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Russia intelligence takes a big hit from war in Ukraine

May 04, 2023


The first few days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did not go down how President Putin or the rest of the world might have imagined. Some blame Russia’s intelligence apparatus for its surprising failure to quash the Ukrainian military early on. But with Putin sitting on top of a spy machine that feeds its leader only information they think he wants to hear, the outcome isn’t as shocking.

Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan examines the decline of the Russian intelligence apparatus within the context of its history, geography, and invasion of Ukraine. He argues it’s only a matter of time until their pro-Kremlin bot farms — used to spread disinformation — will also lose their effectiveness.

Excerpted from Peter’s May 4 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

The Soviets once boasted the most intricate and prolific human intelligence network in the world, but things have taken a turn since the end of the Cold War. So why can’t Putin’s Russia keep pace with its predecessors?

If someone were tasked with designing the worst geographical region known to man, it would likely resemble the Soviet space. In a place like that, you must be able to conquer, convert, and control anyone in between you and the natural geographic barriers you need. So human intelligence wasn’t a nice-to-have; it was the only way to survive.

Once the Cold War ended, the Russians were left with the shell of a system; still operational but only a shadow of what it once was. Most with this specialized training moved into the private sector or more powerful government positions under Putin.

Now I’m never going to say that Russian intelligence sucks, but it’s taken some blows that will require a long recovery. I’m mainly concerned about the misinformation-pushing bots that litter the internet.

