reflections

The Spy Ring and Russia's Intelligence Apparatus

4 MINS READJul 1, 2010 | 11:56 GMT
Reports continued swirling Wednesday about the Russian spy ring of 11 individuals charged with acting as undeclared agents of a foreign country. Ten were apprehended throughout the northeastern United States on Sunday, while the 11th person was detained on the same day in Cyprus. Despite the media flurry and the general perception that paints these Russian agents as dullards, and the fact that these recent arrests have — according to the FBI — so far gathered little intelligence, there is more to this case than meets the eye. The individuals did not prove to have access to any significant government or currently serving U.S. intelligence officials, but they were involved in a multi-year process of going after university students who were on their way to becoming CIA or State Department employees in the next 10 or 20 years. The spy ring is a perfect example of Russia's ability to organize a long-term recruitment project. The spy ring event, beyond the numerous tactical questions it raises, serves as a reminder that Russia's intelligence apparatus is still very much alive and kicking since the days of the Cold War and the KGB. Indeed, Russia still has one of the best and most comprehensive intelligence communities in the world. This is due to two fundamentally geopolitical reasons. Russia relies on intelligence where other countries might rely on military, geography or business capabilities. The first is that Russia — despite its huge size — has no natural defensible borders. The lack of mountains, oceans or deserts around Moscow means Russia is vulnerable to surrounding powers from various directions. What this has forced the Russian state to do throughout its history is expand as much as possible to create buffers from threatening powers from every side. This strategy uses space to defend Russia's core, and has proved successful at driving away even the most formidable foe, from Napoleon to Hitler. But this seemingly never-ending expansion does create problems for Moscow. With every extra square mile Russia takes on, it must also swallow up the people who live there. Many of these people are not particularly happy to be ruled by Moscow, which breeds a need for a strong internal intelligence apparatus to control the population. Whether that means stemming revolutionary movements or simply keeping a close eye on the everyday activities of its citizenry, the effort requires a monolithic intelligence apparatus. The second reason is that Russia lacks an interconnected or navigable river system as well as any meaningful ocean access. This means that if Russia wants to connect its vast nation and have any meaningful economic development, it must build its own infrastructure. This is why Moscow has to throw the weight of its resources behind monumental projects like the Trans-Siberian Railroad or Stalin's industrialization programs to achieve the relatively low level of economic development it has, compared to that of the industrialized Western countries. Because of this, Russia must supplement its internal efforts with commercial espionage to steal technology from the West. Alternatively, Russia could choose to invite Western firms, investments and businesspeople into its borders to develop its economy, but this has often ended badly, as evidenced by the tumultuous period in the 1990s following the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia has instead chosen to use its intelligence apparatus to engage in economic and commercial espionage to try to keep up with its Western competitors. This was how the Soviets tested their first nuclear device years earlier than expected via an extensive espionage effort in and following the U.S. Manhattan Project. Commercial espionage was Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's job when he was a KGB agent stationed in Dresden, Germany. These two barriers coupled with the traditional need for an intelligence apparatus deployed abroad to stay on top of future threats from foreign countries adds up to a very large intelligence collection capability on Russia's part. This requirement is ingrained in its culture. Russia relies on intelligence where other countries might rely on military, geography or business capabilities, which means that its intelligence apparatus attracts well-developed resources and skilled people who solve problems that other states might go about solving differently. Bottom line, this is how Russia does business.

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