How the Ukraine War Has Changed the Game for the Kremlin’s Operatives—and Their Western Rivals
By Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan
December 27, 2023
In April 2023, a prominent Russian national with suspected ties to Russian intelligence pulled off an impressive escape from Italian authorities. Artem Uss, a Russian businessman and the son of a former Russian governor, had been detained in Milan a few months earlier on charges of smuggling sensitive U.S. military technology to Russia. According to an indictment issued by a federal court in Brooklyn, New York, in October 2022, Uss had illegally trafficked in the semiconductors needed to build ballistic missiles and a variety of other weapons, some of which were being used in the war in Ukraine. But while Uss was awaiting extradition to the United States, he was exfiltrated from Italy with the help of a Serbian criminal gang and returned to Russia.
The escape, which was reported in The Wall Street Journal last spring, was only one of a series of recent incidents suggesting how much Russia’s intelligence forces have regrouped since the start of the war in Ukraine. Back in the spring of 2022, in the months after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion, the Russian intelligence agencies had seemed disoriented and confused. One by one, European countries had kicked out Russia’s diplomats; according to one British estimate, some 600 Russian officials were expelled from Europe, of which perhaps 400 were believed to be spies. The FSB, Russia’s internal security service, had also badly misjudged the kind of resistance that Russian forces would face in Ukraine, assuming that Russia could quickly take Kyiv. This contributed to Russia’s humiliating performance.
Now, Russia’s foreign intelligence network appears to be back with a vengeance. And it is becoming more inventive, increasingly relying on foreign nationals—such as the Serbian gang that assisted Uss, for instance—to help it get around restrictions on Russians. Before the war, Western intelligence agencies mostly dealt with Russian operations being carried out by Russian nationals. That is no longer the case. Today, Russian intelligence activities draw on a range of foreign nationals, and that includes not only spying on the West and tracking arms shipments to Ukraine but also applying growing pressure on Russian exiles and opponents of the Putin regime who have fled abroad since the war started. Evidence of such activity is turning up everywhere from Georgia and Serbia to NATO countries such as Bulgaria and Poland. In early 2023, for example, British officials arrested five Bulgarians who were accused of spying for Russia, including in an effort to keep tabs on Russian exiles in London.
At the same time, Russia’s spy agencies also appear to have shifted their orientation. Before the war, there was a division of labor among the three principal intelligence services—the SVR (foreign intelligence), the GRU (military intelligence), and the FSB (domestic security). In the
past, it was generally understood that the SVR mostly focused on political and industrial espionage and the GRU on military issues, while the FSB was primarily focused on Russia itself, using its foreign branch mainly to conduct operations against Russians abroad and to keep friendly regimes in neighboring countries in power. Now, these distinctions are no longer so clear: all three agencies are deeply involved in the war in Ukraine, and all three have been actively recruiting new assets among Russia’s most recent exiles abroad.
The return of Moscow’s spying apparatus has significant implications for the West in its efforts to counter Russian meddling and Russian intelligence operations. If recent indications are correct, Russian intelligence activities in Europe and elsewhere may pose a significantly greater threat than had been assumed in the early stages of the war. At the same time, these changes offer insight into Putin’s own wartime regime and the extent to which it is increasingly rebuilding Russia’s spy agencies according to earlier models from the Soviet decades. Putin is not only attempting to make up for the Soviet KGB’s failure in its confrontation with the West in the late twentieth century. He is also trying to restore the glory of Stalin’s formidable secret service, which had considerable success against the West in the decades from the Bolshevik Revolution to World War II.
THE HUNDRED YEARS’ WAR
Before Russia began its full-scale war in Ukraine in 2022, the country’s intelligence services looked fairly weak. They had long suffered from interagency infighting and turf wars, as well as from a breakdown in trust between the generals and the rank and file, which led to significant delays and failures in getting information from the ground to the top level. Russian intelligence operations, meanwhile, increasingly became known chiefly for their sloppiness, as in the cases of the botched poisonings of the former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom in 2018 and the opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2020. In short, the Russian spy services seemed to have lost much of their former luster, a problem that burst into the open with the embarrassing misreading of Ukraine in the planning for Russia’s invasion.
