Lecture: Intel in Russia and USSR

5 Mar 2019 (BA students)

Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed an interesting trend – a growth in the Russian intelligence service’s visible activities overseas. You may have heard some of these events referred to as ‘active measures’. In Russian «Активные мероприятия» This is a key term for today’s lecture, so we need to be clear about what it means. It’s a term that dates back to Soviet times, to describe Russia’s intelligence activities that aim to influence world events – similar to the concept of covert action when applied to the western IC, which you have already covered on this course.

They’ve become such a popular topic that there is even a documentary on the subject with the same name. This documentary – treat with great wariness. This documentary puts forward an extreme version of recent history – that ex-KGB man Putin ‘recruited’ Trump as an asset and his election as president is the crowning moment of a decades long plan. Mwah haha. 

No question that we have witnessed a rise in Russia’s active measures over the past couple of years. You can’t open a newspaper these days without some new report of some Russian skullduggery or sinister plot. In late 2018, The Daily Telegraph ran an article in which it claimed that half of all Russians living in London currently are spies – as many as 75,000 people.[1] Although when I checked the source of the report that the article is based on its clear that the author has no idea what the real figure is. 

These active measures include: intervention in the US elections of 2016 that led to the election of Donald Trump, possible funding of the Leave.eu campaign in the referendum on Brexit in the same year, and lastly the attempted murder of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yuliya. However, it is by no means limited to these, and seems to encompass a host of actions designed with the same aim: to worsen existing political and social tensions in Europe and the US.

Recent ‘active measures’

Russia is accused two categories of crime – first, of intervening in two big elections, the results of which have had a very big impact on Europe and the US, over the past few years. 

US election – many are convinced that Russia attempted to influence the outcome of the US election. While the theory put forward in the trailer for ‘Active Measures’ seems a little far-fetched, there is no question that many in Russia including Putin were delighted to see the US destabilised following the election. How did they actually go about facilitating that? Again, I believe it will really be years before we know for certain, but they are accused of hacking the emails of senior members of the US Democrat Party, and leaking the contents of those emails which had a highly damaging impact on the Democrats’ campaign. Last summer, 2018, the US indicted 12 Russian citizens, who were apparently GRU operatives for this crime. 

Russia is also believed to have used Facebook as a vehicle to place adverts encouraging division and viewed by millions of US voters. In 2018, the US House of Representatives Permanent Selection Committee on Intelligence published the text of 3500 of these advertisements, along with some metadata.

Brexit – Once again, it’s clear that Putin was delighted to see the European Union suffer immense damage in 2016 when the UK voted to leave, and there has been a great deal of reporting by CC in Observer in particular, demonstrating that it is possible that the Vote Leave campaign was funded by ‘black cash’ from Russia. 

Skripal – A different level. In spring of 2018, Sergei Skripal, who had himself worked for the Soviet and Russian intelligence service known as the GRU – we will return to them later – before being recruited to MI6 in 1996, was left in a coma after being poisoned with a nerve agent known as novichok. The Skripals, somewhat unexpectedly, made a full recovery from the poisoning, and subsequently, two men thought to be GRU officers were identified as the two suspected of carrying out the nerve agent attack. The completely unbelievable video broadcast on Russian state television in which the two appeared discussing their visit to Salisbury prompted a great deal of comment.

(Incidentally, I read recently on a Russian news website that Moscow State University’s Political Science Department offers an elective course on “information war” where students are currently learning how Western intelligence agencies falsified news about the attempted assassination of Sergey Skripal and his daughter in order to embarrass the Kremlin and erode international trust in Russia.)

Another key element of the growth in Russia’s active measures if the greater role taken by the GRU (GU)[2], who Putin lavished with praise recently on the occasion of their 100th birthday.[3] We will look in more detail at the different roles played by the different intel agencies, but this is something to note. 

A change of tactics?

One interesting theory put forward by two prominent intelligence studies scholars is that these developments could be part of a new approach to active measures in Russia. While most covert action is defined by ‘plausible deniability’ – that is the state in question can plausibly refute its involvement in the action in question, Russian active measures are defined by ‘implausible deniability’. In this reading, even their mistakes contribute to the sense of Russia’s strength. So the Boshirov/Petrov interview: we don’t really care whether this seems convincing or not, you know we did it and there’s not much you can do. Why is this a useful strategy – allows Russia to do what it wants with a strange veneer of distance – they can deny but almost tap their noses to say yes they did do it. Allows construction of ‘powerful narrative’ of Russian omnipotence – when anything goes wrong Russia is blamed, and that is exactly what they want.

