Hitmen gunning down victims in parks in broad daylight. Deaths resulting from acute exposure to weapons-grade nerve agents. Election interference. Covert online influence operations. And sleeper cell intelligence officers. If that list sounds like something out of a movie or thriller novel, it isn’t. Welcome to the new age of Russia’s efforts to influence or otherwise inform Putin’s ongoing battle against the “Main Enemy” — the West.
Gordon Corera’s newly released book, “Russians Among Us“, offers a comprehensive and damning account of Russian intelligence efforts against the West from the Cold War to the present. Using the infamous 2010 sleeper cell “Illegals” program as the backdrop, Corera diligently shines light on the extensive efforts by Russian security services to infiltrate and influence the world around them using clandestine and covert means.
While by no means alarmist, this book presents the “urgent story” of Russian espionage efforts and makes several things abundantly clear: Deep-cover Russian intelligence officers operate and live in the West and Russian “active measures” are alive and well. And it’s only getting more difficult to mitigate the risk posed from these measures, let alone clearly identify them when employed.
The advent of big data, technology, and the rapid exchange of information may have affected the landscape in which more traditional deep-cover intelligence operations are conducted (e.g. complicating the ability to use more traditional alias cover identification documents). They have also made it slightly more difficult to rely on Cold War-era spycraft alone. However, Russian espionage efforts have evolved to fit the modern environment, and Western services are struggling to keep up.
As Edward Lucas appropriately identifies in an outstanding piece in Foreign Policy magazine titled The Spycraft Revolution, “the balance of power in the spy world is shifting: closed societies now have the edge over open ones. It has become harder for Western countries to spy on places such as China, Iran, and Russia and easier for those countries’ intelligence services to spy on the rest of the world.”
As evidenced by the U.S.’s seemingly uncoordinated and partisan response to revelations of Russian interference in the 2016 election — a bold and divisive active measure conducted by Russian security services that struck at the heart of U.S. democracy — the West has yet to get a handle on the extent to which Putin will go in order to level the playing field. The U.K.’s weak response to the Russian use of a military-grade nerve agent developed in a chemical weapons lab in the attempted murder of a Russian dissident on British soil is another example of this boldness.
If the Western intelligence strategy entails operations that are meticulously planned, fully backstopped, with most risk mitigated and every possible contingency accounted for — in short, the perfect, traditionally-modeled Cold War-era intelligence operation — the new age Russian intelligence strategy is a brazen “death by a thousand cuts.”
As evidenced by the bold Russian annexation of the Crimea, by Russian covert action in eastern Ukraine, by Russian cyberattacks against critical infrastructure, by election interference and “troll factory” information operations, assassinations, and the use of “unregistered foreign agents” to curry influence at all levels of government, Putin’s security service apparatus is in full gear and showing no signs of stopping.
Covering both the perspective of the FBI and the Russian intelligence officers over the course of a decade, “Russians Among Us” provides a detailed glimpse of Russian spycraft, some of which is traditional but a lot of it has evolved to fit modern times. Innovation and technology are the name of the game.
Make no mistake: Deep-cover Russian intelligence officers live among us. Highly trained and playing the strategic long-term gain, their objective is to infiltrate Western society and establish a persistent collection for the benefit of the motherland. The ability of Western services to recognize, adapt, and respond to these measures in no small way will affect the balance of power between Russia and the West. This holds especially true given Putin’s recent referendum to amend the Russian constitution and solidify his place at the head of the Russian government for many more years to come.
Knowledge is power, and awareness of Russian intelligence measures is often enough for the everyday citizen living in modern Western society today. Read “Russians Among Us” and educate yourself on Russian sleeper cells, operation Ghost Stories, and the hunt for Putin’s spies.
Thanks for listening.
Author’s note: the author would be remiss not to mention the title “From Russia With Blood” as well, which is an excellent investigative body of research highlighting the Kremlin’s assassination program and Putin’s war on the West. There is some overlap, but both books pair well with each other. Put the trashy novels on hold — these non-fictional accounts read like thrillers but are in fact reality.