Russia’s Intelligence Network and How It Creates Paranoia in the West

There is little doubt that the West’s views of Russia are among the most negative that the world has experienced since the end of the Cold War.  Russia is vilified for everything including the situation in Ukraine, the Skripal affair and meddling in the 2016 American election and is seen as a significant threat to America’s hegemony.  A recent report entitled “Putin Sees and Hears It All – How Russia’s Intelligence Agencies Menace the UK” from the United Kingdom-based Henry Jackson Society takes the anti-Russia paranoia to a new level.  The report is based on interviews with 16 high-level dissidents and defectors, Western business people and human rights activists, Russia-watchers and former Whitehall officials (aka British government officials) and outlines the “banal and brazen” examples of how Russia is openly interfering in the affairs of the United Kingdom and provides us with an assessment of the scale of Russian spying in the United Kingdom.

Let’s open by looking at the three main Russian intelligence agencies that are covered in the report:

1.) FSB or Federal Security Service – this is the successor to the KGB and is subordinate to the President of Russia.  Estimated employees – 387,000.  The FSB focuses on political affairs in the UK, particularly organizations and individuals that are politically active, especially those that are anti-Putin. 

2.) GRU or Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff – is subordinate to the military command of Russia.  Estimated employees – 280,000 to 480,000.  The GRU focuses on military affairs in the UK.

3.) SVR or Foreign Intelligence Service – this is also a successor to the KGB and is subordinate to the President of Russia.  Estimated employees – 13,000.  The SVR focuses on traditional intelligence gathering from military, political and commercial sources in the UK.

Total employment in the Russian intelligence services is believed to range from 680,000 to 880,00 people compared to only 16,868 employees involved in intelligence and security services across the seven U.K. security agencies.  By way of comparison, here is a screen capture showing how many employees there are in the United States National Intelligence Program for fiscal year 2013:

The author of the report states that spending on Russia’s security issues (i.e. defense and law and order) have tripled between 2008 and 2016, rising from 22.7 percent to 35 percent of the total federal budget as shown on this table:

The report opens by noting that two former Russian officers have been assassinated on British soil; Sergei Skripal (and his daughter, Yulia), a retired GRU officer and Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB and KGB officer back in 2006.  Here is a quote from the report about the threat posed by Russia:

Unlike for the countries of eastern and central Europe, the threat Russia poses to the UK is not primarily military – aside from Russia’s frequent probing of the UK’s air- and sea-space,  and the UK’s deployment of troops to the Baltic States and Poland as part of NATO measures to counter Russian aggression in the region. instead, the threat comes from Russia’s full spectrum approach to foreign policy in which, according to Russia’s 2015 Military Doctrine, “military force and political, economic, informational or other non-military measures” are integrated to achieve political goals.

The author also provides us with an explanation for why Russia’s intelligence and security apparatus is so large and why it is so important to Russia and Vladimir Putin:

Putin’s understanding of the post-cold War world is diametrically opposed to that of the West. Like most of Russia’s military and political elite, he sees periods of ‘peace’ not as opportunities to prosper and relax, but instead as opportunities to prepare for the next (inevitable) conflict. For at least a decade, the Kremlin has believed that Russia is engaged in a zero-sum conflict with the West and that it faces a serious, even existential, threat. The Kremlin also believes that the West took advantage of Russia in the 1990s when it was weak, and it is willing to go to extremes to ensure that this does not happen again. This ‘wartime mind-set’ was evident before 2014, but has become especially prominent since.

In Putin’s eyes, the US, as during the cold War, is Russia’s main strategic rival. Accordingly, many of Moscow’s defence and security resources are directed at Washington, D.C. This includes its intelligence agencies…

Other resources are directed at NATO and the European Union (EU) as well as collective security interests.” (my bold)

A “zero sum conflict”?  Isn’t it Washington that believes it can actually win in a nuclear exchange scenario?  As far as a Russian “wartime mindset”, that certainly sounds like Washington, doesn’t it?   

With this existential threat, let’s take a look at the author’s analysis of the number of Russians who are actively operating in the United Kingdom.  

1.) Case Officers:

During the Cold War, there were 39 Soviet case officers who managed spies in London in 1985, 25 from the KGB and 14 from the GRU.  This level remained constant until 2010 but began to rise, hitting an estimated 37 from the FSB and SVR and 14 from the GRU in 2013.  In the UK as a whole, it is estimated that there are as many as 200 case officers managing up to 500 Russian agents.

2.) Spies:

There are two main types of Russian spies operating in the United Kingdom:

a.) declared spies who officially work at the Russian Embassy occupying roles as attaches or secretaries.  

b.) undeclared spies who work in the Russia Embassy but who are not accredited as intelligence officers, taking roles in sections such as trade or culture.

There are currently 56 diplomats working in the Russian Embassy in Kensington with “around half” being engaged in either declared or undeclared intelligence work.  Additionally, there are also spies that use false identities, posing as British citizens.  There are also Russian nationals living in Britain using their real identities but with few links to Russia’s security and intelligence services.  Lastly, there are Russians who are travelling to the UK for short-term stays, using either their own name or an alias.

Russian agents gather intelligence on prominent Russians, Westerners and Russia-watchers in the UK, gathering information on individuals who currently or previously occupied positions of power.   Here is a quote from the paper showing how Russia’s spying tactics work:

In attempting to gain such information, Russia’s agents employ a number of tactics, one of which follows a rather simple playbook.  A plausible scenario, described by a number of current and former government officials, is that a Whitehall official attends a high-level, closed-door event in the city. Attendees, as well as making polite conversation, exchange business cards, to the point where almost everybody has spoken with everybody else and most have exchanged business cards. When the Kremlin needs some information, one of the individuals who swapped cards with the official will reactivate the contact, seeking a meeting. When the two individuals meet, most likely at a café or bar, efforts to gather intelligence begin.

Here’s where I think that the paper goes off the rails.  The author observes that there are an estimated 150,000 Russian expatriates currently living in London alone that form a potential source of intelligence gathering for Russia’s three intelligence agencies.  According to the author’s research, anywhere between one quarter and one half of Russia expats living in London’s Russian community have been informants meaning that Russia has roughly 75,000 amateur spies living in London on top of its declared and undeclared Embassy workers and other Russian government organizations.

Here is a key paragraph that best explains today’s environment:

Many of the people interviewed for this paper described a growing belief that they are under close watch by Russia’s intelligence agencies. Whatever the truth, for the Kremlin this is a victory in itself – even if it does not lead to Moscow gaining information, making people paranoid means they start to question or change their behaviour. “Never say anything in private that you wouldn’t say in public. And never say anything in public that you wouldn’t want the Kremlin to hear”, was a recurring sentiment voiced by interviewees and interlocutors.

Yes indeed, we certainly do live in a time of paranoia, particularly when it comes to Russia.  It’s a good thing that neither the United Kingdom nor the United States would ever think of intelligence gathering on this sort of scale….as long as you can forget about the massive snooping programs of the Five Eyes member states which includes both countries.

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