Ads from a English-language Russian news station adds to the narrative that Russia is very keen to talk up its own power and influence in the west.

There are a huge number of theories and suggestions as to why they have behaved in this way, and it is important to be cautious of the more hysterical voices in the debate. With suggestions that Russia has been plotting the downfall of the US for the past 30 years, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of the history of the relationship between Russian and the west since the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Up until 1991, Russia was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a socialist state in which government policy and the economy were centralized. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s there was a great debate both in West and Russia about the direction Russia would take. 

One historian, Richard Sakwa, has written several books analyzing Russia before and after the end of the SU. He describes the collapse of the SU and the end of the CW as ‘asymmetric’.

So what does it mean this asymmetric end to the Cold War? To put it simply, it has been suggested that this asymmetry grew out of differing expectations on either side:

  • west -> Russia wd become democ
  • Russia -> that it would remain a great power, but would have en enhanced rel with W.

This mismatch in expectations – added to Russia’s growing sense of marginalization, as NATO expanded through the 1990s and promised membership to Georgia and Ukraine, various other factors including

  • US abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic missile treaty
  • Invasion of Iraq
  • plans to install a ballistic missile defence in E Europe

Over time these events frustrated Russians’ image of their nation as a great power, and made the Russian government angry because of a sense that the sacrifices that they had made in the chaos that followed the end of the SU had not really been justified, and that the good will that accompanied the end of the CW had vanished along the way. In addition to all this, there was a growing rhetoric about the winners and losers of the Cold War, in which Russia was surprised to find itself characterized very much as the loser – this severely dented national pride. 

Russia and US

On the subject of interference in elections – it is well documented that the twenty years before the election of Donald Trump, the US directly interfered in the 1996 election in Russia. President Bill Clinton, on learning that his favoured candidate Boris Yeltsin was doing very poorly in the polls, lobbied the International Monetary Fund to offer Russia a loan on $10b, and Yeltsin used some of this money to woo voters.[4] While Yeltsin may have been popular as the reformer candidate in the US, in Russia he was almost despised by many citizens, who had seen their living standards and savings collapse under his first term in office. Yeltsin’s second term proved no more of a success than the first, with the Russian president regularly falling victim to ill-health including heart surgery, and presiding over the economic chaos of 1998 that followed the collapse of the ruble. 

Nevertheless when Putin came to power in 1999, it still seemed to him that a good relationship with the west was possible. The subject of Russia’s relationship with the US is a very emotional topic for Putin, who put a lot of energy into building new ties with George W Bush at the beginning of their respective presidencies. This is one clear reason why the idea that Trump is part of a 30-year plan to undermine the US so unlikely. Whether rightly or wrongly, Putin feels betrayed by the way that he was treated by the US during the 2000s. 

Seems unlikely to us but – Russia is anxious and doubtful about its own position in the world. Although it predates the Cold War by a long way, a country with massive unprotected borders, defence has always been a priority and a degree of paranoia has been quite normal for Russian imperial and Soviet leaders alike.

Indeed, could speculate that one potential reason why R intervened in US election in the way it has, is as a response to what they perceive as the way democracy is held up as an example to non-democratic states. To see democracy suffering in the ways that it has during the US election might feel rather satisfying to some in Russia. 

Russia and the UK

No one-sided – UK government has real trouble making its mind up how to play the situation with Russia. A recent report by think tank Chatham House lays some of the blame for the attempt to kill the Skripals with the UK Government. Twelve years ago, another former FSB agent who had defected to MI6 met up with a former contact from Russia, in a sushi restaurant about five minutes’ walk away from where we are right now. Alexander Litvinienko had been fatally poisoned and died a month or so later. The report argues that although the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the FS David Miliband strongly condemned the murder, they were unwilling to match this rhetoric with action, for fear of damaging the UK’s valuable economic relationship with Russia. Long before Brexit left the UK scrabbling around for future economic partners outside the EU, the economic crash of 2008 also made economic diplomacy with Russia a priority. This policy was supported by the Conservative Party, and adopted by them when they formed the coalition gov in 2010. In the words of the Chatham House report: 

