Revealed: The Secret KGB Manual for Recruiting Spies
The document is from the Cold War. But the material it teaches is still being used today by Vladimir Putin’s clandestine cadres.
This is the first of a three-part series based on never-before-published training manuals for the KGB, the Soviet intelligence organization that Vladimir Putin served as an operative, and that shaped his view of the world. Its veterans still make up an important part of now-Russian President Vladimir Putin’s power base. All were trained in the same dark arts, and these primers in tradecraft are essential to an understanding of the way they think and the way they operate.
U.S. intelligence operatives understand this only too well. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told CNN earlier this month Putin is “a great case officer,” suggesting he “knows how to handle an asset, and that’s what he’s doing with the president”—that is, the president of the United States.
“I am saying this figuratively,” Clapper went on, when asked to clarify his remark. “I think you have to remember Putin’s background. He’s a KGB officer. That’s what they do. They recruit assets. And I think some of that experience and instinct of Putin has come into play here, and he’s managing a pretty important ‘account,’ if I could use that term, with our president.”
The first installment of this series, directly relevant to the question of how Putin’s minions played members of the Trump campaign, looks specifically at the use of third parties to target individuals and organizations. Read Part 2 here; and Part 3 here.
Not many outside The Professor’s rarefied circle, knew who he was or what he studied or where he came from. No doubt that was part of his appeal. In his mid-fifties, he spoke of himself with a braggadocio not uncommon to unheard-of academics insisting that they’d been heard and heeded around the world. He’d “served prominently,” one online biography explained, in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of his native Malta, where he’d also advised the Ministry of Education. He’d been an election observer in a Central Asian autocracy. He’d worked for the kinds of institutions one remembers, if one remembers them at all, as interchangeable word jumbles of faux-gravitas: The London Academy of Diplomacy; The Euro-Mediterranean University of Slovenia.
The Professor had also attended confabs hosted by Kremlin-financed think tanks in Russia and spoken on appropriately vague topics such as “economic and international cooperation.” He’d once even claimed to have had a brief private audience with the Russian president himself, although his own assistant didn’t buy that. The Professor, she said, was too “small-time” for such world-historical encounters.
Maybe. But somehow he knew that the Russians had intercepted “thousands” of emails belonging to a U.S. candidate for the White House long before the rest of the world did and he relayed this information to a young, inexperienced campaign adviser to a rival candidate, with whom he’d struck up a rapport while both were traveling in Italy. At first The Professor was uninterested in the American. Then the American explained his promising new role back in New York in a presidential campaign and The Professor became very interested.
In fact, five days after the American was named publicly as one of the candidate’s top foreign policy hands in an interview with a major U.S. broadsheet, The Professor met him for lunch in London. By now the American had taken to referring to The Professor as “a good friend of mine” in his communiques back to campaign headquarters. The Professor opened doors, introducing him to Russia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom and to a Russian woman mistakenly or purposefully misidentified as a “niece” of the Russian president.
From here, The Professor’s interaction with the American diminished. The woman who wasn’t a niece or any relative of anyone that important, together with a third man, a program director at one of those Kremlin-financed think tanks in Russia, henceforth led the discussion via email and Skype about a prospective liaison between members of the U.S. presidential candidate’s campaign (possibly the candidate himself) and the Russian leadership (possibly the Russian president himself). If such a liaison happened, it’d have to happen in Moscow or a “neutral” city.
True, The Professor was still on hand to advise his good friend as to who exactly in the Russian government in Washington or London the American might speak with about arranging such a sensitive rendezvous. But the semi-anonymous Maltese’s work as a go-between was done. The Russians would take it from here.
“I am aware,” wrote FBI Special Agent Robert Gibbs in his affidavit accompanying the federal complaint against George Papadopoulos, the American campaign adviser who confessed he lied to the FBI, “that the Russian government and its intelligence and security services frequently make use of non-governmental intermediaries to achieve their foreign intelligence objectives… I am aware that the Russian government has used individuals associated with academia and think tanks in such a capacity.”
