The war in Ukraine has damaged the reputation of Russian spies

The Economist, 09.10.2022
As they take greater risks, they are getting caught

Viktor Muller Ferreira was a young Brazilian with impressive credentials and a big break. Freshly graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, CC talent incubator for the American national security elite, he had obtained an internship at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. But when he landed in Amsterdam in April, he was quickly deported to Brazil. Mr. Ferreira was actually Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, an intelligence officer working for the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service.

Mr Cherkasov was a so-called illegal, of the kind portrayed in the popular TV series ‘The Americans’ – an officer sent abroad under an elaborate foreign identity, often for life. In a four-page document obtained by the Dutch intelligence services, a kind of aide-memoire, his cover story was detailed in great detail, right down to childhood crushes and favorite restaurants. Mr. Cherkasov is currently languishing in a Brazilian prison, sentenced to 15 years.

When the Soviet KGB was disbanded in 1991, it reemerged as the FSB, an internal security service and the SVR, a foreign intelligence agency. The GRU has endured in one form or another since 1918. These “special services” enjoy the fearsome reputation of their Tsarist and Soviet ancestors. But they come out of the war in Ukraine with that reputation and their networks in tatters. The explosion that damaged the Kerch Bridge on October 8 was just the latest security lapse; Ukrainian agents are also suspected of orchestrating a car bomb attack in Moscow in August that killed the daughter of a prominent Russian ultra-nationalist ideologue, according to the New York Times.

Intelligence failure is at the heart of warfare. The FSB, the main agency for the protection of Russian secrets and spying in Ukraine, has messed up both tasks spectacularly. He failed to prevent America from obtaining, then making public, Russian war plans against Ukraine – the most spectacular intelligence deployment since America exposed Soviet missiles over Cuba in 1962. Worse still, it was the FSB Russia’s own overt war preparations – including plans to kill dissidents and install a puppet government – ​​which helped convince US and UK officials that the Russian military build-up was no bluff.

Vladimir Putin’s decision to go to war also owes much to the FSB, it’s clumsy. The agency’s fifth service, responsible for ex-Soviet countries, significantly expanded its Ukraine team in July 2021, according to a report by the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London. Yet his officers spoke widely to Ukrainians who were sympathetic to Russia and exaggerated the extent of their agent networks in the country, giving the Kremlin the false impression that the Ukrainian government would quickly collapse.

Confirmation bias was only part of the problem. Intelligence agencies, like armies, reflect the societies from which they emerged. At best, Russian spies can be daring and resourceful. “We’ve always been surprised by how smart and how hard some of the things they do,” says John Sipher, who was the CIA in Moscow and later directed its operations in Russia. “They have really, really smart people.”

But this talent coexists with venality and dysfunction. Intelligence is embellished at every step as it moves up the chain, with bad news suppressed before it reaches the Kremlin. A Western official describes how, in a GRU unit, the officers would have skimmed 30% of the salaries of the agents they recruited. This figure rose to 50% as agents gradually had to spend more time filling out reports with information pulled from the internet.

The great strength of Russian intelligence is its scale. Yet only a fraction of its personnel do any useful espionage work. It was FSB who poisoned Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader, with Novichok, a nerve agent, in Siberia in 2020. Nothing sums up the twin philosophies of repression and larceny better than the fact that the FSBThe most coveted position is that of head of the Fourth Service, a division responsible for “economic security”. Its leaders are placed in key companies, which gives them ample opportunity to enrich themselves.

Infighting within agencies and with other departments is commonplace. “The FSB is like Game of Thrones,” says Maxim (pseudonym), a former FSB counterintelligence agent. “You have different clans inside with different political and financial interests.”

The SVR descendant of the first general direction, the KGB The flagship foreign intelligence branch – and Mr. Putin’s former division – considers itself more urban and sophisticated than its Russian sister services. “Our view was that the SVR was much more efficient and sophisticated than the GRU» recalls Mr. Sipher. But the war left him bruised. Western countries have expelled more than 400 suspected Russian intelligence operatives since the spring, mostly SVR officers, eliminating almost half of those operating under diplomatic cover in Europe. Those who remain are under scrutiny by local security services.

A recent report from SUP, the Finnish intelligence service, notes that Russian intelligence officers there have mostly been “cut off” from their networks. He warns that Russian spies are resorting to alternative means. One is cyber espionage. Another is the recruitment of foreigners in Russia. A third, who SUP does not mention, is to rely more on illegals like Mr. Cherkasov. But this has a cost. The pressure on the illegals pushes them to take more risks than usual, according to European intelligence officials.

In March, for example, Poland arrested Pablo González, a Spanish-Russian journalist also known as Pavel Rubtsov, on suspicion of working for the GRU. A Ukrainian source says he was trying to enter Ukraine to gain access to a cyber unit in one of the country’s intelligence agencies (Mr Rubtsov denies the charges). Mr. Cherkasov could have aimed for the ICC because he had opened an investigation into war crimes in Ukraine. Their exposure will be keenly felt. Illegals are extremely expensive to train and deploy. The SVR it is believed to have 50 to 100 illegals deployed, and the GRU only 10 to 20, according to sources close to these programs.

In many ways, Russian spies face the same professional challenges as their Western counterparts. It is becoming increasingly difficult to cross borders under multiple names, given the ubiquity of biometric checks, or to construct a digital backstory that stands up to scrutiny. Paying and communicating with agents is another challenge. But while Western spies have learned to blend in with the noise, Russian spies have been slow to adapt. Illegals still use the dated technique of appropriating the identity of a dead baby (familiar to readers of “The Day of the Jackal,” a novel published in 1971.) Carelessness abounds. Data leaked by a Russian food delivery service in March revealed the names of FSB and GRU officers having food delivered to their respective headquarters.

It wouldn’t matter so much if Russian intelligence weren’t subject to scrutiny. Since GRU After the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, a former officer, in Salisbury, an English city, in 2018, Western allies shared more and more intelligence about Russian ghosts. Although it was Dutch intelligence who exposed Mr Ferreira, the operation was a joint-venture that relied on America, Ireland and others.

There has been little accountability for all this mess. Western officials say they cannot confirm rumors that Sergei Beseda, the leader of the FSB‘s Fifth Service, was arrested in Russia in March. There is no proven job loss at the higher level. This reflects the privileged status of the siloviki—securocrats—in the Russian state. Mr Putin does not trust his spies – he is said to be bypassing Alexander Bortnikov, the FSBand talk to department heads, but it would be unwise to fight with them just as his regime is experiencing a wave of popular discontent over the drafting of hundreds of thousands of young Russian men to fight in Ukraine. On October 8, Mr. Putin even placed the FSB in charge of the security of the Kerch bridge.

The result will probably be more or less the same. “You have a deep tradition of professionalism in intelligence,” says the former head of a British intelligence service, “and as a gangrene on top of that, there’s this growing corruption.” Maxim, the former FSB officer, agrees. “In the 1990s and 2000s, there was a KGB touch it. We stayed under the radar,” he says. The breaking point for him was when new graduates from FSB academy were spotted driving a luxury Mercedes around Moscow. Ukraine is an opportunity to rebuild, he says. “They need to replace this world of money with something bigger. I don’t know how they’re going to do it.”

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