West on alert: Russian spies are back and more dangerous than ever

Bill Burns, the director of the CIA, highlighted the growing discontent within Russia “Unique recruiting opportunity in a generation” that the CIA has no intention of letting go. This statement not only sheds light on the dynamics of the intelligence community, but may also have created tensions with Russia’s “special services,” a term the country uses to describe its own intelligence agencies.

The latter have seen how its efforts before the Ukraine conflict were inadequate, with many agents expelled from European territory. Recent information from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) suggests that Russian spies are reorienting their strategies and making a renewed attempt at political warfare against the West.

Recent times have been particularly challenging for Russian intelligence. In 2020, the FSB, the national security service, came under heavy criticism for his failed attempt to poison Alexei Navalny, a prominent opposition activist who mocked officials for applying Novichok poison to his underwear.

Aside from that, The FSB provided the Kremlin with an overly optimistic perspective on the development of the conflict in Ukraine, overestimating the country’s vulnerability. This did not prevent Western intelligence services from intercepting and uncovering Russian plans to invade Ukraine. They also failed to counter a brief uprising led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group.

On the other hand, The SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, suffered a serious blow Its presence in Europe has been reduced, some 600 officials have been expelled from embassies across the continent and at least eight “illegal” agents – spies without diplomatic cover who often pose as non-Russians – have been exposed.

The RUSI analysis, developed by Jack Watling, Nick Reynolds and Oleksandr Danylyuk – the latter, a former adviser to the defense minister and head of Ukraine’s foreign intelligence service – is based on documents received from the Russian special services and interviews with officials in Ukraine and Europe.


End of 2022 Russia recognized the need to obtain more reliable reports from its authoritiesby putting Sergei Kiriyenko, the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff, in charge of the “committees of special influence” responsible for coordinating and assessing operations directed against the West.

The recent personnel restructuring within the Russian intelligence services has led to an optimization of their propaganda strategies. A tangible example of this new approach is Moldova, where previously unpredictable disinformation campaigns against the EU accession process have gained in coherence and precision over the last year.

These campaigns began to connect directly Moldova’s desire for EU membership with the figure of its presidentand blamed it for the country’s economic ills.

At the same time, efforts to weaken European support for Ukraine are increasing. In January, German specialists explained how it works Bots distribute hundreds of thousands of messages in German every dayoperates through a network of approximately 50,000 accounts in a month on the X platform. For its part, France revealed on February 12 the existence of a vast network of Russian websites promoting disinformation in France, Germany and Poland.

In this context, The GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, has been subjected to an extensive process of introspection and adjusting its business operations. Unit 29155, infamous for its 2018 assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, UK, has had significant exposure of its personnel, activities and facilities through Bellingcat investigations using public domain information and leaked Russian data .

The agency confirmed the need to reduce your digital footprintspecifically, tracking their cell phones near key locations linked to Russian intelligence.

Deep internal restructuring

The mass expulsion of intelligence officers in Europe has been identified as a crucial obstacle to conducting operations and the management of agents abroad, aspects that contributed to the failure of the invasion of Ukraine.

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This diagnosis led to a profound internal restructuring, began in 2020 and was accelerated by the conflict in Ukraine. General Andrei Averyanov, commander of Unit 29155, whose leadership was marked by several mistakes, was promoted to deputy chief of the GRU.

A new one was founded “Service for special activities”and the deployment practices of Unit 29155 personnel were changed; For example, Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga, who claimed to be visiting Salisbury because of the cathedral, no longer carry mobile phones onto the site and instead rely on landlines.

The training courses take place at discreet locations and not in regular rooms. While half of the personnel used to come from Spetsnaz, the Russian special forces, most of the new members no longer have a military background makes identification by Western security services more difficult through archived photos or leaked data.

A new division within the Special Activities Service, known as Unit 54654, was configured for the purpose of creating a network of “illegal” agents. These agents are trained to withstand the scrutiny of even the most sophisticated international spy agencies, a process Russia calls “full legalization.”

To ensure this, the unit recruits its employees through shell companies Your identity and personal information remain outside of official records. In addition, these agents are integrated into ministries not directly related to defense or into various private sectors.

Reorganization after Prigozhin’s death

The GRU has expanded its Recruitment field for international students at Russian universities and offers financial incentives for young people from the Balkans, Africa and other developing regions.

A symbolic example of Russia’s ability to do this Turning adversity into advantage is the story of the Wagner Group, directed by Prigozhin. Wagner originally acted as an undeniable extension of Russian influence, providing military support to autocratic leaders in Syria, Libya and several African countries.

In June 2023, Prigozhin was frustrated by what he saw as poor handling of the Ukraine conflict by senior Russian military commanders. led a mutiny towards Moscow. Although the uprising was crushed, Prigozhin died in an air accident two months later.

After Prigozhin’s death The Russian secret services quickly divided his inheritance underneath. The FSB took control of domestic operations, the SVR took control of media resources including “troll farms” implicated in the 2016 US elections, while the GRU took the reins of military operations abroad and a volunteer corps for Ukraine and founded a global expeditionary force led by General Averyanov.

Rebirth of the Russian secret service

Russia’s cyber activities have also increased. Warnings from the US and UK in December warned of “Star Blizzard”an elite hacker group linked to the FSB that has been active against NATO countries for years.

Microsoft announced this in January “Cozy Bear”linked to the SVR, had manipulated emails from senior company managers, and joined a GRU cyberattack on the Ukrainian power grid that was synchronized with Russian missile attacks in the same region.

This rebirth of Russian intelligence is part of it a key moment in the East-West rivalry. Norwegian and Estonian intelligence reports from February suggest Russia is taking the lead in Ukraine and preparing for a possible conflict with NATO in the next decade.

Russian strategy focuses on preparing for such a confrontationnot only through espionage, but also with the aim of weakening cohesion within NATO, undermining support for Ukraine in the West and reducing Western influence in the Southern Hemisphere.

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