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Strength and weakness of Russian special services

Because of the spying allegations raging around the US election, many seem to think that the Russian special services are top professionals who are overall invincible. However alongside "victories", Moscow has been observed to suffer a number of huge foreign policy defeats in the recent years.

Donald Trump and his wife Ivana in Leningrad, July 1987
Donald Trump and his wife Ivana in Leningrad, July 1987

An archive article from 1988 about Donald Trump's visit to the Soviet Union a year earlier has recently resurfaced in the US media space. According to the article, the visit was organized by Soviet ambassador to the USA Yuriy Dubinin and Intourist, the Soviet agency for international tourism. During the visit, Trump met Politburo members although there was a full-scale Soviet system in Russia back in the time and no such meeting would have taken place without KGB authorization.

"It turns out that 'our comrades' have been closely 'following' Trump for over 30 years and the dossier they have on him certainly comprises many-many volumes," a Russian opposition activist and the leader of the Democratic Choice party, Vladimir Milov, said. He recalled that at the time, Trump was married to a Czechoslovak woman who spoke Russian, which also offers good conditions for recruitment.

In fact, Trump's overt exoneration of Putin, despite the findings of all US intelligence and counterintelligence services, and even his praise for him in the heat of the toughest confrontation between Russia and the USA raise increasingly more suspicions about the motives of the president-elect. It looks as if Donald Trump is simply afraid of making at least the smallest step against the interests of the Kremlin. Right before the New Year, he once again told journalists that Russia was not involved in hacking attacks.

Vladimir Milov
Vladimir Milov

"It could be somebody else. And I also know things other people don't know, and so they cannot be sure of the situation," he said. Let us remind you that this happened already after the CIA as well as the FBI, the Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence confirmed Russia's interference in the election on Donald Trump's side.

One fact is obvious: Moscow was pushing the loyal candidate for US president and so far Trump's every step and statement have confirmed that the Kremlin's expectations were not in vain. Regardless of the motives of the US president-elect, it is clear that the Kremlin's operation turned out to be a success. Indeed, the Russian special services successfully used the real and false contradictions in American society, thus having contributed a lot to the election of "their own man" as the head of the state they hate the most.

Photo: EPA/UPG

Because of the spying allegations raging around the US election, many seem to think that the Russian special services are top professionals who are overall invincible. However, in my view, the situation is not so critical as it may seem at first. However alongside "victories", Moscow has been observed to suffer a number of huge foreign policy defeats in the recent years, the most striking of which were the failed Novorossiya scam project and the scandal with the failed coup in Montenegro.

Below I will share my thoughts on the reasons for Russia's success with regard to its "main enemy" and how it matches its failures in other areas.

First, in my opinion, one of the key weaknesses of the Russian special services is the absence of a long-term intricate strategy with regard to every particular country where they are trying to operate. The Russian intelligence (let's call it the KGB for the purposes of this article because it also includes the efforts made by the Main Intelligence Directorate, the External Intelligence Service and the Federal Security Service) indeed succeeded in the destabilization, misinformation and recruitment, however in all countries it uses one and the same scenario, one and the same pattern which had its own strengths and weaknesses.

1. Recruitment. One must give the KGB credit for it is really strong in recruiting Western politicians. They use all sorts of means such as business interests, overt bribery, dirty laundry and a corruption component. Corruption is the main vessel through which Russian influence is trickling from one country to another, especially in the post-Soviet space.

2. Exploiting all the contradictions which exist in society and blowing them out of proportion. As I have already said, the key methods of the KGB include using any dirty laundry, any dispute, human weakness, likes and dislikes, hatred, prejudice, fear and so on. These include numerous clichés, labeling, demonization of certain groups of people, ruining of identification, creation of false patterns and clichés which prevent people from treating each other objectively. As a result, even the smallest contradictions are seen as insurmountable while natural difficulties are presented as catastrophes. Distorting the reality and pulling various political and social forces into the war of all against all is the favourite method of destabilization used by the KGB for the time known. And Moscow does not despise simultaneously supporting radicals and separatists of the most conflicting ideologies: left and right, and nationalists of all colours.

Russia-backed Hungarian National Front members during a training course
Photo: Twitter/Szabolcs Panyi
Russia-backed Hungarian National Front members during a training course

3. To implement the first two methods, "active efforts", of which we are all aware, are being used: lies, propaganda, hacking and false news, which in some cases can also be used to support intrusions by hackers, leak of compromising information, armies of trolls whose task is to create an illusionary public opinion and many other tools. Namely these measures attract numerous "useful idiots", consumers of the Russian propaganda, to the ranks of Russia's supporters.

