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After, well, thirty-four publications (plus the others already scheduled), it was time to cover one of the most fascinating topics in intelligence history. Yes, we are talking about the Russian intelligence and the KGB from the Czarist foundation to our days. The KGB was considered by many as the most powerful intelligence service globally, which should probably raise immediately the question of where and under what conditions such a powerful state institution is indeed legitimate in the first place. This is already enough for presenting this interview but let me add a couple of observations. We should not consider the KGB as a rule in the intelligence realm or as an example to be followed. We must consider it as what to avoid at any cost. Intelligence history is never “just” history (assuming that there is history that is “just” history). For this reason, I approached Professor Kevin Riehle (National Intelligence University, USA). This interview will accompany the reader from the inception of the Russian intelligence to the current institutional frame and organization. It is a deep dive into the Russian intelligence world. The first time I met Kevin, we were in Aberystwyth (back then… in person). We briefly discussed the relationship between intelligence and democracy and the importance of grounding the intelligence activity to the values inscribed into the constitution. More recently, during research on intelligence teaching, I had the pleasure to read one of his papers, this one on intelligence education (highly recommended), and to hear his presentation at the last International Studies Association Convention. It is then with my distinct pleasure to publish the interview on Scuola Filosofica – for those who don’t know it yet; it is one of the leading cultural blogs in Italy. In the name of Scuola Filosofica Team, our readers, and myself, Giangiuseppe Pili, Kevin: thank you!
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or any U.S. government agency.
1# Professor Kevin Riehle, let’s start from the basics. How would you like to present yourself to the International readers and Philosophical School (Scuola Filosofica)?
I am fascinated by the inner workings of intelligence services, especially Soviet and Russian. I have been following the activities for foreign intelligence services for many years, both in government and academia. I had the privilege of pursuing that interest in a PhD thesis with King’s College London, where I researched the revelations of Soviet intelligence officer defectors and how they opened a window into Soviet national security thinking. That research was published in 2020 in a book titled Soviet Defectors: Revelations of Renegade Intelligence Officers, 1924-1954 (Edinburgh University Press). Now I teach students at the National Intelligence University about how Russian intelligence services operate.
2# Instead of starting from the 1917 revolution, let’s tackle the present briefly. What are the current structure of the Russian intelligence community, its mission, and methods?
Russia has several powerful intelligence and security services that make up what might be called a “community.” They are the heirs of Soviet-era services and most of the functions of the Soviet era continue to exist in Russia’s services today. The Federal Security Service (Федеральная Служба Безопасности; FSB) is the largest and most powerful of those services, with functions that incorporate what in many countries are divided into multiple agencies: political security, economic security, counterintelligence, counterterrorism, border control, and immigration, all from both a domestic intelligence and a law enforcement perspective. The FSB also has foreign operational responsibilities related to its internal security missions, including conducting counterterrorism activities abroad, such as assassinating Chechen militants, and conducting signals intelligence. As Russia views the former Soviet space as its privileged sphere of interests, the FSB also operates in former Soviet states similarly to how the KGB did.
The FSB even has a subordinate organization titled the Service for the Defense of the Constitutional Order and Fight Against Terrorism. This element’s name is eerily reminiscent of a Soviet era predecessor, the KGB Fifth Directorate, which in 1989 was renamed Directorate Z, or the Directorate to Defend the Constitution. This directorate was responsible for internal security functions against the Soviet people, including combating political dissent, controlling religious activity, and monitoring dissident writers and artists, all of which the KGB described as “ideological subversion.” The modern FSB has similar responsibilities, and even a similarly named organization, which it combines with countering terrorism.
The next Russian intelligence agency is the Foreign Intelligence Service (Служба Внешней Разведки; SVR), which is responsible for foreign intelligence operations worldwide. It is the heir to the KGB’s First Chief Directorate, which had the same mission. It places intelligence officers under legal, non-official, and illegal cover around the world to collect political, economic, science and technological, and counterterrorist intelligence. Its operations, both human and technical, have become infamous in the past few years, such as the operation that exploited a security flaw SolarWinds computer control software, through which the SVR collected political and security information from multiple computer systems worldwide. SVR officers have been expelled from numerous countries for conducting aggressive intelligence and influence operations.
