It’s a Feature, Not a Bug: Discord Observed in Russian Intelligence Operations

A recent article from the AP explored the concept of how much direct involvement Vladimir Putin has in the wide variety of clandestine activities engaged in by the Russian state, based on the nature of the power structures surrounding the man himself. Two former Russia specialists from CIA have already weighed in on this article, making the point that potentially high-profile and/or high-impact operations would not go forward without Putin’s approval even if there is a significant amount of autonomous authority delegated from Putin and his inner circle to select oligarchs and officials. I agree with them, but it is not specifically what I want to talk about.

I want to address the fundamental misconception that coordination and deconfliction within the Russian Government’s intelligence community should be examined through the same paradigm applied to those concepts when evaluating Western intelligence communities. While it is true that Putin does engage in “ Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” statements of desire towards his security and influence entities, the subsequent discord of publicly observable operations does not indicate that major operations are being executed without Putin’s input; it just means these operations are not necessarily being coordinated between the entities executing them. I believe Putin is not ignorant of what precisely is being carried out in furtherance of his broad goals, but rather that he encourages such apparently discordant efforts for his own purposes.

In short, the chaotic nature of observable Russia-nexus clandestine activity is — in Putin’s mind — a feature rather than a bug. I want to address some of the key drivers of this reality.

Quintessentially Russian Competition

First, in Russia, the concept of competitive intelligence is carnivorous more than anything else and does not have a parallel in the West.

The FSB, GRU, and SVR all have overlapping responsibilities when it comes to intelligence, active measures (including influence operations), and cyber operations. All three also see themselves not as mere collectors of intelligence but advocates for, and routine executors of, specific policies and associated operations. Whichever service is perceived by Putin as producing the best results subsequently curries the most favor with the big boss, which has innumerable benefits. Therefore, each service pursues a two lines of effort at once: strive to play to its own strengths while degrading rivals’ ability to do the same. This desire to simultaneously outperform and embarrass rivals fosters cannibalistic competition within the Russian security community. Putin encourages and meddles in this competition, seeing it as a way to ensure loyalty and good performance from his services while dividing powers that could potentially challenge him. It also produces other benefits I will address later as a separate driver.

What I am saying is not new. Mark Galeotti has explored this in exquisite detail, former US intelligence officials have discussed it at length, and Russian journalists have examined it with an eye towards both international and domestic audiences. It has been documented that this inter-agency competition can be bruising: rival services have outed each other’s undercover operators, hacked each other domestically, and interfered with each other’s activities in the field. I have also previously explored how when one service stumbles, its rivals are likely there waiting to take advantage of the situation.

In this environment, it behooves each service to do everything within its power to “scoop” the others to earn Putin’s affections. This leads to services pursuing high-profile successes for which they might perceive themselves as being uniquely suited (in contrast to rivals), as well as going after similar or even the same targets as rivals with the goal of delivering specific results first (or in higher quality) to the Kremlin. One is also more likely to see multiple services going after the same target in similar ways to one another, as no service wants to be left open to the accusation it did not go after a given target with all possible means; I believe two solid examples of this type of circumstance are (A) the presence of two, uncoordinated threat actors within the Democratic National Committee’s networks and (B) the various human approaches made to the Trump presidential campaign.

It is not surprising, then, that deconfliction structures for these kinds of operations, which are inherently aimed at benefiting some at the expense of others and fueled by intra-community animosities, are — to paraphrase former U.S. intelligence officer Jason Kichen (more from him below) — far less developed at both the human and organizational level than one might readily assume.

