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Russian spy lured in NATO officers as honeytrap: Report

A change of command ceremony at the Allied Joint Force Command Naples, Italy June 7, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Weston Jones/Released)
August 29, 2022

A Russian national and suspected spy is believed to have posed as a jeweler in a years-long scheme in which she seduced North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officials to potentially steal their secrets, a new report revealed last week.

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A joint investigation published Thursday by Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, The Insider and La Repubblica raised suspicions that a woman who went by the name Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera was actually a spy working for Russia’s GRU intelligence service. Under her assumed identity, the suspected Russian agent moved to Naples, Italy and began trying to infiltrate NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command.

According to the publications, Rivera’s real name is Olga Kolobova.

The publications found the first signs of the Rivera identity in a 2005 document submitted to the Civil Registration office of the Independencia District in Lima, Peru, requesting to add her name to the country’s citizen database.

The attempt to have her identity added to Peru’s citizen database failed. The Peruvian civilian registry shared documents with Bellingcat showing that the citizenship registration was placed on hold after information in the application proved inaccurate.

While the attempt to establish her identity in Peru ultimately failed, Kolobova’s GRU unit persisted with the Rivera identity. Under the fake identity, the alleged GRU agent traveled throughout Rome, Malta and Paris before settling in Naples in 2013.

During her travels, the suspected spy used a Russian passport with number ranges similar to those used by other suspected Russian agents, including members of the GRU’s black-ops unit 29155. 

Under the Rivera identity, the alleged spy set up a jewelry business in Naples called Serein.

Once settled in Naples, the Rivera identity lived an active social life, becoming the secretary at the Naples branch of the international Lions Club. Joining this particular chapter of this Lions Club was important as it was founded by a NATO officer.

A German military officer who served as treasurer of the club told Bellingcat, on condition of anonymity, that “Maria Adela” was very active in the club, attended all events and at one point offered to pay everyone’s membership fees when membership declined and the club’s end was at risk.

Through her Lions Club position, the suspected Russian spy met several NATO officers. One officer who spoke to Bellingcat admitted to a brief romance with Rivera.

Rivera also became close friends with Marcelle D’Argy Smith, former editor of the U.K. edition of Cosmopolitan. D’Argy Smith shared an email with Bellingcat in which Rivera said a U.S. Navy officer had “a little crush” on her.

“She was very beautiful, very understated,” D’Argy Smith told the New York Post. “She had lots of male friends, but they never seemed worthy. She was so attractive and the men looked ordinary and I never understood it.”

Also among Rivera’s non-romantic acquaintances was Col. Shelia Bryant, then Inspector General for the U.S. Naval Forces in Europe and Africa (NAVEUR-NAVAF). Bryant told Bellingcat she found Rivera’s identity unconvincing. She said she and her husband kept communications with Rivera to their social interactions but tried to help her through her emotional issues with men.

Bryant said she and her husband were introduced to Rivera through a U.S. government contractor and that Rivera interacted commonly with American, Belgian, Italian and German NATO staff and officers. 

The German military described another person Rivera interacted with, a data systems administrator at the NATO command center in Naples. This person initially agreed to speak with Bellingcat but stopped responding to communications when they learned the nature of Bellingcat’s investigation.

Rivera also traveled regularly to Bahrain and was seen in one photo on Serein’s Facebook page gifting a set of cufflinks to the country’s then prime minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa.

The extent of Rivera’s travels in Bahrain were not clear, though Bellingcat noted the country is home to a U.S. Navy base, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the U.S. 5th Fleet.

Rivera eventually left Naples for Moscow in 2018, on another Russian-issued passport that featured a number range similar to those used on other GRU passports. After leaving Naples in 2018, Rivera’s once-vibrant social life virtually disappeared. Only in November of 2018 did she post one last cryptic Facebook post referencing chemotherapy and suggesting she was battling cancer.

“5 months …. It’s the truth I must finally reveal,” the translated Nov. 29, 2018 Facebook post read. “I was trying to hide from myself, at some point I succeeded! Hair is growing now after chemo, short short but there… Missing everything but trying to breathe. At least learn to do it… P.S. Thank you to all the people who have not stopped ‘bombing’ me with messages these past 5 months !!!! Love you!!!!”

Bellingcat and fellow investigators ultimately linked the Rivera identity to Olga Kolobova through a review of passport data, facial recognition technology and information gleaned from Kolobova’s social media.

Investigators initially found Rivera and Kolobova’s passport photos had a facial recognition match of less than 35 percent when compared through the Microsoft Azur facial recognition tool. Investigators initially dismissed the connection, but noted the low match percentage was likely due to the outdated photo on Kolobova’s passport.

Another clue tying Kolobova to the Rivera identity was the fact that she had virtually no social media presence before November of 2018, around the same time Rivera shared her chemotherapy post explaining her sudden disappearance from her social scene in Naples.

In November of 2018, Kolobova posted a photo of a newly-purchased Audi 3. Rivera had also shared a photo at the wheel of an Audi in 2016, suggesting a shared penchant for the type of car.

Further sleuthing on Kolobova’s social media accounts showed she had registered a company in 2005 when she was 23. By tracing the company’s registration address, Bellingcat was able to track down Kolobova’s father and discovered that he had been the Head of the Military Faculty at the Urals University in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg until retiring in 2007. Bellingcat also learned that her father had served in the Russian military.

Bellingcat noted the GRU often recruits the children of high-ranking military officers to serve as its spies. The discovery of Kolobova’s father’s military background further suggests Kolobova was indeed acting as a spy under the assumed Rivera identity.

It is not clear at this time what information Kolobova may have gained if indeed she was acting as a spy under the Rivera identity. It is also unclear why she left 2018 when she did.

The discovery of this suspected spy comes as western publications and officials are learning more about a program of Russian undercover agents, known as “illegals,” to infiltrate western nations and organizations. In June, a Dutch intelligence service reported it had uncovered a suspected Russian GRU agent attempting to infiltrate the International Criminal Court (ICC) using a fake Brazilian cover identity.