kox explained.