‘Following the murder of Alexandr Litvinienko in 2006, the UK government failed to deter another life-threatening attack on a British national by organs of the Russian state.  Russian decision-makers saw the UK as lacking purpose and resolve because its firm rhetoric was not matched by its actions.’[5]

However, only this week (Nov 2018), Theresa May gave a speech saying:

“We remain open to a different relationship – one where Russia desists from these attacks that undermine international treaties and international security – and instead acts together with us to fulfil the common responsibilities we share as permanent members of the UN Security Council”.[6]

So it’s a complex picture: Russia is a kleptocracy and an autocracy, clear evidence of fraud in the presidential elections earlier this year, freedom of the press is somewhat restricted, But Russia is not the Soviet Union – as even the most staunch critic of Russia would concede: Russia’s economy – esp consumer market – has grown, Russia is not a military menace (mil budget 12 times less than that of USA), eastern Europe no longer a part of the Russian led-bloc, Russians are free to travel abroad etc. 

Russia is complex, but as one Russia watcher recently commented (Galeotti) it’s not Mordor – it’s not the cause of all evil on the planet. 

Russian intel services

Let’s start to put the activities of the Russian intel agencies into context – look at how the intel agencies function and how they relate to the wider Russian gov framework. 

How is Russian intelligence collected and passed along to the machinery of government?

Let’s start at the top – we have Putin at the very top here. Below him are the joint agencies charged with processing and parceling up intelligence. First we have the Security Council headed by Nicolai Patrushev, and secondly – the one that really does most of the work in this context – the Presidential Administration headed by Anton Vaino.

Feeding intelligence upwards into these two channels we have the four main intelligence agencies. These four agencies were created in the years following the break-up of the Soviet Union. At first it seemed that Yeltsin would disband what was left of the KGB altogether, however, as time passed, it became clear that this was not going to happen and instead these new agencies arose from the ashes of the old KGB.

First we have the FSB itself, headed by Alexander Bortnikov. This agency is the one we thought of as the most powerful of the four for many years after end of USSR. Its remit was to oversee domestic security, however, as time has passed this has increased to a number of oversees responsibilities as well, including assassinations abroad, and cyber security and offensive information operations. Bortnikov is an old ally of the president. 

Interestingly, foreign intelligence is split between two agencies. These are the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU). While their remit to gather intelligence may be reasonably similar, their styles are very different, with the SVR operating an almost old-fashioned style of intelligence, that includes strategies such as long-term deep-cover human intelligence. 

The GRU (GU – the R was removed a few years ago, but everyone still uses that acronym) meanwhile has a more forceful and military ethos, which arises from the fact that it does control many military assets including electronic satellite and battlefield reconnaissance, not to mention the Russian Special Forces or Spetznaz as they are known. The GRU seems to enjoy a little more autonomy in than its counterpart the SVR, and its head is able to communicate with the president directly – a factor which complicates our neat pyramid of intelligence here. 

Thanks to the recent explosion of interest in the GRU, we now know a little more about them. The website for the Main Office of the Russian Defense Ministry’s General Staff says broadly that its officers provide the country’s leadership with information meant to create conditions that are “conducive to the successful realization of Russian state policy on defense and national security,” while also contributing to the state’s development.

Alexander Shlyakhturov, who headed the GRU in the late 2000s, said in 2011 that the agency’s job is to “discover and analyze threats to Russia’s national interests and military security.” His predecessor, Valentin Korabelnikov, declared in 2003 that the GRU also collects intelligence about research carried out by foreign states.

Disinformation has been one of the Military Intelligence Directorate’s main objectives since it was founded. From the beginning, KGB foreign intelligence (Department “A”) and the GRU have been responsible for Moscow’s “active measures.” The Disinformation Department grew out of the “Disinformburo,” which first appeared in 1923 with the objectives of creating false information and phony documents about domestic affairs in Russia, and “preparing the ground for the release of fake materials.”[7]

In 2016, Putin appointed Igor Korobov to serve as the director of the Military Intelligence Directorate. A career intelligence officer who started out in the 1980s, Korobov used to oversee Russia’s strategic intelligence gathering, including the management of all foreign stations. His appointment was no surprise: since the 1990s, the president has traditionally entrusted the job to lieutenants who supervised Russia’s foreign stations.

