Over the last year, since the Russian theft of Crimea, I’ve unambiguously warned that Vladimir Putin means what he says and he will not shy away from confrontation with the West, even at the risk of major war. Opportunities to deter this resurgent Russia, which I counseled many months ago, were punted on by the U.S. and NATO, so we now face a serious risk of war with Putin over his mounting hegemony in Eastern Europe. Ukraine is just the beginning.
As I’ve long made clear, Russia does not play by Western rules, and Putin and his Kremlin, being Chekists to their core, place great value on what I term Special War, meaning a shadowy amalgam of espionage, propaganda, and terrorism that Western states are poorly positioned to counter. At the end of the last year I predicted that the Kremlin’s Special War against the West was sure to rise, and so it has in the first quarter of this new year.
Last week I explained how Russian espionage against the Czech Republic — no congenital hater of the Russians like, say, Poland or the Baltics — had become so serious that Prague had expelled three Russian spies in recent months, amid warnings from Czech counterintelligence that at least a quarter of the outsized number of Russian diplomats in the country were actually spies posing as diplomats.
Over the last year I’ve explained in detail how Russian intelligence abroad, encompassing the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the military’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), have increased the scope and intensity of their operations against many NATO countries, including France, Germany, Hungary, and Poland. Most of these operations are undertaken by SVR or GRU officers serving under what the Russians term Legal cover, meaning they are pretending to be diplomats, trade representatives, and whatnot.
But in recent years there has also been an uptick in operations by spies whom the Russians term Illegals, meaning intelligence officers who serve abroad without any official protection, often posing as third-country nationals. The massive 2010 round up of a whole network of SVR Illegals in the United States proved a serious blow to the Kremlin, and their espionage still exhibits weaknesses, as evidenced by the recent arrest of an SVR Illegal operating in New York, a second-rater who did not belong to the elite of Russian spies.
Such Kremlin activities extend beyond NATO as well, and now it’s Sweden’s turn. A neutral that’s prone to downplaying threats on political grounds, and is always careful not to needlessly aggravate the Russian bear looming across the Baltic Sea, Stockholm has nevertheless had enough of clandestine Russian shenanigans in their country. This week they have gone public with the extent of the Kremlin’s Special War being waged against Sweden.
According to the Swedish Security Service (Säpo), at least one-third of the Russian diplomats in the country are actually spies. Recent months have seen repeated incidents of Russian intelligence provocations — submarines off the coast, SVR and GRU ramping up clandestine in-country operations — and Stockholm is worried, particularly because Kremlin efforts to recruit spies inside Swedish military and political circles are increasingly obvious.
Gone are the bumbling, vodka-swilling Russian spies of the 1990’s, when the Soviet collapse curtailed much espionage abroad. Since 2006, SVR and GRU operations against the West have risen steadily, to the point that current activities are as intense in number and audacity as they were at the height of the Cold War. Sweden is no exception, and Säpo’s chief analyst noted that Russian spies today are “highly educated and often younger than during the Soviet era. They are driven, goal-oriented and socially competent.” Not to mention that this is only talking about Russian Legals, not Illegals, who can be assumed to add to the ranks of Kremlin spies in Sweden, perhaps considerably.
As always, these spies are recruiting sources, disseminating disinformation, and fomenting dissent in the host country, per longstanding Russian espionage practice. This has become so serious that Stockholm now considers Russia to be the top threat to Swedish national security. The Säpo analyst bluntly explained, “There are hundreds of Russian intelligence officers around Europe and the West. They violate our territory every day … We see Russian intelligence operations in Sweden—we can’t interpret this in any other way—as preparation for military operations against Sweden.”
There’s the rub. Every week of late, Putin turns up the heat on NATO and the West: diplomatic threats, aggressive maneuvers with combat aircraft, the movement of late–model missiles to Kaliningrad, putting Stockholm, Warsaw, and Berlin within easy range of Russian tactical nuclear weapons. Now, Putin either wants open war against the West — not just the clandestine games of Special War — or we wants us to think he does: in either case, this is a terrifying situation.
Many believe that Putin thinks he can use the threat of nuclear blackmail to gain a free hand for Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, and they may be right. Certainly there is little in NATO reactions to Russian aggression to date that suggests a backbone is forming in Berlin, Paris, or Washington, DC. Whether or not the Kremlin wants major war is known only to Putin and the tiny circle of advisors, all hard-edged Chekists like himself, whom the Russian leader listens to.
For now, Special War will continue to achieve Kremlin aims, possibly without major war, while laying the intelligence groundwork for that bigger conflict, should that happen. Today’s news brings word that Polish counterintelligence has detected an air force officer spying for Moscow. He is reported to have passed classified information about Poland’s wing of F-16 fighters, the backbone of Polish defense against the Russians, in what may constitute a serious blow to NATO readiness on the Alliance’s exposed eastern frontier.
Another day, another Russian spy in the West detected. You can expect more of this. If we’re lucky, our conflict with Putin, which is being orchestrated by the Kremlin, will remain confined to SpyWar. Yet how robustly the West confronts Russian Special War — which is ultimately a question of politics, not counterespionage — is a good benchmark for how effectively we can deter a major, and possibly nuclear, war. Without political will, all the West’s acumen in military and intelligence affairs will matter little compared to the robust will shown by Vladimir Putin, who is playing for keeps, and intends to win.