By 2001, the combination of the Soviet Union’s collapse and al-Qaeda’s attack on September 11 changed the world of espionage forever. While the media was covering two conflicts in the Middle East and an insurgency in Afghanistan, the situation in Russia was evolving into a combustible environment ripe for the rise of an authoritarian leader—embodied by Vladimir Putin, who began rising to power in the late 1990s—and not just any authoritarian, but one determined to restore Russian greatness at any cost. To accomplish his mission, Putin would work to consolidate his power, silence his internal opponents, and disrupt the post–Cold War establishment. Illustrating the gravity of this transition, Chrystia Freeland’s Sale of the Century excellently chronicles the dismantling of the old communist order, replaced by naive reformers and avarice-driven oligarchs. The former security services dissolved, either retiring or providing security for powerful businessmen who profited from pillaging state coffers. Even Amy Knight, an authority on Russian intelligence, realized in Spies without Cloaks that the KGB’s successor organizations needed to do more than simply recruit new cadres of officers. Revamping the Russian security services instead required completely reworking the criminal code and adopting the rule of law in a nation not ready for revolutionary developments.
These drastic changes began in 1999 when Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin, at the time a relatively unknown former KGB officer, to be his deputy and successor, marking the beginning of Putin’s political ascension. The West did not know much about Putin, but over time he consolidated his power by intimidating the oligarchs and mastering control of the state, including the security services. Putin was, and still is, bending Russia to his will. But to understand what followed, it is necessary for readers to comprehend Putin. Masha Gessen, a Russian émigré, provides insights into Putin in The Man without a Face. Initially unknown to many, Putin quickly accelerated Russia’s drift toward authoritarianism, as Gessen demonstrates in The Future Is History, whereby the Russian constitution’s initial constraints of government were unable to restrain Putin’s authoritarian impulses. These are astute points as she warns the West today about the dangers arising from Putin’s Russia. Likewise, Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy provide historical context for understanding Putin in their joint study, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. They view Putin as a leader who knows how to market his own persona and manipulate others, just as an intelligence handler seeks to exploit either his agents or foreigners to do his bidding.
Every American president since Bill Clinton has sought ways to deal with Putin, and they have all come up empty. With the help of Stanford political scientist Michael McFaul, Barrack Obama tried to pursue a new approach called the “Reset” in 2008. McFaul had a unique view of the deterioration of American-Russian relations, first as part of Obama’s National Security Council team, and then as American ambassador to Russia in 2012. He relates the collapse of US–Soviet relations in his memoir From Cold War to Hot Peace. McFaul was in Moscow when Russians challenged Putin during parliamentary elections in 2011, stunning Putin, who believed that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was involved in those disturbances, something he would never forget. Later, when Putin was consolidating his power in Russia, he lost his grip on Ukraine and responded by annexing Crimea, the first major European territorial readjustment since the end of WW II. In response, the Obama administration and the EU placed economic sanctions on Putin and his associates.
Even before crippling sanctions were imposed, Putin had gained complete control over the Russian oligarchs. If they displeased him, their assets were seized or they were imprisoned, as American Wall Street investor Bill Browder, who was attracted to the business opportunities in the new Russia, understood when he founded Hermitage Capital Management. Quickly, he realized someone was raiding his fund and hired Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky to ascertain what had happened. Browder’s account in Red Notice details Magnitsky’s findings and subsequent arrest and death. What were Magnitsky’s transgressions? Looking for the truth. Seeking redemption for the late Magnitsky’s memory, Browder pressed the American government to adopt the Magnitsky Act, which placed crippling economic sanctions on Russian oligarchs and became another grievance Putin harbored against the Obama administration, which he sought to avenge with the 2016 election.