The next Russian intelligence agency is what is called the Main Directorate (GU) of the General Staff, but what was called the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) until 2010. It is Russia’s primary military intelligence and special operations organization, which is the equivalent of multiple organizations in the United States, including the Defense Intelligence Agency, Special Operations Command, National Reconnaissance Office, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, portions of the National Security Agency, and military service intelligence organizations all combined into a single organization. It handles a wide variety of missions, including human and technical intelligence collection and covert action. It has become notorious in the past few years for its alleged involvement in the attempted assassinate of one of its former officers, Sergey Skripal, in the UK, as well as for operations to collect intelligence on and covertly operate against the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the World Anti-Doping Agency, and for covert political and military operations in the United States and multiple European countries.
Another agency that inherited pieces of the Soviet-era KGB is the Federal Protective Service (Федеральная Служба Охраны; FSO), which is responsible for senior leader protection, as well as for securing high-level government communication and performing domestic sentiment surveys to support the Russian Presidential Administration in its operations to secure the regime from internal threats.
Yet another internal security organization is the National Guard of the Russian Federation, which was created in 2016 mostly from pieces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs to become a standalone agency. Its purpose is to respond to what the Russian government calls “destabilization attempts,” or what outside Russia would be called popular discontent. Its mandate includes suppressing protests both in the physical realm and the computer-based realm.
These services compete with each other and have overlapping mandates, especially in the internal security realm, they could hardly be called a “community.” The one priority that ties them together is regime security—neutralizing threats to the ruling Russian leadership.
3# Let’s go back to history. What are the main steps that shaped Russian intelligence history?
KGB defector Petr Deryabin published a book with American journalist Frank Gibney in 1959 I which he cited a KGB aphorism: “In the Yezhovshchina, the god of state security sat in the political section. During the period of collectivization, god sat in the economic section. During the war, god was in intelligence and, after the war, in counterintelligence” (Petr Deriabin and Frank Gibney, The Secret World (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 63.) Using the image of a “god of state security,” Deryabin captures the fluctuations in intelligence and state security priorities in the Soviet era.
Soviet state security was founded on 20 December 1917, when Feliks Dzerzhinskiy, on Vladimir Lenin’s orders, established the “Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage under the Council of People’s Commissars of the RSFSR” (known by its Russian acronym, ChK). Its missions were stated in its title: to fight counterrevolution, of which there was much in the early Bolshevik days, and to counter sabotage, which the Bolsheviks interpreted as any action that did not comply with their orders. In 1918, the organization’s name was expanded to All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution, Profiteering and Corruption, (Russian acronym, VChK) adding an economic aspect to the threats that the Bolshevik regime perceived. That organization continued in various forms for the rest of the Soviet era. Its prominence in the Soviet system fluctuated with that of the People’s Commissariat (later Ministry) of Internal Affairs throughout Soviet history, with state security sometimes predominating and other times internal affairs predominating.
Per Deryabin’s quote, economic security had precedence during the collectivization period of the early 1930s. The NKVD political section took control during the Great Purge of the late 1930s, known colloquially as the Yezhovshchina, when the Stalinist regime, let by state security director Nikolay Yezhov, arrested tens of millions of people, many of which died in custody. When Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, intelligence and covert action took the leading role to save the Soviet Union from military collapse. After the war, counterintelligence took precedence, which in the Soviet sense meant protecting the Soviet system from the threat of its own people being contaminated by foreign thoughts and capitalist ideas. The Cold War brought bipolar ideological and nuclear competition, which gave Soviet intelligence and state security services a strong mandate to conduct intelligence and subversive activities around the world against the “main enemy” and to suppress dissent on Soviet territory.
The end of the Cold War initially resulted in chaos and disarray for Russia. However, of all Russian government organizations, the ones that came through the 1990s with the least amount of change of mindset and approach to their work were Russian intelligence and state security services. With one of their own—a former KGB lieutenant colonel named Vladimir Putin—as the President of the Russian Federation, those services have regained much of the power and confidence they had lost in the chaotic 1990s.