A Deeply Aggressive Mindset

The second major driver behind the discordant character observed in recent Russian intelligence operations is that the intelligence entities in Russia all share an exceptionally aggressive orientation. This influences how Russian intelligence officials select, plan, and execute operations. Mark Galeotti has deemed this a “wartime mindset” in which Russia is at political war with the West. He describes this mindset as consisting of three core tenets:

  1. A zero-sum perspective that “If the West loses, Russia gains.”
  2. “Russia is at risk”, under threat from a Western effort to instigate regime change in Russia through political subversion and a concurrent undermining of Russia’s culture.
  3. “Better action than inaction”: it is better to take risks, act aggressively, seize opportunities, and demonstrate imagination than be perceived as unwilling to make a mistake or take the chance that a particular action with trigger international blowback.

This mindset has manifested itself in a clear shift in Russian intelligence tradecraft from the Soviet period, which now appears to emphasize speed and impact over the clandestinity and deniability that were more emblematic of the Soviet days. According to official KGB dictionaries of intelligence and counterintelligence terminologies translated by Vasiliy Mitrokhin and published as The KGB Lexicon, there were three guiding principles of Chekist operational culture:

  • bditelnost (vigilance): “Political alertness, ability to recognize a class enemy and render him harmless…It involves the timely identification of hostile attempts being mounted covertly, strict discipline, good organizational skills, and the ability to protect secrets. Vigilance is the most important principle of state security agency activity, together with assertiveness and clandestinity.” (p. 173)
  • nastupatelnost (aggressiveness/assertiveness): “Style of counter-intelligence [(as a foreign intelligence activity)] which is proactive and full of initiative, ensuring maximum success in the struggle against the enemy. It is a guiding principle which the intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies seek to follow in their work. In accordance with this, the side which takes the offensive will, all things being equal, achieve the best results.” (p. 261)
  • konspiratsiya (clandestinity): “Concealment by opposing sides of external evidence of actions directly or indirectly designed to harm the enemy, and also misleading the enemy by making a show of false intentions and actions…In KGB practice, it represents a set of tools used to safeguard the secrecy of [intelligence operations meant to incur costs for, or cause damage to, adversaries]. Mastery of the techniques of clandestinity is an essential professional requirement for operational officers. Clandestinity employed by the enemy to conceal his own activity is a target for counter-intelligence operations. Operational work thus becomes a contest of clandestinity.” (pp. 231–232)

Based on these definitions, there was clearly a delicate balance within KGB operational epistemology between a need for secrecy and attentiveness on one hand and an imperative for action the other. In practice, such as through the KGB’s extensive use of active measures and offensive counterintelligence operations, this balance presented as a consistent effort to maintain the upper hand against adversaries through a steady but measured operational tempo.

But based on the arc of the last several years, it appears that the rise of the wartime mindset has led to a shift towards a more frenetic connotation of aggressiveness in intelligence and away from the undertones of deliberateness adhered to during the Soviet era. This has likely been exacerbated by the GRU’s naturally more aggressive and risk-taking attitude when compared to FSB and SVR, which trace their lineages through the KGB and Chekist traditions. However, the modern GRU is also demonstrably more open to accepting high risk thresholds than it was during the Soviet era — a time during which the GRU took more of a cue from KGB tradecraft and operational philosophies.

This does not mean that Russian tradecraft or services are unsophisticated or incapable of discretion, but that they are engaging in a different sort of standard risk calculus than one might normally associate with high-profile clandestine activities. (This calculus is still different between services based on norms associated with their respective strategic cultures and operating environments; for example, GRU calculus tends to be more aggressive because of its military culture while SVR calculus trends more rules-oriented because of its close ties to the diplomatic community.)

To Putin, this approach signifies that his services are taking threats to his regime as seriously as he does. He wants officers, whether they are loyal to him personally or to him as the President of Russia, to perceive that the state is at existential risk and therefore willing to do anything to safeguard it. Because at the end of the day, preservation of the existing Russian regime is boils down to a praetorian exercise that protects Putin most of all. I am willing to bet that he, on some personal level, also enjoys the operational brazenness this fosters within his services because it conveys to target audiences that Russia is not to be trifled with and to Western audiences that Russia does not give damn about consequences.

