First lessons from the affair of the Russian ‘illegals’ in the United States



We are just beginning to draw some conclusions from the espionage scandal which has developed in the United   States and which brings to mind the more dramatic moments in the Cold War.


The ESISC will devote a full analysis article to this case in the coming days, but here and now one can emphasize that:




  • This case reveals      straightaway that twenty years after the end of the Cold War, the ‘grand game’      is continuing between Moscow and Washington and that Russia, under the direction of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri      Medvedev, still uses intelligence gathering as a major tool of its foreign      policy. This will astonish only the naive: for the great powers,      whether they are world or just regional powers, the advance knowledge      provided by intelligence operations is an indispensable element for the articulation      and the conduct of foreign policy.


  • The second lesson: the      United States is still      ‘the main enemy’ (Glavny      Vrag) for Russia      just as once upon a time the CIA was for the KGB. This is nothing      surprising in all this. While Russia barely remains a      worldwide power, it is surely a great Euro-Asiatic power from the      political and military standpoint as well as the economic or energy      standpoint. Relations between Moscow and Washington have obviously greatly      improved since the end of the Soviet era, but Russia has cooled in response to what it considers to be      ‘aggressiveness’ on the part of the United States: its ‘meddling’ in      Balkan affairs, the expansion of NATO to the East, the wish to introduce a      missile defence system in Europe and the involvement of Washington in the      crises of Georgia, the Ukraine and Central Asia.


On the purely operational level:


  • One should stress      that this case confirms what intelligence experts have suspected for years:      the SVR has been trying on the practices of the KGB and is using in its      offensive intelligence gathering abroad the same methods as were used by      its ‘great forebear.’ Thus, Illegals      remain an essential arm which Russian intelligence is presently nearly      the only one in the world to use (apart from the Israeli intelligence      services).


  • The SVR went through a difficult period of restrictions and downsizing at      the end of the 1990s which I personally witnessed in the course of some      research I carried out in Moscow.      Yet, despite everything, it kept      the kind of talent that made the KGB legendary. Carrying out a penetration      operation in the United        States over the course of ten or fifteen years involving at least a dozen Illegals and with, no doubt, an equal number of ‘support’ agents proves how seriously Russian intelligence must be taken. This operation bears the hallmarks of the ‘great operators’ of Soviet intelligence.    


  • Given the      investment in time and money necessary to choose the Illegals, to train      them, to build their cover and to maintain them, one is struck by what would appear to be a serious breach of the basic      principles of clandestine operations. To be exact, that the same      handler (‘Christopher Metsos’) seems to have directed numerous Illegal      couples and that they had contact among themselves  (at least the  Murphy pair and the      ‘Zottoli/Mills’ couple). This lack      of watertight seals could obviously have had catastrophic consequences in      case of a defection or of the discovery of one of these ‘cells’ and this      is apparently what damaged the security of the operation. The final      failure is linked to this error: in the past few days at least a dozen Illegals      fell into the nets of the FBI. This is a terrible and unprecedented loss      for the SVR.


  • In the same vein,      but looking at the American side, one must admire a counter-intelligence      operation which lasted at least 7 years during which Illegals were      followed, listened to, filmed and kept under surveillance. The enormous mass of intelligence      gathered in this way promises to turn this affair into a veritable      textbook case which will bring an impressive harvest of information both      on the operational methods of the SVR and on the objectives which this      great intelligence service has set for itself. Manna like this takes years      to deliver but at arrival may turn out to be the most important ‘snapshot’      of Russian intelligence for decades.





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