4# How was the Czarist intelligence? Like many other agencies, it started operating already during the XIX century, and it played a major role during the 1905 failed revolution. Was it effective? Was it comparable to the later communist agency, and what were the continuities?
Before the Soviet era dawned in 1917, Tsarist Russian established a state security service to root out revolutionaries and protect the Tsar. The assassination of Tsar Aleksandr II in 1881 clearly showed the need for security, persuading his son, Tsar Aleksandr III to create the Okhrana, or security force. The Okhrana was Russia’s first modern secret police organization and became the foundation on which other such organizations were based. In his 2020 speech commemorating the 100th anniversary of Russian foreign intelligence, Vladimir Putin noted that Russian intelligence and state security employees today are continuing the traditions not only of their Bolshevik predecessors, but also of those that served pre-revolutionary Russia.
Some of the early ChK personnel expressed unease with the similarity between the Okhrana’s methods and those the ChK was adopting to deal with counterrevolutionaries and other undesirables. Describing discussions among the ChK Collegium members, a member of Collegium, Fedor Drugov, later wrote:
Each of us felt in the depth of our souls that that we were called upon to create something similar to the old Okhrana – and we were ashamed at the thought. It was completely obvious that the very character of the task before us would make it necessary to employ a system of surveillance and denunciations (of the latter, by the way, we had already accumulated quite a few). Who will fill the role of “stoolies”? On one hand, the thought sickened the revolutionaries, but on the other, such a task could only be assigned to people who were devoted to the revolution. How could that be? (Fedor Pavlovich Drugov, “С Дзержинским в ВЧК: Исповедь раскаявшегося чекиста” (“With Dzerzhinskiy in the VChK: The Confession of a Repentant Chekist”) Иллюстрированная Россия (Illustrated Russia), 7 February 1931, pp. 8-9.)
One of the defining similarities between the pre-Soviet state security order and its Soviet-era descendant was that both existed expressly to secure the ruling elite and its ideological path. Throughout Russian/Soviet history, Russian leaders have kept intelligence and state security under their direct control, both to exploit their capabilities to support the elite’s needs and to prevent them from becoming a force that could challenge the elite. The Okhrana’s mission was to secure the Tsar and the imperial system; however, the Okhrana ultimately failed to neutralize its primary target, Bolshevik revolutionaries. Nevertheless, when the Bolsheviks took control in November 1917, the new regime created a security service that in many ways resembled the Okhrana, including its strong-arm tactics to repress the Soviet population.
Another key similarity between the Okhrana and Soviet state security was the perception that internal threats invariably sprang from foreign plots—a linkage that persists today in the Russian security mindset. The ChK initially focused on internal threats, but soon began to connect those threats to foreign powers, which the Bolsheviks ideologically assumed were opposed to its existence. That assumption had some basis, as foreign powers did resist the Bolshevik regime due to its export of violent revolution. However, the ChK’s search for foreign connections often allowed it to blame foreign powers for internal instability.
Using the archives of the Foreign Okhrana—exfiltrated from Paris, the center of Okhrana foreign operations, and brought to the Hoover Institution in the 1920s—the CIA in 1960 conducted a study of the Okhrana’s methods, looking for precedents and indicators of how Soviet heirs to the Okhrana might operate (Ben B. Fischer (ed.), Okhrana: The Paris Operations of the Russian Imperial Police (Washington, DC: CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, 1997). The assumption of a linkage between the Okhrana and the KGB was borne out when two KGB-era defectors, Oleg Gordievsky and Oleg Kalugin, both noted that the KGB used Okhrana materials to train its officers in the 1950s and 1960s.
5# Everybody knows that the KGB was one of the most powerful intelligence agencies in history. It concentrated different intelligence functions and capabilities, including searching for “enemies of the people.” What was its inception? It looks Lenin already played a major role in creating the Cheka. How did Feliks Ėdmundovič Dzeržinski shape it, and what was his relation with Lenin and the revolution?
