SECURITY AND INTELLIGENCE: by John MillerNews Weekly
New light shed on Russia's "other" spy agency
, September 15, 2012
Like an eerie re-enactment from the Cold War, Russian long-range reconnaissance aircraft and submarines have stepped up their probing of Western defences. A Russian attack submarine recently managed to patrol the Gulf of Mexico and sail through US strategic waters undetected by the US navy.
This news comes not long after a major espionage scandal, in which Russian military intelligence reportedly gained access to US, Canadian, British, Australian and New Zealand intelligence secrets over the past five years.
In January 14 this year, Canadian naval intelligence officer Sub-Lieutenant Jeffrey Delisle was arrested by Canadian authorities and charged with selling top-secret information to Russian intelligence officers since 2007 (“Media shrugs while Russian espionage flourishes”, News Weekly, August 18, 2012).
The case has attracted little publicity, except for a few brief paragraphs in the international media early this year and again in July. We will learn more when specific charges are brought against Sub-Lt. Delisle’s at his pre-trial hearing scheduled for October.
Even with the tantalisingly scanty news we have about this security breach, it is still possible, by looking at related international developments, to begin to grasp the magnitude of this whole affair.
Russia’s probing of US defences comes at a time when US defences are seriously run down.
The Delisle affair points to unmistakable evidence of hostile activity directed towards the West by Russia’s relatively little-known but, as will be shown, highly effective military intelligence service, the GRU.
The authorisation for this espionage offensive could only have originated from the top of Russia’s vertically-integrated intelligence-gathering apparatus.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin is himself a former Line KR (counter-intelligence) officer of the First Chief Directorate of the former Soviet Union’s feared spy agency, the KGB. In 1991, the KGB was responsible for aiding the failed coup by communist hardliners against the then Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. It was later split up into two bodies, the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the Federal Security Service (FSB).
The West’s fixation on the KGB, especially regarding its formidable active measures and counter-intelligence operations, extends throughout the ranks of scholars. Like many of them, respected American academic Dr Amy Knight, once regarded as the doyenne of researchers of Soviet intelligence, has regrettably downplayed the historical significance of the GRU because of its small relative size.
However, the GRU has been responsible for running some of the most famous spies in the history of the 20th century. Space does not permit a complete list, but some names will be recognisable:
• American agents such as senior editor of Time magazine Whittaker Chambers (until he renounced communism); prominent figures in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations such as Alger Hiss (Under-Secretary of State) and Harry Dexter White (Assistant Secretary to the Treasury and first head of the International Monetary Fund); and George Koval, a scientist who infiltrated the Manhattan project.
• Richard Sorge, a German communist and GRU officer, whose warning in 1941 of an impending German attack on Russia was ignored by Stalin. Before the war, Sorge ran a famous spy-ring in Shanghai, along with another famous GRU officer, Ursula Ruth Kuczynski (codename Sonia), and a GRU agent, Agnes Smedley, the American foreign correspondent.
• Die Rote Kapelle (The Red Orchestra) was the name the German Gestapo gave a highly successful GRU spy-ring which operated across occupied Europe during much of World War II.
• Nuclear scientists Klaus Fuchs and Alan Nunn May.
• Melita Norwood who, for more than 40 years, supplied British technological secrets, including nuclear know-how, to the Soviet Union.
• Stig Wennerström, a colonel in the Swedish Air Force, who, after World War II, systematically betrayed the secrets not only his own country but also those of the US and NATO.
Like the better-known KGB, the GRU was a product of the Soviet communist era, but it was, and remains, quite separate from the KGB and its two successors.
The GRU’s earliest forerunner, the Registration Directorate (Registrupravlenie, or RU), was established in October 1918, as part of the Soviet Red Army, under the latter’s civilian overseer, Leon Trotsky.
According to intelligence historian Raymond W. Leonard, as part of a major re-organisation of the Red Army, sometime in the mid-1920s, it became the Fourth (Intelligence) Directorate of the General Staff of the Red Army, and was thereafter also known simply as the “Fourth Department”. Throughout most of the interwar period, the men and women who worked for Red Army intelligence called it either the Fourth Department, the Intelligence Service (the Razvedupr) or the RU.
The name GRU is an acronym for the official title it has had ever since — Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye (Chief Intelligence Directorate). Today it is run by the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.
As I have heard first-hand on numerous occasions, there is little love between the Russian (formerly Soviet) high command — the armed forces — and the KGB, for historical reasons, the principal one being Stalin’s military purges of the 1930s, which resulted in the show-trials and executions of the cream of the Soviet military officers, from Field-Marshal Mikhail N. Tuchachevskiy down. This gravely weakened the USSR’s capacity to defend itself when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa in 1941. It is still a running sore in the ranks of the military.
I can personally attest to the calibre of GRU officers, who were an elite within an elite.
Over the years the GRU has run many successful operations, including in Australia, where their officers were “civilianised” because military attachés were not exchanged with the USSR.
There have been relatively few GRU defectors. Western agencies enjoyed little success with recruiting GRU officers in place. However, one who provided the West with valuable information was a cipher officer, Igor S. Gouzenko, who defected (ironically, in Canada) in September 1945. Another was Colonel Oleg G. Penkovskiy, who, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, tipped off the UK and US about the Soviet Union’s stationing of missiles in communist Cuba, which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was later betrayed, seized by the GRU and, as an example to others, strapped to a stretcher and fed feet-first into a furnace.
Then there is the remarkable story of George Koval (1913-2006) — the so-called “baseball spy” — who provided the USSR with information from within America’s Manhattan atomic bomb program. He was unknown as a Soviet GRU spy until 2007, when he was posthumously recognised and decorated as a Hero of the Russian Federation by President Putin, thereby rubbing salt into old wounds.
