Vienna, July 13 – The recent spy scandal in which the US arrested ten illegals and then exchanged them for four people held by Moscow calls attention to “a systematic crisis” in the work of the Russian foreign intelligence service, the SVR, a crisis that two leading Russian specialists on intelligence point out has its roots in Soviet times.
In an article in yesterday’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” Andrey Soldatov and Irina Borogan, who edit the authoritative Agentura.ru portal on intelligence activities, argue that “the scandalous resolution of the history with the illegals in America does not give answers to a single key question in this affair (ej.ru/?a=note&id=10242).
Instead, the rapidity with which the case was wrapped up by both sides suggests that neither the Americans nor the Russians were interested in having many aspects of the case ventilated in the media or examined by the expert community, something that in itself, the two specialists say, is revealing
Although some American commentators stressed that the current case represented a recurrence of the events of the Cold War, for the US, that was definitely not the case. During the Cold War, illegals were viewed as being more about “the moral dissolution” of the West than about real spying.
But for Russia and especially the SVR, the parallels with the Cold War past are more significant because in many ways the current use of illegals is “evidence of a systemic crisis [in the Russian intelligence services, a crisis] which has Soviet roots” and which Moscow seems powerless to overcome.
Soldatov and Borogan point out that “the Soviet and now the Russian intelligence services are famous for two unique things: it has its own higher educational institution with a complete profile, and its uses illegals,” something that neither Britain’s MI-6 or the US Central Intelligence Agency has done.
“The reason why Soviet and Russian intelligence teach their employees in a specialized academy and use illegals,” Soldatov and Borogan say, is the same: the best days of our spies were the epoch of the intelligence activities of the Comintern of the 1930s and 1940s,” a unique period with features that no longer exist.
Initially, “Soviet Russia could count on the support of communists [in other countries] with superior education and ties throughout the entire world. After Stalin destroyed [many of them during the purges], the country’s intelligence services had to create a special education institution in order somehow to prepare yesterday’s peasants for a new life.”
That didn’t always work, the two experts note. But “the dispatch of illegals corresponded to the same goal – this was an act of despair and a largely unsuccessful attempt to replace the Komintern people [Stalin had liquidated in the purges] with home-grown cadres” who could somehow try to fill their shoes.
But in subsequent decades, “the very largest successes of Soviet intelligence in the US” came not from the work of illegals but from the recruitment of people like Ames and Hansen. But the current case shows, Soldatov and Borogan say, that “in the SVR, up to now, its employees are not able to turn away” from the assumptions and traditions of the past.
If one assumes, however, that there is a rational core even to an effort which seldom generates much real intelligence, the two experts say, then one is compelled to assume that the SVR has other goals. And the way in which the exchange of agents took place suggests just such a conclusion.
On the one hand, the two Moscow experts say, running such an operation is a useful means for Moscow to test American counter-intelligence. And on the other, the nature of the exchange appears to serve a larger purpose, discrediting Igor Sutyagin, one of those prisoners Moscow released, and even more casting doubt on those rights activists who supported him.
Given that Moscow’s intelligence operations have traditionally been designed to bring the center benefits even if these actions appear to fail, such a conclusion is more than reasonable, Soldatov and Borogan suggest. But they note that there has been one major change in Russia that makes such an approach more difficult.
A generation ago, Soviet citizens could not raise questions about whether the KGB or the GRU had made a mistake, but now there is a chance that Russian society will raise such questions about the SVR. At the very least, Soldatov and Borogan believe that such questions are needed.
Whether such questions will be raised and how, if raised, they will be answered may ultimately matter more, the two suggest, than what has happened in this case so far, but they imply that all too many people are likely to assume that this Russian operation is over rather than part of a much bigger play with longer-term consequences.