In a 1985 article in a KGB classified journal, the KGB Digest, Feliks Dzerzhinskiy was described as a “professional revolutionary, an internationalist, an active participant in three Russian revolutions, a prominent political and state figure, chairman of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counterrevolution, Sabotage, and Speculation. F. E. Dzerzhinskiy proved himself to be a worthy knight of the revolution in that lofty and responsible position that demanded great courage, iron will, exceptional sensitivity and nobleness.” (A. Krysin, “На Защите Экономической Основы Советского Государства” (“In Defense of The Economic Basis of the Soviet State”), Сборник КГБ (KGB Digest), No. 108, September 1985, pp. 84-92.)
Dzerzhinskiy embodied the ChK’s ideal personality, tone, and culture from the beginning—a self-sacrificing, tireless “knight of the revolution” who was totally dedicated to Lenin. After his death, he was canonized as a “saint” in the atheistic Soviet system, a person to be revered for his perfect example as a chekist.
However, at times, “chekists” (the nickname for state security personnel arising from the acronym ChK) struggled to achieve this ideal. One defector from the 1940s claimed that personnel recruited into the NKVD (a successor to the ChK) fell into three categories:
- Party fanatics who were blindly obedient and willing to do anything, even commit violent acts, to further the interests of the Party;
- Careerists who used their state security employment to advance their own personal situations, even with the realization that state security actions were not in the interests of the Russian people; these people realized that they could not turn back to become regular citizens, because they had become hated chekists;
- Psychologically abnormal, sadistic people, and people who were too stupid to survive in any other job but want to escape their low social status. (Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System. Schedule B, Vol. 3, Case 105, pp. 41-42.)
Dzerzhinskiy himself was probably among those in the first category, having spent his career as a dedicated revolutionary. However, as the organization developed, it attracted a number of individuals from the other two categories as well. The presence of the last category was of particular concern for the ChK and its successor organizations, as it harmed the organization’s reputation among the Soviet people and contradicted the image of a heroic “knight of the revolution.”
Lenin died in January 1924 and Dzerzhinskiy died in July 1926. With their deaths, Iosif Stalin gradually took the leading role of the Party and the country, and he used state security organizations increasingly to achieve his own political priorities, including to enforce collectivization, to steal science and technology information from around the world to support Soviet industrialization, and most importantly, to eliminate rivals and anyone who did not blindly comply with his rule. While state security organizations under Stalin sought recruits in the first category, they often got people in the other two. As the Great Purges raged in the late 1930s, Soviet state security services needed people in the third category as hunters and executioners. Consequently, the reputation of a “chekist” among the Soviet people for many years was that of a thug who knocked on doors in the middle of the night and made people disappear.
6# What was the broad evolution that finally brought the KGB into existence and its (many) predecessors?
Your question itself is interesting and reflects a view of the KGB that is prevalent in the West. In fact, there were not a large number of predecessors to the KGB. While there were various names by which Soviet intelligence and state security were known, the organization remained quite consistent. The numerous names by which Soviet intelligence and state security organizations retained elements of consistency beginning in the 1930s.
From 1934 until 1991, intelligence and state security organizations were recognizable by two acronym roots:
- -VD = внутренние дела (Internal Affairs), as in NKVD and MVD;
- -GB = государственная безопасность (State Security), as in GUGB, NKGB, MGB, and KGB.
The status of intelligence and state security agencies fluctuated with Soviet political winds: sometimes subordinate to, equal to, combined with, or superior to internal affairs. The history of Soviet intelligence and state security is, in part, the history of bureaucratic battles for supremacy within the Soviet system, and the changes of names reflected infighting between those two concepts. Throughout World War II, those outside the Soviet Union usually referred to the Soviet intelligence and state security with the acronym NKVD, although state security and intelligence entities move in and out of NKVD control. Intelligence and state security functions were moved into their own People’s Commissariat of State Security (NKGB) in February 1941 when Lavrentiy Beriya was promoted to deputy chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, retaining the internal affairs role. The new NKGB was bureaucratically equal to the NKVD. However, the NKGB was initially short-lived, and soon after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 State security was again subordinated to the NKVD, based on Stalin’s order for the creation of the State Defense Committee to coordinate the defense of the Soviet homeland and the execution of the war. Then, in 1943, the NKGB was again separated from the NKVD and remained so until Stalin’s death ten years later.
