Same Dog, New Tricks: Trends in Russian Intelligence Services
Russian intelligence activities have undergone several changes since the end of the cold war. Intelligence activities are not limited to collection, but include subversive acts and activities in the grey zone, short of overt war. Russian intelligence has adapted to exploit modern tools and the host of vulnerabilities they present, building on a robust history of exploiting the open access to media and information that are hallmarks of western, democratic societies. Russian confidence is at an all-time high, where intelligence activities are conducted with little regard for political costs. Russian domestic intelligence and counterintelligence have also adapted. Their focus is on security of the Putin regime rather than maintaining the USSR; a combination of expanding the sphere of influence while not responsible for the cumbersome demands of a union.
The 2018 House of Commons Briefing Paper on Russian Intelligence activities summarizes the activities of the FSB and GRU in the ‘What’s new?’ section of the paper: “Russian Intelligence services have revived the Soviet-era strategy of ‘active measures’. This is where intelligence goes beyond collecting and is actively engaged in conducting offensive efforts to disrupt and degrade, in the case of the U.S. 2016 elections, confidence in the very foundation of our electoral processes. This same section also speaks to the reckless approach to conducting such activities, with little regard for getting caught, “Get the job done, don’t worry about the political costs.” (Smith, 2018, p-11). Dr. Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies disagrees somewhat, “I suspect, however, there are some covert actions programs--as well as espionage activity with sources in U.S. government agencies--that they don't want to get caught doing.” (Jones, 2019). This sentiment was echoed by Jouni Mölsä when presenting Finland’s Comprehensive Security Program, a counter-Russian malign influence effort. Mr. Mölsä claimed that Russian disinformation efforts are flooding information conduits in Finland and while the security program includes strong resilience efforts, that its clear the Russians seek to keep up the pervasive effort in “the hopes that something sticks”. (Mölsä, 2018).
These are not necessarily a change in doctrine, but rather adaptations to the current and desired environment sought by Putin. Russian uses its intelligence services to propagate disinformation. (Iasiello, 2017). Some things remain unchanged. Lenin employed criminals to carry out the torture and killings during the Red Terror in 1917-1922 (Haslam, 2015) while Russian today maintains close working with organized crime. (Cohen and Radin, 2019, p39).
In my opinion, there is a larger strategic pattern that can be seen in the Russian world view. The Russians, as is the case with many states, in times of perceived stability and progress look outward, while in times of adversity, focus inward. The ‘red terror’ was a time that the Russians looked inward. Once the perception of domestic threat was sufficiently subdued, the emphasis on spreading communism and specifically the Soviet sphere of influence commenced. This outward projection continued until they ran into Afghanistan. Between Afghanistan and the undeniable advances that the U.S. and west had, the USSR collapsed. The entirety of Yeltsin’s tour of duty was committed to crisis management with the collapse. In 2000, with Yeltsin passing the reigns to Putin, Putin then spent his first two terms (2000-2008) also focused inward, both domestically and more importantly, on shoring up his regime. Putin, while focused domestically, never lost sight of those external threats. Secure in his grasp on power, he gave the presidency to Medvedev, in order to be compliant with the Russian constitution (cannot serve more than two consecutive terms but can be reelected). In 2012 Putin resumed his presidency, confident that domestic challenges were managed, he focused outward – Little Green Men. This is not to infer that when Russia was looking inward or outward, that the other aspect was ignored, merely a supposition on the priority of effort to meet the leader’s perceived environmental concerns.
Another trend present in Russian intelligence is vendetta. In the video series “Putin’s Revenge” a great deal of time is spent illustrating the personal nature of power politics. According to the video series, those opposed to Putin will suffer. He gets personal. The 2016 U.S. presidential election becomes the focus of the video, alleging that Russian interference was specifically to target candidate Hillary Clinton, due to comments and actions she took that were in opposition to Putin. (PBS, 2017). This type of behavior is mentioned by Dr. J.M. Waller in his book, Fighting the War of Ideas Like a Real War. Dr. Waller speaks to the vulnerability present in leaders, ridicule. “Dictators, tyrants, and those aspire to seize and keep power by intimidation and force can tolerate no public ridicule.” (Waller, 2007, p104-108).
