From Russia with love: The spy who infiltrated NATO circles

From Russia with love: The spy who infiltrated NATO circles
Researchers explored facial recognition on photographs. Credit: Bellingcat

A woman based in Italy, whose social circle included NATO officers, has been revealed to be a Russian spy. The woman went under the name 'Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera' and for years pretended to be a Latin American jewellery designer, when in fact she actually worked for Russian military intelligence (GRU), reported Bellingcat and other media outlets that collaborated with the investigation, including the Insider, Der Spiegel, and la Republica.

'Maria Adela' was part of the board of an Italian branch of the international 'Lions Club,' which was founded by a NATO officer, according to the news sites. This club enabled her to meet several NATO officers and establish rapport with them. Despite a backstory with little plausibility, it took years before anyone discovered her true identity.

No credible backstory

The story begins in Lima, Peru's capital, where a lawyer in 2015 applied for citizenship for a young woman named Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera. He had her birth certificate from 1 September 1978 in Callio as well as a baptismal record from the Cristo Liberador church in one of Lima's suburbs.

There was just one problem. The church was first built nine years after the supposed baptism, and the Peruvian authorities unsurprisingly rejected the application. Despite this hurdle, the Russian spy chiefs wanted to proceed with the fake identity, as they reasoned that no one would check her background – and their assessment turned out to be right.

Her German father, Maria Adela would later tell, had left the family when she was a child. Later, her mother brought her to Moscow in 1980 for the Olympic Games. Then, her mother disappeared after leaving her with Soviet acquaintances. Instead, Rivera grew up with foster parents, with a sexually abusive stepfather.

It was far from a credible story, but the GRU agent compensated with charisma and good looks.

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No one suspected that she was actually infiltrating NATO circles when she, later on, was based in Naples. Yet one fellow member of the Lions Club, Col. Shelia Bryan, then Inspector General for the U.S. Naval Forces in Europe and Africa, found her story confusing and unconvincing.

"Why would anyone abandon their child in the Soviet Union?" Bryan said, adding that her stream of income was difficult to explain ("she opened a store and frequently moved apartments in affluent parts of town with no credible income streams").

The spy who loved me

In Naples, she opened a luxurious jewellery story based on the company she started earlier in France. Here, she started her actual work.

She was an incredibly active member of the Lion's Club association, according to Oberstleutnant Thorsten S, a German Bundeswehr officer who in 2015 was treasurer of this Lions Club branch. He added that he never understood her motives for doing so.

He met Maria Adela in Napoli Monte Nuovo, made by one of the officers from the NATO base, one of the military alliances' most important in Europe and headquarters for the US' sixth largest fleet.

It was the perfect club to infiltrate for the Russian spy, who not only became a member but was also part of its board. She even managed to seduce the person who administered the base's data systems. But only one high-ranking – and anonymous – person has admitted to having a brief affair with the fake businesswoman.

But according to Col. Bryan, she had many relationships. 'Maria Adela' had social interactions with not just American but also Belgian, Italian, and German NATO staff and officers.

Despite Rivera's incredible story, the American officer, who has since gone into politics as a Democrat, was surprised that Rivera was actually a Russian spy. None of the acquaintances that the investigative journalists spoke with have been questioned by NATO or police concerning their relationship with Maria Adela.

Unmasking the spy

The investigative journalists were able to link the false identity of Maria Adela to that of the Russian Olga Kolobova, a daughter of a Russian colonel who had been deployed in Iraq and Syria. The reports uncovered her identity through facial recognition from photos as well as similarities between her passport and that of several other Russian passports of GRU agents, including the agents sent to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury.

However, despite leaving no traces of her double life for years, investigators began noticing unusual activity in the autumn of 2018. A brand new Audi 3 was bought in November, and a few months later, Rivera appeared in a social media group called 'Putin's friends.' The journalists even traced a telephone call to her spy bosses in GRU.

It is not clear what kind of information Kolobova managed to get access to on the NATO base while she was in Naples, or what information she gave Moscow after she managed to disappear without a trace.

Her network, however, was very extensive - "mingling with NATO and US Navy officers, including some who would have had access to on-base photographs or confidential legal files and databases appears impressive, at least on paper," Bellingcat concluded.

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