.
I

n September 2018 two men were interviewed by Russia Today. Sitting in drab sweaters, the two individuals were allegedly responsible for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in March of that year. Skripal was a former spy for British intelligence and part of a Cold War-esque spy swap for ten Russian “illegals”. In the eyes of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, Skripal was a traitor to his country and this left him with a very large target on his back.

The men, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, resembled two individuals identified on CCTV stills released by British police. The interview was either a poor attempt at denying their and Russia’s involvement in the poisoning, or a deliberate snub with how farcical the charade was.

In the interview, Boshirov said he and Petrov had visited Salisbury merely to see the sites, specifically the cathedral, noting with odd Wikipedia-esque specificity, which was “famous not just in Europe, but in the whole world. It’s famous for its 123-meter spire, it’s famous for its clock, the first one [of its kind] ever created in the world, which is still working.” He continued on about how they were to visit ancient settlements, Stonehenge, the aforementioned cathedral, before deciding to “finish this thing on 4 March”—the thing being the tour, presumably.

British authorities said that both men’s names were aliases and that they had evidence that tied the two to Russian military intelligence, the GRU. This is to say nothing of the poison itself that was used on Skripal and his daughter. Novichok, is a uniquely Russian product, believed to be deadlier than Sarin or VX nerve agent. Two others were sickened, with one killed, by Novichok, though they were believed to have come into accidental contact with the vial containing the agent originally used against the Skripals.

If anything, the ludicrous interview and Moscow’s denial of the two men almost serves to confirm their involvement—rather than deny these men’s presence in Salisbury. They were, as they repeatedly asserted, just tourists.

Book Review: Russians Among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories, and the Hunt for Putin's Spies, By Gordon Corera | Harper Collins | February 2020.

Russian Spy Games

In reality, this was the latest flash of the wilderness of mirrors that makes up the spy games between Russia and the West—a game masterfully chronicled by Gordon Corera, the BBC security editor, in his newest book, Russians Among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories, and the Hunt for Putin’s Spies. There are few better equipped to cover this fascinating and thrilling subject than Corera. Author of such books as The Art of Betrayal: The Secret History of MI6 and Cyberspies, Corera is intimately familiar with the intelligence world and is a masterful storyteller.

Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t,” and in spy games, he is entirely accurate. Corera weaves a story that, were it not cited and supported by legal cases and in-depth reporting, one could easily mistake it for Hollywood fantasy. Entertainingly, the very cases he discusses inspired many recent television dramas, including The Americans.

Corera’s book focuses on the post-Cold War intelligence activities undertaken by Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union and, especially, since the rise of Putin to the presidency. He weaves together multiple stories and cases of Russian intelligence and American counter- and intelligence efforts into a seamless story. From Alexander Litvinenko’s poisoning with radioactive polonium to the aforementioned poisoning of the Skripals, to the fascinating Ghost Stories case, Corera details what has been going on behind the scenes.

Real Life Ghost Stories

The eponymous “Ghost Stories” is the central feature of Corera’s book. A ten-year-long case, Ghost Stories was the FBI’s identification, tracking, and ultimate arrest of ten Russian “illegals”—deep-cover intelligence officers of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). The illegals adopted false identities, including some that were stolen, and established themselves in the fabric of American society.

The sheer time and money the Russians put into this effort is simply staggering. By one estimate it took close to $100 million to field these ten illegals, train them, equip them, and put them into the United States.

Corera recounts in incredible detail how the illegals were identified by the FBI, tracked, and ultimately arrested. While the illegals failed to provide real “intelligence”, often recycling New York Times reports or information that was publicly available, that was not their real threat.

Their real threat lay in the fact that they were building these identities, identities that were increasingly backstopped and that could, quite possibly, have passed investigation. Their children, natural-born Americans, but sworn into the SVR family, could have taken up positions in the federal government including the Intelligence Community. Their threat was not in the immediacy of their presence, but the long-term damage they could have inflicted.

