The Intelligence Assault on the West
Agent of Influence: An agent of some stature who uses his or her position to influence public opinion or decision-making to produce results beneficial to the country whose intelligence service operates the agent.
For years Russia has been conducting a massive, coordinated effort to influence and weaken the West. This program uses all levers of Russian power but relies heavily on Russia's intelligence apparatus. Much has been written about various aspects of this program, the use of social media to divide the United States, efforts to influence politicians, etc. However, if we focus solely on the United States or view this program as being directed against Russia's main enemy, the U.S., we miss the big picture. This Active Measures program is truly being executed on a global scale.
In the United Kingdom, we have seen Russia work through its network of oligarchs, extremely rich Russians who obtained their wealth and keep it, through their close relationship with Putin. Money has flowed into the coffers of the ruling Tory party from Russian oligarchs and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has maintained a close relationship with Evgeny Lebedev, the son of one of the more powerful oligarchs. While all this is legal, the Russians have worked to keep their relationship with the Tories discreet. The goal appears to be to gain influence within the British establishment in order to steer British decision-making in a direction favorable to Russia.
The Russian provision of oil and natural gas, while not an intelligence operation, is also designed to gain influence in Europe by making the continent dependent on Russian energy. So dependent on Russian energy that the Europeans would think twice before taking actions that would anger Russia.
In the U.S. we have seen Russian efforts to cultivate contacts with various politicians, including visits to Russia and likely campaign contributions funneled through individuals with connections to Russian intelligence services. Michael Flynn's attendance at a Russian media dinner is an example. Flynn was paid $45,000 to attend a dinner to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Russian media outlet RT. He sat at Putin's table. A visit by a retired Senior American Intelligence officer with close ties to, at the time, a major U.S. Presidential candidate would have made Flynn a major target for Russian intelligence, something Flynn would have known. No official trip to Russia is innocuous. Because this modern Russia is much like Soviet Russia.
The purpose of these efforts is to develop Agents of Influence. As noted by the above definition, Agents of Influence can help shape their nation's policies to the benefit of the recruiting nation, in this case, Russia. We should also remember, an Agent of Influence need not be recruited or controlled in the traditional sense. He or she need only be sympathetic to another nation's policies or goals or see a benefit to themselves in helping that nation achieve its goals.
For every visible effort we see, there will be two or three covert efforts at recruiting actual controlled sources who will not only act as Agents of Influence but who will also provide intelligence. For a professional intelligence officer, these secondary or tertiary recruitments are better than recruiting the primary target. It is extremely difficult to directly recruit a senior official given the difficulty in obtaining the necessary time on target to develop and recruit that person, as well as all the people paying attention to that person. A less public and more easily available assistant or advisor to that person tends to have more vulnerabilities and is more accessible. We can assume that during this effort to gain influence among Western governments, the Russians have been able to recruit numbers of unilateral sources that will help their efforts.
These activities are not unique. The Soviet Union operated active measures during the Cold War, focused primarily on supporting leftist political parties and organizations, working and supporting these groups in an effort to alter Western policies. While some of these activities resulted in large demonstrations, opposition to NATO and U.S. military policies, and the recruitment of intelligence sources, overall Soviet efforts generally failed in achieving larger, strategic goals.
Under Putin, Russia's active measures campaign has changed significantly. Russia has abandoned its support of leftist groups and political parties. The fall of communism left these groups without the ideological underpinnings necessary to spark interest and enthusiasm. Putin's security and intelligence apparatus has now focused on gaining influence with right-wing and right-of-center parties and groups. They have found common cause, whether genuine or a matter of convenience is not important. They have played on racism, white supremacy, and Christianity as common ground, portraying Russia as a bastion and defender of Western, white, Christian civilization. This message has resonated with many groups in Western countries. Social media has amplified this message, allowing Russia to reach large numbers of people.
It is difficult to fully comprehend the goals of this campaign, but it is a safe bet that a large part of it centers around Russia rebuilding its former empire. Not necessarily the Soviet empire, but the Russian, Tsarist empire, with Putin as the Tsar. To do that Putin needs a divided West; the U.S. out of NATO, or at least a less active member; Europe divided and unwilling to confront Russia alone; and a divided U.S. or one not concerned with countering Russian ambitions.
After the fiasco in Ukraine, one can argue that this effort to divide has failed. Russia is mired in a difficult war. The West, and large parts of the world, are united against Russia. And NATO, the heart of the matter, is once again a force to be reckoned with. It stands united against Russia, is rearming, and will more than likely have added new members such as Sweden and Finland. NATO armored forces are now closer to the Russian border. This is the opposite of what Putin wanted. But this is not over.
Russia maintains a powerful social media operation that has a far reach throughout the West and can influence millions. Agents of Influence remain in place, or at least in positions that give them influence and the potential for future access to Western governments. Russia likely maintains discreet and clandestine ties to various groups and individuals and provides them with support in return for their efforts to support Russian policies. There remain true believers in Russia's leadership of Western values. Many of the levers of influence remain and will survive whatever happens as a result of Ukraine.
Should Putin survive what comes next, and right now we have no reason to believe he will not survive, the active measures campaign against the West will continue. The West will tire of the harsh sanctions against Russia, eager to get back to making money. Russian intelligence operations will continue to aggressively target the West. They will learn from their mistakes, from the Ukraine invasion, and come back at us somewhat stronger. They will push in the areas where they had success—social media, dividing nations— and do a better job at gaining influence.
Russia has and will continue to play an offensive game, using its intelligence organizations as a force multiplier. Up to now, we have played defense, countering Russian moves when we see them. This will not suffice. Being on the defense while the other side continues to attack yields the initiative to them and will not win the contest for us. It is time to take the offensive to the enemy.