Can we trust our spies' claims about Russia?

8 February 2022

12:22 AM

8 February 2022

12:22 AM

In the Spring of 1988, the body of Britain’s most notorious Cold War spy was lowered into the ground at Kuntsevo cemetery on the outskirts of Moscow. Kim Philby’s defection to the Soviet Union, a quarter of a century earlier, had rocked the world of espionage. Western spooks were left scrambling to work out just how much sensitive information he might have handed over. For a brief moment, a spotlight fell on the secret circles of informants, shady deals and double-agents.

Now, spies are once again coming out from the shadows and grabbing headlines. Over the past few months, officials in the UK and US have made a series of bombshell disclosures, citing classified intelligence and warning that Russia could be on the brink of ordering an invasion of neighbouring Ukraine. With satellite imagery handed out to the media purporting to show more than 100,000 soldiers massing on the border, London and Washington have begun laying on cargo planes carrying weaponry to Kiev, and preparing sanctions in case the Kremlin launches an offensive.

For its part, Moscow has denied it is planning to start a war, accusing the West of ‘hysteria’ and insisting on its right to station troops and tanks wherever it pleases on its own territory. The standoff has opened up a feverish race to analyse and predict what the Kremlin’s next move will be, with espionage once again playing a major role in efforts to convince policymakers and the public that the threat is real.

Last month, the British government announced that it had identified a Russian plot to install a collaborationist regime following the annexation of the former Soviet Republic in a rare reference to secret intelligence-gathering.

‘The information being released today shines a light on the extent of Russian activity designed to subvert Ukraine, and is an insight into Kremlin thinking,’ Foreign Secretary Liz Truss announced. However, critics at home and abroad were quick to point out that no information beyond the allegation itself was made available, and the public were essentially being told to take the claims on trust alone. Worse still, Yevhen Murayev, the former Ukrainian MP named as Moscow’s choice for a leader in a future puppet government, has since pointed out that he has long been personally sanctioned by Russia. He feared that the intelligence could discredit him in an increasingly tense domestic environment.

The refusal to back up bombshell claims about what Russia might be up to has also led to frustration in the US, with a clip of AP’s diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee grilling State Department spokesman Ned Price at a briefing last week going viral. Price had taken to the podium to assert that Washington had evidence Moscow was preparing a ‘false-flag’ propaganda film showing a manufactured atrocity as a pretext to launching an invasion of Ukraine.

‘What is the evidence?’ Lee demanded. ‘Crisis actors, really? This is like Alex Jones territory,’ he said, referencing the notorious American conspiracy theorist.

‘This is derived from information known to the US government – intelligence information that we have declassified,’ Price replied. When pressed on where the information was, the official meekly argued that he had ‘just delivered it.’

‘No, you made a series of allegations… that’s not evidence Ned, that’s just you saying it. I’m sorry,’ Lee hit back, comparing the episode to past espionage failings such as ‘WMDs in Iraq’ and that ‘Kabul won’t fall’ to the Taliban. No Russian video has been published, despite the State Department strongly implying it was in their possession.

At the same time, an exclusive report from Reuters published just days ago stated that Russian troops had begun shipping blood transfusion supplies to the frontier. The implication was that fierce fighting could kick off at any moment. The source was three anonymous intelligence officials.

However, in another unprecedented move, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Hanna Malyar blasted that the intel was simply ‘not true’. According to her, ‘such ‘news’ is an element of information and psychological war. The purpose of such information is to spread panic and fear in our society.

Reuters, of course, was right to report the allegations and did their due diligence by running them past Kiev’s officials, but the row again reveals how espionage is being discredited. Moscow’s own special services are also not without blame here, and the country has made a series of similar claims in recent months, without evidence, including stating that American mercenaries could be attempting to stage a chemical weapons provocation in the Donbas.

One reason for the secrecy is that rules of spying have hardly changed from Philby’s days as an intelligence officer during WWII. If you have a source in an opposing camp or have broken a cipher, the last thing you want to do is expose that fact needlessly. So stringently was this followed that the UK reportedly even held back on sharing intelligence that Adolf Hitler was plotting an invasion of the Soviet Union, information which Philby is ultimately said to have passed on to the KGB.

The same principle still rings true, and the coyness around what the West has access to and how it got it is understandable. However, the refusal to share details remains hard to justify. After all, it is hard to see how publishing a supposed false-flag propaganda video could compromise sources any more than Washington admitting it already has it. Likewise, Truss was prepared to suggest that the British government has proof Russia is planning on setting up a puppet regime in Ukraine, but seemingly nothing was then done about it: no links to Russian intelligence were given, no correspondence published and no sanctions imposed for the apparently serious act of aggression. This puts journalists in a difficult position where they are being told to rely on information that is not only unverified, but unverifiable.

‘If you doubt the credibility of the US Government, of the British Government, of other governments, and want to find solace in information that the Russians are putting out,’ Price told Lee, ‘then that is a matter for you’. The ramifications are clear: take our word for it, or support the Kremlin in an information war.

There is also another reason that the disclosure of classified material as part of the public debate around Russia should raise eyebrows. Philby and his fellow members of the Cambridge Five spy ring may have been recruited at university as committed and ideological socialists ready to lay their lives on the line to pass secrets across the Iron Curtain, but since the fall of Communism it has become clear Moscow never really trusted them. The files that he and infamous collaborators like Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean passed on were often set aside, treated with caution or entirely disregarded because KGB officials feared they could be part of an MI6 ploy to plant disinformation or entrap its agents. Even Philby’s dispatches about the impending Nazi attack were disregarded as a provocation, in a move that likely cost the lives of many Red Army soldiers.

Given the West has regularly accused Russia of engaging in sophisticated disinformation campaigns, the idea that its plans for Ukraine have miraculously found their way to Langley and Vauxhall might be too good to be true must have crossed the minds of case officers. And yet, those caveats and that disclaimer is neatly chiseled off by politicians eager to make sweeping accusations and strengthen their case for action.

After his dramatic flight to the USSR to avoid treason charges, Philby struggled to settle in to his new life. The Marxist utopia he must have pictured based on propaganda from the outside would have seemed very drab and gray, with repression and poverty dominating Stalin’s personal fiefdom. He was devastated to find out that he was not, as he felt he had been promised by his handlers, a Colonel in the KGB with a corner office in the feared Lubyanka building. Instead, he was put out to pasture, struggling with alcoholism and idleness, left only to wonder whether he had made the right decision. His is a cautionary tale of how promises and predictions can be twisted by spies fighting a larger information war, and proof even their own can get caught up in it.

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