Yesterday, eleven alleged Russian agents were indicted on charges of military technical espionage, specifically illegally exporting micro-electronics that are on an export control list (which can lead to a sentence of 20 years in prison without parole) through a Texas-based company. I reproduce the text of the FBI’s official release below, after the jump, and obviously we wait to see if the defendants are convicted in court. (Russian deputy foreign minister Ryabkov has said they’re not spies. Of course.)
Nonetheless, if it transpires that the prosecutors’ case is proven it says a few things worth noting:
- Russian intelligence activity is sustained, aggressive and back to Cold War levels. It has been said before (not least, with great vigor, in Ed Lucas’s book Deception), but is worth saying again. It is striking how, after the decimation of their espionage apparatuses in the late 1980s and then 1990s, the Russians have rebuilt them, and also how much latitude they are granted. To be blunt, while Moscow would rather its operations not get publicly blown and complicate Russia’s international relations, it does not see this as important enough to restrain its activities. Nor does this apply just to the USA, with alarm bells ringing across the West, from Prague and Tallinn to Brussels.
- Multiple Russian intelligence organizations operate in the USA. The agency involved in this case has not been named, but while most espionage is carried out by the SVR, the Foreign Intelligence Service, the specific purpose of this operation might suggest GRU, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff — military intelligence. The domestic security service, the FSB (Federal Security Service) also operates in a very limited way abroad, though — largely monitoring real and perceived security threats such as supporters of North Caucasus terrorists and, rather less creditably, some allies of the opposition movement at home.
- Economic and technical espionage is an increasing priority. At a time when the SVR is also investing money into systems to monitor and also influence the internet and social media, this is in many ways the new battleground. The Chinese intelligence community understood this first, but the Russians are renewing an interest in high-tech targets which had slipped somewhat in the closing days of the Cold War and since.
- Russian intelligence seeks to use naturalized US citizens of Russian descent as agents. Most of the alleged agents were Russian-born, naturalized citizens. Of course, the overwhelming majority are good, loyal US citizens, but nonetheless there is likely to be an increased drive to seek to place or recruit such agents following the 2010 roll-up of a long-term illegals operation in the States.
- This may have some political fallout back in Moscow. It is another potential intelligence debacle, after several others. If it does turn out to be the GRU, then that will add to the problems of a service already struggling to retain its status and relative autonomy. This may be the last straw and see it demoted to a regular directorate of the General Staff and perhaps lose portions of its networks to the SVR. But the SVR is likewise not in the best odor, especially after the recent arrest of two alleged agents in Germany. Although Mikhail Fradkov’s position as its director is probably not in jeopardy, there may be yet another round of inquests and find-the-scapegoat in its Department S, responsible for illegals — undercover agents abroad — or else its technical intelligence division. There may be another bid by the FSB to take it over, but I still don’t see this as happening. Either way, the spooks don’t seem to be giving great value for money at the moment.