Indeed. This common practice makes the story of the professor mentioned in the FBI court document, whose real name has since been revealed as Joseph Mifsud, even more intriguing than his suspicious overtures to a well-placed American political operative. Mifsud told The Daily Beast in an interviewimmediately after his name surfaced that he couldn’t be the man in the FBI complaint. “I am an academic,” he insisted. But multiple inquiries have made it clear that U.S. investigators do not find that denial credible.
How would a former employee of a European Union member state’s foreign affairs ministry be made use of by Russian spies? Was he even cognizant of his role as a talent-spotter for high-value targets for recruitment or were his personality traits—a propensity for exaggerating his significance, a fondness for name-dropping well-connected Russian acquaintances and attending international conferences—simply exploited to make him an unwitting agent of Moscow Center? Or was he drawn into an international masquerade by his own folly, some hapless indiscretion on one of those jaunts to Moscow or St. Petersburg, which happened years ago but which his handlers won’t ever let him forget?
The type of tradecraft suggested in the FBI complaint against Papadopolous, the transformation of civilians into assets who are then tasked with targeting other civilians, possibly of foreign or hostile nations, has been standard operating procedure for generations.
MOST OF WHAT WE KNOW of the Cold War, at least as it went down on the opposition’s side, has come to us from the testimony of high-level KGB defectors such as Oleg Gordievsky and Sergei Tretyakov, or from the post-retirement memoirs of spymasters such as Oleg Kalugin. In one staggering case of good fortune, Vasili Mitrokhin, the archivist for the KGB’s First Chief Directorate, which was in charge of foreign intelligence in the Soviet Union, managed to smuggle into the West handwritten copies of an enormous tranche of Soviet intelligence documents. From Mitrokhin’s resulting file, we have perhaps the largest and most edifying glimpse into how a totalitarian secret police functioned for decades: whom it recruited, how it succeeded or failed in getting the better of its adversaries (especially its main one, the United States), and to what depths of cynical manipulation it sank to try to conquer the world.
The Russian component of the Eastern bloc spy archives is by far the least complete. Whereas many of the occupied satellite regimes sought total transparency in their truth-and-reconciliation transitions from communism to democracy, the Russian Federation has mainly kept its occluded history in the dark.
As Masha Gessen observes in her new book, appropriately titled The Future Is History, even Boris Yeltsin was more interested in getting right to the “reconciliation” part by skipping almost entirely over the antecedent “truth.” Only a small portion of the KGB archives was declassified because Yeltsin foreclosed on a policy of full lustration for fear of what that might do to a fragile society just discovering freedom.
How does one reckon with an intelligence apparatus so vast and powerful that its reach touched every living soul in nearly one-third of the planet and transformed even good men and women—mothers, fathers, and children—into informants or accomplices? Recriminations on this scale could cannibalize a democratic Russia before it even had a chance to take hold. Better to let past stay past and hidden. If granting impunity to all KGB operatives meant that those who otherwise might have been brought to justice were now in excellent positions to seize control of the Russian government, so be it.
Still, every now and then, a few more shadows recede from this secret history, whether Moscow Center likes it or not.
THE 108-PAGE DOCUMENT is marked “secret” in Russian and titled “Political Intelligence from the Territory of the USSR.” It is dated Moscow, 1989 (the year the Soviet bloc collapsed) and comes with the following disclaimer: “Approved by the USSR KGB PGU as a teaching manual for students of the Andropov Red Banner Institute in special discipline course 1 and agents of external intelligence.” PGU stands for Pervoye Glavnoye Upravlenie, or the First Chief Directorate, and the Andropov Red Banner Institute is the famous finishing school for Soviet operatives.
The document is a how-to guide for recruiting and running foreign agents who traveled to the Soviet Union, using institutions ostensibly dedicated to everything but espionage. Such as?
