Russian Spies, Part 1: A Primer

Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

The Cold War may have ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, but a Cold War mentality did not end in the rubble of the wall on the part of the Russians.  To understand why, one needs a little dose of Russian history and culture to understand the mindset of Russian leaders and how it affects this story.

Since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Russians have been a superpower in the area of espionage.  The ruling principalities of Rus’ formed alliances that betrayed one another without any thought.  To centralize his power, Ivan IV formed a precursor to the secret police- the Oprichniki- to wipe out his opposition and sow fear in his enemies.  The Romanov czars had all sorts of secret agencies spying internally on friends and foes alike.  In the 19th century, Russian anarchists and Marxists regularly formed secret cells to carry out their cause against the Tsars.  Those who eventually founded the Soviet Union had a long history of secret identities and clandestine meetings in which the tools of modern spycraft were developed.  

The founder of the Soviet secret police- the Cheka- was Feliks Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky who was tasked with protecting Bolshevik’s tenuous initial grip on power.  His tactics were more brutal than anything ever perpetrated by the Tsars.  As the standard bearers of a worldwide revolution, the Bolsheviks wasted no time making enemies at home and abroad.  Of particular interest were the White Russians who initiated the 1918 civil war, and those states that helped them.  The victorious Bolsheviks needed a way to make sure there were no further attempts to strip their power and to keep an eye and check on White Russian emigres abroad.  By the end of the 1920s, the Cheka had grown and there were operatives in every country, although by this time they were renamed the INO.

The INO did neutralize subversives abroad and foiled many plots while also providing intelligence to the Politburo on the intentions and policies of foreign governments.  The Soviet state from the beginning of its existence maintained a siege mentality in relation to the countries beyond its borders. The collection of secret information on foreign opponents was of the highest priority for the Soviet leadership and a pressing task for its spies. To obtain strategic intelligence or deal a crippling blow to anti-Soviet émigré groups, any and all methods could be applied.

Marxism-Leninism made the secret police more brutal, effective and innovative than its Tsarist predecessors.  Bolsheviks held in contempt moral strictures that would deny the ultimate triumph of Marxism.  Anything that advanced the revolution was morally justified.  Hence, the Soviet secret police obeyed one moral edict: serve the party in Moscow.  The war with the enemies of Marxism demanded ruthlessness.  This mindset was deemed necessary to usher in the brilliant future communism offered to the masses worldwide.  This beckoning star of utopia blinded many a Western intellectual and found more-than-willing dupes in academia, the media, and labor unions worldwide.

The INO deployed “talent-spotters” throughout the Western world- people they could identify as useful cogs to advance the cause of Communism.  One of the most well-known captures of the INO occurred in 1934 in Vienna when a bright, young British man by the name of Harold “Kim” Philby caught the eye of Russian recruiter Arnold Deutsch.  Philby went on to become a member of Britain’s MI6 and passed intelligence to Russians for over three decades.

Most agents were run out of Russia’s embassies, trade missions, and consulates under “official cover” as diplomats or journalists.  But this has drawbacks as the Soviet Union found in 1927 when Great Britain cut diplomatic ties with them and lost their embassy in London.  Because of this, the Soviets had to have spies abroad not under official cover, and the means to this end was creation of a program called “the illegals.”  The INO created the illegals program to train deep cover operatives who would work their way into the political, economic and academic places of power and influence.  They were also occasionally assigned “wet affairs,” which was simply assassinating threats to the Soviet Union in other countries.  Stalin’s paranoia swept through the INO as he sought out and killed perceived enemies.

In the aftermath of World War II and the onset of the Cold War, the Soviet Union switched tactics and again reorganized their intelligence apparatus this time forming the KGB in 1954.  As the United States created a series of alliances that attempted to create a ring around the Soviet Union to contain the spread of Communism, the KGB went into high-gear in America and Europe.  Illegal operations were to be run out of Department S of the KGB.  One key asset was the illegals who would assume foreign identities and blend into the fabric of Western society.  This way, after careful cultivation of a cover, they could infiltrate positions of power and influence.

With the fall of the Soviet Union and resulting political and cultural chaos, Russia was in a shambles.  However, Moscow also worked to restore its regional and international image according to its national interests, not Marxist-Leninist ideology.  One person who is at the forefront of this effort and is no idiot when it comes to reality is Vladimir Putin.  He understands the central importance of intelligence when it comes to policy.  Realizing Russia cannot compete economically or militarily with the United States (their GDP is smaller than several US states), Putin has embraced a new asymmetric foreign and military policy where the role of spies, moles, disinformation and cyber campaigns are put to maximum use.  The Kremlin has put its spies from the GRU (military intelligence) and FSB to optimal use.  Although they may not be involved in “wet operations” to any great degree anymore, that is now the task of the SVR which is likely responsible for assassinations of dissidents and journalists in Russia and elsewhere.  The SVR has been obtaining Western technologies by working in tandem with oil giants like Gazprom and Lukoil.  They have mounted influence operations against EU and NATO expansion and the placement of American missiles at Russia’s doorsteps.  It is easy to dismiss incidents recently documented as the silly left-over Cold War spy mentality of Russia.  But, a case out of Estonia which demonstrates the lengths to which Putin and Russia will go.

Next: Russian intelligence, Putin, and a certain Secretary of State