American officials added Korobov to their sanctions list in December 2016 for his “efforts to undermine democracy” by organizing hacker attacks. Nevertheless, Korobov and the directors of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) made an unprecedented trip to Washington in February 2018 to meet with members of the U.S. intelligence community to discuss the war against terrorism. In Nov 2018, Korobov’s death was announced, after a ‘long illness’, and he was replaced by his deputy, Igor Kostyukov.

Mikhail Fradkov has been the head of the SVR since 2007, two years ago replaced by Sergei Naryshkin. 

Lastly, we have the Federal Protective Service (FSO), headed by Dmitry Kochnev since May 2017. This agency also includes the Presidential Security Service, the service charged with protecting not just the president himself, but key figures within government and also key government sites. Intriguingly, the service is also charged with keeping an eye on the rest of the intelligence agencies. 

Effectively playing the role of Putin’s chief bodyguard, the outgoing head of the FSO Evgeny Murov seems to have an exceptionally close relationship with Putin, and it will be interesting to see how this changes with the arrival of Kochnev. 

Comparison with the UK intelligence structure? 

Point of comparison – UK intelligence structure

– since it is reasonably familiar to all of us.

Strangely – more similar than we might think in structure at least – in UK we have four/five main agencies (GCHQ, SIS, JTAC and Defence Intel) reporting via one or two main conduits directly to the leader. 

Of course, in the UK, other govt departments also play a much greater role.

But despite these structural similarities, we know that in practice there are major differences 

  • lack of consensus between the various agencies
  • lack of feedback process
  • more political 

And the main difference is that, as with many other areas of government in Russia, matters of intelligence in Russia are closely controlled by the president – Vladimir Putin himself. Putin, along with his close circle of a few select allies, make the decisions on questions of intelligence. In this context, it is important to note that the institutions that might usually play a role in the formulation of security policy in other countries like the UK, such as the Foreign and Defence ministries, in Russia play a much reduced role, and power really is much more concentrated in the hands of the president. 

This has clear implications for the functioning of the intelligence cycle in Russia.

Indeed, one recent analysis of Russian intelligence argued that ‘the highly personalized systems for evaluating intelligence and transmitting it to the President damage its quality and impact on policy’. – Mark Galeotti, Putin’s Hydra: Inside Russia’s Intelligence Services.

Question: What was Vladimir Putin’s job before he became a politician?

Putin, of course, before he became a politician, was an employee of the KGB However, it’s important to unpick some of the stereotypes around Putin and the KGB. It’s well documented that as a young boy in Leningrad Putin longed to join the KGB, even stopping into the KGB’s regional headquarters as a teenager to ask for careers advice as to the best route into the agency. But his career in the KGB was nothing special – he was a mediocre agent, who worked in the GDR filing reports and went largely unnoticed by his bosses.[8]

In his early years many of his political allies come from the same background, the siloviki or those with a security background – although this has changed slightly in recent years. A contradiction – the uppermost reaches of the Russian government is staffed with those with an intelligence background, yet the way that they carry out the business of government may actually compromise the intelligence that they receive from the agencies where they used to work.

How Putin Co-ordinates Active Measures 

To what extent does Putin play a part in the recent active measures that we have seen in the West? According to one expert on Russia, Mark Galeotti, Putin is the final authority for many of the active measures, but he is not the originator. In fact, sources from within and without the Russian gov say that most of the plans for the active measures come from those in the Russian govt and beyond, who are guided by a general sense of what the Kremlin requires. Putin himself is a sort of arbitrator between these various plans or approaches. (This pattern is found in many aspects of Putin’s government). 

As one former Presidential Administration staffer put it, “we would push plans and options up, and eventually get some kind of response back. But it was rare that we’d actually get tasked from the boss [Putin] out of nowhere.’

So although Putin is at the centre of the web, he is very far from the only player in the situation.  But he does have a lot of control here, and this is why it’s very important to analyse the balance between Putin the head of state and Putin’s role in intelligence activity.

The Security Council

So how does intel reach Putin?

The mechanism for managing intelligence from the organs of intelligence into the Kremlin, very roughly comparable with the Joint Intelligence Committee here, is the Security Council. 

The Security Council is a body that answers directly to the president. Since 2008, Nikolai Patrushev has been the council leader. Patrushev is an old colleague of Putin’s from the KGB years, and also worked as head of the FSB before his post at the Security Council. 