Well, such as: “The Foreign Ministry, the Ministry for Foreign Economic Ties, the State Education Committee, the Ministry of Culture, the Peace Committee, the Academy of Science, etc. can be used as well as theatre, art shows, cinema, tourism… Opportunities for contact with foreigners come when they have to solve problems and resolve a conflict situation, for example, violation of customs rules, road accidents, or violation of other Soviet laws. Agents can be placed in trains, planes and hotels to make these approaches.” Conveniently, where problems or conflict situations don’t arise spontaneously, they can be manufactured to serve precisely this purpose.
The First Chief Directorate training manual was passed to The Daily Beast several weeks ago by a European security service, which says that the document is still classified in Russia primarily because, even though it is nearly 30 years old, it is still relied upon as an educational tool for Putin’s clandestine cadres.
“We assess with high confidence,” an officer from this European service says, speaking on condition of anonymity, “that the thrust of this material is taught at Russia’s intelligence academies even today. Russia’s services are proud of their Cold War history, specific case studies and the lessons learned then continue to be relevant for current operational work.”
Much of what’s in here indeed has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel to it because, as two former U.S. intelligence officers who have studied the manual and attested to its authenticity suggest, plus ça change.
“There is a reason that espionage is referred to as the second-oldest profession in the world,” says Steven Hall, a former CIA station chief in Moscow. “Things don’t change that much. Now, though, we have a fuller picture of what we always knew, and what makes this document valuable is it comes straight from the horse’s mouth.”
“Reading this document made me smile,” says John Sipher, a veteran of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service. “This is The Sword and the Shield [the Mitrokhin archive], the basic playbook of Russian intelligence. In the United States, spying was always a little-understood activity that took place at the margins and in the shadows, under the rule of law. In the Soviet Union, spying was central, and was the law.”
WITHIN THE KGB’S FIRST CHIEF DIRECTORATE, the department responsible for recruiting foreign agents on native soil was known as Directorate RT, for Razvedka s Territorii (“intelligence from the territory”). According to the training manual, some 2,000 Soviet diplomats and hundreds of Soviet journalists and trade representatives were press-ganged into working on Directorate RT’s behalf recruiting foreigners. Directorate RT had an ample number of people to work with. Virtually everyone living in the Soviet Union was a potential spy, as the KGB harvested “a certain amount of its data from Soviet citizens in various ministries who work with foreigners.” Poets, novelists, singers, painters, ballerinas could be enlisted in sophisticated operations aimed at snaring both minnows and whales from the West. French President Charles De Gaulle’s ambassador to Moscow once got reeled in by a KGB cast of hundreds, including some of the finest Soviet prostitutes.
There were, as the manual puts it, “several thousand foreign government representatives” to draw on, plus the children of those representatives; businessmen looking to widen their portfolios in the Eastern bloc under glasnost (which would certainly include New York real estate moguls); an untold array of visiting scientists and academics, many of them affiliated with the U.S. Embassy in Moscow; “2,000 diplomats, 100,000 foreign students in 800 universities”; “10,000 military people from 30 countries”; those with relatives in the USSR who remain for three to six months, including some 1.5 million Russian emigres, 2 million Ukrainians, 1.5 million Armenians, and 800,000 Balts.
Social scientists such as our Maltese professor of diplomacy were of particular interest given their likelihood of contract government work back home, drafting military or economic policy. If you were from abroad, there was almost no way you weren’t surveilled and scrutinized as a possible asset, with the omnipresent danger being of course that you were actually sent from abroad by a Western intelligence service—a danger Directorate RT was all too keenly aware existed and took a host of precautionary measures to avoid.
