A Russian woman posed as a Peruvian jewelry designer and socialite to infiltrate NATO circles for Russia’s military intelligence, investigators said Thursday.
The spy went by the name Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera to befriend NATO staff in Naples, Italy, for Russia’s GRU agency, according to Bellingcat, a Dutch-based international consortium of researchers.
Bellingcat investigated the case for 10 months along with the news outlets Der Spiegel, The Insider and la Repubblica, and released the results of the investigation on Thursday.
The spy said her father was German and her mother was Peruvian, and that she was born in Callao, Peru. She took on the Latin-sounding name Rivera, but was actually Olga Kolobova, a career deep-cover agent for the GRU.
Russian spies are sometimes trained to pose as foreigners, may live under fake identities for decades and have used Latin American backgrounds as a cover story in the past.
Kolobova, under her fake identity, moved around Western Europe, including to study in Paris, and settled in Naples in 2013. NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command is based in the Italian city.
????Meet Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera, widow, jeweller, and socialite. The love child of a German father and a Peruvian mother, born in Callao, Peru, and abandoned in Moscow by her mother during the 1980 Olympic Games. pic.twitter.com/wHo6qSmKik
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She became a fixture in the city’s social scene for several years, opening a jewelry and luxury items boutique. She said she had designed the jewelry herself, but it had actually been bought from Chinese wholesalers. She later turned the store into a club for local socialites, Bellingcat said.
She also became a secretary for the city’s branch of Lions Club International, a sprawling, US-based services organization. The Naples branch had been established by a NATO officer.
Through her social ties and the Lions Club, she befriended NATO personnel, including German, American, Belgian and Italian NATO staff. She indicated to acquaintances that she had a chaotic personal life, and struck up a romantic relationship with at least one NATO employee.
She told acquaintances that she had been abandoned in Moscow by her Peruvian mother, who she said had traveled to the Soviet Union for the 1980 Olympics and left her with a Russian family. She said she had been abused by her adoptive Russian father, and therefore wanted to leave the country and settle in Western Europe.
Her cover aroused distrust from at least one US Naval Forces member, who thought her backstory and unexplained income were suspicious.
She attended NATO and US military events, including annual balls for the US Marines, but it’s unclear if she ever accessed a NATO base.
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She also traveled regularly, including to Bahrain, which is home to a large US Navy base.
Bellingcat researchers picked up on her trail after a Belarusian border guards database was leaked. The researchers searched the database for passport numbers similar to those that had been previously used by GRU operatives. During a previous investigation, they had discovered that the GRU issued its agents passports with serial numbers that were close to each other.
They noticed a passport number similar to one used by another GRU operative. The passport’s holder’s non-Russian name, Rivera, stood out to the investigators. Her first recorded trip was a train ride from Moscow to Paris via Belarus in 2011.
They determined she was likely an “illegal,” part of a GRU program that planted spies in other countries under fake identities.
Kolobova, traveling as Rivera, had traveled on several Russian passports with serial numbers similar to other GRU operatives, Bellingcat found.
She eventually left Naples for Moscow in 2018, one day after Bellingcat and its partner The Insider published research on a chemical attack against Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK.
That report also used passport data to link two of the alleged poisoners to the GRU, revealing that the spy agency had used consecutive passport numbers for its operatives’ travel documents. Data related to passports is sometimes leaked onto Russia’s black market and used by investigators.
It appeared Kolobova had been pulled from Naples because her handlers feared the passport information could have also blown her cover. Her passport number was only one digit away from the GRU boss who handled the Skripal poisonings, Bellingcat said.
Kolobova does not appear to have left Russia since then. She had maintained her facade as a cosmopolitan, jewelry-designing socialite for about 10 years.
Two months after leaving Naples, she posted a message on Facebook saying she was undergoing chemotherapy, apparently to explain why she suddenly left.
The investigation released Thursday was based on open source data, public archives, government information from Peru, leaked databases from Russia and interviews with people who knew Kolobova while she was undercover.
In 2005, Kolobova had attempted to get a Peruvian passport, but a suspicious civil officer found out that she had lied about getting a baptism as a child in the city of Callao. She reported being baptized in 1978, but the parish she claimed to come from had only been established in 1987. Her application was rejected and Peruvian authorities publicized the case.
Her GRU commanders decided to continue with her cover story for reasons that are still unclear, and gave her a Russian passport in 2006 using the same false name. The number on that passport was in the same range as at least six other GRU spies, Bellingcat said.
It took the investigators months to find out her real identity. They finally made the match using facial matching software, leaked databases, a whistleblower and other circumstantial evidence.
It’s unclear if her long mission proved successful for the GRU. Western intelligence and NATO never appeared to have caught on to her espionage.
In a similar case, in June, the Netherlands said it had stopped a Russian spy who had been posing as a Brazilian intern to infiltrate the International Criminal Court, as the court was investigating war crimes in Ukraine.
The Russian, identified as Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, 36, flew to the Netherlands in April using an elaborate deep cover story that he had built up over the past 12 years.
But Dutch authorities said they saw through his fake identity as a 33-year-old Brazilian citizen named Viktor Muller Ferreira, and unmasked him as an agent of the GRU military.
Cherkasov was put on the next flight back to Brazil, where police said he was arrested for identity fraud.