By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
It is clear that Russia has developed a deep understanding of how Americans think, what motivates them, their interests, and how open and democratic societies work. This enables Russia to pursue its exceptionally well-defined targeting strategy against the United States. Hence Russian intelligence and security services are extraordinarily well prepared to counter U.S. interests and advance Russia’s.
In an earlier article, we suggested that opposing concepts of trust explain why trying to normalize relations with Russia has failed. Episodic and superficial easing of tensions has occurred. They can cooperate with Russia when mutual interests coincide.
This said, Russia has one of the world’s most preeminent intelligence services. Putin’s top three intel agencies are the Foreign Intelligence Service (Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki, or SVR), the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, or military intelligence (Glavnoye Razvedovatel’noye Upravleniye, or GRU), and the Federal Security Service, or domestic spying (Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, or FSB). These agencies are only rough counterparts to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). They've combined the Soviet predecessor, Committee on State Security (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, or KGB), Putin’s alma mater, traced its origins to the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission, or Cheka (based on the Russian acronym ChK), which Vladimir Lenin established shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
Cheka’s initial mission was primarily domestic, to ensure the “dictatorship of the proletariat” of the young Soviet State by rooting out the “enemies of the people.” For allied forces, a Germany freed from its eastern front now became an extreme danger for the western front. Thus allied spies were asked to find those Russian groups that were willing to open a new eastern front of which there were a number who were upset and in total disagreement with the Boljewists signing the treaties of Brest-Litovsk which also included the so-called left-wing social revolutionaries who now went as far s to murder the German ambassador to the dismay of the Boljewists and join the Boljewist opposition. When in disagreement with the Bolsheviks this by default was perceived as a counter-revolution.
Violence and executions were Cheka’s main instruments, advocated political as justifiable and necessary by the chief of Cheka, Polish-born revolutionary Felix Dzerzhinsky, Lenin, and his successor Joseph Stalin. Cheka operatives called themselves Chekists (Chekisty), the term that came to refer to Soviet intelligence services in general, including the KGB, invoking the terrifying images of the Red Terror. The Chekists carried out the repressions by arresting people suspected of political subversion and sending them to labor camps or executing them without trial. They usually took their victims in the middle of the night without explanation. The families never heard from their loved ones again.
Nowadays, the Russian security and intelligence services, including their former members, who predominantly occupy key positions in Putin’s government as well as in strategic industries like oil and gas, are referred to as siloviki (“men of force and power”). Siloviki have largely inherited Chekists’ operational methods but have refined the “special tradecraft” of eliminating the opposition. Instead of executions by a shot in the back of the head, they use a less messy method: poisonings.
From Stalin to Putin
According to the following four books, Stalin’s legacy continued in growing science and substructure of labs dedicated to developing untraceable poisons and new bioweapons. Stalin’s labs live today in Putin’s Russia, which dispatched operatives to poison Ukrainian leader Viktor Yushchenko, ex-Russian agents in the UK, and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. His labs and their technology are shared with other Communist states. Laboratories of the SVR (headquartered in Yasenevo near Moscow) were responsible for creating biological and toxin weapons for clandestine operations in the West.
According to Insider, some of the other Putin critics who've died are Alexander Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaya, Natalia Estemirova, Stanislav Markelov, and Anastasia Baburova, Boris Nemtsov, Boris Berezovsky, Paul Klebnikov, Sergei Yushenkov, Sergei and Yulia Skripal, Mikhail Lesi.
In 1925-30, Stalin created an all-star team of assassins in Paris. They were the most influential and capable group of assassins; they were commonly called “Yasha’s Group,” after their legendary founder Yakov Serebryansky, Yasha. The Yasha Ring centered in Paris had used a variety of poisons from the so-called Laboratory One.