That’s why the due diligence for recruits was so exhaustive: “Each time a foreign student goes to the USSR, he has to go through an application process,” the manual states. “The agentura [network of agents]becomes involved in the process of get-acquainted chats, and PGU operatives especially sent to various countries may be involved. After these students get to the USSR, they are studied via agents from among Soviet and foreign citizens in their universities, by administrative, professorial and other personnel and by the military in the cases of military training. … Before recruiting, it should be determined what prospect the student has of getting a job in institutions of interest to Soviet intelligence. Some potential recruits identified abroad can be invited especially to the Soviet Union for further workover.
The manual goes on to say: “Diplomats and journalists accredited in the USSR cannot make a career without contacts among authoritative political and civic circles in our country.” Foreign graduate students need access to professors and researchers. “Many political and civic figures in foreign countries need contacts with Soviet institutions and organizations for reasons of prestige, and sometimes strive to ensure themselves and their political groupings success in their domestic political arena as authorities in the area of relations of their country with the Soviet Union.” (One thinks of The Professor and his American friend.) “All of these elements create bases for establishing contacts with foreigners, their operative development and attraction of them to intelligence cooperation.”
Good tradecraft means inconspicuousness. If a potential recruit is traveling to the Soviet Union as part of a delegation, he should never be the head of that delegation and the delegation’s size should be sufficiently large to ensure greater anonymity for the mark. If the recruit can’t come to Russia, then Russia will come to the recruit: An agent might be sent to visit him under the guise of a professional conference or a study-abroad program, or an embedded agent already residing in the recruit’s country can be “activated and a pretext for contact created.”
YOU’RE A PHYSICIST from Paris who has in the past done work for France’s nuclear weapons program. You naturally study research conducted by your Soviet counterparts and because you grew up in the West, where there still remains a healthy separation between government and private citizens, you assume that science is its own sacred field of human inquiry, free from the profanities of geopolitics. Although you have belatedly begun to believe that the arms race to which you contributed is madness and, afflicted with “bourgeois ideology” though you may be, you consider yourself a man of science first, a citizen of France second, and a NATO ally with clearance last.
Directorate RT is counting on this being your set of priorities and therefore on your eventual connivance, “for the sake of preventing a nuclear disaster,” of course. A scientific institution in the USSR is found to make the initial contact with you via a letter of introduction. Don’t worry, they’ll work around your busy schedule with ease because “each year there are 300 international forums within the USSR and 700 abroad in which the Soviet Union takes part” and “the KGB ensures that these events are held with political interests of the USSR.”
A Soviet physicist, one whose scholarship you greatly admire, is prevailed upon to do a bit of extracurricular work for Directorate RT by extending the offer of a visit to Moscow State University in the coming months to attend a symposium on antimatter which is preplanned or will perhaps be cobbled together solely for your benefit.
Outreach will take place carefully, as French counterintelligence will no doubt be alive to the prospect of a trained specialist who worked on the most sensitive national defense sector being lured beyond the Iron Curtain for less than scientific reasons. That is why the rules of the game here may get a little more complicated, owing to the need for plausibly deniable cut-outs who will act, in aggregate, as a convincing cover story should the operation go sideways.
As the manual puts it, the “recruitment agent,” in this case the Soviet physicist, “is introduced into the operation separate from the agent who is running the recruitment,” that is, the more established asset of Directorate RT who in turns answers to an officer of the KGB. This chain of command is in place “so that in the event of failure, the intelligence agent who is working through the cover institution isn’t exposed,” the institution here being one of the most prestigious and oldest universities in the world. Also, given the specialized nature of the quarry involved, “the recruitment agent is needed when the agent doesn’t have enough background in the topic in which the foreigner specializes or doesn’t have a position in the cover organization which would be at the foreigner’s level and authoritative for him.” In other words, because you’re coming to Moscow to discuss antimatter, you’ll need to do so with someone who understands the subject matter and with whom you can develop a mutual trust and camaraderie before any trap may be set.