4. Criminals are used as the main driving force if destabilization evolves into a "hot phase" (the way it happened during the preparations for the occupation of Donbas or the coup in Montenegro).

5. Active religious propaganda, or rather the propaganda of an ideology under the disguise of religion, which wraps the Kremlin's crimes into "Christian values" while Russia is proclaimed as their main defender. This kind of propaganda is successfully used even without a formal connection with Russia when a pro-Russian candidate declares himself or herself as a proxy of numerous churches even when his or her view and actions have nothing to do with the Christian faith.

Here the espionage itself (theft of state secrets, military and industrial technologies and so on) does not play the biggest part, therefore the failures of its spies are not so sensitive to Russia unlike in the West.

In fact, it [Russia] used the same pattern in the USA. It turned out to be unexpectedly effective there, possibly even in contrary to Moscow's expectations. However in this case, the result depended not so much on Russians' professionalism as on a confluence of many fatal factors, which undoubtedly helped the Kremlin's goal.

First, as it was repeatedly noted earlier, there were the true economic problems of the US province caused by the technological revolution in combination with the failed social policy of the Democratic Party, which created an impression among residents of many US states that their situation had been constantly deteriorating and that this had to do with the Democrats. We can also add here the extreme "overregulation" of business and other purely economic reasons.

Second, the radical Republican propaganda has done most work for Russians so they only reaped the harvest of it. This includes the demonization of the enemy all the way up to absolutely irrational hatred; the artificial creation of extreme conditions in which any existing problem is presented as a catastrophe, and the distorted presentation of political enemies as "noisy hipsters", "socialists", non-patriots and generally weak and stupid persons, who also "get paid". As we can see, these methods are strikingly reminiscent of the Russian propaganda and largely work in unison with it.

Now it is especially obvious how many Republicans bedazzled by hatred to their opponents and by their party interests refuse to accept the existing reality at all. For instance, even though Barack Obama has practically destroyed the foundations of Russian intelligence in the USA by expelling a huge number of spies and closing down two largest intelligence centres, the Republicans continue to call him out for his attempts of "reset" eight years ago, when Russia's behavior on the international arena was not as dangerous as today. By fighting the windmills of the past, they prefer to demonstratively ignore Trump's openly pro-Putin position. Although it would be scary to imagine what their reaction would be if the incumbent US president allowed himself at least a small portion of Trump-like statements about Putin.

A column of cars with diplomatic number plates leaving the Russian residence after 35 Russian diplomats were ordered to
leave the USA, Maryland, USA, 30 December 2016
Photo: EPA/UPG
A column of cars with diplomatic number plates leaving the Russian residence after 35 Russian diplomats were ordered to leave the USA, Maryland, USA, 30 December 2016

Third, the Democrats themselves revealed their weakness putting up resistance to the Russian propaganda, and indeed it turned out that they did not reflect the interests of the majority of Americans. They mostly focused their rhetoric on the protection of minorities and ensuring "diversity" (although if employees are treated equally and professionalism prevails, diversity is secured automatically), and ignored the economic problems and expectations of the US middle class, or rather came to think of them when it was too late.

And even now many Democrats only criticize Trump as part of the continuous election campaign when they call for the revision of the election results (a step which the Republican majority in the Congress would never dare to make) or muse on how they would win this election. This rhetoric will only allow the president-elect to brush off any allegations as sour grapes. Clearly, this policy only harms the US special services doing their best to prove that the main issue at point is national security, not just party infighting.

Fourth, the Russian propaganda played the card of a traditionally critical attitude towards the state and government-controlled media in democracies, which in this case was even further amplified by the Republicans. As many liberal mass media were on the quest for a scandal, they only promoted Trump and spread the Kremlin lies, while because of the openness of the democratic society and the true freedom of speech it was legally impossible to curtail these processes.

Photo: EPA/UPG

However, it is obvious that none of these factors emerged because of the KGB. The Russian special services only used the above listed points in their interests, while they themselves hardly contributed to the US political space, if not the pattern described above. However the KGB's traditional scheme has its own weaknesses, which have already revealed themselves in a number of countries and, hopefully, will do so in the future.

1. Perfectly seeing the contradictions in society and "having built a certain experience" in causing destabilization, planting disagreement and spreading lies, the KGB has traditionally become weaker in assessing the big picture when it comes to the mentality of the nation and its role in the ongoing processes. Namely this erroneous assessment of Ukrainians' sentiments pushed Putin towards this insane plan of Novorossiya's seizure, which ended up a flop. The KGB could not foresee either the patriotic uprising of Ukrainians nor the Western response.

