National Security

The Resurgence of Russian Intelligence

“What Russia has attempted in the United States is not an isolated incident but part of a larger campaign that is, in turn, part of the hybrid war being waged by Moscow against the West, a warmer Cold War.”

From France to Eastern Europe to the U.S. we are witnessing the return of a more aggressive, more capable old enemy — the Russian intelligence services.  The SVR (Russian Foreign Intelligence), FSB (Domestic Intelligence and Security) and GRU (Military Intelligence) are at the forefront of Russian power projection and policy.  Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former intelligence officer himself, is wielding his intelligence agencies as the premier tools of Russian policy and expansion. Much of this involves Russian Active Measures efforts to attain these policy objectives.

America was stunned when its combined 17 intelligence agencies announced that Russia had covertly intervened in the 2016 presidential campaign for the purpose of helping elect Donald Trump.  This was part of a larger Active Measures campaign to install governments favorable to Russia in the West; governments that want to put an end to sanctions and want to pull out of NATO and the EU. These ongoing efforts are led by Russian intelligence organizations using computer hacks, propaganda, and other Active Measures tools.

Such activity is nothing new in Europe. For years Russia has launched a series of clandestine and overt efforts to exert influence and sway governments in support of Russian objectives throughout the continent.  One example, the French presidential election, was hit by a series of hacks likely originating from Russia. The hacks targeted Emmanuel Macron and were most certainly designed to aid Marin Le Pen — Putin’s favorite for President of France. Fortunately the hack came too late and the French handled it with typical French sangfroid, minimizing the impact.  We are likely to see similar efforts during the upcoming German election.

A senior French intelligence official said that the Russians now have more spies, and clandestine operations, in France than they did during the Cold War.

Western intelligence officials say Russian intelligence tactics run the gamut from cyber espionage, traditional human intelligence (HUMINT) operations all the way to regime change. Russia has been linked to a coup attempt in Montenegro (likely because the Balkan nation is trying to join NATO), involving an attempted assassination of the Prime Minister to replace him with a pro-Moscow stooge; in 2014 an Estonian intelligence officer was kidnapped by Russian security personnel from right inside Estonia and taken to Russia; a traditional spy case involving a Portuguese spy and stolen NATO documents; a bogus news story about a 13-year-old Russian-German girl in Germany reportedly raped by a Muslim immigrant designed to undermine the German government’s immigration policy, and thus the German government.

Estonia’s intelligence service’s annual report said the Baltic Sea region is a particular target for intelligence threats from Russia. According to the Estonians, Russia has taken interest in the country’s foreign and security policies, defense planning, and military capabilities, targeting these sectors for increased espionage activities.

“The Russian special services are interested in both the collection of information and in influencing decisions important for Estonia,” the report states. “The Russian intelligence and security services conduct anti-Estonian influence operations, including psychological operations — in other words, influencing the defense forces and the general population of a potential enemy.”

Security services in Sweden, Germany, and the Czech Republic, among many others, have noted a major increase in Russian intelligence operations in their countries. Defense officials in Lithuania said they were seeing Russian propaganda efforts to undermine stability and independence in the Baltic nations. The country’s defense minister said Lithuania’s security services were noting what they called propaganda efforts similar to what occurred prior to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea.

In 2015, Sweden’s security services identified Russian espionage as the biggest intelligence threat facing Sweden, which has seen a sharp increase in Russian naval and air force intelligence collection activities over the past year. According to the Swedish Security police, Russian intelligence operations in Sweden are viewed as preparation for military operations by Russia against Sweden. A third of Russian diplomats based in Sweden were believed to be intelligence officers by the Swedes.

Europe is not the only target for increased Russian intelligence efforts. A new intelligence related compound has been built in Nicaragua, likely an electronic espionage facility.

According to recent commercial satellite imagery and IntelNews.org, Russia has expanded the SVR’s physical infrastructure throughout the last decade, doubling or even tripling in size. The imagery shows that Moscow added several new structures to its SVR headquarters between 2007 and 2016.

According to an analysis of the images by the Federation of American Scientists and former CIA analyst Allen Thompson, the images show the completed construction of at least three new buildings, as well as an expansion of parking areas, which appear to have quadrupled in capacity. Clearly the SVR is growing, meeting the demand for ever increasing intelligence operations.

What are the Kremlin’s objectives? They are nothing less than the overthrow of the Western Democratic order established after World War II. This includes first and foremost dissolving NATO and the EU, giving it a free hand in Europe, and reducing and neutralizing American global power while at the same time reestablishing Russia’s Soviet era standing as a world power.

So what do they really hope to gain from these intelligence and active measures campaigns in support of these objectives? The goals are to portray Western society as false, it’s institutions as corrupt and weak, while discrediting our values and political systems both at home and abroad; sow doubt and confusion in the West; exploit and exacerbate existing divisions within Western society; and to ensure that whatever governments come to power through the electoral process, they are more malleable and less interested in countering the Kremlin’s quest for power.

Why should we care about this? Isn’t this the typical intelligence game played out over the years? The most troubling aspect of all this is the Russian intelligence community’s aggressive covert action programs to destabilize the West. Russia uses its intelligence services in a more aggressive and offensive manner than the West. What Russia has attempted in the United States is not an isolated incident but part of a larger campaign that is, in turn, part of the hybrid war being waged by Moscow against the West, a warmer Cold War.

The Kremlin’s disruption campaign has succeeded in deepening divides in the West, especially the U.S. We can see the disruption their interference in our election has caused. These efforts, both losses and successes, over time, accumulate, and will damage the West.  What has it cost Moscow to date? The closing of a couple of installations in the US and the PNG’ing of several dozen intelligence officers, very little cost for the return

Luis Rueda

Luis Rueda is an OpsLens Contributor and retired CIA Operations Officer with over 28 years of experience in the clandestine service. During his storied career with the CIA, Rueda served as Chief of Station New Delhi and Chief of Iraq Operations during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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