As the Soviet Union attempted to engage less awkwardly among the society of nations in 1946, the government abandoned the organizational title “people’s commissariat”—a Bolshevik phrase that had been used to describe major Soviet government elements like the NKVD and NKGB—in favor of the more conventional “ministry.” Thus Soviet intelligence and state security elements and internal affairs elements were renamed the Ministry of State Security (MGB) and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), respectively. Throughout these name changes, the responsibilities and missions that Soviet state security and internal affairs agencies fulfilled remained quite consistent.
The name KGB (Committee for State Security) came into existence in 1954. It was actually a bureaucratic demotion for the organization. When Stalin died in 1953, Lavrentiy Beriya was Stalin’s assistant who oversaw intelligence, state security, and internal affairs organizations. He assumed the role of heir to Stalin upon the latter’s death, and he merged the MGB into the MVD to create a single organization that possessed significant power within the Soviet system. However, Beriya’s control over all intelligence and security functions and the power that came from that frightened other Soviet leaders, including the other two most powerful figures in the Soviet system, Nikita Khrushchev and Georgiy Malenkov. They banded together to have Beriya arrested in June 1953, just three months after Stalin’s death; by December 1953, Beriya was executed.
In 1954, the Soviet government redivided state security and internal affairs into separate organizations, bureaucratically demoting state security functions from a ministry to a state committee, the Committee of State Security (KGB). The organization in reality lost none of its functions, but the new name and subordination to the gave the appearance that those functions were less prominent and powerful.
7# How would you describe the KGB, its structure, and functions?
The KGB was responsible for all security functions in the Soviet Union. Most of those functions can still be seen today in various Russian intelligence and state security organizations.
The KGB was organized into directorates that characterized those major functions. The First Chief Directorate ran foreign intelligence collection and covert operations, which continue today in the SVR. The First Chief Directorate had two covert action elements during the Soviet era called Alfa and Vympel. When the SVR was created in 1991, the two units were moved out of a foreign intelligence role into internal security for tracking and neutralizing terrorists or other threatening entities inside Russia; they eventually ended up in the FSB. In the late 1990s, the SVR created another covert action element for its own purposes, called Zaslon, which is responsible for protecting senior Russian embassy officials and other Russian government officials when they travel to dangerous locations.
The KGB’s Second Chief Directorate was responsible for counterintelligence. The Third Chief Directorate conducted military counterintelligence investigations and operations. The Fourth and Sixth Directorates were responsible for security of the transportation and communications sectors and economic counterintelligence, respectively. They all continue to exist in the FSB today. The KGB also housed the Soviet Border Guard forces, which made up the largest manpower element of the KGB. Border Guards were separated into an independent agency in 1993 but resubordinated to the FSB in 2003.
The KGB’s Eighth Chief Directorate and Sixteenth Directorate were responsible for securing government communications and collecting and decrypting foreign communications. Those directorates were combined into a single agency, the Federal Service for Government Communications and Information (FAPSI), from 1994 to 2003. FAPSI was dissolved in 2003, and its elements were split into multiple agencies. Communications intercept missions went primarily to the FSB, which conducts internal telecommunications monitoring directed at Russian citizens and foreign diplomatic establishments and foreign intelligence collection worldwide. The communications security missions of the former KGB Eighth Chief Directorate and subsequently FAPSI were sent to the Federal Protective Service, along with security of senior leaders (formerly in the KGB Ninth Directorate), security of high-value government facilities (former in the KGB 15th Directorate).
After all of those reorganizations over time, most of the KGB’s functions now reside in the FSB.
8# As powerful as it was, the KGB wasn’t the only intelligence agency in the Soviet Union. Can you talk a bit about the GRU? And what about Smersh?
World War II led to several short-lived exceptions to the -VD and -GB acronym naming conventions I mentioned earlier. One of those was a notorious organization known as SMERSH.