Initially, the poison and bioweapon section may have been authorized by Lenin and Stalin as early as 1921. The lab, which changed names many times, was initially called the Special Cabinet but eventually switched to Laboratory One.1
The ongoing questions surrounding Lenin’s death show why poisoning was such an effective way to kill. In his 1994 book, Special Tasks, Pavel Sudoplatov, a Russian KGB agent, discusses his participation in four “staged” natural deaths using poisons and infections from Laboratory One in the 1930s and 1940s.2
A Soviet KGB defector, Walter Krivitsky, remarked that “any idiot can commit a murder, but it takes a true artist to stage a natural death.” 3 Krivitsky, who predicted his murder by the KGB, was found dead shortly after that with a bullet in his temple and a suicide note, no doubt dictated by the KGB.4
A secret study in 1963 by the CIA for the Warren Commission, only declassified and released in 1993, concluded that there were many natural deaths staged by the KGB in Western Europe, particularly of targeted Russian émigrés.5
Had the West been paying attention, details of the poison lab were revealed in the 1938 “Trial of the Twenty-One,” where three doctors involved in the poison lab were accused of conspiring to poison high-level Communists. Some had poisoned Soviet leaders at Stalin’s direction but presented these crimes in the trial as rogue operations under pressure.6
In the late 1930s, as he would again in the early 1950s, Stalin determined to bury his crimes by sealing the lips of his accomplices. He liquidated the entire top echelon of the security organs and Lab One in 1938 virtually, moving in new executioners and scientists to run the lab. Only at the 1938 show trials of top KGB officials did the first information of any kind on the ultra-secret poison lab become known.7 KGB officials were accused of using poisons, a certainly true charge, but they were not allowed to testify that it was at Stalin’s direction.8
Putin's reference to the Yasha Ring
When Vladimir Putin gave an address to mark the founding of the illegal intelligence service in 1922, he read out a roll-call of legendary Soviet and Russian agents. The first name on Putin’s list was the Yakov mentioned above, Serebryansky founder of the Yasha Ring.
Once-popular Putin ruled through terror and the promise of conquering weaker nations.9 With Putin’s election in 2000, contra to Yeltsin's initial hope when he called Clinton to inform him about Putin and added I am also sure that he is a democrat, the young Russian democracy began slowly to die.10
The Soviet Cheka, in turn, operated on the same principles as the czarist Okhrana (The Guard), or secret police, who used provocations and penetrations of various groups to uncover multiple plots to overthrow or assassinate the czar. Professional revolutionaries, therefore, conducted their activities “underground,” using false identities or pseudonyms. For example, Lenin’s real name was Vladimir Ilyich Ul’yanov, and Stalin’s was Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili. A combination of secrecy and deception captured by the Russian term konspiratsiya were essential components of the operational security that the Chekists practiced. Soviet and later Russian intelligence services demanded strict adherence to the rules of konspiratsiya from its operatives prioritized the security of its secrets and operations, making it very difficult to identify and break into. A 2006 intelligence tradecraft manual describes one of the missions of konspiratsiya as creating “a false impression with the adversary about an operation conducted by an opposing intelligence service.” This is achieved by “influencing the adversary’s mindset and psychology through dezinformatsiya.” This can be possible only by thoroughly studying the adversary and the doctrine of its intelligence and counterintelligence services in advance. In other words, one must “feel the adversary.”
A startling example of Moscow’s spy-craft trickery and Washington’s gullibility was the construction of a new U.S. Embassy in Moscow in the 1980s. The Soviets had finally agreed to let the Americans move from the run-down pre-Bolshevik embassy, which they had constantly bombarded with electronic attacks, to a new building. The Soviet government convinced Americans to let them “help” build the new building, using Soviet construction workers and Soviet-made construction materials. Despite being warned by a Soviet defector soon after the construction began that the new embassy building would be riddled with listening devices, U.S. government experts arrogantly thought that there was nothing that the Soviets would implant in the building that American technicians could not disable. 9 years and millions of dollars later, it became clear that they were disastrously wrong.
After the Soviet bugging of the new U.S. Embassy became public in 1986, followed by a series of congressional investigations, President Reagan 1988 ordered the building torn down.
It turned out to be impossible to “debug” the embassy because the Soviets embedded the sensors in the very structure of the building. Columns, beams, and rods made from “specially” pre-cast concrete formed a giant antenna. Stunned by the sophistication of the construction, which housed a power source that purportedly could last a hundred years, the American technicians didn’t wholly understand either the technology or the design used for the interception of U.S. Embassy communications.
According to the same defector, this surveillance system included numerous features. In addition to the technology embedded in the structure of the building, underground tunnels ran to the foundation walls, and microphones were installed within the furniture and office equipment, which would allow the Russians to have both audio and video of everything that was going on inside the American Embassy. The Russians, who are culturally predisposed to expect things to go wrong, are known to place a premium on redundancy. If one part of the system goes down or doesn’t provide the visibility of U.S. secrets that Moscow wants, another part fills in the gaps. They use the same approach when building their communication systems, which they expect the Americans to work hard at attempting to breach.
The U.S. government ended up removing the top four floors that contained the SCIFs (sensitive compartmented information rooms), where the most sensitive areas of the embassy would be located, and replacing them with the new four floors built out of American construction materials by hiring private contractors and using American Navy personnel. 13 In 1987, a Senate committee described the Soviet spy-craft as “the most massive, sophisticated, and skillfully executed bugging operation in history.”