The council has around 30 members, and primarily functions as a forum for consultation rather than decision-making. In fact, according to an analysis of this institution from earlier this year, this council has become ‘hollowed out’ and essentially now functions as a conduit for policy from the Kremlin rather than anything the other way. 

The Presidential Administration

In fact, it has become the Presidential Administration that has become the de facto route via which intelligence reaches Putin. And this probably isn’t surprising when we consider the intensely Putin-centric nature of government in Russia. 

Until recently, this agency headed by another ex-KGB man and close ally of Putin, Sergei Ivanov. Now headed by Anton Vaino, a young and unexpected successor to Putin’s old ally. We don’t know much about him, there is speculation that he may be one a new generation of politicians under Putin, or even that his appointment signifies the end of the power of the Pres Admin – wait and see. 

At present, this office manages a massive swathe of presidential business, way beyond questions of intelligence, including drafting laws, briefing the press. What’s important to bear in mind for our purposes is that even though it is this body that manages and assesses intelligence, it wasn’t set up to perform this function. 

The implications of this are:

  1. That it is Presidential Administration officials who monitor intelligence and decide what gets passed up to the president. Many of these do not come from an intelligence background
  2. As a result, this may allow for a more political reading of the intelligence material.
  3. Furthermore, apparently as Putin is somewhat mistrustful of his own bureaucrats, Presidential Admin officials usually cite multiple sources in their reports to him. From an intelligence POV, this can mean that a secret document is balanced with an open source document such as a newspaper report, which can actually result in a misleading report. 

So we have seen two channels through which intelligence passes to the president. But how does the intelligence come into being in the first place? How are intelligence priorities set in Russia? 

It is very difficult to be certain of the answer to this question, however, commentators have recently suggested that one of the main priorities for the intelligence services can be summed up as telling Putin what he wants to hear. Apparently, there may well be a risk that those in the intelligence agencies will not risk bringing bad news – or news he does not wish to hear – to Putin. Furthermore, it also seems that there is no one within government who is charged with challenging intelligence findings. 

‘(Extremely) competitive intelligence’

Another feature of the Russian intelligence cycle has been termed ‘competitive intelligence’. In this model, consensus between the different branches of the intelligence service less of a priority, in fact we often see different branches of the security service competing over the same patch. 

It’s probably the case that there is a degree of competition between intelligence agencies in any country, however, I think it is true to say that it is more pronounced in Russia. set up like that.

A recent example: in 2014, during the Maidan protests in Ukraine, both the foreign arm of the intelligence service the Foreign Intelligence Service and the domestic arm, the FSB, were operating there to gather intelligence. Fundamental difference with the work of the UK intel agencies -the work of the agencies really overlaps – especially true in foreign intel. Quite normal for all the different agencies to be operating competitively abroad. As if Theresa May wasn’t quite satisfied with the reports of MI6, so she sent MI5 to send info back as well. 

This is part of general trend which, until recently, has seen the growth in the remit of FSB both at home and abroad.

Another recent example: the case of Boris Kolesnikov. Once the head of the Interior Ministry’s anticorruption department he died in strange circumstances in the summer of 2014 – it was claimed he had thrown himself from a sixth-floor window. Other reports suggest that his investigations into corruption had simply brought him into conflict with the FSB – and that because this is essentially that this had somehow been a factor in his death. 

Not only do different branches of the security service compete against one another in the field, but they also compete against each other in the Kremlin for the ear of the president. Recent reports from Kremlin sources suggest that in order for a piece of intelligence to make it to the head of the Security Council, it has to be ‘couched in the most extreme language possible’. 

As far as briefing the president goes, both Foreign Intel Service and FSB send Putin daily written reports. Other security organs such as the GRU and FSO also send regular reports directly to the president. But the key issue here is that these reports remain separate, there is little opportunity for comparison or collective analysis.

So let us now turn to the history of Russian intelligence and see what pointers we can find there that might inform our judgement of Russian intelligence today.

History – Tsarist era 

The Russian security service before 1917 had a long history actually. Perhaps a useful starting point for us is when Tsar Nicholas I established a new headquarters for his security service in St Petersburg in the early part of the 19th century and this was to serve as the centre for the Tsarist security service until the revolution of 1917. The service was now known as the Higher Police. Although several of the senior staff remained in post from the previous incarnation of the service under the reign of Tsar Alexander I, the increase in the levels of their activity can be judged from this complaint from one of the Higher Police’s own staff that it was now: ‘impossible to sneeze in one’s own home… without the Sovereign’s finding out about it within an hour.’

