In the last couple of years Russia has been making headlines with its incursions into various conflicts such as in Syria and Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea. It also appears to have been steadily upping its game when it comers to intelligence gathering and cyber warfare. There is of course the most recent example of charges of interference in the US election but also in European elections. But Russia has also been devoting more to human intelligence (HUMINT) too (spies for those not familiar with the terminology). There was for instance the Illegals Program where Russian agents living as Americans were arrested in the US in 2010. This event even inspired the creation of a television show. There was also the case of Jeffry Delisle who was the former Sub-Lieutenant in the Canadian Navy who had been selling secrets to Russia from 2007 until his arrest in 2012. What to make of all this?
Historically Russian intelligence has been focused inward, that is, concerned with protecting the government from subversives and enemy agents that could topple the government. This inward focus reaches back to the 19th century. In the latter half of the 19th century, modern day political terrorism really could be argued to have originated in Russia as the Czar battled with revolutionary youth who were inspired by the Nihilist movement. This counter-cultural movement sought a new reformed Russia and was met with fierce repression by the monarch, which created the Okrana secret police to route out revolutionaries leading to many innocent youth being detained and sent to Siberian work camps. Following the assassination of Alexander II, an attempt on the life of Alexander III led to the execution of more revolutionaries including Aleksandr Ulyanov, the brother of Vladimir Lenin. His death provided more personal fuel to Lenin’s revolutionary desires. Lenin was famously quoted as telling other radical youth after his brother’s death that there was “another way” to change Russia besides assassination (revolution). Even with Lenin’s victory over the monarchy in the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks quickly realized that counter-revolution and insurgencies were not something limited to the former monarchy. Lenin charged the “Iron Felix” Felix Dzerzhinsky to create the Cheka. It was a brutal domestic political police that viciously sought to eradicate counter revolutionary forces (waged by both internal Russian opposition and external western forces) and most famously captured and executed famed British spy Sidney Reilly after Russia fought a bitter civil war with former monarchy or “White Russian” forces.
But this desire to guard against and protect the state from counter revolutionaries led by outside forces or internal ones never dissipated after the end of Russia’s civil war. Joseph Stalin’s consolidation of power was largely achieved by his ability to gain control of the state’s intelligence services and political police. His NKVD force engaged in some of the most vicious and paranoid purges the world has ever known with millions perishing in what Russia has called (during the most intense period) Yezhovshchina which the West often refers to as the Great Terror, or Yezhov’s purges. Yezhov headed up Stalin’s political police and arranged the death of millions including the purges of the country’s military command. The purges of the 1930s were so bad that the Nazis had contemplated a covert operation where they would play to Stalin’s paranoia in an attempt to have him purge the country’s military leaders. They were shocked to learn Stalin and Yezhov had beaten them to it! Of course the paranoia didn’t stop with Yezhov who also ended up being executed.
Throughout the 20th century Russia grew its intelligence service to become one of the largest (at one point the largest) the world had ever seen. Even with the rise of the KGB after WW2 Russia was still inwardly focused even as it engaged in covert operations around the world. It often set its sights on emigre opposition groups (such as Ukrainian ones) that opposed the Soviet government.
I would argue that what we see now with Russia is different. These recent moves in the past ten years are much more offensive minded and are in-line with the increased military incursions and testing we’ve seen. I find it implausible for the country’s leadership to claim it is defensive minded when it is testing new long range missiles in violation of its treaty obligations, annexing portions of countries, and trying to fuel an insurgency to take control of other areas to say nothing of quite boldly trying to interfere in the election of a world superpower. It’s unlikely Russia didn’t think anyone would notice. Quite the contrary. The election interference seems like more of an attempt to send a message that Russia could do it and wants recognition and international respect. Putin seems to want to play to the nationalist forces in the country (which seem to be winning) and engaging in the intelligence war appears to be another way to do it, in addition to the military element. Russia seems to want to be a respected world superpower again, perhaps even hearkening back to the days of the Russian empire, but to be that it seems to also believe it has to engage with and possibly challenge others. In terms of intelligence, the implications for the West are to not just assume Russia is interested in cyber warfare. That would be a mistake. The use of agents is clearly also on the rise. I wouldn’t be surprised if Russia went to what worked before and tried to penetrate the intelligence services of the west the old fashioned way – by getting their agents hired. They had success with the Cambridge Five, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was tried again. The point really is that the west needs to not just focus on data collection and cyber warfare. It needs to do a better job of reacquainting itself again with the second oldest profession.