The Russian ICC (XV): objectives. Information needs

Let us recapitulate: so far we have made several entries concerning the Russian ICC, in which we have contextualized Russian intelligence, we have described its different services with cyber attributions and have analyzed, as far as possible, their relations with third parties, thus describing the complex ecosystem of intelligence in Russia. With this ecosystem already described (we had to stop at some point), we will now try to analyze the objectives of this intelligence, its information needs: what is Russia looking for and where?

A bit of history: Vasili Mitrokhin was a KGB archivist who, after the dissolution of the USSR, defected and collaborated with the British MI6; the material exfiltrated by Mitrokhin, which gave rise to several books that are known together as “the Mitrokhin archive”, revealed among many other secrets that the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev already considered industrial espionage as a key aspect for economic survival and for the restructuring of the country. This became clear after the dissolution of the USSR, so that in accordance with its legal basis ([3]), the objective of Russian intelligence has been to gather information in the political, economic, military, scientific, technical and ecological fields to support the economic development and scientific-technical and military progress of the Russian Federation; even the GRU has entrusted the acquisition of military, political-military, technological-military and economic-military information. In other words, Russia is concerned about its defense, both military and economic, from the Soviet era (from Mitrokhin’s information) to Russia at the end of the last century. Something, on the other hand, completely logical in any modern country.

But it is not necessary to go back to the Mitrokhin archive or the legislation regulating Russian intelligence to identify Russian information needs; reviewing something more recent, the National Security Strategy ([1]) and some of its analyses (as [2]), one can infer that, as we have said, Russian national security is no longer based solely on military threats or policies to Mother Russia – that too – but we speak of terms such as economic security or security through the development of the country. Russia’s priorities and interests are clearly defined in this National Security Strategy:

  • National defense, which appears first and foremost as the basic priority of the Strategy, and makes the necessary reference to NATO, to the protection of Russian borders, to stability in the area that geographically surrounds Russia…
  • Public security, based on protection of the Russian system and sovereignty – and of its citizens; we already talked about the “Cold War” and “Russia is in danger”, not only physical but also spiritual …
  • Improvement of the quality of life of Russian citizens, by guaranteeing basic services and supplies: agriculture, biotechnology, pharmacy, critical infrastructures…
  • Economic growth, through the development of technology and modernization of key sectors for the economy, such as financial or energy, with a special mention of new technologies.
  • Science, technology and education, providing competitive advantages to the Russian economy and defense through close public-private collaboration; the Strategy is particularly concerned about the technological dependence of third countries and the transfer of Russian knowledge abroad.
  • Health, providing Russian citizens with a modern health system with an important technical and technological component: computer and communications, pharmacy, biotechnology, nanotechnology…
  • Russian culture, protecting the union of all Russian territories and their citizens – different ethnicities, cultures, problems, demographics…, especially against third parties who want to break or corrupt Russian values.
  • Ecology and natural resources, avoiding the depletion of Russian natural resources, such as mineral … or water.
  • Strategic stability and fair partnerships with third parties, keeping Russia as a key player in the international arena – political, military, diplomatic…

In order to ensure these priority elements, Russia must focus its information needs in different areas that can be drawn from the strategy itself: defense, internal security, technology, energy, politics, diplomacy, energy, economics, ecology … In short, information needs Russian relations have changed little since 1996 – something that is perfectly normal – and the law signed by Yeltsin to which we have already referred (3) made them clear: politics, economics, defense, science, technology and ecology are the priorities of Russian intelligence, which can be grouped into two main fronts: Russia’s economic protection in the broad sense of the word (including theft of scientific or technical information to provide a competitive advantage to Russia) and defense of country in the broadest sense (from military to political … or cultural). Of course, it is not a question of two unconnected fronts, but rather they relate to each other to try to protect the country on the international scene: technical progress also applies to the military, for example. The goal: to ensure its progress and international position, safeguarding Mother Russia from any threat. Do we remember that of the Cold War?