Missing the Real Threat

Sadly, this part was lost on most Americans when this case was revealed. So much of the focus on the Ghost Stories case, at least in the popular media, was on the glamourous Anna Chapman—the redheaded spy dubbed “Jane Bond” and “Femme Fatale.” Corera exposes more about her life than previously revealed, including her rocky marriage in London (which was delightful fodder for the tabloids in the United Kingdom) and her relentless networking and socializing in New York City. Chapman (whose real name is Anna Vasil’yevna Kushchyenko) was born into the business, even if it was not her original path in life; her father served as a senior KGB official in the Russian embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. Interestingly, Chapman used her real name (her surname taken from her first marriage) unlike the other illegals.

That fixation masked the real and more insidious threat posed by the illegals, but also reflected the prevailing attitude many in the United States had towards Russia and intelligence. Perhaps out of wishful thinking, many outside of the Russia House within the CIA thought, or hoped, that the spy games had ended that the Cold War was over and the West could move on to more productive discussions. There was also a notable element of hubris. The West had won, the Russians were weakened if not defeated, and the peace dividend rendered the competition moot. The Cold Warriors could be put to bed as it were.

Paraphrasing Leon Trotsky, “You may not be interested in espionage, but espionage is interested in you” is very apropos here. During the Cold War and in its aftermath, Corera describes how Russia saw intelligence as a force multiplier and at the core of Moscow’s foreign policy. It was a way to subvert the adversary from within. The West may have thought the spy games had ended, but Russia certainly did not.

For Washington, at a macro level, the world did indeed move on. After the 9/11 attacks, the national security footprint pivoted towards Salafi-Jihadist terrorism almost to the exclusion of everything else. For a community that was searching for a unifying threat, it found one in al-Qa’ida and its associated movements. For those in the diplomatic corps that wanted to build relationships and find areas of cooperation, state-based espionage (like that from Russia and warned of by many in the Intelligence Community) was a distraction. After all, as Corera notes, what are ten spies against the bilateral relationship with Moscow?

Indeed, for some in the Obama administration that relationship was vastly more important. As the case reached its apex, the administration was pushing for closer ties to Dmitri Medvedev, the successor (albeit temporarily) to Vladimir Putin. Obama and Medvedev dined at Ray’s Hell Burger, formerly an institution in Arlington, Virginia, at the same time as the FBI drew in on the “illegals” and the CIA sought to exfiltrate Poteyev. There were discussions and concerns at the National Security Council at how the arrest would affect what was an otherwise, at least superficially, successful visit.

Ultimately, in a true throwback to the Cold War, the ten illegals were swapped for four Russians on the tarmac in Vienna. In exchange for the illegals, the United States received: Igor Sutyagin, a nuclear arms researcher seen as a political prisoner; Sergei Skripal; Aleksandr Zaporozhsky, a member of the SVR; and Gennady Semyonovich Vasilenko, a KGB officer.

Washington was not alone in missing the threat. London, for its part, had reallocated time, energy, and resources away from the Russian threat and towards other (at the time) more pressing concerns. As Corera reports, according to one counterintelligence official, the British “C team” was going against Russia’s “A team” and by the 2000s had all but stopped monitoring the London office of the SVR. This happened against a backdrop of a deluge of Russian money flooding into the City of London’s venerable banking and financial institutions, and Russian oligarchs sought to ingratiate them with the country’s elite.

An American Mole in the SVR’s Court

While the SVR may have been on the offensive, the United States was not flatfooted. The key to Operation Ghost Stories started with a spy in Moscow—Colonel Aleksandr Nikolayevich Poteyev, the former head of Directorate “S” or the “illegals” department within the SVR. Stationed in New York Poteyev was a natural target for FBI recruitment. But as he became increasingly disgruntled at his situation, this effort would eventually prove fruitful. His posting was coming to an end and a request for its extension had been denied. He also enjoyed living in the United States and the prospect of returning home to Moscow at a time when his pension was cut was unappealing.

