Vladimir Putin and the Art of Intelligence

Daniel Hoffman
Former Chief of Station, Central Intelligence Agency

Russians are fond of their aphorism, v chuzhoi monastir so svoim ustavom, ne khodyat – “No-one goes to another monastery with their own charter,” the Russian equivalent to “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Soviet leaders and their Russian successors have sought to exploit Russians’ appreciation for their special historical and cultural identity by propagating a xenophobic, nationalist aversion to Western ideals. President Vladimir Putin has sought to counter what he views as Western attempts to invade Russian space with liberal (anti-Russian) ideas, election monitoring, and support for “color revolutions.”  

For Russian intelligence officers serving overseas however, freedom from bias while being immersed in a foreign culture is a basic requirement for effectively practicing human intelligence (HUMINT) – the art of engaging with individuals, gaining their trust, and gleaning protected information from them. Evincing knowledge and respect for the foreign “monastery,” Russian intelligence officers exploit Russia’s soft power – language, culture, religion, sports – to find common interests with their targeted persons of interest and enable the ongoing personal interaction essential for HUMINT collection.   

Russian Intelligence has long considered the U.S. as its glavniy protivnik or “main enemy.” Like its KGB predecessors, the Russian intelligence services FSB and SVR focus the lion’s share of their resources on penetrating U.S. national security agencies, political parties, defense industry, and special interest groups. 

Russian intelligence officers are the quivers in Vladimir Putin’s national security bow. Having spent his formative years in the KGB and having served as Director of the FSB, Vladimir Putin is a sophisticated practitioner and advocate for HUMINT. Putin has often emphasized he is a spetsialist po obsheniyu s lyudmi – an expert at interacting with people.  

Putin is extraordinarily adept at establishing common interests with his interlocutors to build relationships that can be exploited for Russia’s national security gain. His HUMINT tactics and goals of destabilizing the U.S. internally, driving a wedge between the U.S. and its NATO allies, and enhancing control over Russia’s regional sphere of influence bear a stark resemblance to his Soviet predecessors.  

The main difference between Russian and Soviet “active measures” – covert action meant to influence populations – is the means of delivery. Whereas the KGB relied on press placements and agents of influence, the KGB’s successor intelligence services FSB and SVR, as well as Russian military intelligence GRU, have added offensive cyber operations to their spying tool kit. Key developments in the evolution of Russia’s cyber strategy include massive 2007 denial of service attacks against Estonia, the first ever hybrid cyber-military war against Georgia in 2008, and sophisticated covert influence and infrastructure targeting operations against Ukraine beginning in 2014. 

Russia began mounting cyber attacks against U.S. targets during the 1990’s, which expanded greatly after Vladimir Putin became president. Russia effectively targeted State Department and White House communications, and pursuing a target which was a high priority for the Soviet KGB, mounted cyber attacks against the U.S. 2016 electoral process. At the heart of Putin’s motivation was regime security. He sought to degrade trust in Western institutions and by extension liberal values while concurrently targeting his own internal protesters – who since 2011 have increasingly taken to the streets with leaderless cyberspace-enabled protests.

While there have been issues such as arms control on which the U.S. and Russia have cooperated at the strategic level, intelligence rivalry in the shadows has featured most prominently in our regular engagement. Russia has every intention of continuing to mount increasingly brazen cyber attacks, but the question is whether the West has a strategy to deter, counter, and limit the damage from them. 

Warning Putin without policy measures to influence a change in Russia’s nefarious behavior only encourages more aggressive Russian intelligence, including cyber operations against the “main enemy” and its allies. During the G-20 Summit, Putin will focus on issues of apparent common interest, including counterterrorism, with an eye towards testing the West’s resolve to defend against Russia’s cyber onslaught and veiled efforts to reduce support for sanctions and sew discord between the U.S. and its allies. Western leaders would do well to remember Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1939 masterpiece, Master and Margarita, whose first chapter, “Never Talk to Strangers,” is a reminder of Russia’s curiosity and suspicion of foreigners.

The Author is Daniel Hoffman

Daniel Hoffman is a former Chief of Station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of distinguished government service included high-level positions not only within the CIA, but also with the U.S. military, U.S. Department of State, and U.S. Department of Commerce. Assignments included tours of duty in the former Soviet Union, Europe, and war zones in both the Middle East and South Asia. During this time, Hoffman developed substantive expertise on geopolitical and... Read More

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