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The Kaleidoscopic Campaigning of Russia’s Special Services

Russia’s operations against Ukraine have involved the full spectrum of its special services. Understanding the role each service plays is vital if the West is to counter their malign influence.

Centre of operations: the former headquarters of the KGB in Moscow. Image: Victorgrigas / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

In the years leading up to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Western media commentary has obsessively reported on the antics – real and imagined – of Russia’s special services. However, despite a rich assortment of operations revealed, ranging from the audacious to the farcical, little has been written about the structure of these services or how they are conceptualised within Russian theories of conflict. This article seeks to set out in brief the main structures and responsibilities of these institutions.

Firstly, to begin with definitions, Western governments are often guilty of projection in how they describe their Russian adversaries. In the US, there is the Intelligence Community (IC). Western governments tend to describe their adversaries as RIS, or ‘Russian Intelligence Services’. In Russia, however, the community is usually referred to as the ‘Special Services’. This denotes a contrast in purpose. Western agencies are first and foremost concerned with intelligence collection, providing information to policymakers to inform governmental decision-making. Russia’s special services conduct intelligence collection, but this function is subordinate to their primary responsibility, which is political warfare – involving the use of information, manipulation and influence to shape adversary beliefs and behaviours.

This distinction drives significant cultural differences between Western and Russian agencies. Western agencies are primarily concerned with establishing the truth and identifying future threats, with parts of the IC then responsible for determining what to do to shape the anticipated outcome. Since the Russian services are instead primarily concerned with what people believe and how they behave as a result of these beliefs – qualities that are highly changeable – they are much less culturally or methodologically obsessed with facts. The result is a community that is operationally highly effective but analytically weak.

It is also contextually important to appreciate that the special services have captured the Russian state. The result is a political community that sees the conduct of political warfare as the primary tool of power, with military force supporting the special services rather than being a separate pillar, as in the DIME framework, which divides power into diplomatic, informational, military and economic levers. Furthermore, the Russian political community see political warfare as the foremost means both of shaping adversaries abroad and securing itself at home. In some respects, the prominence of the special services throughout the state bureaucracy means that political warfare is equally the methodology by which internal disagreements are resolved, creating a dynamic where the effect of information elevated to decision-makers can be seen as more important than its accuracy. Whereas the Western IC is deeply concerned about deconfliction of responsibilities, the Russian special services compete for patronage and therefore overlap considerably in their operations. There are nevertheless distinctions between them, and for that reason, this article will outline the main targets and structures of each in turn.

Federal Security Service

Primacy among the special services belongs to the Federal Security Service (FSB), with both the Russian president and Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev being former directors. Its primacy reflects the FSB’s broad responsibilities – from criminal investigations and counterterrorism to counterintelligence (CI) and foreign intelligence – and the fact that the CI responsibility allows it to collect information on, and thereby practice political warfare against, Russian officials and the other services.

As this article is concerned with the use of Russia’s special services for political warfare abroad, the relevant part of the organisation is the Fifth Service. Within the Soviet Union, the Fifth Service of the KGB was responsible for ‘counterintelligence on the territories’, comprising the non-Russian Soviet states. This meant that the Fifth Service had a vast set of files on the populations in these states and a large network of informants. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the KGB became the FSB, the decision was made to retain these files within the FSB rather than transfer them to another service. The Fifth Service therefore became a foreign espionage organisation rather than a counterintelligence organisation, with a geographical focus on those areas where it had existing networks of agents.

The Fifth Service, currently headed by Colonel General Sergei Beseda, is divided into two departments: the Department for International Relations (DIR) and the Department for Operational Information (DOI). The former constitutes the Service’s support apparatus, providing residents to Russian embassies and to international institutions where they can use diplomatic cover and diplomatic bags to set up safe houses, drops, obfuscated financial structures and other infrastructure necessary for espionage.

Although the Wagner Group has been widely described as a mercenary organisation, it is routinely accompanied by Spetsnaz officers who help to coordinate its activities and facilitate the support it receives from the conventional Russian military

The DOI – led by Lieutenant General Georgi Grishaev – is made up of intelligence planners, responsible for giving instructions to agent handlers as to what information they should ask their agents to collect or what tasks they should have them carry out. The DOI also conducts analytical assessments on target countries. The DOI is divided into sections assigned to each target country, with responsibility for Ukraine held by Igor Chumakov under an independent Directorate – the Ninth – given the scale of the operations undertaken in this area.

Consistent with Soviet methods, the FSB allows whoever first recruited an agent – irrespective of where in the service they come from – to remain their handler wherever possible. For this reason, handlers are not grouped into a specific department, but instead come under the direction of the DOI and the enablement of the DIR in running agents they have recruited. Where the Fifth Service needs to use FSB officers from other services, they are reassigned to the Fifth Service’s chain of command through the Seconded Officers Apparatus.

The primary targets of the FSB are political elites in the former Soviet republics, with the objective of ensuring their support for Russian interests. The FSB also aims at undermining political movements in these states that are viewed as hostile to Russian interests. In the case of the Ninth Directorate targeting Ukraine, the FSB worked to plan for the establishment of occupation administrations, which would have seen responsibility for Ukraine transfer to other FSB Services – responsible for counterintelligence – once annexation had been accomplished.