Since 1918, military counterintelligence had been conducted by NKVD Special Sections (OOs) attached to military units as an outside control over the military’s loyalty. OO officers gained a reputation for interfering in military affairs, especially during the Yezhovshchina when respected military officers like Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevskiy were arrested, accused of espionage, and executed. In 1943, OOs were transferred to military control under a department that was renamed the Counterintelligence Directorate (UKR) SMERSH, a portmanteau of the Russian words Смерть Шпионам (Death to Spies). UKR SMERSH became a feared organization during its short existence, running double agents and agents provocateurs inside the Soviet military to root out spies and disloyal soldiers. Several SMERSH officers defected during and soon after World War II, including Mikhail Mondich, a Czech and Hungarian interpreter, who described brutal SMERSH interrogations in a book published in 1948. The MGB subsumed SMERSH in 1946, retiring the name SMERSH and retaining only the acronym UKR. Although the SMERSH name was retired, its menace lived on in popular literature as Ian Fleming used the name for the organization in which James Bond’s Soviet antagonists worked.
Today, the FSB Military Counterintelligence Service is the direct descendant of the OOs, UKR SMERSH, and the MGB’s UKR. In 2004, the FSB Military Counterintelligence Directorate published a book regaling its history, which it counts from 1918. The book only briefly mentions the dissolution of the Soviet Union while connecting today’s organization to the heroic exploits of the Soviet era, including those of SMERSH.
The Soviet also had a military intelligence organization that followed a path parallel to civilian intelligence and state security. Military intelligence organizational names have remained fairly consistent: the “RU” in GRU, which is the Russian acronym for “intelligence directorate,” has persisted through Soviet/Russian military intelligence history until recently. The first Bolshevik military intelligence organization, the Registupr (Registration Department) was created in November 1918 as an element of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Red Army. The department was tasked with coordinating army intelligence units that supported Bolshevik forces in combating counterrevolutionary forces during the Russian Civil War. In April 1921, the Registupr was renamed the Разведывательное Управление (Intelligence Directorate) of the Red Army Staff, often called by its Russian abbreviation Razvedupr, or sometimes the Fourth Department. The organization was promoted to the status of “main directorate” under the General Staff of the Red Army during World War II, leading to its acronym GRU, which it had until 2010, when the word “intelligence” (“разведка”) was removed from the title, leaving it simply GU. Even though the name was changed in 2010, most people inside and outside Russia continue to call it the GRU.
Soviet, and now Russian, military intelligence has always had two roles: intelligence collection to support military decisionmaking and covert action to support Soviet political objectives. These two concepts are combined in the Russian word razvedka, which is the responsibility of the GU (former GRU). Those missions predominated during World War II, in line with Deryabin’s saying that the “god of state security” sat in intelligence at that time. However, even amongst the existential threats that Germany posed during World War II, before the war ended, the GRU tasked its sources to turn their attention to the USSR’s wartime allies. GRU collection focused on three main areas: military forces information, military-related science and technology information, and political information. Among science and technology targets, a high priority for collection was information about atomic weapons development. Several important GRU operations penetrated U.S. and British atomic weapons establishments, providing the Soviet Union with the information it needed to develop its own atomic bomb by 1949, significantly earlier than it could have done without the help of espionage. Throughout the rest of the Cold War, the GRU continued along these basic collection lines, using legal and illegal human platforms and increasing its use of technical platforms, including satellites, and more recently, computer-based collection.
9# This is almost a personal question, but I believe it is important. Were the Soviet agents communists or just bureaucrats, patriots, or greedy individuals in search of a good career?
People who cooperated with Soviet intelligence and state security services did so for a variety of reasons, including those that you list in your question in addition to one other important motivation—coercion.
Soviet, and now Russian, intelligence and state security services look for and exploit whatever vulnerability a potential source has. Those vulnerabilities might include greed or debt, sexual promiscuity, or disgruntlement with work or country. For Soviet intelligence and state security, a foreigner’s loyalty to Soviet ideology or opposition to other countries’ ideology was also an exploitable vulnerability, and some people supported Soviet intelligence because they could easily be persuaded to believe in the superiority of communism over capitalism. This was particularly prevalent during the 1930s, when many people viewed communism as a bulwark against rising fascism. For Soviet intelligence and state security services, sincere anti-fascism was an exploitable characteristic until the Soviet Union signed the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, suddenly reversing its ideological course against Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union also claimed to be the protector of post-colonial peoples, and those claims attracted numerous potential agents during post-World War II decolonialization. As the Cold War progressed and as Soviet ideology became less persuasive, money and sex were often the primary hooks that attracted foreigners to support Soviet intelligence.
