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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Russian Spy Ring: Second Thoughts

The mantra of the press in both the United States and Russia is that the Russian spy ring was not doing any real harm and, if anything, such a comic-opera operation spoiled the reputation of Russia’s intelligence services. It was no more an embarrassing laughing matter that should be shrugged off so that the two countries can go about mending their relations. This was my first reaction as well (see my previous post). I am rethinking my position, while not abandoning my first depiction of the spies’ activities as keystone cops. Why?
First: Russia is now a KGB state. Its head of state is a KGB colonel (Putin: There is no such thing as former KGB). Its economy, state, and media are run by former KGB associates, who have amassed massive wealth and power. As a closed fraternity, they act alike and think alike. Their formative years were spent in the groupthink of the KGB. An intelligence operation of this scope and breadth would have had to be ordered and supported at the top. There is not such thing as a “rogue operation” on this kind of thing. It must have been ordered by Putin himself.
Second: Unlike the Soviet period, there are no constraints on Russia’s new KGB state. In Soviet times, the party stood over the KGB and Soviet rulers from Stalin to Gorbachev were careful to keep it on a short leash. When the NKVD under Nikolai Ezhov threatened to get out of hand during the Great Terror, Stalin stepped in and executed him. When party leaders feared Lavrenty Beria’s power after Stalin’s death they executed him. In contrast, the new KGB state can pretty much do as it wishes without constraints. It is the direct “armed weapon” of the supreme Russian authority, but the supreme Russian authority is itself. As such, it operates without concern for the consequences because indeed there are no consequences. It can openly poison opponents with plutonium; it can assassinate Chechen leaders abroad, it can assassinate uncooperative journalists and never find their killers. It can seize assets of international concerns operating in Russia. All their actions are without consequences.
Third: Russian spying operations would indeed be directed against its greatest perceived enemy – the United States. It would be important for Russia to know our secrets. Russia regards the US as its major enemy because it fears that the US wishes to peel away those countries that fell under its direction in the Soviet period, such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Central Asia. Let us remember Putin’s quote: “The greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the breakup of the Soviet empire.” It also fears a real missile defense system which neutralizes Russian missiles under the guise of protecting ourselves against rogue nations. Although we can cooperate in a number of areas, there are core areas of dispute. As far as Russia is concerned, these core problems will not go away in the near future. Because of the long term nature of this conflict, it makes sense for Russia to implant spies under long-term deep cover.
Fourth: The keystone cops nature of the Russian spy network may be explained by KGB group think, which suggests that all societies have “secrets” that are hidden from the rest of the world. In the USSR, an incredible number of things were classified as secret; the number was so large as to defy credibility. Thus there was a huge chasm between private and public information. Russian scholars have reason to fear restoration of broad definitions of what is secret. The KGB group think cannot really comprehend an open society, enhanced by an open internet. Nowadays, there are few things that are not publicly available. The think tanks that the Russian spies targeted compete among themselves to make available the policy advice they are giving. Placing ten or so spies under deep cover in the hope that they one day discover important intelligence makes sense only if one understands this element of KGB group think. If there are many “secrets” out there, a small number of spies will find them.
Fifth: With the end of communism in Russia, Russian spies no longer have distinct targets of opportunity. This makes the task of deep-cover spies exceedingly difficult. In the old days, they could hope to recruit important members for the communist party, infiltrate unions, newspapers, or Hollywood. They could use past party membership for blackmail. Now the targets of opportunity are poorly defined. Whom should they target? Graduate of Kennedy School? Bond Traders? This means that if you are employed as a spy, you will have great difficulty in finding “deliverables” to justify your pay and expenses, which appeared to be the case with e Russian spy ring.
Finally: The fact that the Russian deep cover spying operation appears inept does not detract from the seriousness of intent. This operation was authorized at the highest levels; it was expensive at a time when international reserves were scarce. Such attempts will be repeated in the future only perhaps in a much more effective form. Hundreds of thousands of Russians live in the United States. It would have been a better strategy to try to recruit those who actually have access to influence or special information.


  1. "It is the direct “armed weapon” of the supreme Russian authority, but the supreme Russian authority is itself."

    Dangerously, this is exactly the point that most people don't see.

  2. I found this to be one of the most penetrating and satisfying articles written about the SVR illegals. I have only several comments to offer. The spy ring itself was probably two or three but treated as one for obvious reasons. The KGB and its successors like to keep numbers to a minimum and a lot of time and effort as well as resources goes into maintaining a legend (background cover which will sustain examination) and the value of the illegal is widely misunderstood. As regards your fifth point, freed from the ideology of communism, the Russians are not hamstrung by ideology and accountable as Marxists. It frees them for targets of opportunity especially in the defense and science fields. Ultimately, I suspect that this ring was to be culturally assimilated and pick off people with influence to mellow the views of skeptics about Putin. There is a rumor that some members were getting close to the Secretary of State or her advisers. There is a distinct risk with that access but I suppose Strobe Talbott would be a handy reference point. The objective would be to have agents infiltrate government and the regime, perhaps even the political parties. The logic of your final point is clear enough but flies in the face of conventional wisdom about Putin. For illegal operations, they would not try to recruit Russians already domiciled in the US because of perceived problems with loyalty. Those who were expelled/exchanged were highly trained and even in failure, they add to the pool of knowledge at 101 school in Moscow and the Illegals Directorate of the SVR.

    Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this case is is the media coverage which has centered on salacious matters, especially with the flaming redhead. Very few sensible comments have been made and I think Mr. Gregory is to be commended for getting it just about right.