Poteyev disclosed that the network of illegals was in operation, giving the FBI insight into how they worked and the verbal codes which ultimately led to their roundup. As Corera recounts, with the case reaching a climax, his extraction became of paramount importance. The timing of his extraction, the illegals arrest, and the political sensitivities at the time needed careful management to ensure success. Ultimately, it all proved successful with Poteyev escaping to the United States to live, ostensibly, anonymously after a thorough debriefing.

In one of the more bizarre twists to this spy story Poteyev was unable to stay hidden. Residing in Florida, he used his real name and date of birth to get a fishing license and even registered to vote. Having a higher profile is a particularly dangerous prospect given how Putin feels about traitors.

Much like Dante, Putin reserves the lowest circle of hell for treachery and traitors. An intelligence officer himself, and a card-carrying member of the siloviki (or “people of force”, those drawn from the intelligence or military cadres), Putin feels a very special affinity for those in the spy business.

Much like Dante, Putin reserves the lowest circle of hell for treachery and traitors. An intelligence officer himself, and a card-carrying member of the siloviki (or “people of force”, those drawn from the intelligence or military cadres), Putin feels a very special affinity for those in the spy business.

Treachery in Putin’s World

Much like Dante, Putin reserves the lowest circle of hell for treachery and traitors. An intelligence officer himself, and a card-carrying member of the siloviki (or “people of force”, those drawn from the intelligence or military cadres), Putin feels a very special affinity for those in the spy business.

Indeed, he was inspired to join the KGB by a television program about a deep cover Soviet intelligence officer who disrupted Nazi plans in World War Two. In his youth he boldly walked into the local KGB office asking for a job, only to be told to go to school and get a degree, which he did.

It is worth quoting Putin at length to see the intensity of his feelings towards traitors. During an annual question and answer in December 2010 after the illegals were arrested, Putin said:  

As for traitors, they will drop dead without any assistance because…Well, take the recent spy scandal, in which a group of our undercover agents was betrayed. They were officers, you understand? And the traitor exposed his friends—his comrades in arms whose lives were dedicated to serving their homeland.

Just imagine what it means to speak a foreign language as a native tongue, to give up one’s relatives and not even be able to attend their funerals. Think about it! A person spends his life serving the homeland, and then some bastard betrays him. How can he live after that? How can he look into the eyes of his children, the swine?

No matter what gains a traitor receives for his malice, 30 silver pieces or what have you, he will never derive any pleasure from them. Spending the rest of your life in hiding, unable to talk with your near and dear ones—the person who chooses such a fate for himself will regret it a thousand times over.

That Skripal was targeted, that Alexander Litvinenko (the former FSB officer turned Putin critic) was poisoned, or that any of the other Russian spies who defected to the West met untimely ends is not in the least bit surprising when looked at through Putin’s statement above. He neither forgives nor forgets.

Ghosts of the Future

The irony is that the golden age of the “illegals” may be over. Establishing deep cover, having fully backstopped stories that can survive intense scrutiny, shifting identities and, in reality, basic intelligence tradecraft is becoming increasingly difficult in this high-tech age. Simply finding a deceased child’s identity in a graveyard and building a life from there is nearly impossible with crosslinked databases and information available at the push of a button. This is to say nothing of biometrics and facial recognition.

From the outside, it is difficult to tell with certainty how things have changed. As fascinating and exciting as the intelligence world is, it is and will always be behind the curtain. One can, however, speculate.

Individuals may be one and done for intelligence operations. Once their cover is blown or the identity used, going back to it would almost certainly result in discovery and capture. Here, using real identities may suffice. The shift to cyber espionage, well underway at this point, may fill in some of the gaps, but there will never be a replacement for human intelligence, no matter how good the hackers become.

As Corera notes, the Russians, seeing the failure of 2010, may already be shifting their calculus to “co-optees” or individuals who don’t realize there are spying or operating on behalf of the Russian intelligence services. They may be Russians approached by business representatives or academics and asked to research a subject or get close to a target. It may be innocuous enough, but part of a broader scheme. Interestingly, given the fragmented political structure within Moscow, with everyone hoping to gain favor with Putin, it is entirely possible that there are multiple disconnected operations ongoing at the same time. An oligarch hoping to get close to a business target could well be paralleling an SVR operation seeking to get intelligence from that target’s broader network.

