I was not among those celebrating news that veteran Russian diplomat Boris Bondarev resigned from his Geneva United Nations posting in protest of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. It’s a lovely symbolic gesture, but unsurprisingly, it has quickly disappeared into the rapidly changing news cycle. While some Russia watchers applaud defectors for the prospect that they might provide evidence for war crimes investigators or erode Putin’s control — or the appearance thereof — there is a better use of those potential defectors’ time and effort: stay in place and clandestinely provide current intelligence over an extended period of time.
Putin’s brutal and unjustified war in Ukraine has likely made this the best of times and worst of times for spying against Russia. There are many more Russians like Bondarev struggling with their moral compass in serving Putin’s brutal and illegitimate kleptocracy who seek the means to do something about it. But while circumstances might have facilitated a more target-rich environment to recruit Russian spies, securely handling them has become increasingly challenging.
The Russian counterintelligence challenge long required what became known in the Cold War era as “Moscow Rules,” a level of operational tradecraft and discipline synonymous with conducting espionage against the pervasive KGB threat. But spying became even more complicated with the evolution of Ubiquitous Technical Surveillance that both agent and handler must negotiate 24/7. And while the scope and depth of the intelligence the U.S. declassified and shared in the runup to Putin’s full-scale invasion in February made spectacular impact in galvanizing Western support for Ukraine as well as exposing Putin’s designs and falsehoods and contributing to Kyiv’s battlefield successes, it surely also heightened and focused Russia’s counterintelligence measures.
And that was the CIA’s point in posting a Russian-language set of instructions on the agency’s official Instagram account for how to make “secure virtual contact.” Whereas a Russian intelligence officer is likely savvy enough to find a secure means to reach out, the CIA is seeking to make its own luck among anyone across Russian society who might wish to share their privileged insights but risk burning their bridges in making contact or getting caught trying.
The first order of business when an intelligence officer meets a volunteer, historically referred to as a “walk-in,” is turnaround, converting the individual into an agent who becomes an ongoing source of crucial information. That’s not to say that defectors aren’t valuable. But what they offer pales in comparison to those brave souls willing to stay in place. Secrets have a shelf life. More importantly, Russia’s counterintelligence services will scrupulously examine the information to which a defector ever had access, identify the most damaging aspects, and rapidly plug holes and address ensuing vulnerabilities.
Some defectors are those who had already been working in place, having earned relocation after a defined term of service. Others leap after making the fateful decision, a process that’s rarely impulsive, for some a consideration long in the back of their minds and ultimately triggered by a precipitating crisis.
KGB Colonel Vitaly Yurchenko had no prior contact with the CIA when he famously defected in 1985 after incorrectly believing himself dying and longing to reconnect with a lost love. Yurchenko famously redefected some months later, opting to return to Russia after having been spurned by the target of his affections and told by CIA doctors that he was going to live.
Russian pilots Alexander Zuyev in 1989 and Viktor Belenko in 1976 each spirited out their then-advanced fighter aircraft as they defected without ever having had contact with Western Intelligence. “Billion Dollar Spy,” Russian engineer Adolf Tolkachev, and Russian military intelligence (GRU) Colonel Oleg Vladimirovich Penkovsky, whose secrets informed U.S. decision making during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, are among those who volunteered to U.S. Intelligence but never sought to defect and dismissed encouragement to do so even when their security was believed to be in jeopardy.
Oleg Gordievsky was a senior KGB officer who worked for British MI6 before defecting to the United Kingdom in 1985. Gordievsky had been mysteriously summoned back from London to Moscow, which raised his suspicions. His instincts were correct. Gordievsky had been compromised by CIA traitor Aldrich Ames and would have returned to certain death.
In 1980, the CIA exfiltrated KGB Major Victor Sheymov and his family in a daring operation in the heart of Moscow. Sheymov, a volunteer who sought defection, handled KGB communications, ciphers, and codes but had to prove himself to the Agency before meriting the high-risk effort and the ensuing lifetime financial commitment. He and his daughter were concealed in the compartment of a car that had to traverse multiple Russian checkpoints and a border crossing.
The Dangers of Mishandled Intelligence
Of course, the best defections are those of agents who manage to self-exfiltrate without notice or suspicion at the end of their years of espionage. CNN reported that the CIA successfully extracted “one of its highest-level covert sources inside the Russian government” in 2017. Pulling the agent was reportedly driven by concerns that President Donald Trump and his administration mishandled classified intelligence. The point of no return followed a May 2017 Oval Office meeting in which Trump discussed highly classified intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov identified the unnamed individual CNN cited as Kremlin aid Oleg Smolenkov, confirming he had worked for the Kremlin but minimizing his importance. Peskov claimed that Smolenkov was a low-level employee who had been fired two years earlier.
Those who agree to a clandestine relationship with U.S. intelligence while remaining in their positions stay in the shadows. In one sense, spying is part-time work with well-planned and infrequent moments of adrenaline-pumping risk. That said, espionage is an emotionally demanding life that’s not for everyone. Having spent the majority of my adult life undercover in recruiting and handling sensitive agents working deep in the lion’s den, I can confirm that Nathaniel Hawthorne knew of what he wrote when observing that “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”
Good spying lacks the glamor and excitement of novels and film, at least when done right. In fact, it’s intended to be boring and not draw attention. Agents operating from the inside offer what defectors can’t: leaving their organizations in the dark as to what damage their espionage has wrought and what vulnerabilities will continue to be exploited. Like a good thief, espionage is about leaving the marks unaware their pockets have ever been picked.
Also, unlike agents who stay in place, defectors draw a fair amount of counterfire, some of which undermines their message and denigrates their utility. Russian propaganda machines are quick to minimize the damage wrought by those officials who have defected to the West. Besides dismissing their significance, the intent is to damage their credibility and discourage others. To undermine their depiction as patriots, Russia casts its defectors as having been poor performing, low-level and disgruntled employees, painting them as alcoholics, embezzlers, and thieves.
To be fair, the truth can be both. Defectors can be motivated by patriotism and ideology, but some are on the lam. I smuggled one defector across a border who approached us after having killed his boss in a fit of work-place rage. And an agent I once managed was forced to flee the country after setting up his group’s leader, who was on the verge of discovering the affair my source was having with his wife. These individuals were hardly motivated by a moral epiphany. Others, however, who risked and sacrificed selflessly to fight the evil they recognized in their systems, were routinely reluctant to leave, and some never would, believing their defections would be an abandonment of their people, and their cause.
The CIA’s social media posting reportedly reflects a significant uptick in approaches from Russians trying to make contact. But today’s challenge is keeping existing intelligence flowing, securely identifying and communicating with new sources, and neutralizing Russian counterintelligence efforts. Our Russian adversaries will surely be masquerading provocateurs among genuine volunteers to feed the West false information and catch their own spies. Reliably distinguishing the good from the bad is no easy trick, not with the volunteers who approach in person, and harder still with those who approach digitally.
In leveraging social media rather than hiding from it and priming the pump by fueling the White House’s messaging initiative, the CIA is evolving to meet the new intelligence landscape. It’s satisfying to me as a warrior of both the Cold War and 9/11 eras to see the Agency’s courage to innovate tradecraft that stays ahead of the coming threat, after a stretch in which the CIA’s risk tolerance had deteriorated to more of a political rather than operational calculation.
It’s arguable that the CIA’s social media posting and declassified intelligence might simply reflect acknowledgement of the old adage that “if you can’t beat them, join them.” But — as is the nature of good espionage and my alma mater — that doesn’t preclude spymasters from reshaping and manipulating the battlefield and its rules.