Main Directorate of the General Staff and Special Forces

The Main Directorate of the General Staff (GU) – formerly and still colloquially known as the GRU – is the special service of the Russian Armed Forces. The GU holds responsibilities comparable to Western military intelligence organisations, such as collection on enemy military dispositions and technical capabilities, as well as identifying critical targets in the event of conflict. The organisation also maintains wider capabilities related to political warfare and direct action, which can be used in support of political warfare or conventional operations.

The GU is structured into two kinds of directorates: those with regional responsibilities, which are primarily tasked with building up access to target countries’ elites, and those with functional responsibilities – cyber, satellite intelligence, special operations, and so on – which are not geographically focused. The service also has an extensive network of long-term illegal officers – operating abroad without diplomatic cover – often tasked with penetration of institutions that the Russian government wishes to influence or extract information from. The GU operates significantly beyond a narrow military mandate.

In fact, the relationship between the GU and the General Staff has been complex. The GU has its own Spetsnaz forces that are responsible for direct action, such as the attempted assassination of the Skripals or the sabotage of armaments production as carried out in Czechia. The Directorate’s operatives tend to work in pairs and usually divide responsibilities between logistics personnel and handlers. In Ukraine, GU teams tended to recruit groups of locals to conduct sabotage and other activities, who would be directed by the handler, while the logistics officer would manage communications with Moscow and the smuggling of arms and other equipment across the border.

GU Spetsnaz have also generated proxy forces through which they can conduct expeditionary operations. Most notable, perhaps, was the formation of the Wagner Regiment in 2014. Although the Wagner Group – as it became known – has been widely described as a mercenary organisation, it is routinely accompanied by Spetsnaz officers from the GU, who help to coordinate its activities and facilitate the support the group receives from the conventional Russian military in its operations in Libya and further afield. During the high point of Russian operations in Syria and now in Ukraine, Wagner Group companies have been cut across to fall under the command of the conventional Russian military.

During Russia’s military reforms, the utility of special operations forces was recognised, with a desire to significantly expand the capacity for such activities. There was, however, a significant tension between the GU’s strategic priorities and the operational priorities of Russia’s conventional forces. For this reason, Russia established a Special Operations Command and generated Special Forces units (SSO) tasked with more conventional military reconnaissance functions. The SSO tend to be assigned in support of a conventional group of forces in conflict, though they can also come under GU direction outside of conventional conflict.

Foreign Intelligence Service

Successor to the Soviet Union’s First Chief Directorate of the KGB, the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) is responsible for the penetration of enemy elites to shape their opinion, the pursuit of strategic intelligence, and industrial espionage. The latter spans both the illegal procurement and smuggling of prestige technological capabilities for the purpose of technical exploitation, and the establishment and maintenance of covert supply chains for things the Russian government struggles to produce domestically, like sophisticated microelectronics.

Populations in target countries are often viewed as having emotional agency but not political agency. Elites are afforded political agency, and the object of Russian operations is therefore the shaping of elite opinion

The SVR, like the GU, is organised into regionally focused and technically focused departments. Working from Russian embassies, the SVR is widely acknowledged to be the most sophisticated of the special services in conducting technical surveillance and signals intelligence collection. A critical line of effort for the SVR is the infiltration of institutions and movements. These have included religious organisations, such as the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, and political movements, like environmental groups. The former is a means of using institutional legitimacy to have unique and authoritative physical access to both people and sites that are politically difficult for law enforcement to target. In this way, the SVR can embed a robust illegal support apparatus in target states.

The targeting of movements like environmental groups is effective because it allows the SVR to put arguments to elite groups in target countries that have legitimate political standing and are therefore protected from interference by counterintelligence organisations. The arguments put forward to elites in these contexts are often legitimate, but they are advanced because they favour Russian interests. For example, there are valid arguments against nuclear power, and it is legitimate for German citizens to argue for and against this policy. But convincing environmental campaigners in Germany to adopt an anti-nuclear position also had the effect of accentuating Germany’s dependence on Russian gas, and therefore gave the Kremlin strategic leverage. These kinds of active measures are hard to counter without either causing political scandal in democracies or fracturing the political community. The elites being targeted are also often more susceptible to influence via these means because they do not associate those trying to persuade them of something with Russian intent.

An important point about the methodology employed by all of the Russian services is that in analytical reports, populations in target countries are often viewed as having emotional agency but not political agency. Population groups tend to be described as ‘feeling’ a certain way towards issues. What gives that feeling direction and causes effects is how elites leverage it. Elites are afforded political agency, and the object of Russian operations is therefore the shaping of elite opinion. This is something largely overlooked in the Western discourse on ‘disinformation’, which is often obsessed with the shaping of ‘popular opinion’.

If we consider the current situation, in which Russia is being militarily defeated in Ukraine, but Ukraine is entirely dependent for its supplies on Western aid, Russia views the West as the point of vulnerability. Economic warfare is being used to generate hardship, but in this context, it is clear that there are certain key messages Russian active measures will endeavour to spread among Western elites. These include:

  • That countries should spend money at home rather than on Ukraine
  • That arming Ukraine will deplete the West and specifically the US’s ability to deter China
  • That the fighting in Ukraine will be an indefinite and unwinnable commitment
  • That arming Ukraine will fuel the proliferation of complex weapons into the hands of terrorists

Putting aside the accuracy of these arguments – to the Russian special services this is secondary – they can be advanced by both good and bad faith actors. They therefore represent lines of effort that can be promulgated to advance Russia’s theory of victory, which is the collapse of Western support for Ukraine over the winter. It is important for the West to clarify that these arguments are largely either false or constitute false dichotomies.

This article is part of the Russia Military Report series.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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