Beating Moscow at its Main Game: Espionage

| Ambassador Richard Boucher
Richard Boucher
Former Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia

We talk a lot these days about smart power and hard power and soft power even the sharp power of manipulating information. In the end, power and influence have always been exercised in multiple dimensions – military, economic, political, ideological. Some states are strong in all dimensions, like the United States in the 1950s or the British in the 19th century. Others have limited capabilities, like ideological China under Mao. How do we deal with a state whose power and influence are largely one dimensional: a state like Russia which extends itself through spy craft? Indeed, Russia is a unique type of power: an espionage state.

Russia today is less than the Soviet Union. Modern Russia has no ideological attraction. Its economy, which rests on hydrocarbons and natural resources, offers no economic model. Its nuclear weapons constitute a factor to be considered, but not one that offers influence or coercion. Russia’s military suffices to intimidate smaller neighbors and to intervene in favor of dictator friends, but not to carry out major campaigns around the world. Russia’s military sales earn hard currency but don’t fuel insurrections. Gone are the days when Russia, as the Soviet Union, was able to intervene militarily by flying Cuban soldiers to Angola to counter U.S.-backed forces or to foment revolutions against Western domination through the Communist International.

Russia now largely exerts influence using the tools of espionage. Its Little Green Men surreptitiously fight in Ukraine on the side of rebels. Russia carries out poison gas and other attacks in England against those who have betrayed the boss – much like the Mafia. Russia’s disinformation campaigns influence elections through cyberspace, and its hackers, working offshore from the safety of Moscow or St. Petersburg, can disrupt power grids in Georgia, cripple computer systems in Ukraine and undermine democracies. In the modern age, Russia’s chief, almost singular, dimension of power projection is rooted in its spy craft, the tool that former-KGB operative and now President Vladimir Putin knows best how to wield. So how do we deal with this espionage state?

First, as government and as citizens, we need to recognize that espionage remains a fact of life in the modern world. We need better defenses though we’ll never have perfect defenses. American skepticism about news, about information, about exposés, about acquisitions of properties and corporations, even about murders needs to be increased exponentially. False flags and false fronts abound. We need better mechanisms to identify these extensions of the espionage state and we need to act swiftly when we see the tentacles of this hydra reaching out. Waiting and watching is no longer a good strategy.

Second, we need to expel intelligence personnel from Embassies and diplomatic establishments. The united effort by NATO countries to kick out Russian spies in the wake of the nerve gas attack in the UK is a good start. However, unlike in the past, we can’t let them return one by one by one and reestablish their capabilities. Vigilance and strictness can reduce Russia’s ability to conduct operations in our countries.

Yes, we will lose our espionage presence in Moscow. One must question how effective we can be there, certainly less effective than the Russians operating in open Western societies. We, too, can operate offshore with cyber means and by recruiting or meeting Russians who travel outside the country. We need to keep unmasking and reducing Russian security services to a very minimal number in foreign capitals and require that all agents of their services be acknowledged. They should only be present for liaison on issues where we have common interests such as counter-narcotics or anti-terrorism. All others, as soon as they can be identified, should be expelled.

Third comes internet security. The United States with its overwhelming presence on the internet needs to do a much better job securing the internet against attackers of all kinds. We need universal encryption for email and web sites, at least for sensitive areas like finance and government. We can start by implementing better security certificates or at least having some that are more credible than others. Your email should be encrypted to be accepted by banks and government agencies. We may end up with a two- or three-tier internet: only permitted users in one space, certified users in another, and the wild west on the outside.

We can also do a much better job of monitoring attacks when they occur and preventing their recurrence. That the WannaCry ransomware can be used again now to attack the city of Atlanta, despite security patches developed by Microsoft, should baffle us all. Patching and protecting the internet, at least the critical parts, should not be left to individual system operators. Government, industry and the public need to cooperate to ensure that key software stays up-to-date and secure. The U.S. can and should lead the world in securing communications and functions on line, not stand as an advocate for backdoors and sloppy systems.

None of this will stop espionage. None of this will prevent all cyberattacks. None of this will protect us all perfectly. However, we can make it harder for attackers to use nerve gas in England or to dribble out cyber-leaks in U.S. election campaigns. We can significantly curtail the ability of the espionage state to project its power. Over the long term, Russia will be forced to fit into these rules if we make them strong enough, tight enough and thorough enough. Let’s start by cutting off the tentacles of the espionage state as we improve our defenses to block their operations in cyberspace. If Russia is largely a power in one-dimension, espionage, then that is the dimension we must challenge.

The Author is Richard Boucher

Ambassador Richard Boucher served 32 years at the U.S. Department of State, including roles as Ambassador to Cyprus, Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, and Spokesman for six different Secretaries of State. After retiring from the State Department, Boucher spent almost four years as Deputy Secretary-General of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Boucher currently teaches at Brown University, focusing on the intersection between diplomacy and... Read More

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