Around this time, nearly 100 years before the Russian revolution, when the national intelligence services of each nation were still in the process of transition from informal, ad hoc systems of intelligence collection to the centralised institutions we know today, the usual focus of those seeking intelligence was purely foreign nations. However, it was Russia, disturbed by political unrest from within, who would be the first to begin to look inward and collect intelligence on its own citizens. 

Pre-war history 

Of course, in the years leading up to the Russian revolution, the Bolsheviks had no intention of continuing the tradition of a national intelligence service at all, never mind one that would spy on its own people, and in the immediate aftermath of the revolution there was no Soviet security service. In his pre-revolutionary writing on the subject, Lenin explicitly rejected the idea of the existence of an army and police force in any state that was based on Marxist thinking.

However, as civil war gripped the nascent Soviet nation, this policy was hurriedly dropped, and the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage was created by a resolution of the Council of People’s Commissars, passed on 20 December 1917. The wording of the resolution was a little vague, stating that the Extraordinary Commission would ‘investigate and liquidate all counter-revolutionary activity and sabotage attempts and activities throughout Russia’ although no concrete definition was given about which crimes it was there to solve. 

The offices of the first Soviet intelligence organisation opened in 1917 at Gorokhovia 2 in St Petersburg (Petrograd) and its opening hours were from 12 noon to 5pm and this building remains today a museum of the Russian secret police. They moved to the Lubyanka building in Moscow in early 1918, and this building remains synonymous with Soviet and Russian intelligence. 

The organisation was known by its acronym: VChK, which was pronounced Vecheka and eventually shortened to Cheka. This appellation fell out of use in the early 1920s, after the first reorganization of the security services, when it became known as the GPU. However, the noun derived from it for describing its employees – Chekist – never did, and is still sometimes used to describe the employees of the Russian security service today. 

From the outset, the Soviet intelligence service was in fact responsible for many different aspects of internal and external security. These included activities that might have been found in the files of any intelligence organisation in Europe, including 

  • counter-intelligence, 
  • ensuring security in the economy and transport, 
  • coding and decoding, 
  • guarding the country’s leaders, 
  • maintenance of records, 
  • statistics and archives, 
  • censorship of correspondence, 
  • and terror and sabotage in opponents and abroad.
  • It also included some singularly Soviet items, such as the fight against anti-Soviet elements and the struggle against the clergy.

The Cheka was first reorganized and renamed in February 1922, when it became the State Political Administration or GPU. The GPU was renamed again in November 1923, after the creation of the USSR, when it became the Joint State Political Administration of the USSR, or OGPU USSR, and this time the name remained until 1934, when the OGPU was subsumed into the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs – the NKVD – now under the leadership of G.G. Yagoda. As part of the NKVD, its official title became the Main Administration of State Security and its full acronym the rather lengthy: (GUGB) NKVD USSR. This situation lasted until 1941, when the NKVD was reorganized again, and this time the GUGB became the NKGB USSR.

Although no sign of such brutal inter-agency rivalry as contemporary, but there was even at that point an imbalance between the stronger domestic service and the weaker foreign service which would eventually result in foreign ops being taken over by counter intel and military intel being subordinated to civilian intel. 

An effective, chaotic organisation

One last important feature to note about the Soviet intelligence services is the level of bureaucratic chaos that is a constant feature of the way that they operated. As we can see, the organisations were regularly renamed, reorganised, new bosses, we’ve known this for years. But documents that have become available the past few years show us that these regular reorganisations filtered throughout the organisations – staff were replaced, problems identified within the org, constantly reviewed. Taken together, these documents all indicate that the political police were an organisation characterized by doubts on the part of the management and by change on the part of the staff. This change was not necessarily linear – a poorly functioning organisation remodeling itself into a more efficient organisation – but could be repetitive and counter-productive. When reforms were introduced, it is a matter of interpretation as to how successful they were. 


In the 1930s, a series of great purges known as The Great Terror were carried out against both the Rus elite and population at large. 

Of course, the intelligence service – specifically the NKVD – were in charge of this campaign, literally arresting and executing millions of Russian citizens. Kicked off in 1937, with the issuing of Secret Order 00447, which you can see here, which called for execution of the most hostile elements: kulaks, former Whites, criminals, Mensheviks and other anti-soviet parties, fascists, religious sectarians and exile for those seen as ‘less active’ but still a threat. 

