Russian intelligence isn't all it's cracked up to be

18 March 2022

5:30 PM

18 March 2022

5:30 PM

Western countries have always had a rather high opinion of Soviet intelligence. British secret services – MI5, MI6 and Special Branch – tended to greatly exaggerate Russia’s successes during the Cold War and even after the collapse of the USSR. But the reality when it comes to Russian secret services is rather different. As the famous Russian satirist Vladimir Voinovich, the author of the dystopian ‘Moscow 2042’, put it:

‘I am not afraid of the KGB. Either their car will break when they decide to come and arrest me, or they run out of petrol on the way to my home, or they simply forget my address.’

Have things improved in the years since the end of the Cold War? Russia’s bungled invasion of Ukraine suggests not. The debacle is being blamed on intelligence failings, not least by president Putin himself. Once again, it appears to show Russian spies aren’t all they are cracked up to be. Two FSB generals responsible for covert operations in Ukraine are said to have been suspended and are under house arrest. They are also accused of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars allocated for buying Putin obedient servants in Kiev and elsewhere. No doubt, more arrests and charges will soon follow.

This finger pointing is, of course, convenient for Putin right now. After all, the invasion of Ukraine was carried out at his discretion. But this doesn’t mean that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t still a catastrophic intelligence failure. Corruption, bribery, theft and grovelling before superiors have always been part of Russian civil society. Russia’s army and secret services are no exception and it is clear that something has gone badly wrong with the information Russia’s security services provided about the situation on the ground in Ukraine and the level of resistance Russian troops were likely to face.

Yet still, despite this new blunder, the myth about Russian intelligence endures. Cambridge, Oxford and Portland spy rings, Kim Philby and Soviet ‘illegals’ – spies and agents operating under false identities and pretending to be regular ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ – continue to capture the imagination of the Western public, no less than the legendary James Bond himself.

In the United States, their image was strengthened by traitors like Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen and, more recently, Edward Snowden. The flame-haired Russian spy Anna Chapman, who was exposed in the United States in 2010, also generated widespread interest from the world’s media – as did the imprisonment of Andreas and Heidrun Anschlag in Germany after the pair were found guilty of spying for Russia for over 20 years.

Meanwhile, closer to home, the Salisbury poisonings – and the assassination of Alexander Litvinkenko by radioactive Polonium-210 – have been painted as proof of the long arm of the Russian state. But those who think these examples are evidence of Russia’s genius couldn’t be more wrong; journalists, intelligence historians and writers do not always seem to realise that these are not successes but rather unforgivable intelligence failures, and the agents who have been caught are not heroes but losers.

Even those who control Russia’s intelligence agencies continue to fall for the myth. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, both the SVR, successor of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate (foreign intelligence) and GU, successor of the GRU (military intelligence), have continued to celebrate the achievements of Stalin’s intelligence services, of which they see themselves as direct descendants. They forget that three of Stalin’s intelligence chiefs, Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Yezhov and Lavrentiy Beria, were removed from office and executed. Under Putin, two GRU directors, Generals Sergun and Korobov, suddenly and unexpectedly died, one after another. The fate of the two spooks who have fallen foul of Putin in recent weeks looks bleak.

But they cannot claim not to have been warned. During the televised recent session of the Security Council just days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, members attending the show were bluntly reminded who is the master of the house. Putin’s spy chief Sergey Naryshkin was publicly humiliated for his momentary confusion about what should be first: an attack on Ukraine or a final attempt to negotiate a peaceful solution of the crisis with the powers that be.

All other members of this puppet show knew better than to speak out in front of a man who does not like to hear bad news. But now all Russians – and indeed Ukrainians – are paying the price for this refusal to offer a realistic presentation of what war in Ukraine would look like.

Among Kremlin insiders, Putin is well known as a man with a taste for dressing down subordinates and dashing off scathing critiques of his underlings. He is also famous for silencing his critics. Of those who are best known – Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, Boris Berezovsky and Boris Nemtsov – all are dead, and Alexei Navalny, his political nemesis number one, is facing life in prison.

Putin is a man who brooks no dissent, and the result is that he is surrounded by complaisant lackeys like Viktor Zolotov and Sergei Shoigu. Zolotov – who admitted in recent days that the Ukraine war is not going as swimmingly as Putin might have hoped – is a former bodyguard of the Russian president, who is now director of Rosgvardiya, the National Guard of Russia. As for Shoigu, he had been serving with the Russian Rescuer Corps before Putin appointed him minister of defence. Both men know on which side their bread is buttered..

And this is the problem in Putin’s Russia: throughout Russia’s history when authoritarians are in charge, the intelligence services are compromised by the fact that they cannot speak truth to power. Once again, we are seeing the effects of this playing out in Ukraine.

It is true that there is one area in which Russian intelligence agencies are a step ahead of their western counterparts: clandestine operations aimed at spreading misinformation. When Putin came to power, he created his own foreign intelligence organisation. Today it is known as the Fifth Service and its deputy leader Anatoly Bolyukh is also in charge of ‘fake news’ for use in Russia and abroad. On this, Western agencies have much to learn. But in the great spy game, this appears to be Russia’s only advantage.

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