But as the war in Ukraine entered its second year, the Russian intelligence agencies regrouped and found a new sense of purpose. Instead of dwelling on their mistakes and questioning why they had so utterly failed to anticipate Ukrainian resistance in the initial invasion, the agencies moved on, taking new strength from the fact that they were withstanding a confrontation with the entire West. They have not only increased their activities in Europe and in neighboring countries; the FSB has also stepped up its efforts to fight back Ukrainian ops on Russian soil. That Putin did not make any radical changes in the security services despite the catastrophe of 2022 has been seen as a virtue: since the tumultuous 1990s, there has been a widely shared view both among the intelligence leadership and the rank and file that any attempt to overhaul the agencies will weaken their capabilities.
Underlying this new activity, however, has also been a larger goal: revitalizing Russia’s overall intelligence war against the West. This is a war that for the main Russian agencies goes back to the earliest years of the Soviet era. As Russian intelligence officials see it, the war in Ukraine has launched the third round of a great spy war that has been playing out since 1917.
The first round of this struggle, in which early Soviet operatives faced off primarily against their British counterparts, started soon after the Bolshevik Revolution. In that original conflict, Soviet agents successfully compromised any chance of fomenting resistance to the Bolshevik regime from abroad. They did this by conducting a massive and very successful false-flag operation, code-named Trust, in which they lured politically active Russian émigrés, as well as British spies, to the Soviet Union to help a fake anti-Bolshevik organization. These anti-Soviet activists were in this way identified and killed. The conflict reached its peak during World War II, when Russian spies successfully penetrated British intelligence and, in the United States, got access to the Manhattan Project and stole the secrets of the atomic bomb. Overall, Soviet officials believed they won this first round with the West.
The second round of the intelligence war, however, did not end so well for Moscow. During the Cold War, the KGB failed to save the Soviet regime it swore to protect. Then, in the early 1990s, the agency was nearly destroyed after being split apart and dismembered. The collapse left lasting scars on Putin, who witnessed it firsthand, and his security elite, as they struggled to rebuild a Russian state that had lost its former power. (Putin ultimately built the FSB on the KGB’s former foundations.)
Now, with the onset of a new grand conflict with the West, Russia’s intelligence agencies are seeking to reverse the setbacks that unfolded at the end of the Cold War. And they sense a new opportunity, seeing the war in Ukraine as the opening salvo in the third round of the intelligence war. The sense of continuity with their Soviet predecessors has even taken visible form in Russia: in September, Sergei Naryshkin, Russia’s head of foreign intelligence, inaugurated a new statue to the founder of the Soviet secret police in the courtyard of the SVR’s Moscow headquarters. And in November, the FSB reinforced that message by celebrating the 100th anniversary of the OGPU, the Soviet secret police, and stressing the role of the OGPU in crushing political émigré organizations.
But the continuity goes well beyond celebrating early Soviet exploits. In the run-up to the war and since, Putin has made notable use of former KGB generals who share his eagerness to avenge the humiliation of the Soviet collapse. Nikolai Gribin, who in the 1980s served as deputy head of foreign disinformation operations at the KGB’s foreign intelligence branch, has a lead role in a new Russian think tank launched in 2021, the National Research Institute for the Development of Communications, which seeks to shape pro-Kremlin opinion in countries near Russia, with a particular focus on Belarus. (Gribin himself has written several research reports on public opinion in Belarus.) In the 1980s, Alexander Mikhailov served in the KGB’s infamous Fifth Directorate—the branch given the task of rooting out ideological subversion, including dissidents, musicians, and church leaders—and ran disinformation operations for the FSB in the 1990s. Since the fall of 2021, a few months before the invasion, Mikhailov has been the FSB’s unofficial mouthpiece for the Russian media, promoting the agency’s view of events in Ukraine. As Russian intelligence portrays it, the war pits the United States and Europe against Russia, with the Ukrainians serving merely as the puppets of their Western spymasters.
