The Russians, The Chinese – A Deep Dive
It must be a very difficult job to be a Russian or Chinese intelligence officer these days. It’s not the strength of the opposition – though of course that’s always a consideration. The main reason is the lack of clear purpose. The world – the secret world that they deal in – is much more complicated these days. Sometimes the old enemy for these well-practiced operators is viewed differently by the officers’ own political superiors. Frankly, it must be very hard to keep up with the changing perceptions of the leader-class who themselves seem to be playing “outside the lines” of historical perceptions. Of course, there is a difference between the two countries, so we will discuss them separately. First, the Russians –
While the Western press and novelists (often indistinguishable) remain preoccupied with the Russian of previous decades, much has changed both in form and spirit in the Russian security apparat. To begin with, the international charter of what once was the KGB, now SVR-RF appears to have been shifted in the main to the previously military-targeted and structured GRU that is now more accurately referred to as GU. The complex world of cyber ops is now under the GU charter. This became clear publicly with the “discovery” of attempted Russian cyber activity during and before the 2016 US presidential election.
Interestingly, the recent arrest of Maria Butina appears to have exposed a long-term project, run by GU, involving an attempted deep-cover penetration of the American political environment through connection with U.S. gun rights organization, the National Rifle Association (NRA). The complicated and well backstopped Russian project was surprisingly a GU activity from its beginning. In the many years previous, such a project would have been strictly a KGB First Department (First Chief Directorate) operation. Clearly the role of the GU has been immensely broadened. It would be interesting to know how this came about and is now in practice. Perhaps Ms. Butina will tell us and that may explain the arrest of the mysterious Paul Whalen in Russia as a possible “tit-for-tat.”
As usual, the indigenous political rivalries in the Russian Federation certainly have played a part. The GU cyber operation, run out of St. Petersburg, is clearly a baby of Vladimir Putin as a major developmental role was played by his personal friend, the powerful and well-connected Russian entrepreneur, Yevgeny Prigozhin. In the same way, Russian GU-run mercenary “special operators” in Syria gain much of their material support through the Wagner Group supply structure, another Prigozhin-related entity. At the same time, however, there has been a reported competitive growth of political influence among those who seek to compete for power with the established Putin-dominated structure. In this regard, Putin himself has appeared to have increased his own strategic – and perhaps tactical – control over the Russian foreign intelligence apparat, thus providing a possible explanation for the shift in operational emphasis through the GU.
The foregoing may seem illogical in view of Putin’s KGB background, but the Russian intelligence services have been undergoing a serious metamorphosis in the last three decades. This circumstance may have been simply a reflection of changing world conditions including American intervention in the Middle East. At the same time, Chinese military, political and intelligence operations have substantially increased in Africa and contiguous regions. Insecurity in the Russian political environment has driven Putin and his intelligence cadre to batten down the hatches and aggressively seek to regain the type of control they traditionally had. Aggression against Ukraine also may have been spurred by this newly evolved insecurity.
Meanwhile in Beijing, the awareness of the perceived vulnerability of Putin’s Moscow Center has been an encouragement to the development of the long-term outreach of China’s external intelligence structure worldwide. Particular attention has been payed, not only to the United States, but also elsewhere wherever the PRC has an interest – political, economic or military. In the latter case, their desire to increase their presence in the Indian Ocean has spurred their intel involvement in East Africa and North to Djibouti where they now have a military base. This outreach is now to be seen worldwide. From an intelligence-gathering standpoint, one could say there are few places these days that do not have some sort of PRC presence.
However, it is the United States to which Beijing’s interest is primarily turned. Much already has been written about China’s preoccupation with sending their “best and brightest” to study in the US. It also has been well commented on that the academic route – undergraduate to postgraduate – is a convenient method to introduce Chinese deep-cover personnel into the American scientific and technical scene, both civilian and military. What is overlooked is that this influx also offers as an excellent opportunity for American intelligence services to develop assets for their use, not only while in the United States, but also upon their return to China. All in all, however, it is generally agreed in Washington circles that the PRC services gain far more than their U.S. counterparts.
The real problem for the government of Xi Jinping is not in the gathering of intelligence. They have more information and analysis than can be used effectively. The fact is that PRC political intel tends to be primarily a reflection of what is gathered through journalistic sources – private and published. For classified intelligence-gathering they must rely on intermediaries of other nations. While this method is useful in creating cutouts for American recruitment, from an agent-handling standpoint, it diminishes operational control and thus direction.
Another important problem facing PRC intelligence operations is the strong divisions existing in the Chinese organizational structure. It may appear that Chinese Communist leadership is highly disciplined, and to a certain extent this is true. The reality of governance in what is now a dual economic system of state and private enterprise has injected an operational tension that borders close to conflict on certain issues. The much heralded relationship between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump has in itself caused serious division within Beijing’s cadre.
These divisions of varying security import reach well into the PRC intelligence structure. While at first glance this may appear to some in the West to be a fortunate circumstance, the divisions tend to harden Chinese political/military positions that reach deeply into their foreign intelligence structure on several levels. In other words, operating against Xi’s intel structure becomes ever more complicated and difficult while having to fend off counter actions and at the same time seeking to encourage asset development.
If this all appears rather arcane – it is. To put it simply, the boys and girls in Beijing have nearly as much trouble corralling their eager and talented intel officers and agents as the U.S. has in tracking and subverting them. There must be a German intelligence term for this, but it doesn’t really matter. The fact is the Chinese are now and always have been very hard to operate against since the creation of the PRC. A great deal of that problem has nothing to do with the obvious. In the end they have a great deal of difficulty in dealing with themselves!