A file is drawn up on you known as the Initial Study File. If the operation proceeds well and a relationship with you migrates into the realm of actual intelligence work then an Operative Development File will be opened. You will be “handled” by multiple agents of various departments of KGB, not just Directorate RT, and some of these will be “working under cover in ministries; counterintelligence agents, agents from among Soviet and foreign citizens, trusted persons, and the special PGU reserve disguised as citizens from foreign countries.” Ernesto, that lovely Argentine lawyer you shared a cigarette with at the InTourist Hotel? He works for the First Chief Directorate.
From the moment you arrive in Moscow, you will be watched and followed everywhere you go.
If all proceeds well, the final stage of your recruitment will be an assessment of your reliability and loyalty. Do you have the “bravery, restraint, operational acuity, resourcefulness and readiness to take an intelligence risk”?
Your word will not be enough given what is to be invested in you. If physics and de-proliferation got you on the hook, then what will keep you dangling there indefinitely is a flagrant act of criminality.
Maybe you’ve already committed a crime without realizing it. Maybe you let slip a telling classified detail of France’s atomic program with a colleague at the antimatter symposium, a detail to which only yourself and a handful of others in France were ever privy to. It wasn’t your fault. You were conferring with such engaging and charming equals at a symposium few scholars could comprehend. If yours was an unconscious misstep, even better.
If you didn’t break the law up unbidden, there will be plenty of other opportunities to do so, with encouragement. “Recruitment is strengthened above all by giving intelligence tasks to the person recruited for collaboration, the performance of which violates certain legal or moral norms of his country.” Now your interlocutors are revealed to you as more than physicists and academicians. You are asked to return to Paris, regain access to France’s nuclear program and begin stealing state secrets.
You will be brought deeper into a criminal conspiracy, if only to confirm your “readiness for practical intelligence cooperation” and to make it “impossible or difficult” for you “to refuse such cooperation in the future.” Even now, your fate is not entirely clear because there is always the chance that you’ll go wobbly. You may even be introduced to a psychiatrist at some point who will sketch a personality profile of you and find out what really motivates you. Contrary to your professed love of knowledge and world peace, are you actually driven by baser instincts: career ambition, status anxiety, revenge, hatred, love? Are you perhaps attracted to one of the agents assigned to your case and, even though you’re married, acted on that impulse? (Here the psychiatrist will be aided with an array of audio and visual materials to confirm your behavior in Moscow.) Do you fear betraying your country and the legal consequences?
You could run home only to inform the French authorities of your treachery and beg forgiveness, which they might actually, dreadfully, bestow upon you by asking you to turn double agent: Spy on the spies who recruited you. Or your nerves might simply get the better of your resolve in the course of some as-yet-determined “practical intelligence cooperation” and you could be caught red-handed by the DGSI, France’s internal security service, and then locked up or worse: traded for some complementary French asset being held the USSR. That might be worse than prison because it would mean being sent back to Moscow, your new and permanent home, where you spend the rest of your life, never to see your friends and family again.
What began as a pantomime of professional courtesy—a simple invitation to attend a symposium—has culminated in your personal and professional destruction. You have become a citizen of no-man’s-land, as one fictional hero of counterintelligence memorably phrased it, the collateral damage of History. No one told you it would ever be otherwise.
VICTOR CHERKASHIN, THE ERSTWHILE handler of Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, the two biggest KGB moles in American history, was also the chief of Directorate RT. “Contacts included members of almost every U.S. organization whose members set foot in the country,” he writes in his memoir Spy Handler. “As a rule, the arrival of every foreigner created counterintelligence work.”
“Directorate RT was a truly totalitarian approach to intelligence,” according to Andrei Soldatov, the co-author of The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB. “It made the territory of the Soviet Union a gigantic trap—all regional branches of the KGB had special departments tasked to look for ways to recruit foreigners on their soil.” And this extraordinary apparatus, dedicated to the incrimination of hapless visitors as to the complicity of coerced natives, is by no means a relic of the Cold War.