Along with Putin, Russia’s spy agencies have also drawn some important lessons from the earlier Soviet intelligence wars. Because it pitted Russia directly against the West, the war in Ukraine
has prompted the Kremlin and its spy agencies to rethink several major national security questions that had not been closely studied since 1991. For example, there was the question of Russia’s borders and whether to close them. The Kremlin decided against doing so, and that has benefited the intelligence services, which can use the new exodus of Russian nationals to Europe and other neighboring countries to help make up for the expulsions of Russian diplomats from European capitals. Putin has clearly set out to avoid the mistakes made during the Cold War, when the Soviets significantly restrained the cross-border movement of people, hampering Soviet intelligence.
But there was another pressing problem for the Kremlin: how to enforce discipline within the ranks. Putin could have followed Stalin’s approach, embarking on large-scale purges and mass repressions. But he seems to have learned that those measures ultimately backfired for the Soviets. Putin understands that instilling fear is a useful tool but that outright purges would hurt the agencies—as they did in the 1930s when the Soviets’ foreign intelligence lost its most talented agents. Thus, the head of the FSB’s foreign intelligence branch, Sergei Beseda, was initially detained and held incommunicado after the first disastrous days of the Ukraine invasion. But after several weeks, he was reinstated, and the broader purges in military intelligence and the FSB that many expected after Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner paramilitary company, led a mutiny in June 2023 never materialized.
Overall, Putin has taken a flexible, pragmatic approach to his intelligence services, playing between the ever-present fear of purges and encouraging the agencies to be more innovative at regaining ground in the West. One result seems to have been a noticeable rise in more ambitious foreign operations over the past year, including alleged sabotage operations, as well as the exfiltration of the Russian operative in Italy and stepped up recruitment efforts in several NATO countries, as is apparent in the case of a member of Germany’s BND intelligence agency who was arrested in December 2022 on charges of allegedly transferring highly classified information to the Russian government, and is now on trial for treason.
SPIES LIKE US
In staging their comeback, Russia’s spy agencies have also internalized another important lesson from the Soviet years: the strategic use of ideology. In the 1930s, Moscow was able to win over many Westerners to the Soviet cause by aiming its arguments at Western deficiencies rather than promoting Marxist doctrine. At the time, Soviet agents learned that they did not really need to sell a full-fledged communist ideology; instead, they could portray the Soviet Union as an alternative to Western imperialism, emphasizing the West’s double standards and hypocrisy and offering in contrast a leader who stood up against global powers. These ideas are exactly what Russian agencies can now pedal to potential allies and recruits in Russia’s new intelligence war with the West.
As Russia prepares to enter a third year of war, its intelligence agencies know that the Kremlin supports them and shares their paranoia and prejudices. This reality suggests that the spy services can count on the Kremlin’s protection. But it does not mean that Putin himself is more secure in power.
For much of the past 20 years, Putin has struggled with the challenge of how to control his vast security and intelligence community, spread over an enormous country and abroad. In the early 2000s, he destroyed former President Boris Yeltsin’s concept of competing spy services, making the FSB the top agency. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin tried to bring his intelligence forces to heel by sending several middle-rank officers to jail on corruption charges. But this did not result in tighter Kremlin control of the agencies. Now, with the war in Ukraine, Putin has tried to avoid the mistakes of the past and keep his intelligence forces loyal. He has also succeeded in making them stronger, for the time being, than at any previous point in the war.
But it is unclear if any of this has improved his control over them. And so far, Putin has done nothing to fix the problem: he is unwilling to repeat Stalin’s mistakes of purging his agencies on an industrial scale, but he also understands that unlike during the Soviet years, when the Communist Party controlled the KGB, he has few other ways to rein them in. If things began to go badly for Russia in the war, this one-sided dynamic could mean that Putin’s spies might be in no rush to save him.
ANDREI SOLDATOV is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and Co-Founder and Editor of Agentura.ru, a watchdog of the Russian secret services’ activities.
IRINA BOROGAN is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and Co-Founder and Deputy Editor of Agentura.ru.
They are the co-authors of The Compatriots: The Russian Exiles Who Fought Against the Kremlin.