As a result of denying the nation its subjectness as such and misunderstanding the processes in society, on a number of issues the Kremlin is in the bondage of its own illusions and demands the impossible, for example, control over post-Soviet republics. However even if we assume that Putin could ensure control over Ukraine with the help of a sophisticated and crafty policy of "soft power" even after the Maydan, the war which he waged averted Ukrainians for many dozens of years, if not for centuries. I have already said that by any stretch of imagination, no-one can give Putin what one does not have, and currently no Western state can make Ukrainians, residents of Poland, the Baltic countries and South Caucasus love Russia.

2. Often believing in its own propaganda, the Kremlin acts in a rather rough manner and starts to demand too much from its allies, which can complicate Russia's relations even with its closest partners. The best examples would be Belarus and Serbia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic in Belgrade
Photo: EPA/UPG
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic in Belgrade

3. Russia's actions are too clumsy and, unlike in the Soviet time, its interference in the affairs of other countries is clearly visible. No matter how much Russian propagandists and their numerous trolls insist that "there are no Russian troops in Ukraine", not a single specialist or Western intelligence has any doubt that they are there. The recent interference in the US election was so overt and Moscow's support for Trump so public that anyone wanting to understand the situation could not ignore this.

"In America's case, the Russian special services were simply lucky but I would not call their operation truly professional. They fully 'exposed' themselves, which attests to the striking lack of professionalism. As a result, they will never be allowed to repeat it," Milov told

The KGB faced the no less scandalous "exposure" in Montenegro, the only difference being that, unlike in the USA, the Kremlin's operation to bring its people to power blew up in its face. What is more, Montenegro's prosecution office directly accused Russia of masterminding an armed coup as it was possible to track back the link between the Russian authorities and the "Montenegrin terrorists" using open-source information or talking to people who earlier communication with Serbian radicals. For instance, Serbian pundit Vencislav Bujic shared a video recording of Aleksandar Sindjelic, the main suspect in a plot to carry out terror acts, boasting having contacts with the Russian Defence Ministry and completing its assignments during the annexation of Crimea.

As if it was not enough, the photos of Russian Defence Minister Sergey Lavrov together with the leaders of the radical public organization Zavetnicy (Patrons), which is closely associated with the Montenegrin coup suspects, soon became public.

What is more, there is also a photo of one of the "Montenegrin terrorists", Nemanja Ristić, and Lavrov. A photo showing Ristić and the attache for defence issues at the Russian embassy in Belgrade, Col Andrey Kindyakov, together has not been published yet. According to Vencislav Bujic, the unsuccessful terrorist and the Russian military attache had a rather close relationship.

Kindyakov and Ristic
Photo: Kseniya Kirillova
Kindyakov and Ristic

Repressions in Russia, by the way, also give a remote opportunity to determine the key objects of interest of the Russian special services, which increasingly appear to pose no danger to the state. However they are of interest to the Western intelligence rather than counterintelligence.

So far, unfortunately, the efforts to expose Moscow's aggressive interference in foreign states' affairs have not brought any practical benefit because the West, due to its weakness and disunity, cannot respond even to such a clear aggression. However if leaders capable of putting up resistance to the Kremlin's "active efforts", which are often nothing else but war crimes, emerge sooner or later, their list of evidence of the KGB deeds will be truly inexhaustible.

4. The KGB succeeded in recruiting Western politicians and building its networks of influence on many levels in many countries but the majority of its agents of influence were recruited using money or dirty laundry, to put it simply, they were not the best people of European states. Those who are enlisted by the Kremlin on an "ideological basis" are mostly criminals, radical nationalists or communists or other unattractive individuals. However intellectuals, honest and principled persons and thoughtful patriots are averse to the Kremlin methods. It is difficult to imagine that today's Russian special services could recruit a qualified specialist or a politician with at least some moral values on an ideological basis.

Russian propaganda consumers often cannot be described as high intellectuals. Although persistent, Russian trolls are rather clumsy, for example, while their guidelines have long been exposed to the public. Fake news stories like those about "Ukrainian saboteurs" were made in such an amateurish manner that they were easy to refute. This means that the best people in the West and in the post-Soviet space remain in opposition to the Kremlin. True, for now these people lack strength to defend their countries but their number is not so small and should not be ignored.

5. Like at the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Russia still cannot offer any attractive model of development and preferable future while its economy continues to cripple. What is more, as it was earlier said, Putin has no strategy but a short-term tactic of fight with the West.

All these factors give us a hope that in a historical prospect, the KGB will lose the same way it did during the first Cold War. The main problem which remains is that before this defeat, Russia can cause (and is already causing) irreparable damage. Some consequences of this damage can last for decades and it is impossible to bring back the lost lives.

Kseniya KirillovaKseniya Kirillova, Journalist
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