What is Russian FSB

Russia's secret service record is negative

2021 is the year of the Russian secret services. In less than five months, four spectacular actions were made public: Jens F., an electrician with a Stasi past, was caught in Berlin when he was selling Bundestag construction plans to secret service agents at the Russian embassy. A Russian spy ring surrounding ex-military intelligence officer Ivan Iliev was exposed in Bulgaria. In Italy, the frigate captain Walter Biot was caught selling military information.

In the Czech Republic, the Ministry of the Interior identified officers from the Russian military intelligence service GRU (German: Headquarters for Reconnaissance) as the originators of two explosions in an ammunition depot in Vrbětice in 2014 - the same men who were allegedly first the Bulgarian arms dealer Emilijan Gebrew in 2015 and then the ex-double agent Sergej Skripal in 2018 the neurotoxin should have poisoned Novichok.

In Bulgaria, the General Prosecutor's Office also linked four further cases of sabotage in weapons depots belonging to Gebrew's company EMKO with the GRU. At the same time, neither the poison attack on the oppositionist Alexej Navalny in August 2020, nor the cyber espionage against the Solar Winds company (also in 2020) or the German Bundestag in 2015 have been forgotten.

What lessons can be learned from the Russian actions?

Russia's services are at war

Syria, Libya, Central Asia, the Caucasus and above all Ukraine - the Russian services, above all the GRU, are in a state of war. Actions such as in Vrbětice or the poison attack on the arms dealer Gebrew are intended to support Moscow's military engagement through covert special operations.

The headquarters of the Russian military intelligence service GRU in Moscow

They aim at supporters of the military opponents. Inhibitions to commit extremely violent acts on the territory of the Western Alliance have fallen since 2014. But that is not a sign of indiscriminate killing, Russia is not waging a secret service war.

Nothing new in the east

Secret service operations of this kind have a long tradition. Jens F. in Berlin, Ivan Iliew in Sofia, Walter Biot in Rome - they all did nothing but classic espionage. The only new thing is the number of cases that have become public within a very short period of time. Disinformation campaigns were also part of the Moscow repertoire half a century ago. Remember the campaign by the KGB and Stasi in the 1980s, according to which the US Army developed the AIDS virus as a biological weapon.

The "Lubyanka" in Moscow, once the headquarters of the Soviet KGB, today the seat of the Russian domestic secret service FSB

Assassinations against secret service defectors and double agents have also been a tradition not only since Skripal. As early as 1925, the GRU poisoned the defector Vladimir Nesterowitsch in Mainz. And even the latest form of intelligence action - cyber espionage - turns out to be old wine in new bottles on closer inspection: For Thomas Rid, cyber expert at Johns Hopkins University, the actions are traditional espionage, sabotage and propaganda in digital guise.

Known methods

The procedure is not new either: The hotspots are always the messages from which GRU & Co sources of espionage lead. Money plays the main role here; in Germany and Bulgaria the agents also had a past in the real socialist secret services.

The building of the Ministry for State Security of the GDR in Berlin on September 24, 1985

On the other hand, when it came to murder and sabotage, the teams of the now defunct GRU special unit 29155 traveled from Moscow via third countries across Europe to their destination. Indirect travel routes, fake identities in which first names match the real ones and birth dates are only minimally changed are relics of the Soviet secret service, as are privileges and awards or vacation programs and care for blown agents and their relatives.

The human is the center of attention

Russia is a major power in global cyber espionage - but the latest intelligence actions show how important the human factor still is. Even cyber espionage, as in the "Bundestag hack" 2015, is only successful thanks to human error, in this case opening email attachments.

The espionage cases focused on people who had been bought. Human errors by Russian intelligence officers played a major role in the failure and disclosure of operations: Officers from GRU special unit 29155 repeatedly traveled to the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and England with the same cover identities and forged passports.

A cordon by the British police at the scene of the Novichok attack on Sergei Skripal on July 5, 2018

After the Novichok attack on Skripal in 2018, the same officers carelessly threw a poison container into a garbage can and were thus responsible for Dawn Sturgess' later death. The FSB officer Konstantin Kudrjawzew, who removed traces of the Novichok poisoning Navalny as part of a team, was fooled by his victim with a trick call - and revealed incredible details of the murder operation on the phone. And other FSB officers also violated precautionary measures when they switched on private phones during the operation.

State secrets in crisis

Data protection and privacy are threatened in the age of social media, video surveillance and ubiquitous online communication. The same applies to the state secrets of murderous secret services. This is shown by research by the British investigative online platform Bellingcat.

Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins in an interview with DW on January 31, 2016

Social media channels, posted pictures and video recordings as well as communication and travel data traded on the Internet made it possible for journalists to reconstruct cover identities, résumés, travel routes and cell phone calls of Russian intelligence officers. One of the most secret special forces found its way onto the Internet. One of their "victims", FSB officer Kudrjawzew, had to admit that digital journalism was completely new territory for the Russian services.

New opponents

Journalist and Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins nicknamed his organization "An Intelligence Agency for the People". In many ways, through their revelations, he and his colleagues have already demonstrated how similar investigative digital journalism and intelligence work are: Both scour the Internet for open or semi-open information, both use communication data to establish connections and movement profiles, and both pay informants to access this data get.

In the digital age, the boundaries between open and secret information are blurring - and secret service employees are no better protected on the Internet than ordinary people. Secret service agents and journalists are increasingly similar in their methods.

Show of force or a sign of weakness?

Russia's services have shown that they are willing and able to operate anywhere in Europe. John Sawers, former director of MI6 in the United Kingdom, estimates that just ten percent of their actions are detected. Nevertheless, we must not allow ourselves to be blinded by this demonstration of power: because at the same time it is also a clear sign of weakness.

This is not only due to the many failures and negligence. The fact that the same officers are deployed over and over again also shows that resources are limited. Attempts to obtain information about the plans of the USA and NATO through third countries with high financial and human resources and risk are evidence of weakness. In addition, the enormous political loss of reputation and sanctions do not give rise to a positive balance.

Dr. Christopher Nehring teaches history of the secret service at the University of Potsdam. For a long time he was Scientific Director of the German Spy Museum in Berlin. In 2019 his book "The 77 Greatest Espionage Myths" was published.