“There is a certain irony that when Putin became chief of the FSB in 1999, and the FSB wanted to expand its powers and get a foreign intelligence branch, this empire of regional departments was used to build it,” Soldatov says. “A special coordination body was created and then turned into the foreign intelligence arm of the FSB,” the Federal Security Service, the domestic security arm that grew out of the demise of the KGB. The foreign arm is today known as the SVR, which is the actual successor of the First Chief Directorate; the Andropov Red Banner Institute, in fact, is now called the SVR Academy.
The continuity doesn’t end there.
A phrase that recurs quite a lot in the manual is one that the American man in the street now knows, thanks to the unpleasantness of the last two years. “Active measures,” or activniye meropriyatiya, is an antique KGB concept of deploying dirty tricks to vitiate and demoralize a Western opponent, now much in sensationalized circulation in the Age of Trump owing to the deluge of falsehoods emanating from Russian government media portals and non-government, non-Russian social media platforms.
Nobody does it better, and if you don’t trust MSNBC to define what disinformation is and how it works, you can trust the KGB: “The conspiratorial promotion to the enemy of fabricated news, especially prepared materials and documents, so as to lead him into confusion and motivate him to decisions and actions that meet the interests of the Soviet state. Disinformation measures are undertaken to undermine the positions of imperialism in various countries of the world, increase the contradictions among imperialist states, bourgeois political parties and individual figures, to weaken their positions, counteract the unleashing of anti-Soviet campaigns and also for the purposes of influencing the outcome of negotiations not only on political matters but in concluding major trade deals with foreign companies and firms.”
Excepting the turgid and outmoded ideological terms, how can this not still be a serviceable textbook on deceiving and dividing the West for those just initiated into the ranks of the FSB, SVR, and GRU, Russia’s domestic, foreign, and military intelligence services, respectively?
“Maybe the CIA invented Ebola to kill Africans.”
“Neo-Nazis have taken over Ukraine with the help of the State Department.”
“Russia is pulling its military out of Syria because it’s destroyed ISIS.”
“Emmanuel Macron might be gay.”
“Couldn’t the Democratic Party have had Seth Rich murdered?”
“What if they hacked themselves?”
“Did you hear there was a chemical plant explosion in Louisiana?”
“Hillary Clinton had a stroke.”
“North African migrants have raped a young German girl and Merkel is covering it up.”
These ideas, once injected into the zeitgeist, are incredibly difficult to dislodge from it, which is precisely the point of them. Disinformation isn’t designed to make you believe something false but convincing; it is designed to make you doubt everything true and demonstrable; to make the very existence of unimpeachable facts null and void.
And where crude or inventive falsehoods don’t work, the truth will often suffice, provided it’s told with bad intent or “weaponized,” in the contemporary parlance. Disseminating the private correspondence of one political party or campaign in order to embarrass it in a democratic election, if not make it lose that election, is undoubtedly interference in the sovereign affairs of another country. But that doesn’t make the content of such correspondence fabricated.
“Exposure as a method of active measures is used to reveal to the world public or the public of individual countries secret anti-Soviet plots, aggressive plans and intentions, bad deeds and other such actions of military political groupings of the enemy… Exposure operations can have significant influence on the formation of public opinion abroad in the direction favorable to the Soviet Union, enable the strengthening of anti-American sentiments in various countries, the growth of the anti-war movement and so on.”
The italics are mine. The ablest of these operations seize upon already existing weaknesses and vulnerabilities and simply nudge them along. The victims here—the Western recipients of propaganda and disinformation—are themselves the plausibly deniable cut-outs of Russian intelligence, only they don’t know it. When is someone predisposed to accepting the false statistics or bogus news clippings posted to some anti-Muslim Facebook page transformed into a dupe of an influence operation, and when is that person just a whipped-up bigot?