Everybody, Peter Zion here coming to you from Colorado. Yes, this is later in the day that we got a foot of snow.
It’s crazy. Anyway, I wanted to close out the series on Russian intelligence with why the Russians seem to be significantly weaker than we would have expected them to be. Because after all, this was one of the countries that arguably the best human intelligence collection system in the world, I think it’s worth first exploring why I say that.
The Russian geography is not like the American. So the United States has great coast, great waterways, great land, it’s easy to develop, it’s easy to expand. And so when we want to do human intelligence, you have to take somebody out of that environment and then put them into another one. And since the United States is a very large country, even though we are multicultural, it’s not like we have a lot of experience in this is gonna sound really horrible, infiltrating and conquering other people’s I mean, yes, yes, yes, you can make the case for the Native Americans, you know, a century ago or more. But this isn’t something that’s kind of built into our society. Where as the Russian system is very, very different. Moscow, Moscow boy originally was a relatively small chunk of land with not great capital generation or agricultural opportunities. And it had no natural barriers, like the United States has with its border with Mexico or Canada, much less the rest of the world. And so they had to go out and conquer everyone that they bordered. And all that did was give them territory that they had to occupy and no borders that were decent. So they went and conquered everyone around that group too. And they kept expanding, expanding, expanding until they reached a series of geographic barriers, like the Caucasus Mountains, or the Baltic Sea, that either halted their expansion or even better, provided a physical barrier from anyone else coming in. And anyone who has been following me on Ukraine, you know, this is kind of my core reason why I think the Russians will never back down and why this war was always inevitable. Anyway, this leaves the Russians, with dozens of ethnicities that they have conquered and are literally using as cannon fodder. And since pretty much no one on the planet has grown up saying, oh, I want to be Cannon Fodder later,
you have to find a way to induce their cooperation, you can’t make them part of the leadership because they’re conquered peoples and you don’t want them going their own way. So you basically shoot through the entire system with intelligence operatives. So the Russians from the beginning hundreds of years ago, have become experts at planting their people in other populations that may be hostile to Russian interests, and collecting information and recruiting dissidents and basically turning the population against one another. And in doing that, they built up a skill set that dealt that served them very well in the Soviet period. And the Soviets basically dusted off the Russian strategy and applied it to the world writ large, not just to the Soviet Bloc countries or their occupied territories, or folks within the Soviet Union itself. And that meant that by the time we got to 1989, the Soviet system had the richest human intelligence gathering network in human history. But then the Soviet system collapsed. And just as everything else got weaker, same thing here, if you don’t pay your spies, they probably weren’t going to spy as well. There was also a problem with leadership, especially after the year 2000. There was also a big problem with the numbers that they had. So a lot of intelligence operatives after the Cold War ended, went into business for themselves and got into drug running and worked for cartels and worked for people smuggling or work with the Taliban. They basically forswear King Country, or or czar in country and went into business and use their skill set for criminal enterprise isn’t they continues to be a problem today.
Second, more importantly, is that Putin drew a lot of his support from people who were part of the human network, specifically on the training and the leadership side and brought them into his coalition to run the government after he became president in 2000. Well,
most of these people, like you know, this is a wonderful opportunity to get rich. And so they got out of the business of manning the Intel networks and got into the business of government. And these are the silver sharks, if you’re familiar with that term. The siloviki, or the strongmen the military intelligence folks who run the system. The oligarchs are the people who run business and the sale of arcs are the people who have a foot in both worlds. Probably the most famous silvar Because a guy by the name of Igor Sechin, who runs rosneath, which is Russia’s national oil monopoly. Anyway, so the Russians have lost most of their operatives abroad, because they stopped paying them in the 90s. And they’ve lost most of their trainers at home because they went into the business of government with Putin. And that has left a bit of a shell of a system. Now, they’re still good, because that system to train these people still exists to a degree, but it had to become a lot more focused. And they became very sensitive. The Russians became very sensitive to losing their operatives. They try to use them in places where they could have cover that was as dense as possible. And as a rule, no matter what country you’re in the most
reliable cover for an operative is to say they’re a diplomat, because that gives him an excuse to be in the country with a limited visa over watch. They have diplomatic immunity. So if they get caught doing something and get sent home, you just send them to another country. Well, that had worked for the Russians for a while until the Ukraine were started in the Europeans decided to belly up to the bar and actually start looking after some of their own security interests. And so far in the war, well, over 400, probably close to 500. Now, intelligent operatives who were registered as diplomats have been ejected, and the Europeans rather than just sending them home and calling today have shared the identities of each and every one of them with every other country in the world. So the Russians can never deploy those operatives ever again, in any sort of clandestine role with official government cover. And that means that the Russians have to reinvent a lot of their intelligence apparatus. Give me an idea of the scale of that the United States had to recreate its intelligence apparatus after 911 Because we had the information but we couldn’t process it fast enough. 20 years on, we’re still figuring out how to do that. This is not something that’s going to be shaked out by the time that this war is over. This is something that it’s going to be dogging the Russians for at least a decade. And that leaves me with one final point, there is another class of assets, deep cover assets, sometimes called illegal sometimes called plants, where the people are assigned to go to another country establish a false identity and live that false identity until such time as they’re called into action. This is really the stuff of spy novels, but it does exist and the Russians historically have been pretty good at it. What we have seen in the last year is at least a dozen instances of these plants, these illegals, these deep cover agents being unmasked, because as the Russians have realized they can’t train at the same rate that they used to, and they lost their entire diplomatic corps, access to intelligence.
They’re having to rely on their deep plants to do basic intelligence gathering. And that is not a skill that these people are well suited to. For one, you know, these are years if not decades of investment in time, and they’re being asked to do basic intelligence gathering in humans collection. Well, that’s like using a Mazda Rottie to deliver newspapers. I mean, yes, it will work. But it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to imagine something going wrong. And that has now gone wrong with a number of these agents. So I’m never going to say that Russian intelligence sucks. But wow, has it taken a series of structural body blows that are going to be very, very difficult and time consuming to recover from. And in the meantime, anyone who’s looking to resist Russian influence, it’s gotten pretty simple. You just have to worry about the bot farm right now, Russian misinformation is still coming, screaming into the system, but it’s no longer what’s the word I’m looking for. It’s no longer part of a multi vectored approach. It’s really the only leg the Russians have to stand on. And at some point, I think it’s pretty safe to say that one of the major governments of the world is going to do something about the bot farm, and then the Russians are gonna have to come up with everything else from scratch. All right. That’s it for me. Y’all. Take care

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