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Last Thursday, speaking at the Spy Museum in Washington DC, FBI Director Christopher Wray complained that Russia continues to infiltrate large number of spies into the United States, despite the FBI’s efforts to kick them out. He warned that the traditional counterintelligence threat from Moscow still looms large,” as Russia, under President Vladimir Putin views the U.S. as an adversary, although the Cold War is over.
As someone who spent my intelligence career monitoring threats coming from Russia, here’s why espionage remains the principal tool in Putin’s Playbook, targeting America, which presents a major challenge for the feds to disrupt.
Unlike the U.S. intelligence community, which drastically cut down its Russia resources after the collapse of the USSR – expecting the proverbial peace dividend – the Russians never decreased their intelligence posture against the U.S., which they characterize as the “main enemy”. As U.S. intelligence operatives moved on to chase ISIS and al Qaeda, in the aftermath of Sept 11th terrorist attacks, their Russian counterparts doubled down spying on America.
The Russians never abandoned the belief that America was its top strategic opponent on whom Moscow must keep a watchful eye. U.S. attempts to democratize former Soviet states, such as Ukraine and Georgia, and any altruistic-sounding overtures are viewed by Russia as realpolitik dressed up in liberal rhetoric — cleverly disguised attempts to alter balance of power.
Once talk of a NATO membership for Kyiv and Tbilisi emerged, Moscow became convinced that Washington seeks to further erode Russia’s strategic security buffer, which shrunk to as low as 100 miles, following the acceptance of the Baltic states into the North Atlantic Alliance.
Today, Putin, who invaded Ukraine to keep it out of NATO, is certain that the Washington and the Europeans seek regime change in Moscow and Russia’s collapse. Statements coming out of Washington — like the one by President Biden that Putin “cannot remain in power,” by Senator Lindsey Graham who urged the Russians to “take this guy out,” and by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin who admitted that the U.S. seeks to “weaken Russia’s military and economy” by providing weaponry to Ukraine – serve as confirmation of the Kremlin believed all along.
Over the last decade, Moscow beefed up its spying capabilities on U.S. soil even further. The decision was based on the prediction made by Russia’s intelligence apparatus that a direct kinetic conflict with the United States is “inevitable.” Underpinning the analysis, was the observation that the two nuclear superpowers have been battling over control of the post-Soviet space that Russia views as its backyard and off limits to Western influence, based on Putin’s version of the Monroe Doctrine.
The primary mission of these Russian operatives is “indications and warning” intelligence, i.e. preventing strategic surprise, such as a nuclear strike, an invasion, a crippling cyber-attack or another unexpected threat. The Russians obsessively monitor U.S. posture, to detect preparations for such an attack and now for the deployment of U.S. forces into the theater in Ukraine. Based on Russian intelligence forecasts, a local conflict on Russia’s borders such as the one in Ukraine, could escalate into a World War III scenario because of NATO’s intervention.
While U.S. intelligence prioritizes technical collection for this mission – such as obtaining photographic images through spy satellites, intercepting phone calls, hacking emails, collecting weapon systems signatures, and so on – the Russians, favor good old spies. Americans view technical intelligence as more accurate and trustworthy, because technology doesn’t lie. The Russians, on the other hand, are infatuated with HUMINT (human intelligence), which can provide human-informed context and a bigger picture about what is going on.
Technology provides tactical intelligence, snapshots of information at a point in time. We may see the deployed weapon system or deployed forces, but from the image alone we do not know why they were deployed, what the commander’s intent is, or what to expect next. Tactical intelligence doesn’t allow much decision time to react. The Russians put a lot of stock in strategic intelligence, collected by HUMINT spies, because it can answer the question “why?”
HUMINT can, overtime, help penetrate the adversary’s mindset, understand his decision-making calculus, even predict his moves. Such approach allows a much longer reaction time – once you detect your adversary’s intentions — including an ability to develop a strategy to disrupt his plans.
Because it never took the eyes off its key target, Moscow tends to be a few steps ahead of Washington, keeping the U.S. government in a reactive mode, whether it’s the invasion of Ukraine or Russia’s targeting our elections.
Russia is willing to put massive resources into its HUMINT capability and patiently wait for results. It takes years to train an intelligence agent, or razvedchik in Russian. He or she has to learn to speak the language of the target country, understand its culture, and act in a way that lets them blend in the local environment. The U.S. has no patience for this type of approach, wanting fast results. This means we don’t let our intelligence agents to develop a true specialization in the target, learn the target country’s language and get inside its leadership’s mindset. In the CIA and DIA, today you can be deployed to chase terrorists in Iraq or Afghanistan, tomorrow you will be a China “expert” and the day after, a Russia “specialist.”
Top U.S. intelligence agencies – CIA, DIA, NSA, and FBI – made severe cuts to their Russia capabilities, decimating their expertise in this top target. It is one of the likely reasons why the FBI is having a hard time nabbing the Russian spies. You have to understand your target’s tradecraft and it takes time.
Another reason Russia’s employment of a unique intelligence tradecraft called “illegals” (nelegaly). These are deep cover sleeper agents, who pose as Americans. They get fake identities, stolen from Americans who died as babies, and are given a cover, or legend (legenda), with a fake life story that they memorize by heart. These fake Americans obtain jobs, go to universities, build relationships with people who could be valuable to Russian intelligence, and sometimes even raise children who have no idea that their parents are not who they think they are. They take orders from Moscow, using clandestine communications devices and covert agents.
The most recent case of Russian “illegal” intel officers living in the United States became public in 2010. In a multi-prong counter-intelligence operation titled Ghost Stories, the FBI arrested a spy ring of ten illegals who operated in several U.S. cities, including Washington, New York, and Boston. It took the FBI ten years to identify and surveil the suspects, gain evidence of a crime, and build adequate legal cases to arrest the Russians— a formidable task. This suggests that the illegals infiltrated American society well. These agents were infiltrated into the U.S. on Putin’s orders shortly after he became president in 2000.
FBI Director Wray acknowledged the challenge of disrupting Russian spy rings, noting that Russia employs not only “traditional intelligence officers” but also “cut-outs.” He cited a Mexican national arrested by U.S. authorities in 2020 and accused of assisting Russian spy agencies.
Last year, Dutch intelligence was able to root out a Russian military intelligence operative who posed as a student, studying at a prestigious Washington D.C. university favored by U.S. diplomats, military, and intelligence personnel.
If the FBI wants to have any chance of hunting down Putin’s spies in America, it must beef up its own counterspy capability within Russia and disrupt their operations before these assets step on U.S. soil. That takes a thorough understanding of how the Russian spy agencies do business and a very proactive approach.