Messages written in invisible ink. Money buried in a field in upstate New York. Identical bags surreptitiously exchanged at a train station.
They sound like the makings of a good Cold War spy novel, but in fact such techniques were in the bag of tricks used by an alleged Russian spy ring broken up in the United States in 2010 — nearly 20 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Nor did these alleged spies use typical cover stories, such as claiming to be diplomats or representatives of vague-sounding Russian think tanks. In an effort to become culturally American, these so-called sleeper agents had come to the United States to live and work as ordinary middle-class people in suburban Boston, New York and Washington, where they spent years developing American identities. One worked for an accounting firm; another was a real estate agent; a third worked at a travel agency. All reportedly were part of a bizarre scheme that apparently gathered little information of value.
Moscow and the West may no longer fear nuclear war with each other, but the shadowy “spy vs. spy” dance between Russia and its Western counterparts has never slackened. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent and director of its successor agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), has ensured that Russia's intelligence agencies have played a large role in his government. But at times, the nonstop spying has complicated post-Cold War diplomatic relations.
A courtroom drawing shows five members of an alleged Russian spy ring after their arrest in the United States in 2010 — nearly 20 years after end of the Cold War (AFP/Getty Images/Shireley Shepard)
Indeed, the FBI uncovered the sleeper ring just as Presidents Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev were discussing how to “reset” U.S.-Russia relations on more friendly terms. Instead of being prosecuted, 10 of the agents were sent back to Russia in exchange for four men accused of spying for Britain and the United States in Russia (the 11th slipped away after a court in Cyprus released him on bail).
Not all alleged Russian intelligence operations have been so benign or inept. Three Chechen militants — two of them linked to a 2011 suicide bombing at Moscow's Domodedovo airport — were gunned down in the Turkish capital Istanbul last September. All were executed in daylight by an assailant who fired 11 shots in less than 30 seconds from a silenced pistol. The pistol, a night-vision camera, binoculars and a Russian passport were later found in a Turkish hotel room. The Russian government officially denied any involvement in the killings.
Russian operatives also are active in other Western countries. Former Russian agent turned dissident Alexander Litvinenko died a slow and excruciating death in London in 2006, after being poisoned with radioactive polonium shortly after meeting with Andrei Lugovoy, a former KGB bodyguard. Litvinenko blamed the Kremlin for his poisoning, and British police sought Lugovoy's extradition from Russia to face charges. The Kremlin has denied the extradition request, and Lugovoy is now a senior member of the Russian parliament representing the ultra-nationalist LDPR party. Lugovoy denies the murder and has variously suggested that it was perpetrated by a dissident Russian oligarch, British security services, the Russian mafia and unnamed people with links to Georgia.
More recently, four Russian diplomats in Canada abruptly left their embassy in Ottawa after a Canadian naval intelligence officer was charged with passing secrets to a foreign entity. However, a British court in November rejected efforts to deport a 26-year-old Russian woman who had an affair with a member of Parliament and was charged with being a Russian agent. The court said British intelligence officials had failed to prove she was an agent.
But espionage is a two-way street. In January Jonathan Powell, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's chief of staff, admitted that in 2006 British agents had been caught using a fake rock in a Moscow park to transmit and receive electronic signals. The embarrassing revelation led to Russian accusations that Britain was funding groups opposed to Putin.
Still, the break-up of the alleged American sleeper cell last year was arguably even more embarrassing to Russia. State media gave heavy coverage to the 10 “suburban spies” being awarded medals by Medvedev upon their return home. But in a humiliating twist, it turns out the Moscow-based spymaster who operated the ring had been passing information to the Central Intelligence Agency since 1999. He was whisked out of Russia on the eve of the U.S. crackdown.
“The activity of both intelligence services will not stop and never will,” said Boris Solomatin, a retired KGB general, who spent two decades supervising Russian spy operations in the United States. “But the end of the Cold War gives us an opportunity to put an end to uncivilized methods.”
— Jason McLure