On the other hand, the classified works of Directorate RT remind us that the KGB was one of the most high-octane engines of mass media in the 20th century. Active measures, the manual states, took the form of “publication in the foreign press of articles, publication of books, brochures, leaflets in the name of foreign authors; organization of radio and television broadcasts; press conferences and interviews with prominent state, political and civic figures, prominent scientists and other influential foreigners… instigation in foreign countries of meetings, rallies, demonstrations, appeals to the governments, inquiries in parliaments; promotion of decisions, resolutions, manifestos corresponding to the interests of the Soviet Union and so on.”
Foreign journalists and commentators were of particular value because they could easily be made to appear in print or on air with KGB-derived talking points, or “theses.” Now Directorate RT has given way to RT and Sputnik, and presidents, too, can be made to recite or retweet the concoctions of Moscow Center—all without the need of expensive and months-long recruitment efforts.
Here is Steven Hall, once Langley’s top man in Russia: “Russian intelligence is more sophisticated and better today than it was during the Cold War.” Why? The dictatorship of Putin has got far better resources to play with. Alexander Herzen once said that what he feared most for the future was “Genghis Khan with the telegraph.” Newspaper, radio, and television never possessed the universality and possibilities of the internet, where content is manufactured by anyone with a keyboard and a pulse, and sometimes not even then, but by self-running algorithms.
Technology may have improved by orders of magnitude, but the general contours of these influence operations have not changed overmuch since Lenin’s Cheka, the predecessor of the KGB. It scarcely helps that the West has had to re-learn this toolkit, and its manifold adaptations for the 21st century, in extremity and only after suffering unexpected tactical defeats in Ukraine and Syria and perhaps more lasting strategic ones in Europe and the United States.
“This shock in Western societies,” Hall says, “from the Catalonian independence movement, to the German, French elections is naïveté. The Russians never got rusty at this, we just got rusty at identifying it.”
Moreover, the virtues of an open society are vices to its enemies. The notion, for instance, that foreign spies might look to blackmail or incriminate and then recruit sojourning scientists or graduate students or newspaper columnists was anathema to liberal sensibilities. “The Russians just think it so quaint when we say, ‘students and cultural exchanges ought to be sacrosanct and certainly nobody would use these honest exchange programs for espionage purposes,’ said Hall. “They take it to the bank every time.”
“There is no such thing as clean business, people-to-people contact or cultural work that is off limits,” agrees John Sipher. “Any time a foreigner interacts with the Russian state, he or she should expect to be targeted, assessed and scrutinized.” But it won’t do to have that foreigner know this going in, or to understand more broadly that he is naturally a target for manipulation.
Putin and his surrogates decry a “Cold War mentality” in the West while never having abandoned it themselves because doing so preys upon a very Western sense of self-criticism and guilt. Suspicions about people and institutions make us feel lousy. How McCarthyist! Yet the absence of vigilance leads to susceptibility. “Is it a surprise that the Russians would have a full dossier on someone like Donald Trump?” asks Sipher.
Mobbed-up blowhards, flashy pop singers who have married into (and out of) kleptocratic dynasties in the Caucasus, ex-prosecutors from the Moscow suburbs who defend state oligarchs and their offspring from money-laundering allegations in foreign jurisdictions, founders of anti-virus software companies—all may seem a likely dramatis personae for a carefully choreographed influence operation. But, says Hall, “even well-meaning people under normal circumstances, if they have any exposure in Russia whatsoever, whether it’s family, finances, connections, friends—those are vulnerabilities for the FSB. They can be coaxed into living a double, triple, quadruple life when it comes to interacting with a Westerner. If they don’t say the right things under the right conditions, they could get a call or a knock at the door that would be disastrous for them.”
Doesn’t that make the work of Western spies and counterspies infinitely more difficult, given that those they will have to rely on for credible human intelligence may be keeping multiple sets of books. Say, your lowly Gazprom secretary who is reporting everything she says to her British informant back to her Russian handler. Hall laughs. “They don’t call it a wilderness of mirrors for nothing.”
Special thanks to Catherine A. Fitzpatrick for her translation of these documents.