With this attitude, and in the context of the sort of competition I described above, the types of activities that one observes Russian services undertaking are more likely to be “high-risk, high-reward” by Western standards. The best example of this is the GRU operation to assassinate Sergei Skripal. A secondary example may be the recently disclosed GRU attempt to target the Spiez Laboratory in Switzerland after the failed attempt on Skripal’s life.

Vladimir Likes Options

As I touched on briefly above, Putin encourages the sort of competition that is at the core of the Russian intelligence community’s “uncoordinated operations” dynamic to ensure results and keep potential challenging power centers from arising. But what I want to speak specifically here is that each service pursuing these uncoordinated lines of effort, which may be redundant on paper, is a way for Putin to maximize his return on investment in each service.

For Putin, having multiple services pursue the same targets or general ends creates options and redundancy. Depending on the course of action he wants to take, he will have more options — in both number and variety — than he would otherwise. This allows him to capitalize on the uncoordinated nature of the operations without restraining the hostility of competition between the services. But in all of these cases, Putin almost certainly knows what is happening and I seriously doubt the kind of activities outlined in the AP article would be undertaken without Putin’s knowledge and consent. This does not mean that Putin is directing how each and every operation pursues its objectives, but it does mean none of them get carried out without his approval.

No Russian general or oligarch wants to go to bed wondering “If XYZ operation is blown and Putin finds out I was behind it, I’m a dead man.” The First Commandment of Life — “Cover Thine Ass” — operates as firmly in Russia as it does anywhere else in the world. In the case of the sort of activities outlined in the AP’s piece, the consequences of not abiding by that commandment would be severe at best and fatal at worst. The potentiality for consequences that impact Russia generally or, more frightening, Putin personally would give any serious Russian operator a hankering for a blessing from on high before getting down and dirty.

Coda: And the Kremlin Lineman is Still On the Line…

I want to conclude with a brief recitation of a conversation I had with Jason Kichen, a former U.S. intelligence officer who managed both technical and offensive cyber operations during his career, on the recent pace and brazen nature of Russian intelligence operations. He suggested that the discordant nature of Russian intelligence may be generating a “hold on tight” mentality within line personnel in the Russian services. That argument, which I am paraphrasing for clarity and repeating here with his permission, ran thus:

The message being sent to line personnel by intelligence leadership in Russia boils down to “hold on tight”: this is a train barreling down the tracks, lots of things will happen, it will be bumpy at times and downright dangerous at others, but the main goal for you is to just hold on and not die. This means that while service leaders are trying to figure out strategically what to do next (to please Putin, for example), the working levels of line officers are just hanging on for dear life and trying to get from one day to the next with their hides intact. Because of the inherent nature of human intelligence and cyber operations, most of the “work” involved rests in the hands of line personnel (do-ers) rather than service leaders (managers). This means that the attitudes and psychology of the working level has an outsize effect on the function and appearance of the greater organization. Therefore, when subjected to the type of atmospheric stress fostered by the “hold on tight” mentality, conditions may arise where that stress manifests as a unique psychological condition within the working level. When that condition becomes acute enough, it could potentially be observed permeating the manner in which operations are executed.

I think Jason makes an excellent point and has, in the concept of the “hang on tight” mentality, highlighted a previously unexplored side effect on Russian intelligence personnel caused by the confluence of the inter-agency competition, wartime mindset, and whims of Putin.

It would not surprise me if the increasingly erratic and flagrant operations being carried out by Russian intelligence are, at least in part, a symptom of line officers attempting to balance the dueling imperatives of aggressive action (as demanded by the wartime mindset) and wary self-preservation (as spurred by the “hang on tight” mentality). This kind of discordant environment may serve Putin’s needs, but it certainly does not do any favors for those laboring inside it.

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Open source counterintelligence referent. Views here are personal, not my employer’s. All original content © Alex Orleans, 2014–2021.

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