Another important motivator, especially for Soviet people themselves, and for Russians today, is coercion. Soviet intelligence and states security services deftly used threats of imprisonment of individuals or their families as a lever to persuade cooperation among Soviet citizens. This was a powerful motivator not just for those who still lived in the Soviet Union, but also for Soviet citizens who had left, either through emigration or defection. The KGB routinely monitored the communications between émigrés and defectors both to limit the ideological damage outsider could do inside the Soviet Union, but also to track those outside and target them for re-recruitment, using their continued familial and nostalgic connections as an exploitable vulnerability.
10# The USSR collapsed, and Russia is still a “strategic opponent” of the USA. As many states do when they want to refresh their image, they simply change the name. From KGB to FSB… the distance looks not far. Is it true? Is FSB a more democratic or constitutional organization or, instead, is it as the KGB was?
I would amend your question somewhat to state that Russia today is not just “strategic opponent” of the USA, but of all democratic countries.
The FSB, as Russia’s primary state security organization today, continues many of the KGB’s activities and retains a KGB mindset. For Russian leaders, including those with Russian security service connections, democracy is not a goal to be strived for but a threat to protect against. Democracy thrives on a diversity of voices, which Russia’s leaders see as a weakness. In a 2019 interview, Vladimir Putin stated his opinion, shared by many in positions of authority with Russia, that the liberalist ideology that has underpinned Western democracies for decades had outlived its purpose and that ideas like multiculturalism were “no longer tenable.” (Lionel Barber, Henry Foy, and Alex Barker, “Vladimir Putin says liberalism has ‘become obsolete,’” Financial Times, 27 June 2019, p. 1.)
The FSB is also not a constitutional organization. For Russian power agencies, the constitution is not a set of rules to guide actions but an authorization to control the Russia people. That objective is little changed from the KGB era, but is now enhanced by modern technology, which increases the speed, reach, and anonymity of the FSB’s activities while lowering their cost.
11# Coming back to the present, you recently wrote a paper published in the prestigious Intelligence and National Security (Winners and Losers in Russia’s information war) arguing that Russia is fighting an informational war against us. How is Russia playing this game, and what is the role of intelligence agencies in this war?
Russia sees itself at being under political attack from the West. It believes that the West is waging a war through color revolutions, NATO expansion, support to Russian opposition, covert operations, and cultural invasion. Russian leaders adhere to a concept labeled the “Dulles Plan,” a mythical plot manufactured in Soviet-era fictional literature. The “plan” claims that the United States is bent on destroying Russia by infiltrating it with immoral forces, opposition ideas, and intelligence services. Despite continuous efforts throughout much of Vladimir Putin’s long tenure as president of the Russian Federation to disabuse him of that myth, he and most Russian leaders still believe it,
Whether such a “plan” really exists is not important to Russian leaders. Their nearly religious belief in it drives them to apply the methods they claim the West is using against Russia. Russia’s thinking is filled with mirror imaging—Russia does to others what it claims others are doing to it. Using its intelligence and covert action capabilities, the weapons Russia uses in its political war with the West are information, manipulation, sabotage, and controlled chaos. These are all supported with clandestine intelligence collection, which provides the basis for Russian covert activities.
However, Russia’s use of those weapons is not in its long-term benefit. Russia is creating enemies through its aggressive actions around the world, especially in Europe and the United States. Through assassinations, sabotage, political meddling, and blatant disinformation operations, Russian leaders are turning Russia into pariah.
12# How can our readers follow you?
I encourage readers to find my articles and publications on kevinriehle.academia.edu. I also can be found on Twitter @riehle_kevin.
13# Five keywords that represent you?
Intelligence history, state security, defectors, counterintelligence, Soviet
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