Spying: an Occupational Hazard in East-West Relations

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 127

Alleged Russian spy Anna Chapman

A group of ten alleged Russian spies have been arrested in the US by the FBI and another individual in Cyprus in response to an American request. The alleged spies were accused of using distorted or falsified identities to infiltrate the US to gather sensitive political information. They are also accused of receiving money and coded messages from the Foreign Security Service (SVR) – the successor of the First Main Directorate of the KGB, known as PGU. Unnamed Russian diplomats in the US are claimed to have run the alleged spying activities. The Russian foreign ministry announced that those detained were Russian citizens who “at different times moved to the US and had done nothing aimed at the interests of the US” (Interfax, June 30).

The Russian official reaction to the spy scandal was predictably harsh. Ruling United Russia Duma deputy, Vladimir Kolesnikov (former chief prosecutor deputy and interior minister deputy) declared the arrests as “a Cold War throw-off” and predicted that Moscow may react “symmetrically” by arresting alleged US spies in Russia. Kolesnikov assumed the spy scandal was organized by “structures in the US that use double standards and live in the old times” (Interfax, June 29). Another United Russia Duma deputy, Nikolai Kovalev (former director of the FSB security service) told journalists the spy scandal was organized by the enemies of President, Barack Obama, who is pursuing a “reset” policy with Moscow and last week held a friendly meeting with President, Dmitry Medvedev. According to Kovalev, resident intelligence agents working in a foreign land undercover (known in the Russian spy community as “illegals”) do not form large networks and the entire plot as described by the US authorities “is laughable” (RIA Novosti, June 29).

The flamboyant Russian permanent representative at NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, believes the spy scandal is the result of internal intrigue by the enemies of Obama, who envy his foreign policy successes (Kommersant, June 30). Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, told Bill Clinton during his visit to Moscow: “You came at the right time –your police are out of control and arresting people.” Putin hinted at possible Russian reprisal arrests, but at the same time expressed hope that Russian-American relations that were recently developing positively will not be hindered, adding, “people who cherish Russian-American relations understand this” (Interfax, June 30).

In Russia spying allegations have traditionally been used as an instrument of political intrigue, which explains the predominant view of the latest spy scandal as an anti-Russian and anti-Obama plot with potential long-term negative repercussions. Equally, the reported narrative is questioned by former intelligence professionals such as Kovalev and the former PGU resident in London and Copenhagen, Mikhail Lubimov (Interfax, June 30).

The planting of “illegals” in Western nations, once massively used in the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s by Soviet secret services, has been discredited as an effective intelligence-gathering technique. It is relatively easy to plant an “illegal” as a permanent resident in the US. After the collapse of the USSR, it is equally possible to plant an undercover agent in Russia. However, as soon as such an “illegal” tries to move to a position in which he or she may gain access to sensitive information, counterintelligence agencies begin a routine vetting check. In the modern information age the vetting process in due course inevitably cracks any false or distorted identity, blowing the spy’s cover. Russian military intelligence (GRU) terminated its “illegal” long-term infiltration operations in the 1960’s, while the PGU has apparently continued to use such spies, though their effectiveness is questionable.

The Russian main foreign intelligence gathering agencies –GRU and PGU (SVR)– operate within clearly defined spheres of interest. The GRU gathers military and military-technical information, while the SVR collects what is loosely defined as “political intelligence.” The alleged Russian spies did not, apparently, gather anything sensitive and most likely never had the capability to do so. They seem to have only triggered the FBI to investigate their activities (Interfax, June 30).

Last week, the German Interior Minister, Thomas de Maizière, published an annual report about subversive activities in Germany in 2009 that highlighted increased Russian and Chinese intelligence gathering of industrial, technological and scientific know-how. The report criticized German private companies for carelessness in dealing with this threat (www.dw-world.de, June 21). The Russian foreign ministry reacted angrily, accusing de Maizière of spreading unproven accusations that undermine the close Russian-German partnership (Interfax, June 28).

The modernization of Russia and its armed forces requires Western investment and technology. Such modernization is a strategic priority in Russia (EDM, May 27). Moscow is using legal means to buy Western technology, but this is not an easy process requiring financial resources, and painful political horse-trading. Russian arms designers and producers are using Western components and materials to make modernized versions of military hardware, while the intelligence services are helping to acquire these sensitive components and materials. There is a constant fear in Moscow that the West may, at a whim, deny access to these sources of modernization. Of course, Russia (as well as China) understands “modernization” as an adaptation of Western technology, including military and dual sue items, avoiding any substantial change or Westernization of its political system. The differing understanding and agenda of modernization by the West and East will inevitably create conflict situations. The true integration of repressive authoritarian Russia and China with the Western world seems impossible in the foreseeable future, but this does not preclude active political, business and technological interaction. It seems that spying activities of a differing nature will remain an occupational hazard in East-West relations.