Why did the purges take place? Still debated among historians – some believed Stalin wanted to instill fear throughout Soviet pop, others see it as way of dealing with fears of encirclement and coming war. 

The purges were not confined to those outside the walls of the Lubyanka – even those working for intel services were purged. When Yezhov who headed the NKVD during this period appeared before the USSR Supreme Court in 1940, he would boast of carrying out a massive purge of his own staff: ‘I purged 14,000 chekists. But my great guilt lies in the fact that I purged so few of them…’

The period of the purges not only decimated the ranks of the intelligence services, but it had further impact: 

  • for example the failure to infiltrate the higher ranks of the Nazi Party in Germany hindered Russia’s war effort considerably.
  •  also seems to have had a negative impact on the cryptographic capabilities of the Soviet intelligence service, which set a trend in which cryptography would always trail behind human intelligence. However, in the field of human intel, the Sov Intel Service had some notable successes including…

Post-war successes

Bizarrely, during the period while the purges raged through Russian society at home, abroad Russia was having great success in recruiting British agents who seem to have been greatly motivated by the ideological pull of the Soviet project.

Who were they? Can anyone name them?

They were a bunch of outstanding young men, educated at Cambridge and with incredible connections to the British establishment, all of whom shared a sense of disillusionment with the world as they saw it in the 1930s, beset by economic problems in the west with the Wall Street Crash, and the rise of fascism in Germany. 

The first was Kim Philby who being at a loose end after his university edu at Camb went to work for an organization for aid to workers run from Moscow – front for Comintern and from there was recruited in to the Rus intel service around the mid-1930s.

Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean would be the next two recruits, and then the last two are Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross. They were intelligent, well connected, and they would go on to infiltrate some of the most important institutions of intelligence in the west, along with others such as the BBC where Burgess worked, The Times newspaper where Philby worked during the war as chief war correspondent, all the time passing secrets back to their handlers in Moscow. Blunt worked for MI5 during the war and Philby and Burgess worked for MI6, Philby later working as a British agent in the US.

Burgess was educated at Eton, Maclean was second cousin to the future Queen Elizabeth, Cairncross came top in his year for the examinations to join the FO.

They were really quite incredibly successful at passing intel back to Moscow. In fact, there is something quite odd about how successful they were, given their behavior. Guy Burgess for ex, worked bfre the war at the BBC, then during and after the war in the FO where he had access to all sorts of secret docs and communications. He went on to work at the embassy in Washington, and all this despite the fact that he seems to have been a serious alcoholic, who talked very openly about his admiration for the Sov Un, and took great risks in own personal life. 

One story illustrates his nature – the KGB got in touch with him after the war and told him that would send him money to buy a car to make it easier for him to conduct his work for them. When he received the money from them, he went out and bought a gold, two-door Rolls Royse, which he then drove incredibly recklessly around London. 

Although the West had a great advantage in the fact that at the start of the Cold War they were able to decrypt Soviet secret comms to a great degree – however, this gain was outweighed by the successes on the Russian side which were largely due to the efforts of the Cambridge 5. 

Of course, this could not last, and as the Cold War progressed the pendulum swung back and forth in favour of the US and the West, with developments such as the death of Stalin and the process of destalinization that followed with all the ideological implications, the development by the US of satellite technology, the changing situation in Eastern Europe, and the defection of Soviet agents such as Penkovsky and ultimately Mitrokhin. 


The KGB finally comes into being after another reorganisation after the death of Stalin in 1954. Around this time, it seems that there are concerns both within the Soviet leadership and the intelligence service itself about the breakdown of the intelligence service, and the need to strengthen the service. 

This was the era in which just about all the functions – domestic and foreign – of the intelligence service were brought under one umbrella – although they were still divided up into various departments or directorates.  The comparison is regularly made between this centralized structure and the division of foreign and domestic intel in the US and the UK. It’s been suggested that this combining of the two pillars of intelligence was a result of a blurring of the distinctions between foreign and domestic threat, as it was perceived that even domestic security issues had their roots in foreign soil somewhere. 

As a result of this key structural difference, many observers of the KGB over the years between 1954 and the end of the Soviet Union naturally look to the extraordinary powers and strength of the institution during this time. 