Popular writer Ben Mezrich offers a similar, if simpler, account of Russian corruption in Once upon a Time in Russia, detailing the rise and fall of Russian oligarchs. Like Browder, he chronicles the looting and pilfering of companies, and traces the flow of Russian rubles to London and New York, quickly and silently laundered before being invested in real estate and other questionable ventures. By the time of Putin’s rise, Lenin’s worker’s state had become nothing more than a mafia fiefdom. Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the regime was corrupt, and Putin amplified that corruption. As Mezrich notes, fortunes could come and go depending on one’s loyalty to the regime. But anyone who crossed Putin forfeited his or her life, as happened to former KGB and Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Alexander Litvinenko. Both Alan S. Cowell in The Terminal Spy and Luke Harding in A Very Expensive Poison examine Litvinenko’s 2006 murder in London. Wanting to send a message in retaliation for Litvinenko criticizing and threatening him, Putin made Litvinenko the first victim of polonium poisoning. Despite Russian denials, Cowell, a New York Times bureau chief, and Harding, a journalist with The Guardian, tracked Litvinenko’s murder to Putin and the FSB. The assassination was the first of its kind, but not the last.
Assassinations committed abroad by the Russian security services were not something new. In the 1930s, the NKVD targeted Trotsky’s son and his associates, culminating in the assassinations of Trotsky, in Mexico City, and Walter Krivitsky, in Washington, in 1940—some of the better-known victims of Stalin’s retribution. However, shortly before the Berlin Wall was constructed, Russian intelligence agent Bogdan Stashinsky defected in 1961. As Serhii Plokhy, a professor at Harvard, explains in The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story, Stashinsky was the KGB’s most lethal assassin. In his confession to West German authorities, he highlighted his typical assignments: eliminating those considered enemies of the state, but also Nikita Khrushchev’s personal opponents. Stashinsky’s murder of Stephan Bandera, a leading Ukrainian nationalist, in 1959, was no different from those ordered by Putin. In Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder, Amy Knight demonstrates that assassinating enemies of the state did not end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Putin’s Russia, countless people have been murdered for Putin’s benefit, including many journalists, Alexander Litvinenko, and even political rival Boris Nemtsov.
Given the Russians longstanding fondness for deep-penetration agents—often spies who illegally entered a host country without diplomatic cover—those types of agents were crucial during the heyday of Soviet espionage, recruiting domestic nationals who were willing to betray their country for ideological reasons. They remain important and controversial figures today, as exemplified by the strange case of Sergei Skripal, a retired GRU colonel. Mark Urban, a BBC correspondent, recounts his story in The Skripal Files. Skripal secretly worked for MI6 until he was arrested and convicted of espionage. Others had been arrested for similar charges before him, and even tried and convicted in absentia, including Oleg Kalugian, a former KGB general living in Washington, and Alexander Litvinenko, the aforementioned former FSB officer and Putin critic residing in London, who was later assassinated. However, in 2010 Colonel Alexandr Poteyev, the deputy of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), exposed ten Russian illegals operating in the US, prompting mass arrests. Putin, who once held a similar posting in Russian intelligence, was incensed by Poteyev’s betrayal and expected retribution.
In 2018, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by the Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury, England, as Putin’s retaliation, which Urban strongly believes was actually aimed at Poteyev. The assassination attempt was not the last. In December 2019, according to the New York Times, a killer linked to Russian organized crime murdered a former Chechen rebel leader in Berlin. Earlier, the CIA also had to exfiltrate one of their major defectors from Moscow after he was identified as the source linking Putin to the Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Gordon Corera, the BBC’s security correspondent, examines MI5’s and the FBI’s effort to locate those long-term penetration agents, commonly called sleeper agents, in Russians among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories, and the Hunt for Putin’s Spies, while demonstrating how misguided it is to downplay the threat of Putin’s Russia. The recent attempted assassination of the Skripals in the UK and the recent assassination of a Chechen émigré in Berlin only highlight the fears Putin’s intelligence and security services posed. Corera’s analysis shows that Putin assumed Western intelligence services were stirring up political trouble in Russia and was willing to return the favor. In fact, materials from Colonel Poteyev indicated that Russian illegals were becoming more aggressive, even before Putin amplified the threat, as the SVR demanded more results. The FBI called their surveillance of Russian illegals “Ghost Stories,” and even briefed the CIA about the program. Before the mass arrest in 2010, the SVR pressed for their agents to move closer to centers of power, including New York and Washington. When Anna Chapman, an illegal Russian intelligence agent, and her fellow sleepers were arrested, Putin was about to embark on a more ambitious plan.