If Russian intelligence were a baseball team, they’d be the Houston Astro—good, powerful, even lethal, but cheaters who broke the rules in a game already known for bending them. And they pretty much got away with it.
“I like that analogy,” says retired top former CIA clandestine operations official Marc Polymeropoulos. “I would add that the Houston players were never really sanctioned either, right? They lost their manager and GM, but players got off scot-free. Sound familiar?”
Whatever the analogy, Russia’s spies took the field like bruising athletes in 2020, scoring big, clever, espionage wins in the West but also tripping over themselves with clumsy murder plots that further blackened their names on the competitive field of international relations. You’d think the manager would be fired with such a record, but then again, this team is run by Vladimir Putin. He just doesn’t care.
“What surprises me is Putin's willingness to risk getting caught over such small fry,” says John Sipher, who knows a thing or two about the Russians, having been a CIA station chief in Moscow. All those targets were “no real threat to Putin.”
The opposition figure Alexei Navalny, he noted, “gets something like 3 per cent support” across Russia, yet last August the FSB, Moscow’s internal security organ, tried to poison him to death with the nerve agent Novichok.
It’s a pattern: Two years ago, the GRU, Russia’s thuggish military intelligence agency, sent death squads to liquidate a long ago turncoat agent, Serge Skripal, with Novichok. (It nearly killed him.) In February Bulgarian authorities charged three Russian agents in absentia with trying to poison a Sofia arms dealer and two associates in 2015. Last year Moscow used more old fashioned methods to eliminate a Chechen separatist fighter in Germany—a bullet to the head on a Berlin street.
It’s Murder Inc. with guns and poison—no cloaks, no daggers, thank you very much.
Douglas London, another retired former senior CIA official, says the hits “serve a purpose, and there’s little cost.”
“He likes the macho image,” he adds. “It’s just old school Russian.”
“It is over the line but he hasn't paid a price for any of it,” Sipher told SpyTalk.
Well, let’s say it’s a price Putin can live with: a bitch slap from the governments he’s offended, in the form of expulsions and sanctions. A SpyTalk review—inspired by Rob Lee, a PhD candidate at Kings College in London— found that 14 Russian spies were publicly expelled from seven nations in 2020, most for espionage, a few for political meddling. In a Hollywood-quality farce, two Russian “diplomats” were expelled from Prague this year after they were found to have planted a phony story in a local media outlet saying another Russian—a rival in their embassy, as it turned out— was plotting to poison Czech officials. In a comedic climax, Moscow reacted with high dudgeon to the PNGs. In next-door Slovakia, three Russians were expelled in retaliation for Moscow obtaining false Slovak visas to enter Germany for the Berlin assassination.
The same went for other places where Moscow’s agents were apparently caught red-handed in espionage or political intrigue.
Just last week in Colombia, for example, two suspected Russian intelligence officers were expelled for reportedly collecting intelligence on the “energy industry and mineral commodities” and for “attempting to recruit sources in the city of Cali.”
A week earlier, Bulgaria gave a Russian diplomat 72 hours to leave the country “after prosecutors alleged he had been involved in espionage since 2017,” according to Reuters, citing the foreign ministry.
On December 10, the Netherlands expelled “two alleged Russian diplomats” for targeting its “high-tech sector with a substantial network of sources,” according to the BBC. The expelled Russians, it said, were accredited diplomats working from the Russian Embassy in The Hague.
Likewise back in August, Norway expelled a Russian “diplomat” involved in espionage targeting an Oslo consultancy in shipbuilding, renewable energy and the oil and gas industry. A week later, Austria expelled a Russian “diplomat” who had allegedly been involved for years in economic espionage at a technology firm, aided by an Austrian citizen. Russia responded in kind.
Moscow meddled more seriously in Guyana, on the northern mainland of South America, according to a news report in March from its capital. “A Russian, Russian-American, and Libyan were expelled on charges that they attempted “to interfere in the electoral process at the behest of” an opposition party, via a “conspiracy to tap into the Guyana Elections Commission computer system.”
Ukraine, on the other hand, didn’t settle for booting Russian agents. At virtual war with Moscow since its invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine just this week “shut down four intelligence networks and detained eleven agents of the Russia secret services, three of whom were involved in attempted sabotage and terrorist attacks on critical infrastructure facilities,” Kyiv announced. “Another FSB agent was detained in Luhansk region. He tried to hand over to the foreign side the secret documentation on the Neptun missile system developed by the Ukrainian defense industry,” it added. Further counterintelligence investigations are ongoing.
Russia’s Ukrainian agents, meanwhile, continued to meddle in U.S. politics, in particular the campaign by Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani to smear Joe Biden’s son Hunter. In September the Treasury Department said it was going to sanction Ukrainian Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russian member of the Ukrainian parliament, for conspiring with Giuliani to fabricate charges against Hunter Biden. “Derkach... has been an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services,” Treasury found. Giuliani is reportedly under investigation in Manhattan for “potentially illegal gains from his work with” the Soviet-born U.S. businessmen Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman “in a Ukrainian natural-gas business.”
Washington had little recourse but sanctions, or indictments in absentia, against Russian agents in the Hunter Biden affair and other, even more, egregious attacks on the U.S in 2020, since all of the perpetrators were beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement.
In October, for example, the U.S. charged six current and former members of Russia’s military intelligence agency “for allegedly carrying out some of the world’s most destructive hacking attacks from 2015 to 2019, including knocking out Ukraine’s power grid and causing almost $1 billion in damage to three American companies.” All of the accused are outside of the U.S.
Likewise, U.S. officials are still sorting out legal options for dealing with the recently discovered massive Russian intrusion into the computer systems of multiple federal agencies, including the departments of Defense, Treasury, Homeland Security, Agriculture, and Commerce. “While U.S. officials believe that a Russia-linked entity or Russian individuals are responsible for the attacks, they have not yet finalized their designation on which actors are responsible,” a senior administration official told CNN.
From Russia’s embassy came more indignation: “another unfounded attempt of the U.S. media to blame Russia for hacker attacks on U.S. governmental bodies.”
Two years ago, in reaction to the Skripal poisoning, the U.S. and 28 other countries punted more than 150 Russian officials from their shores. Washington alone expelled 60 Russians, including 12 intelligence officers from Moscow’s mission to the U.N. headquarters in New York, and closed the Russian consulate in Seattle.
In 2020, Putin appeared a bit more careful about foreign assassinations. Or maybe it was just a coincidence, a lack of timely targets.
The Russian strongman shows no sign of changing course. Quite the contrary: He’s been lionizing his intelligence services. Kicking off 2020 last January, his SVR chief held an unprecedented ceremony to honor several operatives who had served with distinction around the world.
Putin has good reason to puff his chest, say top former CIA officials with long histories battling Moscow Centre: Trump has not made Russia pay any substantial price for its excesses.
“It’s not that the Russians are that good, but over the course of the last four years, the political climate has impeded the U.S. intelligence community from leveraging its capabilities and advantages, with the White House providing the Kremlin top cover from consequences,” London, who recently retired from a 34-year career in the CIA’s Clandestine Services Division, told SpyTalk.
“There are no rules in espionage, even though it's an internationally recognized norm,” says Dan Hoffman, who besides running the CIA station in Moscow led large-scale espionage campaigns against Russia in Europe and elsewhere. “Putin plays by no rules, just the maximum he can get away with.”
“He is either just a KGB thug or he's really more scared that we think.” adds Sipher. ”I tend to think he simply continues to see the world like a Soviet Chekist and this is what they do.”
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