In summary, Russian intelligence services have adapted methods, techniques, tactics, and procedures, but their goals and purpose remain consistent with the appetites of the Russian leadership. In the early days of the USSR and throughout the cold war, Russian and Soviet intelligence services had a variety of roles; domestic and foreign counterintelligence, domestic and foreign surveillance, espionage, subversion, direct action (kidnapping, extortion, assassination) and they relied heavily upon a culture of perfect ideological conditioning and commitment and a dedication to an unparalleled level of expertise. They lacked, however, the capacity to exploit technology. That is likely the biggest area where Russian intelligence has changed. They are now conceivably equal to the U.S. in technological means however and well exceeded the U.S. in will. They are unafraid to engage nor concerned about the political costs. Another area of significant change is a shift in ideology. Lenin and Stalin and despite the Khrushchev ‘Thaw’ sought complete subjugation to Soviet dogma. With the failings of communist socialism, Putin has shifted to nationalism. Methods remain consistent with those of Lenin and Stalin, however. Just as George Kennan cited the Russian perception of victimhood and insecurity, Putin has used the counter message to deliver Russia from global oppression at the hands of western power.
So, the methods and tactics changed while the purpose and narrative remains the same. Perhaps, as long as Russia insists they are being threatened, they will remain a threat.
Smith, Ben. 2018. “Russian Intelligence Services and Special Forces”, House of Commons briefing paper, Number CBP 8430, 30 October 2018.
Waller, J. Michael. 2007. Fighting the War of Ideas Like a Real War. Institute of World Politics, Washington, D.C.
Iasiello, Emilio J. 2017. “Russia’s Improved Information Operations: From Georgia to Crimea.” Innovations in Warfare and Strategy. Accessed online on 9/10/2019 at https://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/parameters/issues/Summer_2017/8_Iasiello_RussiasImprovedInformationOperations.pdf
Mölsä, Jouni (1 October, 2018). Comprehensive Security in Finland. Presentation given to the Special Operations Forces Captains Career Course at USAJFKSWCS
Frontline PBS, 2017, “Putin’s Revenge: Part One and Part Two” available on YouTube at Putin's Revenge: Part One (full film) | FRONTLINE
Cohen, Raphael S. and Radin, Andrew. 2019. “Russia’s Hostile Measures in Europe” A RAND Study. Rand Corporation, Santa Monica, CA.
Additional resources not specifically cited but reinforced the concepts and context:
Collison, Chris. 2017. “Russia’s Information War: Old Strategies, New Tools” (Draft), accessed online on 9/10/2019 at https://jsis.washington.edu/ellisoncenter/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2017/05/collison_chris_Russia%E2%80%99s-Information-War-Old-Strategies-New-Tools-How-Russia-Built-an-Information-Warfare-Strategy.pdf
Hicks, Kathleen H. 2019. “Russia in the Gray Zone” accessed online on 9/10/2019 at https://www.csis.org/analysis/russia-gray-zone
Kasapoglu, Can. 2015. “Russia’s Renewed Military Thinking: Non-Linear Warfare and Reflexive Control” accessed online at https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep10269
Email exchange with Dr. Seth Jones, CSIS on 10 September 2019. I have enclose the email traffic below. I placed Dr. Jones comments in blue.
I hope this email finds you well.
I am working on a paper and was hoping you could suggest resources or articles that depict shifts in Russian intelligence collection? In my limited understanding it seems that Russian influence has undergone a few changes...
1. Whereas they previously relied on human intelligence, they have adapted and now exploit signal and technical intelligence - caught up to the west.
Yes, definitely. (Jones)
2. Confidence - they collect brazenly, still using reflexive control. They don't care if they get caught with their hand in the cookie jar.
I think that is correct on many issues. I suspect, however, there are some covert actions programs--as well as espionage activity with sources in U.S. government agencies--that they don't want to get caught doing. (Jones)
3. The domestic security apparatus still eliminates threats to Putin, but while Russia is looking to return to a greater sphere of influence, they are not specifically seeking to restore the USSR.
Yes, I think that's fair. (Jones)
Thoughts - guidance?