Recent Russian intelligence “failures” weren’t failures, say ex-spies

What, me worry?
What, me worry?
Image: Reuters/Sergei Chirikov/
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Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency, the GRU, hasn’t exactly seemed to be at the top of its game as of late. After the botched poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England last March, Russian defense officials called GRU supervisors “morons,” according to investigative journalist Sergei Kanev. The Financial Times referred to the GRU operatives behind a thwarted hacking attempt in the Netherlands last month as “Keystone Kops.”

Now the GRU is in the midst of another highly publicized flop. A former Austrian army officer was arrested Saturday and accused of working for Russian intelligence for up to three decades.

Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s far-right, pro-Moscow chancellor, told reporters that the officer, a colonel who reportedly retired in 2013, was believed to have spied for Moscow from 1998 until this year. Shortly after the announcement, the Kronen Zeitung newspaper said the colonel, who has not been publicly identified, had in fact been recruited by the Russians in 1988 while on a trip to Iran. Documents seized by Austrian officials suggest the colonel tried to end the arrangement in 2006, but was forced to continue by his Russian counterparts.

Kronen Zeitung said the colonel, 70, met with his handler, a Russian operative supposedly known as “Yuri,” every two weeks and was allegedly paid about $340,000 for his services. Yuri reportedly worked for the GRU. Also over the weekend, Kronen Zeitung said authorities had identified another double agent working for the Russians, this one inside Austria’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism, a domestic intelligence agency known as the BVT.

How to explain the GRU’s apparent penchant for bungling? According to former Russian and American spies, many of Russia’s recent intelligence “failures” actually haven’t been total failures.

Dan Hoffman, a CIA veteran who served for a time as the agency’s Moscow station chief, says that modern Russian operations often contain a dash of incompetence. But fundamentally, many are what Hoffman called “discoverable influence operations”—that is, being found out was part of the strategy. In an op-ed for the New York Times last year, Hoffman argued that the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr., Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and campaign manager Paul Manafort deliberately left a “trail of bread crumbs…leading from Trump Tower to the Kremlin.” In other words, he says, the “operation was meant to be discovered,” the better to achieve president Vladimir Putin’s twin goals of “throwing the American government into greater turmoil” while giving Russia bragging rights about its power on the global stage.

Hoffman was one of the CIA officials involved in negotiating the 2010 spy swap that traded 10 deep-cover Russian agents apprehended in the US—including “femme fatale” Anna Chapman—to free four others from Russia, including Sergei Skripal, who then settled in the UK. Discussing the Skripal case before a Saturday night audience at Spyscape, an “interactive” spy museum in New York City, Hoffman said, “[Russian president Vladimir] Putin wanted to be discovered; there’s a return address on all these things back to him.”

Even though Skripal and his daughter survived, Hoffman said the undertaking was in fact, “a success.” When Skripal was poisoned, there were two weeks to go before Russia’s elections; Hoffman’s theory is that Putin wanted to drive voter turnout. It worked—more than 60% of the Russian population went to the polls; Putin won reelection with a reported 76.9% of the vote.

Nor was the now-dismantled Austrian operation a failure, said Jan Neumann, an ex-FSB officer who defected to the US in 2008. The Russian intelligence community consists of three primary agencies: the FSB (the successor agency to the KGB, renamed after the end of the Cold War), the SVR (external foreign intelligence), and the GRU (military intelligence).

“It’s a sign of top-level professionalism and high-quality work of Russian intelligence that they were able to keep their source working and successfully providing critical information since 1988,” Neumann told Quartz in a telephone interview from his current home in the US. “They were able to keep him undetected and stay in touch with him even when the USSR collapsed and all state institutions were falling apart.”

“During the collapse of the USSR and the hell of the 1990s, lots of Intelligence personnel left active service,” said Neumann. “Some agents or informants left on their own, or their contacts were put on hold and no one was in touch with them for some period of time.”

Neumann is interested in what the Austrian colonel’s motive was for feeding secrets to the GRU, and notes that he began working for the Russians at a highly unusual point in history.

“In 1988, it was obvious for almost everyone who can think and analyze that the USSR and Warsaw Pact were going to be dead very soon,” Neumann continued. “So, I don’t think it was a pure financial interest as a basis for recruitment. It’s clear it was way more than money; it was some kind of very complex personal motive.”

Yuri, the colonel’s handler, “found the right approach to recruit this guy and most important, to keep him working for 30 years,” Neumann said. “They were able to pull the right strings and keep him motivated to work.”

Austria’s present leadership has deep economic ties to Russia. The ruling Freedom Party signed a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party in 2016. United Russia announced the two would hold “regular consultations” as well as “conferences, seminars, and roundtables.” “There are ancient cultural and economic links between Austria and Russia,” United Russia MP and Putin loyalist Sergei Zheleznyak said in a statement at the time.

It is highly unlikely that the now-exposed colonel is the only double agent inside the Austrian military, insisted Neumann. He believes we may never know the extent of the damage done. “I’m sure they will classify all the details of the operation and the value of the damage he did to Austria and perhaps even NATO,” he said, adding that the Austria case also illustrates the near-certainty that an even higher number of covert Russian operatives continue to go undetected inside the United States.

“There is a Russian proverb: ‘Свято место пусто не бывает,'” said Neumann. “It means, ‘A holy place is never empty.’ Meaning, they already have a substitute source or will replace him ASAP.”