This may be where Maria Butina falls. Butina pleaded guilty to acting as an agent of a foreign government in 2018, and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. She allegedly was working to get close to the National Rifle Association and Republican political operatives. According to the affidavit, she was working at the direction of high-level Russian officials to infiltrate and influence these organizations—charges she denies. Moscow, not surprisingly, denied any involvement or knowledge of Butina’s activities.

America & the Future of Russian Espionage

By the end of the book, one is left marveling at the intelligence activities of both Russia and the United States, staggered by the moves and counter moves, and wondering what is happening right now. Corera writes with such fluidity that were you to swap the author’s name with John le Carré, you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that this is a work of fiction.

One can’t also be faulted for looking at Russia’s activities in 2016 with a sense of fatalist inevitability. Given Moscow’s long-term planning and aims with the illegals case, that they would seek to disrupt the election, interject chaos and discord into American democracy, and seek to use intelligence to subvert Americans’ trust in the system is not surprising at all. Perhaps the biggest frustration a reader would have is the lack of public awareness or appreciation of the real threat.

As Thomas Rid notes in his superb Active Measures, Americans underestimated the vulnerability of the system to foreign influence and overestimated the actual effectiveness of the Russian efforts. Taken together with the President’s active denial and effort to distance himself from anything Russia-related, if anything Americans are more skeptical of Russian intelligence activities, believing it to be “fake news”. This post-truth world leaves us deeply vulnerable to the very activities Corera so masterfully recounts.

Perhaps the only saving grace of this account is the sheer professionalism and expertise of the women and men of America’s Intelligence Community and counter-intelligence focused law enforcement apparatuses. We may never know their successes, but that they are there and working to undermine Russian efforts and advance our own intelligence goals is confidence-inspiring.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories, and the Hunt for Putin’s Spies

June 13, 2020

Book Review: Russians Among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories, and the Hunt for Putin's Spies, By Gordon Corera | Harper Collins | February 2020.

I

n September 2018 two men were interviewed by Russia Today. Sitting in drab sweaters, the two individuals were allegedly responsible for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in March of that year. Skripal was a former spy for British intelligence and part of a Cold War-esque spy swap for ten Russian “illegals”. In the eyes of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, Skripal was a traitor to his country and this left him with a very large target on his back.

The men, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, resembled two individuals identified on CCTV stills released by British police. The interview was either a poor attempt at denying their and Russia’s involvement in the poisoning, or a deliberate snub with how farcical the charade was.

In the interview, Boshirov said he and Petrov had visited Salisbury merely to see the sites, specifically the cathedral, noting with odd Wikipedia-esque specificity, which was “famous not just in Europe, but in the whole world. It’s famous for its 123-meter spire, it’s famous for its clock, the first one [of its kind] ever created in the world, which is still working.” He continued on about how they were to visit ancient settlements, Stonehenge, the aforementioned cathedral, before deciding to “finish this thing on 4 March”—the thing being the tour, presumably.

British authorities said that both men’s names were aliases and that they had evidence that tied the two to Russian military intelligence, the GRU. This is to say nothing of the poison itself that was used on Skripal and his daughter. Novichok, is a uniquely Russian product, believed to be deadlier than Sarin or VX nerve agent. Two others were sickened, with one killed, by Novichok, though they were believed to have come into accidental contact with the vial containing the agent originally used against the Skripals.

If anything, the ludicrous interview and Moscow’s denial of the two men almost serves to confirm their involvement—rather than deny these men’s presence in Salisbury. They were, as they repeatedly asserted, just tourists.

Book Review: Russians Among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories, and the Hunt for Putin's Spies, By Gordon Corera | Harper Collins | February 2020.

