Tracing the Cold War roots of Russia’s digital-age intelligence strategy

Greg Myre

THE WASHINGTON POST – Spying may be the world’s second-oldest profession, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has certainly given it a fresh makeover.

To fully grasp what Russia did in the 2016 United States (US) presidential election – and hopes to replicate this fall – you need to look back to the end of the Cold War. Putin was a young Soviet KGB officer in Dresden, East Germany, and as the Berlin Wall teetered, he sought guidance from Moscow. The response: “Moscow is silent.”

Putin was stunned as the Soviet empire collapsed in what he has called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century.” To restore what was lost, Putin has focussed on reimagining Russian intelligence – something the US often underestimated until the last presidential vote.

“Spies – the threat of foreign ones and the successes of Russia’s own – would be a defining theme for Vladimir Putin,” Gordon Corera wrote in his excellent new book, Russians Among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories, and the Hunt for Putin’s Spies.

“Russia may not be an economic giant, but one area where it was still a first-class power was espionage, and Putin would double down on his intelligence services as a means to wield power and influence around the world,” Corera added. Corera, the BBC’s intelligence correspondent since 2004, offers extraordinary details on Russian spies like Andrey Bezrukov, who became Donald Heathfield and lived in North America for 23 years, a journey that took him from odd jobs in Canada to a master’s degree from Harvard. His wife and fellow spy, Elena Vavilova, who took the name Ann Foley, refused anesthetics during childbirth because she worried the drugs would cloud her mind and cause her to scream out in Russian, not English.

Corera weaves multiple story lines together to make a compelling case. By the time he works his way to Russia’s 2016 election interference, the operation isn’t a surprise, it’s an inevitability.

The big takeaway is that Putin’s Russia has moved away from traditional methods, such as “deep-cover illegals”.

These were Russians like Bezrukov and Vavilova, who effectively became middle-class Americans as part of a patient, long-term approach to infiltrating the US. These tales also provided fodder for the entertaining television series The Americans.

But now, the Russians tend to work with “co-optees”, who may be Russian students or business executives in the US, well-placed to cultivate contacts.

They live openly under their own names, carry their real Russian passports, don’t possess spy gadgetry and may only come to the US for relatively short visits.

“They were Russians who were not trained spies at all but who were co-opted in to help.

“In some cases, these people might not even have known they were working for Russian intelligence,” Corera wrote.

Corera builds his book around a 2010 spy swap in which 10 Russian spies, mostly deep-cover illegals, were arrested in the US and sent home. In exchange, Russia released four spies caught working for Western intelligence agencies.

The key figure is Alexander Poteyev, a member of Russia’s SVR intelligence service who worked in New York. Upset that he was being sent back to Moscow in 1999, he began working with US intelligence. While he was unhappy, his American handlers were overjoyed. Pteyev’s new job in Moscow was deputy director of the bureau running the deep-cover illegals in the US. This arrangement lasted a decade, until the Americans gave him the signal to flee Russia in 2010. The day after he reached the US, the FBI rounded up the Russian spies he had directed.

The Russian media reported that Poteyev died in the US in 2016, but according to Corera, he’s very much alive, his whereabouts secret. The 2010 spy swap “all seemed like some kind of bizarre retro-throwback, a hangover from the past, a last hurrah of people who could not quite let go of the Cold War,” wrote Corera. But it explains Putin.

“A group of our undercover agents was betrayed,” Putin said in 2010. “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 someone betrays him.”

Corera doesn’t dwell on President Trump’s response to Russia. Rather, he indicts the US and the West for a collective reaction that was underwhelming for two decades. And he neatly sums up what the 2016 interference means for 2020: “It would also create an image of a Russian intelligence operation that was actually more powerful and coordinated than the often messy reality. From being barely aware of Russian activity (in 2016), people would start to see its hidden hand everywhere. Russian ghosts would start to haunt the American body politic.”