This was not the first time the U.S. government was fooled by microphones provided by Soviet intelligence. In 1952, U.S. technical security personnel uncovered a listening device hidden in the wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States. The Seal was hanging right over U.S. Ambassador George Kennan’s desk at his office in the embassy. It was gifted by the Soviets to U.S. government officials at the end of World War II and was transmitting secrets to the Kremlin until it was discovered years later during an electronic “sweep.” In the 1960s, in several intelligence operations, the Soviets daringly tried and sometimes succeeded in planting microphones in Congress.
The U.S. government is slow to learn from its mistake of employing Soviet and Russian personnel in U.S. Embassy offices in Russia. For example in January 2017, a female Russian national was fired from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow based on suspicion of espionage. Recruited by the U.S. Secret Service, she worked at the embassy for ten years. She had access to highly confidential electronic communications, including the schedules of the U.S. president and vice president. The woman regularly met with an agent from FSB, Russia’s main domestic security and intelligence agency.
Russia uses its embassies in the United States as the base of intelligence operations against America and Americans. Russian intelligence operatives under official cover work out of the embassy-based residency (Rezidentura), posing as diplomats. They collect political, military, economic, and scientific intelligence, spot and recruit Americans who would spy for Russia, and run technical collection operations. The chief of the Rezidentura is called the “Resident,” the equivalent of the American chief of station at a U.S. Embassy. The Russian Embassy compound in Washington, D.C., and Russia uses its embassies in the United States as the base of intelligence operations against America and Americans. Russian intelligence operatives under official cover work out of the embassy-based residency (Rezidentura), posing as diplomats. They collect political, military, economic, and scientific intelligence, spot and recruit Americans who would spy for Russia, and run technical collection operations. The chief of the Rezidentura is called the “Resident,” the equivalent of the American chief of station at a U.S. Embassy. The Russian Embassy compound in Washington, D.C., and consulates in New York and San Francisco are all located at high points of elevation to enable interception of U.S. communications by arrays of antennae and other electronic equipment perched on the rooftops.
The closure of several Russian government facilities in the United States is just one example of the significant tension in U.S.-Russian relations that began to spiral after Putin annexed Ukraine’s Crimea. Having finally recognized the failure of the “reset” policy with the Kremlin, the Obama administration imposed economic sanctions on select Russian entities and individuals, which resulted in a chain reaction between Washington and Moscow of reducing one another’s “diplomatic” presence at embassies and consulates. Sanctions and fewer “diplomats,” undoubtedly justified and necessary, also undermined both countries.
Putin’s strategy against America hinges on Russia’s ability to develop a deep understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of American society to identify vulnerabilities to exploit.
To help gain detailed knowledge and understanding of how American society functions, how we think, and what makes us tick, the Russian intelligence services employ HUMINT tradecraft with minor exceptions, such as Israeli intelligence - unique to Russia and earlier the USSR. The Russians insert what are called “illegals” (nelegaly), or deep-cover intelligence officers, within the adversary’s society who pose as the citizens of that country or a different country, but not Russia. Unlike their “official cover” counterparts, the illegals don’t have the benefit of diplomatic immunity, which would protect them in the event of being exposed. They know that if their cover is blown and they get arrested by the law enforcement of their adopted “homeland,” they will go to prison.
Illegals spend years and even decades in the target country, including the United States, living like normal Americans or other host country nationals. They 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 their parents are not who they think they are. These deep-cover officers take orders from Moscow, using clandestine communications devices and covert Russian intelligence agents. The illegals build and reinforce their cover - sometimes for many years without being tasked with any operational assignments - to fit in well in the American culture while learning about the nation’s psyche. Their ultimate purpose is to help their true homeland take on, destabilize, and defeat “the main adversary” by stratagem.
The Russian intelligence tradecraft sending deep-cover officers “behind the enemy lines” dates to the Cheka. The newly established Soviet state was initially not recognized diplomatically by the West, including the United States, leaving Soviet intelligence without the traditional option of operating out of embassies and consulates.
Putin’s current strategy is to prevent the former Soviet Union countries from meeting the NATO membership criteria of having territorial integrity and being free of an ongoing conflict, as is now with Ukraine.
As George Kennan pointed out, the Russians, fearing our intentions, are fanatical in their belief that “with the [United States], there can be no permanent, peaceful coexistence.” Therefore, it is “necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken” for the Russians to feel secure.
Continued in Part Two