Despite a fairly limited budget and access to resources, the past few years have been dominated by discussions of Russia’s covert and hybrid warfare efforts the world over. With a Gross Domestic Product that’s a bit more than 1/18th the size of America’s and a defense budget that’s roughly 1/10th that of the most dominant military on the globe, Russia has managed to maintain their seat at the table of global influencers like the U.S. and China through a combination of strategy and sheer audacity; coupling Bond villain-esque doomsday weapons with a robust propaganda machine and global network of cyber warriors tasked with manipulating perceptions through various forms of digital engagement.
But as any spy will tell you, HUMINT (or Human Intelligence) is the heart of any country’s espionage enterprise, and it requires direct human engagement to function. Russia has successfully infiltrated everything from Twitter conversations about vaccines to America’s commercial energy grid, but increasingly they’re finding it difficult to operate physically within American and European nations — thanks in no small part to Russia’s high profile hybrid warfare successes shifting perceptions onto the Kremlin and its aggressive foreign policy.
For years, Russia relied on the international status quo to bolster their denials of more egregious violations of laws, treaties, and agreements. Because no other nation on the planet operates with such wanton disregard for the norms that have sustained peace since the end of the second World War, many within the global community were inclined to assume Russia’s official statements disavowing knowledge of journalist assassinations and war crimes were true — enabling Russia to maintain a two-faced approach to foreign engagement. Russia has long presented itself as an agent of peace, standing tall against a West hell bent on its destruction, while simultaneously working covertly to destabilize national governments and support dictators that face similar “oppression” from America and its allies.
However, thanks to the attention Russia has continued to garner through exposed elements of their hybrid warfare endeavor as well as high profile embarrassments like the failed assassination of a former Russian military intelligence officer turned MI6 informant in Salisbury, England, earlier this year, Russia has seen repeated expulsions of diplomatic staff from a number of Western nations. In fact, 21 nations expelled more than 130 Russian diplomats and accompanying staff from within their borders over the Salisbury attack alone. These diplomats and state employees aren’t just operating in foreign nations as a part of general political discourse, they also play an integral role in covert intelligence gathering and operations. To put it bluntly, spies feel right at home in embassies. By clearing out Russian embassies, there is no denying their espionage efforts have been hindered.
Perhaps this shifting perception and accompanying reduction in Russian diplomatic presence throughout the U.S. and Europe has led to a heightened awareness of malign Russian activities. Or perhaps Russian operatives, now bereft of some of the organization and support they used to rely on, have begun making more mistakes. In any regard, Russian spies have been outed all over Europe in the past four weeks alone.
First, the UK released images of two Russian spies they allege committed the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England. Soon thereafter, Swiss officials confirmed that authorities in the Netherlands had arrested and expelled another two suspected Russian spies who had been working to infiltrate the Swiss laboratory involved with testing the Soviet era nerve agent used in the Salisbury attack. Earlier this month, Estonian officials arrested an officer in their own military and his father, both Russian-Estonian citizens, on allegations of long term spying against the Estonian government. Finally, this past Friday, officials in Norway arrested a Russian man for unlawful intelligence gathering during an inter-parliamentary seminar.
In each instance, Russia has denied any involvement in the cases levied by these four national governments, often crediting an “anti-Russian conspiracy” for what they claim are “absurd” allegations — but it seems likely that Russia’s broad and audacious foreign meddling may finally be resulting in a few tough outcomes for the Kremlin. That isn’t to say that Russia’s covert foreign efforts are facing a downturn — likely the opposite — but it does seem to suggest that Russia’s most powerful 21st century weapon, perception, may also be one of their weaknesses.