Russian Spy Games

In reality, this was the latest flash of the wilderness of mirrors that makes up the spy games between Russia and the West—a game masterfully chronicled by Gordon Corera, the BBC security editor, in his newest book, Russians Among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories, and the Hunt for Putin’s Spies. There are few better equipped to cover this fascinating and thrilling subject than Corera. Author of such books as The Art of Betrayal: The Secret History of MI6 and Cyberspies, Corera is intimately familiar with the intelligence world and is a masterful storyteller.

Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t,” and in spy games, he is entirely accurate. Corera weaves a story that, were it not cited and supported by legal cases and in-depth reporting, one could easily mistake it for Hollywood fantasy. Entertainingly, the very cases he discusses inspired many recent television dramas, including The Americans.

Corera’s book focuses on the post-Cold War intelligence activities undertaken by Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union and, especially, since the rise of Putin to the presidency. He weaves together multiple stories and cases of Russian intelligence and American counter- and intelligence efforts into a seamless story. From Alexander Litvinenko’s poisoning with radioactive polonium to the aforementioned poisoning of the Skripals, to the fascinating Ghost Stories case, Corera details what has been going on behind the scenes.

Real Life Ghost Stories

The eponymous “Ghost Stories” is the central feature of Corera’s book. A ten-year-long case, Ghost Stories was the FBI’s identification, tracking, and ultimate arrest of ten Russian “illegals”—deep-cover intelligence officers of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). The illegals adopted false identities, including some that were stolen, and established themselves in the fabric of American society.

The sheer time and money the Russians put into this effort is simply staggering. By one estimate it took close to $100 million to field these ten illegals, train them, equip them, and put them into the United States.

Corera recounts in incredible detail how the illegals were identified by the FBI, tracked, and ultimately arrested. While the illegals failed to provide real “intelligence”, often recycling New York Times reports or information that was publicly available, that was not their real threat.

Their real threat lay in the fact that they were building these identities, identities that were increasingly backstopped and that could, quite possibly, have passed investigation. Their children, natural-born Americans, but sworn into the SVR family, could have taken up positions in the federal government including the Intelligence Community. Their threat was not in the immediacy of their presence, but the long-term damage they could have inflicted.

Missing the Real Threat

Sadly, this part was lost on most Americans when this case was revealed. So much of the focus on the Ghost Stories case, at least in the popular media, was on the glamourous Anna Chapman—the redheaded spy dubbed “Jane Bond” and “Femme Fatale.” Corera exposes more about her life than previously revealed, including her rocky marriage in London (which was delightful fodder for the tabloids in the United Kingdom) and her relentless networking and socializing in New York City. Chapman (whose real name is Anna Vasil’yevna Kushchyenko) was born into the business, even if it was not her original path in life; her father served as a senior KGB official in the Russian embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. Interestingly, Chapman used her real name (her surname taken from her first marriage) unlike the other illegals.

That fixation masked the real and more insidious threat posed by the illegals, but also reflected the prevailing attitude many in the United States had towards Russia and intelligence. Perhaps out of wishful thinking, many outside of the Russia House within the CIA thought, or hoped, that the spy games had ended that the Cold War was over and the West could move on to more productive discussions. There was also a notable element of hubris. The West had won, the Russians were weakened if not defeated, and the peace dividend rendered the competition moot. The Cold Warriors could be put to bed as it were.

Paraphrasing Leon Trotsky, “You may not be interested in espionage, but espionage is interested in you” is very apropos here. During the Cold War and in its aftermath, Corera describes how Russia saw intelligence as a force multiplier and at the core of Moscow’s foreign policy. It was a way to subvert the adversary from within. The West may have thought the spy games had ended, but Russia certainly did not.

For Washington, at a macro level, the world did indeed move on. After the 9/11 attacks, the national security footprint pivoted towards Salafi-Jihadist terrorism almost to the exclusion of everything else. For a community that was searching for a unifying threat, it found one in al-Qa’ida and its associated movements. For those in the diplomatic corps that wanted to build relationships and find areas of cooperation, state-based espionage (like that from Russia and warned of by many in the Intelligence Community) was a distraction. After all, as Corera notes, what are ten spies against the bilateral relationship with Moscow?

