Russia's intelligence war against the West - News Review
Thursday, May 7, 2015
Russia's intelligence war against the West
As revelations about cyber-attacks launched against the US last autumn show, Russia is engaged in a relentless intelligence war against the west. Other targets of Russian cyber-warfare have included Germany, Estonia, Romania, Ukraine and Georgia. As James Clapper, the US director of National Intelligence,recently told the US Senate, the Russian threat is “more severe than we have previously assessed”. The ability of Russian hackers to successfully access the State Department and White House computer networks should serve as a wake-up call. The US and its Nato allies must respond by developing a more effective tool kit for dealing with this threat.
Across Europe and the Euro-Atlantic area, Russia’s intelligence offensive is being conducted with increasing determination and sophistication. This is a smart and modern war that goes well beyond the traditional intelligence requirements of “need to know” concerning the intentions of enemy countries, which in President Vladimir Putin’s mind includes any country opposed to his expansionist ambitions. It draws on a Russian intelligence tradition that stretches back to the Tsarist era and includes techniques of political warfare in addition to regular intelligence gathering. The Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka, called these “active measures” and used them to promote its revolutionary goals abroad. They included everything from political assassination to the covert use of propaganda.
The tactical goals of Russian cyber-warfare vary depending on the circumstances. As with last year’s attacks on the US, cyber-attacks launched against Romania and other Nato targets in 2013 were aimed at accessing classified information. The Romanian Intelligence Service was able to detect and block these attacks. A 2007 denial of service attack, which brought down government websites in Estonia, was intended to punish the country for moving a Soviet war memorial and to do so in a way that was conveniently deniable. On other occasions the aim has been propaganda. An attack against government websites in Germany this year was claimed by a group calling itself CyberBerkut and was said to be retaliation for Germany’s support for Ukraine.
These operations are only one part of a much wider spectrum of active measures targeted against western countries, including the funding of political parties, the establishment of pro-Russian blogs and websites, the mass manipulation of social media and the use of agents of influence. They all serve the common goal of keeping Russia’s supposed enemies off balance by sowing division and spreading disinformation.
Despite the numerous attacks against the US and Europe, Russia’s primary targets remain those closest to its borders. Putin’s strategy in this regard is obvious: to undermine and destabilise the democratically elected governments of Russia’s neighbours in order to gain political, economic and strategic influence within them. By generating domestic support for Russia’s policies through political and cultural elites as well as the media, Putin hopes to rebuild a European sphere of influence and exert control over decisions of strategic importance for Russia. These tactics, like the intelligence war itself, are not new, but their use has now reached a level of intensity not seen since the height of the Cold War.
This process began in the early 2000s, as the Russian military-intelligence complex gradually recovered and modernised itself after the Cold War. The mastermind of this reformed complex was Putin himself, who served as a KGB officer in the Soviet era and later became head of its successor organisation, the FSB. He more than anyone has been responsible for rehabilitating the Chekist legacy and incorporating its methods into the day-to-day functioning of the Russian state and its external relations. Even his Soviet predecessors did more to ensure that the various branches of the security establishment remained subordinate to civilian power. In Putin’s Russia, however, the main levers of power have long been controlled by former and serving intelligence operatives. The extent to which Russia’s diplomatic and military structures have been redesigned to incorporate advanced intelligence features forms the backbone of a new, modern threat to the west.
The US and several European countries (notably the UK, but also Poland and Romania) have warned about the consequences of Russia’s aggressive intelligence operations. The response to these warnings has generally been weak and incongruent with the immense operational force deployed by the Russian foreign (SVR), domestic (FSB) and military (GRU) intelligence agencies. This complacency has allowed Russia to gain a head start in the intelligence game, penetrating western societies to an extent that its leaders have been reluctant to acknowledge and acting to disrupt the EU’s ability to develop a united policy towards Russia. Until the Ukraine crisis, this was most evident in the energy sector, where its grip on vital infrastructure allowed Russia to maintain its position as the dominant supplier to a dependent European market.
This situation cannot last. It is time for Europe and Nato to take firmer action. A robust and coherent response to Russia’s silent war is needed to counter and neutralise Russia’s intelligence activities within their member states. This requires more political will, but also more resources and more effective instruments – including adequate legal tools that protect Europe’s security and freedoms. The Romanian Intelligence Service already plays an active role in countering this threat, helping regional allies such as Ukraine to upgrade their cyber-defence capabilities and monitoring Russian intelligence agencies’ infiltration of vital sectors.
But much more needs to be done collectively within the EU and Nato. Cooperation within both organisations still needs to be developed in order to respond to the scale of the challenge. Until this changes, the west will not be able to push back effectively against Russia’s ambitions. The west urgently needs a new counter-intelligence strategy that acknowledges the nature of the threat and has the ability to bring Russia back within the limits of international law and the norms of diplomacy appropriate to the 21st century.
Ambassador George Cristian Maior is former director of the Romanian Intelligence Service.