  • rigidly hierarchical structure, with a chairman and a few deputies below
  • a huge geographical range – all over Russia and the Soviet republics, beyond into E Europe
  • beyond the law – answerable only to Soviet leadership
  • ensuring loyalty at home to the leadership throughout entire population 
  • massive network of informers (although not as many as the Stasi had in E Germany)
  • massive network of info which enabled KGB to stay on top of events and therefore adapt to change much better than other Soviet insitutions when the end of the Soviet Union came. 

We tend to think of this as a time when the power of the intelligence service was centralized and extremely strong, but actually there were still great challenges for the intelligence service to face:

  • 1961 Alexander Shelepin gives a speech about the recent reforms of the KGB and he says something rather strange: ‘Now chekists can look into the eyes of the party, into the eyes of the Soviet people, with a clear conscience’. Shelepin’s reference to the conscience of the KGB seems to mark a dramatic break with the Stalinist era, characterized as it was by the purges. But this statement also makes it clear that the KGB is not going away, it’s a part of the Soviet landscape and its staying that way.
  • Reforms during this time are remembered by former KGB officers as extremely traumatic – as they were re-graded which they found very unsettling.
  • Methods were changing: there were even moves away from the secret informers of the earlier Soviet period.

KGB later years

As the decades rolled on, the KGB still put their faith squarely in human intelligence – during this period it is estimated that 40 to 60 per cent of all diplomats at Soviet embassies were in fact intelligence officers. The astonishing advances made in penetrating US intelligence took place as Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who would preside over the break-up of the Soviet Union was coming to power. 

By the beginning of the 1990s, the KGB had around 480,000 employees. 

  • half of those belonged to the border force
  • the majority of the rest worked in one of three departments: the 8th Main Department – cipher, operations and other technical services
  • the 15th which dealt with secure buildings for use in war time
  • or the 9th which was in charge of the security of the leadership. 
  • Around 7-8 per cent at this time were working on intelligence or counter-intel 
  • the 5th department, which one KGB general of the time argues constituted less than one percent of the total KGB staff, was responsible for the persecution of dissidents and suppressing free thought.

As the Soviet Union came to an end some speculated that would also mean the end of the KGB, and indeed it was disbanded – although it was almost immediately resurrected. Probably this was mainly due to the dependence on the part of the Russian leadership on an organization that was capable to keeping things together during a period of social upheaval. Ultimately, Yeltsin passed a number of laws to bolster the position of the new Russian intelligence service – a move, which baffled observers at the time as it coincided with a freeing up of the press, the market and a general loosening of the social constraints of the Soviet era. But of course, all nations have powerful intelligence agencies, no matter whether a democracy or not. 

Russian Intelligence?

Soviet intelligence was undoubtedly a key factor in the Cold War, with some bold and audacious successes. Yet as effective and mighty as it seemed, just like any other intelligence organisation it was and remains beset by the normal failures and reorganisations and internal problems that characterise all intelligence organisations.  

Our perceptions of the Russian Intel agencies are clouded by Cold War memories, decades of movies about Soviet spies, media coverage of Russian activity that is still full of hyperbole and of course, Russia’s recent active measures which encourage us to believe that Russia is a formidable intelligence power with spies and informants everywhere. We need to be really careful about these assumptions when we think about both the historic and contemporary Russian intelligence. 

[1] Report source: https://henryjacksonsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/HJS-Putin-Sees-and-Hears-It-All-Report-web.pdf

[2] https://warontherocks.com/2016/01/we-dont-know-what-to-call-russian-military-intelligence-and-that-may-be-a-problem/

[3] https://inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com/2018/11/03/gru-seems-still-in-putins-favour/

[4] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/07/the-us-has-a-long-history-of-election-meddling/565538/

[5] Duncan Allan, Managed Confrontation: UK Policy Towards Russia After the Salisbury Attack, Chatham House, Oct 2018. 

[6] A. Forrest, ‘Russia’s intelligence services ‘fundamentally degraded’ after Salisbury attack, says Theresa May’, The Independent, 12 Nov 2018.

[7] Source: https://meduza.io/en/feature/2018/11/06/what-is-the-gru-who-gets-recruited-to-be-a-spy-why-are-they-exposed-so-often

[8] Mark Galeotti, We Need to Talk About Putin, Ch 2.