Indeed, for some in the Obama administration that relationship was vastly more important. As the case reached its apex, the administration was pushing for closer ties to Dmitri Medvedev, the successor (albeit temporarily) to Vladimir Putin. Obama and Medvedev dined at Ray’s Hell Burger, formerly an institution in Arlington, Virginia, at the same time as the FBI drew in on the “illegals” and the CIA sought to exfiltrate Poteyev. There were discussions and concerns at the National Security Council at how the arrest would affect what was an otherwise, at least superficially, successful visit.

Ultimately, in a true throwback to the Cold War, the ten illegals were swapped for four Russians on the tarmac in Vienna. In exchange for the illegals, the United States received: Igor Sutyagin, a nuclear arms researcher seen as a political prisoner; Sergei Skripal; Aleksandr Zaporozhsky, a member of the SVR; and Gennady Semyonovich Vasilenko, a KGB officer.

Washington was not alone in missing the threat. London, for its part, had reallocated time, energy, and resources away from the Russian threat and towards other (at the time) more pressing concerns. As Corera reports, according to one counterintelligence official, the British “C team” was going against Russia’s “A team” and by the 2000s had all but stopped monitoring the London office of the SVR. This happened against a backdrop of a deluge of Russian money flooding into the City of London’s venerable banking and financial institutions, and Russian oligarchs sought to ingratiate them with the country’s elite.

An American Mole in the SVR’s Court

While the SVR may have been on the offensive, the United States was not flatfooted. The key to Operation Ghost Stories started with a spy in Moscow—Colonel Aleksandr Nikolayevich Poteyev, the former head of Directorate “S” or the “illegals” department within the SVR. Stationed in New York Poteyev was a natural target for FBI recruitment. But as he became increasingly disgruntled at his situation, this effort would eventually prove fruitful. His posting was coming to an end and a request for its extension had been denied. He also enjoyed living in the United States and the prospect of returning home to Moscow at a time when his pension was cut was unappealing.

Poteyev disclosed that the network of illegals was in operation, giving the FBI insight into how they worked and the verbal codes which ultimately led to their roundup. As Corera recounts, with the case reaching a climax, his extraction became of paramount importance. The timing of his extraction, the illegals arrest, and the political sensitivities at the time needed careful management to ensure success. Ultimately, it all proved successful with Poteyev escaping to the United States to live, ostensibly, anonymously after a thorough debriefing.

In one of the more bizarre twists to this spy story Poteyev was unable to stay hidden. Residing in Florida, he used his real name and date of birth to get a fishing license and even registered to vote. Having a higher profile is a particularly dangerous prospect given how Putin feels about traitors.

Much like Dante, Putin reserves the lowest circle of hell for treachery and traitors. An intelligence officer himself, and a card-carrying member of the siloviki (or “people of force”, those drawn from the intelligence or military cadres), Putin feels a very special affinity for those in the spy business.

Much like Dante, Putin reserves the lowest circle of hell for treachery and traitors. An intelligence officer himself, and a card-carrying member of the siloviki (or “people of force”, those drawn from the intelligence or military cadres), Putin feels a very special affinity for those in the spy business.

Treachery in Putin’s World

Much like Dante, Putin reserves the lowest circle of hell for treachery and traitors. An intelligence officer himself, and a card-carrying member of the siloviki (or “people of force”, those drawn from the intelligence or military cadres), Putin feels a very special affinity for those in the spy business.

Indeed, he was inspired to join the KGB by a television program about a deep cover Soviet intelligence officer who disrupted Nazi plans in World War Two. In his youth he boldly walked into the local KGB office asking for a job, only to be told to go to school and get a degree, which he did.

It is worth quoting Putin at length to see the intensity of his feelings towards traitors. During an annual question and answer in December 2010 after the illegals were arrested, Putin said:  

As for traitors, they will drop dead without any assistance because…Well, take the recent spy scandal, in which a group of our undercover agents was betrayed. They were officers, you understand? And the traitor exposed his friends—his comrades in arms whose lives were dedicated to serving their homeland.

