Australian soldier and her husband accused of spying for Russia

Australian soldier and her husband accused of spying for Russia

An Australian army private and her husband accused of spying for Russia were denied bail Friday, on the first charges against suspected operatives under Australia's sweeping espionage laws enacted in 2018.

Kira Korolev, 40, and her husband, Igor Korolev, 62, are Russian-born Australian citizens and hold Russian passports. They did not appear in person and were represented by lawyers in the Brisbane Magistrates Court on a charge each of preparing for an espionage offence.

They did not enter pleas and will appear next in a federal court on Sept. 20. Their lawyers made no public statements.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw had earlier told reporters the couple allegedly "worked together to access Australian Defence Force material that related to Australia's national security interests."

"We allege they sought that information with the intention of providing it to Russian authorities. Whether that information was handed over remains a key focus of our investigation," Kershaw said.

Five Eyes can be confident about Australia: commissioner

Kershaw said "no significant compromise" had been identified. Australia's Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partners — United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand — can be confident that Australian authorities will continue to identify and disrupt espionage.

The Russian Embassy dismissed the allegations as "clearly intended to launch another wave of anti-Russian paranoia in Australia" in a statement, adding that it had requested official information from the authorities.

While the couple are the first suspected operatives to be charged under the modernized espionage laws that also outlaw covert foreign interference in domestic politics, Australian security forces have disrupted alleged Russian spies in recent years.

Australia had quietly expelled a large Russian spy ring comprising embassy and consular staff as well as other operatives using deep-cover identities, a spy agency official and media reported last year.

Police arrested the Korolevs at their Brisbane home Thursday. She is an Australian Defence Force information systems technician, and her husband is a self-employed labourer. They moved to Australia more than a decade ago. The woman became an Australian citizen in 2016 and her husband in 2020.

Police allege the woman secretly travelled to Russia in 2023 while on extended leave from the Australian military. The husband allegedly accessed the woman's work account from their Brisbane home and sent requested classified information to her in Russia.

'You will be caught'

Mike Burgess, secretary general of security at the Australian Security Intelligence Organization secret service, declined to say how authorities were tipped off. But the Australian Defence Force's security awareness "allowed us to intervene early and control the operation," Burgess said.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Australian security agencies were equal to the growing espionage threat. He cited the recent extensions of both Burgess's and Kershaw's contracts as evidence of his confidence.

"They're on top of these issues. If you engage in action that is against Australia's national interest, you will be caught by our security agencies," Albanese said.

A handful of people stand outside a modern building.
Members of the media Friday stand outside the Brisbane Watch House in Brisbane, where a 40-year-old woman and her 62-year-old husband appeared before a magistrate after being charged with 'preparing for an espionage offence.' (Patrick Hamilton/AFP/Getty Images)

Defence did not answer questions from The Associated Press, including what the private's job was and when she was recruited, citing the court action and personal privacy obligations toward military personnel.

Such serious allegations usually result in a member's suspension from service and immediate cancellation of access to bases as well as information and communications technology systems, a defence statement said.

The charge against each defendant carries a potential maximum sentence of 15 years in prison if either is convicted. If sufficient evidence was found that the information had been shared with Russia, the charges could be upgraded and the potential maximum prison terms upon conviction would be 25 years or life.

Russia last year accused Australia of "Russophobic hysteria" for cancelling the lease on land where Moscow wanted to build its new embassy. The Australian government judged the site to be a security risk because it was too close to Parliament House.

Burgess warned foreign spies that "when we can support a prosecution, we will support a prosecution."

While the couple are the first to be charged under the espionage section of the 2018 laws, two Australians have been charged with foreign interference offences under the same raft of security reforms, which sought to counter Chinese efforts to shape Australian government policy.