The Moscow Follies

In a recent article, by Paul Goble, the former head of the KGB analysis division, Nikolai Sergeyevich Leonov (aka N.L. Staunton) who purportedly held the rank of Lt. General, is said to have lamented the breakdown of coordination within his old organization between analysis and operations. He went on to say that this is one of the reasons for loss of Russian influence throughout areas of previous domination such as Crimea, the Ukraine and even the Russian Far East. While there may be no reason to quibble over his view of the diminished international influence of Russia relative to earlier times, their more recent operations in the United States have been of high quality. The results may not have been what Leonov would declare “conspicuous”, but then he appears to be looking backward to the Soviet days of Kim Philby, Alger Hiss and others of that earlier era when it comes to activities against the West.

The fact is that the United States is a “target rich” environment in which to pursue many phases of political and economic activity. Retired and even active politicians are easily available for unwitting (and unfortunately sometimes even witting) information-gathering as well as positive influence on key and useful issues. Ultimately that is just the, relatively, easily accessible manner in which the American system works. Domestic and foreign interests for many decades have gained support for their chosen projects. Any of these mechanisms provide excellent cover for political action and information gathering. Of course, no one in Washington wants to admit this.

While the Russian secret services suffered a severe blow back in 1985 with the exposure of Oleg Gordievsky (former KGB Chief of Station in London and an eleven year British SIS {MI-6} asset) along with the earlier uncovering of the defection of key GRU officer, Col. Oleg Penkovsky, the complete reorganization of the Russian secret service has occurred since then. The most conspicuous aspect of the reformation has been the rise of the previously named GRU (now simply GU). This formerly military-focused organization now has a far broader mandate. This includes matters ranging from international political penetration through the now well-known St. Petersburg cyber operation to space-related technology. This latter charter traces its derivation all the way back to WWII when signals intercept (Sigint) was a major element of GRU responsibility.

The real problem with which Russian intelligence of any nomenclature is faced is effectively an embarrassment of riches. The departure of the previous Washington Administration (Obama administration) and the concomitant unrelenting distaste of its replacement by the ousted party has provided an all too fertile ground for all forms of information and covert political action. Moscow is not the only U.S. adversary who has taken advantage of this circumstance. Actually, the Russian intelligence organizations are overwhelmed with current and potential assets. In turn, hopefully, such a plethora of possible cooperating candidates make for openings for counter-intelligence activities and exploitation. The result is that the Russians have gone to rely more on overt sources that are trackable than to one suspected and possibly penetrated by CI operations. The latter would be expected to pass misleading information and even gather useful information on its own account.

It is in the case of avoiding counter-intel ops that the use of witting and unwitting intermediaries has become most useful. While journalists of all political hues are always on guard against being “played” by their own sources, the Russians have such a large number of unwitting “cooperators” that they can afford to cross-check information as it is acquired. The key word here is “unwitting.” One of the basic realities of asset recruitment is to not shy away from possible higher-level targets. These well-placed individuals often think of themselves as too astute to be manipulated by a foreign agent. This is exactly the type of excessive self-confidence that makes them vulnerable to talented Russian-connected contact.

This latter situation is what makes experienced civilian business and politically-related individuals vulnerable targets in themselves. It’s a well-recognized failing of top-level people that they think they are too experienced to be out-smarted. Any “con man” loves to deal with a “mark” who thinks he is too smart to be duped. Any veteran “bunko” squad police office knows that. It’s a wonder that the vaunted Washington “insider” is as unaware as he/she is of the reality of a well-created “con.”

One of the principal obstacles faced by Russian intelligence professionals (or anyone in a similar circumstance) is to become over confident and thus risk working a target too hard or fast. This has happened in the U.S. political and diplomatic sphere when foreign agents – and even some leaders – mistake American characteristics of openness for vulnerability. It’s been part of American mythology for years that “country rubes” would be fair game for more urbane types. The truth is that the more sophisticated the U.S. targeted personalities think they are (including journalists) the easier the trained intel personality finds the penetration. Of course, this also tends to work in reverse – a fact that has resulted in the chagrin of both Russian and Chinese operatives. It’s all part of the old magician’s trick of “watch the hand, watch the hand.”

There was a time in the nineteenth century when the manipulation of key individuals was referred to as “The Great Game.” It was as deadly then as it is now. The difference lies only in the broader dangers involved.  Moscow is very well acquainted with the ploys and gambits of this clandestine maneuvering. However, the questions exist:

  • 1) Are the Americans equally cognizant?
  • 2) Has Moscow become a bit over confident of their own sophistication and experience?

It would appear that both factors are at play! That’s why there are serious shortfalls on both sides of the game. Equally important is for officers and agents of all major combatants to realize they are not unique in this ancient and worldwide game.