Vienna, November 17 – Because Moscow has in the best traditions of Soviet times played up the notion that all recent failures in Russia’s espionage activities are the result of traitors, the powers that be have reinforced the notion among most Russians that their country is still a superpower which can compete as equals with the United States, Soldatov Says.
Andrey Soldatov, the editor of Agentura.ru and one of Moscow’s leading independent specialists on intelligence operations suggests that the case of the two intelligence officers, Shcherbakov and Poteyev, that has attracted so much attention provides a key insight into how Russians view espionage and how Moscow plays on that view.
In an article in today’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal” entitled “Heroes and Traitors for Internal Use,” Soldatov argues that the recent story has “from the very beginning been constructured according to the laws of the Soviet spy mythology” in which the hero spy is confronted by the traitor and then is defeated by yet a third (ej.ru/?a=note&id=10560).
As Soldatov points out, “in the mythology of Soviet intelligence, treason always occupied a particular place.” Traitors were responsible for all failures, and consequently one had no reason to look for “shortcomings in the world of the special services themselves,” a view that former SVR spokesman Yury Kobaladze expressed last weekend on Moscow television.
As the case of the scandal about the Russian illegals in the United States showed, Soldatov argues, Russian society was split into “two unequal parts,” a small group of liberals who viewed this as a reflection of “the degradation of the intelligence service,” and “the enormous majority who viewed this story” very differently.
For the latter, the spy scandal was “testimony that Russia is still a super power which can on an equal basis compete with the special services of the United States,” an idea that is identical to the one that Soviet officials liked to promote during the Cold War. President Dmitry Medvedev “perfectly well” understands this and hence his playing up of these spies.
It is worth noting, Soldatov continues, that “the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) is the only special service of Russia which was never reformed. In the early 1990s, the First Chief Directorate of the USSR KGB was simply separated from the KGB, and with that, the reform of this structure concluded.”
As a result, the Agentura.ru editor says, “the traditions of Soviet intelligence were not critically reviewed” and “the methods inherited by the Russian intelligence serve were those which had been developed in the first half of the 20th century,” traditions which continued by “inertia” even as they gradually decayed over the last 40 years of Soviet power.
The period of “the very greatest successes of Soviet intelligence” was the 1930s and 1940s, Soldatov writes, but “these successes were the result not of Soviet intelligence but of the Communist International” which linked together “convinced fanatics of the communist idea throughout the entire world.”
After Stalin disbanded the Comintern, “everything that happened with Soviet intelligence was an attempt to repeat its success.” And the way the Soviet intelligence service sought to do that was to “train its own citizens to pose as residents of the West,” the kind of illegals who were just exposed in the United States.
That led to the formation of two intelligence schools, one by the GRU and a second by the SVR to train such people often for years while the training course of intelligence officers in the US and Great Britain typically lasted only “several months” because they were not going to be used in the same way.
As was the case with many other Soviet institutions, corruption and nepotism contributed to the degradation of Soviet espionage operations abroad because “children of highly placed party leaders used the agent networks in the US and Western Europe as a great place to begin a career and a comfortable place to live.”
Recruitment of people like Hansen and Ames, Soldatov says, was “more the exception than the rule” and by the early 1990s, Soviet intelligence was “in such a deep crisis that party functionaries from the KGB fled to the West carrying with them lists of all the members of the party organization of the students at the [Soviet] intelligence academy.”
Over the last 20 years, Soldatov suggests, drawing on the testimony of a defector, the SVR has not changed from its focus on active measures such as disinformation and the dispatch of illegals as a substitute for the ideological loyalists it has not been able to count on since the end of the Comintern.
Moreover, he continues, “the declarations that traitors were responsible for the failure of the illegals reflect the traditional approach of the Russian special services, for whom the special services can only be guilty of an insufficiency of vigilance” against enemies internal and external.
As a result of this and the internal use of this case for the Russian leadership, the Kremlin not only did not raise the question as to whether illegals are a useful tool at the present but did not take advantage of this opportunity to “reform the SVR.” But another result of this case may matter even more: the FSB has gained the chance to expand its control over the SVR.