It took a long time for the Western alliance to build up effective secret intelligence capabilities against the Soviet Union. Advances in cipher-breaking facilitated by the earliest computers from 1945 were nullified due to betrayal at the hands of a well placed Soviet agent. After 1948 the West had to focus on traffic analysis. The technological advances heralded in the sixties which brought the deployment of spy satellites in outer space and increasingly sophisticated super computers in the seventies for a time made all the difference to catching up and getting ahead.
By 1978 the Americans could read the highest level Russian communications; that is how President Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski knew how to lure and trap the Soviet Union’s forces in Afghanistan in December 1979, for which we have multiple sources of evidence. But within a few years the secrets were soon betrayed by a Russian spy at Britain’s GCHQ. And the great advantage was forfeit; apparently never recovered again.
One crucial area always presented extraordinary difficulties, however, and that was human intelligence. The ruthless effectiveness of Soviet counter-intelligence, particularly where it mattered most – in Moscow, shattered operations throughout the 1950s for both CIA and MI6. Sooner or later even the best agents recruited, like Colonel Pen’kovsky and later General Polyakov, were relentlessly uncovered and duly executed; not that Polyakov cared, because he hated the régime so much. The fact that the Soviet Union was a dictatorship made this all the easier, and the fact that President Putin’s Russia is now all but a dictatorship – with his main rival, Alexei Naval’ny, incarcerated – has almost brought us all back to where we first started.
The deep state newspaper Vzglyad ru cannot be accused of being coy or excessively subtle. It recently appeared with an article that perhaps indicates what has been going on over Ukraine in recent months. The claims from the West that Russia will invade Ukraine “are based on military intelligence data”, Evgeny Krutikov argues. This kind of information tends to focus on armies and the military industrial complex. The problem is that, though invaluable, the data is pre-eminently quantative, he points out. The strategy behind the data and the political context find no place. “Roughly speaking,” he writes, “American military intelligence has a relatively precise estimation of the quantitative, technical and technological capacities at Russia’s disposal, but it has no understanding of the motives behind the decisions taken in Moscow and cannot calculate whatever steps the Russian government will take.” That is why the Americans have to deploy a range of analysts to focus on motive. It is to the more technologically backward countries of Eastern Europe that NATO has to turn for human intelligence; Romania for example was the first port of call in Afghanistan. Of course within the United States it is CIA that specialises in human intelligence, Krutikov reminds us, But “CIA’s possibilities in Moscow are now reduced almost to zero” and as a result “the political leadership of the Western world (above all the United States) has found itself inside a man-made information bubble.”
If this is the Kremlin view, then, in search of the means of persuading NATO to recognise Russia’s need to neutralise Ukraine and reduce NATO’s capacities in Eastern Europe, it makes good sense to use bluff on the grand scale, to rattle the cages of the West and induce it to come to the kind of terms Putin has long dreamt of. The fact that President Biden has issued strident warnings that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is imminent and that US forces in the European theatre are now on Defcon 2 (as they were in October 1962) perhaps indicate that Putin is on to something. It is not what we know, but what we don’t know that is troubling us so much.
Vzglyad, 26 January 2022.
Как западная разведка врет руководству США о «российском вторжении»
See, for confirmation, Wall Street Journal, 15 February 2022:
Why U.S. Spies Can Watch Russian Troops but Not Guess Putin’s Next Move
Intelligence agencies watch and listen, but recruiting spies in authoritarian Russia is difficult and risky