Just imagine what it means to speak a foreign language as a native tongue, to give up one’s relatives and not even be able to attend their funerals. Think about it! A person spends his life serving the homeland, and then some bastard betrays him. How can he live after that? How can he look into the eyes of his children, the swine?

No matter what gains a traitor receives for his malice, 30 silver pieces or what have you, he will never derive any pleasure from them. Spending the rest of your life in hiding, unable to talk with your near and dear ones—the person who chooses such a fate for himself will regret it a thousand times over.

That Skripal was targeted, that Alexander Litvinenko (the former FSB officer turned Putin critic) was poisoned, or that any of the other Russian spies who defected to the West met untimely ends is not in the least bit surprising when looked at through Putin’s statement above. He neither forgives nor forgets.

Ghosts of the Future

The irony is that the golden age of the “illegals” may be over. Establishing deep cover, having fully backstopped stories that can survive intense scrutiny, shifting identities and, in reality, basic intelligence tradecraft is becoming increasingly difficult in this high-tech age. Simply finding a deceased child’s identity in a graveyard and building a life from there is nearly impossible with crosslinked databases and information available at the push of a button. This is to say nothing of biometrics and facial recognition.

From the outside, it is difficult to tell with certainty how things have changed. As fascinating and exciting as the intelligence world is, it is and will always be behind the curtain. One can, however, speculate.

Individuals may be one and done for intelligence operations. Once their cover is blown or the identity used, going back to it would almost certainly result in discovery and capture. Here, using real identities may suffice. The shift to cyber espionage, well underway at this point, may fill in some of the gaps, but there will never be a replacement for human intelligence, no matter how good the hackers become.

As Corera notes, the Russians, seeing the failure of 2010, may already be shifting their calculus to “co-optees” or individuals who don’t realize there are spying or operating on behalf of the Russian intelligence services. They may be Russians approached by business representatives or academics and asked to research a subject or get close to a target. It may be innocuous enough, but part of a broader scheme. Interestingly, given the fragmented political structure within Moscow, with everyone hoping to gain favor with Putin, it is entirely possible that there are multiple disconnected operations ongoing at the same time. An oligarch hoping to get close to a business target could well be paralleling an SVR operation seeking to get intelligence from that target’s broader network.

This may be where Maria Butina falls. Butina pleaded guilty to acting as an agent of a foreign government in 2018, and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. She allegedly was working to get close to the National Rifle Association and Republican political operatives. According to the affidavit, she was working at the direction of high-level Russian officials to infiltrate and influence these organizations—charges she denies. Moscow, not surprisingly, denied any involvement or knowledge of Butina’s activities.

America & the Future of Russian Espionage

By the end of the book, one is left marveling at the intelligence activities of both Russia and the United States, staggered by the moves and counter moves, and wondering what is happening right now. Corera writes with such fluidity that were you to swap the author’s name with John le Carré, you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that this is a work of fiction.

One can’t also be faulted for looking at Russia’s activities in 2016 with a sense of fatalist inevitability. Given Moscow’s long-term planning and aims with the illegals case, that they would seek to disrupt the election, interject chaos and discord into American democracy, and seek to use intelligence to subvert Americans’ trust in the system is not surprising at all. Perhaps the biggest frustration a reader would have is the lack of public awareness or appreciation of the real threat.

As Thomas Rid notes in his superb Active Measures, Americans underestimated the vulnerability of the system to foreign influence and overestimated the actual effectiveness of the Russian efforts. Taken together with the President’s active denial and effort to distance himself from anything Russia-related, if anything Americans are more skeptical of Russian intelligence activities, believing it to be “fake news”. This post-truth world leaves us deeply vulnerable to the very activities Corera so masterfully recounts.

Perhaps the only saving grace of this account is the sheer professionalism and expertise of the women and men of America’s Intelligence Community and counter-intelligence focused law enforcement apparatuses. We may never know their successes, but that they are there and working to undermine Russian efforts and advance our own intelligence goals is confidence-inspiring.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.