The calamitous Russian invasion of Ukraine has also ramped up an unprecedented spy war that reverberates well beyond the field of battle. The Russians appear to be losing that contest. But winning may be problematic for both the West and Ukraine.
American and British intelligence assessments have exposed major rifts between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military and intelligence services, painting a picture of a ruthless Russian dictator surrounded by fearful courtiers who are unwilling to tell him the truth about the challenges and failures of his war.
There are reports, credited to Agentura, a Russian investigative website, that senior officers from the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s internal security service, have been placed under house arrest. This follows a leak from an FSB whistle-blower that portrayed his service as having been deliberately kept in the dark about the invasion plans.
Dictators get the intelligence services they deserve, and Putin appears to have gotten his in spades. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken calls the absence of truth-tellers in the Russian system the “Achilles heel of autocracies.”
But there is a downside. A self-anointed, messianic Putin who’s convinced of the rightness of his war but does not know what is happening on the ground is bound to exacerbate and deepen this conflict. This has even the Pentagon worried. Its spokesperson, John Kirby, told a press conference on March 30 that Putin “may not fully understand the degree to which his forces are failing in Ukraine, that’s a little discomforting, to be honest with you.”
The strange paradox of the spy game is that while you want to gain an information advantage, you need your adversary to be halfway good at the game, to avoid your foe doing stupid things. Authoritarian regimes tend to have big, ruthless intelligence systems. They’re good at cracking down on dissent, but not so good at seeing the world through clear lenses. As the Russian war falters, its lenses are growing darker.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union countries are busy removing Russian spies from their well-padded nests in Russian embassies and consulates. The United States began the campaign four days into the Russian invasion by expelling 12 Russian diplomats, allegedly spies, from the United Nations mission.
More recently, a massive wave of expulsions have been announced by Germany (40), France (35), Italy (30), Spain (25), Belgium (21), the Netherlands (17), Ireland (4) and the Czech Republic (1). Altogether, some 230 Russian officials have been expelled by EU countries since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
One surprising tally was racked up by Slovakia, which ordered 35 Russians from the embassy in Bratislava to pack their bags. Slovakia has also been busy cleaning house, arresting a colonel from the defence ministry, a member of its own intelligence service and a pro-Russian blogger.
If the Russian spy effort in Slovakia appears outsized, it is for a reason: the Kremlin clearly considered tiny Slovakia a vulnerable target, with weak counter-intelligence defences and a minority that’s more than willing to subscribe to Russian propaganda.
Preventing Russian agents from engaging in espionage and influence operations across Europe and the Western world is important. But it also means a reduced ability by Russian intelligence to report to Moscow on the true strategic picture of NATO and EU opposition to Russia’s war in Ukraine, and on the West’s determination to impose financial and military costs on Putin's regime.
The spy contest may ultimately play out most fiercely within Ukraine itself. In keeping with their remarkable military resistance, the Ukrainians have achieved an intelligence advantage on the battlefield by exploiting Russian weaknesses and capitalizing on technological innovation born of necessity.
Russia’s encrypted communications systems are failing in Ukraine, partly because Russian bombardments have destroyed parts of Ukraine’s telecommunications infrastructure, forcing Russian commanders to use public radio channels and phones, which are easily intercepted by both Ukrainian military units and eager civilian volunteers.
Radio and cell interception provides opportunities for lethal Ukrainian targeting, including sniper operations against key commanders operating forward with their units. A Ukrainian air reconnaissance unit, the Aerorozvidka, that began as an amateur group of computer enthusiasts and drone operators, has been credited with some remarkable exploits against the massed Russian column of tanks and armoured vehicles that menaced the capital Kyiv. Russian forces have in recent days withdrawn from the Kyiv region, in apparent disarray.
But for all the David-and-Goliath tales that may emerge from Ukraine, there is a darker side to the spy wars. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government has identified and denounced top-level traitors from his security service, shut down pro-Russian parties and recalled ambassadors for failing to do their duty. President Zelenskyy also warned in a public address and on Facebook that “I do not have time to deal with all the traitors. But gradually they will all be punished.”
Across Ukrainian society, there is a spy panic, prompted by fears of Russian saboteurs and agents in their midst. Ukrainian police have been forced to remind citizens not to detain unknown persons on their own recognizance, nor to threaten them with weapons. Emerging horror stories of war crimes perpetrated against Ukrainian civilians in the suburbs of Kyiv will only deepen the spy panic and the pressures toward vigilantism.
Spy wars in the shape of a societal hunt for collaborators can be a malignant cancer, feeding on a desperately tired and wounded society. It will be one of Ukraine’s greatest survival challenges, as the conflict drags on, to avoid succumbing to a divisive and ugly spy war at home while trying to win one against the Russians.
This article also appeared in the National Post.