Putin is not the dullard depicted by several senior KGB defectors to the West: he was a disciple of Yuri Andropov (Moscow Times, July 9, 2012). Andropov, it will be recalled, took part in the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, was later a ruthless head of the KGB, and from 1982 until his death in 1984 was Soviet leader. In 1983 he brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
Putin, during his time as head of Russia, has overseen a massive increase in GRU numbers, the building of its new modern headquarters and the return of the notorious elite Spetsnaz special forces to the Russian Army.
So why this digression into the Cold War and its aftermath? The GRU is possibly the only institution to have passed through the Soviet era without any change to either its name or its objectives, and it was never split up as the KGB was after 1991.
Although the Canadian government has been careful, even wary, about revealing anything about Sub-Lt. Delisle’s Russian handlers, it is noteworthy that shortly before and just after his arrest a number of Russians left Canada under cover — which raises awkward questions about whether they might have been tipped off beforehand.
These Russians were GRU officers, and the information they were receiving from Delisle concerned top-secret NATO military and naval communications and perhaps North America’s current air and anti-submarine capacity.
In 2009, before Putin returned to the Russian presidency, the old-fashioned but reliable Russian long-range reconnaissance aircraft, the Tupolev TU-95 (NATO codename “Bear”), had been caught intruding into Canadian and US airspace, before being intercepted and shooed away by fighters, usually accompanied by a wave from the crew. Similar Russian activity had been seen over the UK for some years previously, suggesting either another leak or merely the routine testing of allied air defences.
More significantly, especially for those who remember the former Soviet Union’s mighty nuclear submarine capability (now rusting away in far places and sunk in harbours with reactor state unknown), the Russians currently have two frontline nuclear boats in production.
On two occasions the Americans have detected Russian Akula-class attack submarines off their Atlantic coast, the most recent incident being reported in mid-August. (Akula is Russian for shark). Off the record, a US Navy official admitted that the attack submarine, which was carrying a payload of long-range missiles, had operated without being detected for a month.
A second US official said, “The Akula was built for one reason and one reason only: To kill US Navy ballistic missile submarines and their crews. It’s a very stealthy boat, so it can sneak around and avoid detection and hope to get past any protective screen a boomer might have in place,” he said, referring to the US Navy nickname for strategic missile submarines.” (Family Security Matters, Washington DC, August 15, 2012).
An understandably angry retired US Admiral, James A. Lyons, wrote a piece, “Russia’s shot across the bow”, which excoriated the current Obama administration’s defence run-down.
Lyons said, among other things: “The Atlantic Ocean is divided up into four sectors, with responsibility shared by four COCOMs (combat commanders) — US European Command, US Northern Command, US Southern Command and US African Command.
“Previously, the Atlantic was under a single US Atlantic Command, with the commander of the US 2nd Fleet as both the operational commander and the NATO Striking Fleet commander. That command has been disbanded. Today, the US Northern Command, with headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado, carries that responsibility with US Fleet Forces Command as its naval component commander based in Norfolk, Virginia.
“While it is quite possible that two-thirds of the Akula’s transit took place in the European Command’s area of supervision, that should give no comfort because that command lacks the naval resources to carry out its responsibility. In a recent conversation with me, a former commander of the Northern Command expressed the same sentiments. He never had the naval resources to carry out his duties.
“The undetected Akula cruise-missile submarine deployment is compounded by the fact that Iran already has established missile bases in Venezuela that can reach a number of American cities. In his best appeasement rhetoric, President Obama has stated that he does not think ‘what Hugo Chavez has done in the last several years has had a serious national security impact on us’.
“I doubt the American cities that are within range of those Iranian missiles would share that view, particularly if they understood the seriousness of our vulnerability.” (Washington Times, August 28, 2012).
The Russian Akula-class (formerly known as Typhoon-class) attack submarines have been in service since 1984. Some 21 of them are planned to be completed, and at present nine are operational from Russian bases and one other from India. These are large boats (displacing over 23,000 tonnes surfaced) and missile-capable from their home ports.
The scant information about Russian submarines has been complemented by a Novosti report on the replacement for existing Delta-class nuclear submarines. The first of the Borey-class submarines, the Yuri Dolgoruky, is due to be handed over to the Russian Navy this month. Four further hulls have been laid and, at 14,000 tonnes (surfaced), they are intended to carry the new Buluva submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with multi-warhead capacity, cruise missiles and torpedoes.
Doubtless some commentators will feel obliged to defend Russia’s rebuilding its fleet and sea trials, along with aerial incursions against our allies. The military capacity of today’s Russia of course is but a shadow of that of its Soviet predecessor. Nonetheless the country is still armed with nuclear weaponry and ruled by Vladimir Putin.
So all the optimistic talk about the West pressing the “reset button” in its relations with the Kremlin is, at best, woolly thinking, and, at worst, asking for trouble.
John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer. The above article is a slightly amended version of the one that appeared in News Weekly’s printed edition
Raymond W. Leonard, Secret Soldiers of the Revolution: Soviet Military Intelligence, 1918-1933 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999). ISBN: 9780313309908.
Victor Davidoff, “Andropov would be proud of Putin”, Moscow Times, July 9, 2012.
Bill Gertz, “Russian attack submarine sailed in Gulf of Mexico undetected for weeks”, Family Security Matters (Center for Security Policy, Washington DC), August 15, 2012.
Admiral James A. Lyons, “Russia’s shot across the bow”, Washington Times , August 28, 2012.
John Miller, “The West’s failure to understand Putin’s Russia”, National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 85, 2012.
John Miller, “Media shrugs while Russian espionage flourishes”, News Weekly, August 18, 2012.