Putin’s One Weapon: The ‘Intelligence State’

Felix Dzerzhinsky, center, who led the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka, with a group of Chekists in 1923.CreditLaski Collection/Getty Images
Felix Dzerzhinsky, center, who led the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka, with a group of Chekists in 1923. Credit Laski Collection/Getty Images

According to this year’s National Intelligence Worldwide Threat Assessment and Senate testimony by top-ranked intelligence officials, Americans can expect Vladimir Putin’s Russia to continue its efforts to aggravate social, political and racial tensions in the United States and among its allies.

So, to best prepare for future Russian assaults, we should look to the past and study the mind-set of the Cold War K.G.B. — the intelligence service in which President Putin spent his formative years. The history of the brutal Soviet security services lays bare the roots of Russia’s current use of political arrests, subversion, disinformation, assassination, espionage and the weaponization of lies. None of those tactics is new to the Kremlin.

In fact, those tactics made Soviet Russia the world’s first “intelligence state,” and they also distinguished it from authoritarian states run by militaries. Today’s Russia has become even more of an intelligence state after Mr. Putin’s almost 20-year tenure as its strongman. In the U.S.S.R., the party ruled. It was only after the rise in the 1980s of Yuri Andropov — Mr. Putin’s role model and mentor — that the K.G.B. became the state’s most important institution. Then, a decade after the Soviet Union fell, Mr. Putin rose to power and recruited many of his former K.G.B. colleagues to help rebuild the state. The result is a regime with the policies and philosophy of a supercharged secret police service, a regime that relies on intelligence operations to deal with foreign policy challenges and maintain control at home.

Mr. Putin and his cronies had thrived in an empire where the K.G.B. was the sword and shield of the state, so they regularly return to their tried-and-true weapons when dealing with 21st-century problems. The intelligence services have even been used to covertly drug Russia’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes — the mark of an ultimate “intelligence state.”

How did this start? After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Vladimir Lenin established a secret police service called the Cheka to be his main weapon of repression and terror. Under Felix Dzerzhinsky, a ruthless revolutionary, the Cheka was tasked with keeping the leadership in power at all costs. It served as judge, jury and executioner for the state, using sabotage, censorship, repression and murder to keep the population in line and external enemies at bay.

As Dzerzhinsky remarked, “We stand for organized terror,” and “the Cheka is obliged to defend the revolution and conquer the enemy even if its sword does by chance sometimes fall upon the heads of the innocent.”

During Dzerzhinsky’s time, monarchists, socialists, White Russians and outsiders all conspired to overthrow Lenin and the Bolshevik government. The main underground resistance bringing these forces together was the Monarchist Union of Central Russia, which operated secretly throughout Europe and inside the Soviet Union.

But unbeknown to those in that organization, it was a trap — a full-fledged honey pot created by the Cheka to draw in enemies of the Soviet Union so they could be identified, neutralized and killed. This fledgling secret police service hoodwinked the established intelligence services of Europe, and in so doing showed its guile, patience and cruelty. Britain’s “Ace of Spies,” Sidney Reilly, who became Ian Fleming’s model for James Bond, was just the most famous individual to be lured to the Soviet Union, interrogated and executed. Misplaced trust became a model for a century of Soviet and Russian subversive efforts, and the Cheka remained a source of pride for future Russian intelligence operatives. Indeed, Russian intelligence officers — including Mr. Putin — still celebrate Chekist Day every Dec. 20.

Over the decades, the Soviet and Russian secret services developed tools and habits based on their Chekist experience that set them apart from their counterparts in the West. Rather than focusing on collecting and analyzing intelligence, they developed expertise in propaganda, agitation, subversion, repression, deception and murder.

Indeed, the first senior defector from the new Bolshevik state, Boris Bajanov, fled to British India in 1928 with assassins on his tail. Bajanov, Stalin’s personal secretary, reported that the Kremlin’s primary foreign policy was to use covert means to weaken its enemies from within, so that if war came, it would be easier to win.

The Cheka and its successors sowed chaos abroad with propaganda, disinformation and sabotage while managing mass arrests and gulags at home. Bajanov added that Soviet cultural and diplomatic institutions were simply cover mechanisms meant to hoodwink Western intellectuals, foment commercial and political unrest and undermine democracies from within. In other words, their purpose was to throw dust in the eyes of educated people in the West. Over the years, defector after defector came to the West with the same story.

Indeed, the Kremlin deployed an army of spies and recruited informants around the world to steal secrets, spread disinformation and support terrorists and rogue regimes. The security services built their hybrid warfare on a form of deception called “reflexive control” — an effort to manage the perceptions of adversaries so they would be fooled into acting against their own interests. The method included distracting, exhausting and confusing opponents in order to ultimately control their animating narrative. “Operation Infektion” was one such worldwide disinformation effort. Its goal was to spread the story that the virus that caused AIDS was a weapon the Pentagon had designed to destroy developing countries. The Russian operation to influence the 2016 American presidential election was a more recent example.

Assassination, too, is nothing new. When he arrived in the West, Bajanov explained that the Soviet leadership would send assassins to kill anyone who knew the true nature of the Kremlin’s inner workings. This practice has continued. The unsuccessful 2018 Russian attempt to murder Sergei Skripal in Britain is almost indistinguishable from the Cold War K.G.B. assassination of the Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera in 1959. Assassins covertly tracked Bandera to his Munich address and used a K.G.B.-manufactured gun that sprayed poison to make Bandera’s death appear to have been a heart attack. It was only a K.G.B. assassin’s eventual defection years later that revealed the truth.

As the United States seeks to engage Russia, it must realize that the Kremlin tiger will not change its stripes. Russia’s efforts to forcefully defend itself stem from a profound sense of insecurity, bred from centuries of invasions and breakdowns of the state. Few countries have suffered more. So a central element of Russia’s statecraft since the days of the czars has been deceiving and weakening its enemies from within. In that sense, Russia’s well-sharpened tools of political tradecraft are explainable and logical, even though condemnable.

Western unity is our best defense. Mr. Putin seems to know he cannot compete with the West on a level playing field. He wields his Chekist fog machine to bewilder, confuse and paralyze his enemies because it is all he has. And as long as our politics are tribal, and Americans see domestic political opponents as the real enemy, the Kremlin’s efforts to leverage and exploit our weaknesses will continue.

We should avoid threatening Russia’s sovereignty and instead work with our allies to defend ourselves vigorously and in unison from cyber, physical and hybrid attacks, and push back when threatened.

This being the case, President Trump’s anti-European sentiments are surely his greatest gift to President Putin.

John Sipher is a former chief of station for the C.I.A. and a co-founder of Spycraft Entertainment.

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