Let’s start with the end: ecology. Russia’s interest in the environment is historic: Russia has a Ministry called “Natural Resources and Environment” or a Federal Agency for the monitoring of ecological, technological and nuclear issues (Rostekhnadzor); in addition, this year 2017 has been declared by Putin as a year of ecology. But why so much ecological interest? Why does the Kremlin maintain ecology as one of its priority interests? If we look at the names and attributions of the Ministry and the Federal Agency that we have mentioned we can intuit an explanation: when speaking of ecology we should not understand it in the sense of respect for the environment, but as the protection of Russian natural resources and superiority that these resources provide to the country; Put another way: “ecology” in Russian means, more or less, “energy”. We already said at the beginning of this series of posts that Russia has the largest reserves of energy and mineral resources in the world still unexploded, making it the largest energy superpower, as well as the world’s largest reserve of forest resources, and also has the fourth part of unfrozen water in the world. Obviously Russia knows that this provides an advantageous position against other countries, uses this advantage and of course protects it. Therefore, when talking about ecology, there is talk of energy, and in fact, Russia has more than once used its energy reserves to gain global influence, or at least on other countries that Russia is a supplier to (remember the ninth priority of those discussed above: maintaining Russia as a key player in the international arena). Interestingly, some APTs that target energy such as Sandworm or Energetic Bear are attributed to Russia, right or wrong. Just interestingly.

In relation to the scientific and technical field, in [7] an excellent vision of the Russian intelligence activities in these areas can be obtained. Russia maintains a comparable activity, according to all assumptions or even declarations of senior officials of the US ODNI or British MI5, to that of the former Soviet Union and clearly identifies key sectors for its development ([1]): energy – of which we have already spoken -, technology, telecommunications, biomedicine, pharmacy, nuclear technology, nanotechnology… And to achieve this development, the intelligence of signals, of all signals, plays a very interesting role for the Russian services, perhaps above the intelligence of human sources, but it is also true that different countries have expelled scientists from their universities, companies and research centers for discovering theft of information allegedly linked to Russian services, from Sweden (Ericsson, 2002) to the Netherlands (University of Technology, Eindhoven, 2014). Already in signal intelligence, these information needs can make companies, universities, research centers … into Russian intelligence objectives… regardless of their size – an APT is cheaper than human sources – that work in leading technology, R&D+i , designs, patents … of the fields mentioned above. Although we may always think that the most active actor in these areas is China, let us remember Jeffrey Carr: “The threat from China is over-inflated, while the threat from Russia is underestimated”.

As we have said, the FSB or other services seek to make Russia more competitive on the international scene ([6]), and gaining that relevant position and supporting the progress of the nation is not based exclusively on science and technology, which also extend to the acquisition of information that provides a direct economic advantage. In this area, in the economic sphere, some analysts ([5]) identify an open war between the SVR and the GRU, a war that is not alien to the FSB: we have already spoken in previous posts about the series of US DoJ accusations against FSB agents in connection with the attack on Yahoo, accusing them, among other things, of economic espionage. Like any actor in the world (anyone), Russia exploits its capabilities and intelligence activities to obtain economic benefit for the country and to catalyze national technological development; let us recall the legal basis to which we have referred, which entrusts intelligence to support economic development and the scientific-technical and military progress of the country. This support can range from theft of information by an APT to tougher compromises, for example to strengthen the position of national companies in competitions against companies from third countries.

In any case, defense seems to remain the main Russian priority. Militarily, Russia is clear about its needs, and these go through the interest in the information of its neighbors and in the NATO area; and especially of its neighbors close to NATO, such as the former Soviet Republics closest to the influence of the Alliance. Russia considers “NATO’s approach to its borders” unacceptable, which it sees as a threat to the integrity of Mother Russia (again, let us all remember that of the Cold War); in this way, Russian intelligence may have a hypothetical interest in trying to weaken “the West” (NATO, in other words): a strong NATO is a danger to the Russians, at least in their view. Interestingly, as always, APT28 has among its objectives organizations like NATO or OSCE, European companies that work for defense and countries of Eastern Europe, among others.

Also related to defense, although perhaps closer to internal security (or “public security” according to the strategy), Russia is concerned about terrorism near or even within its borders; the coup suffered by the country at the Dubrovka theater in Moscow in October 2002 made Russia see its exposure to terrorism in the very heart of the country – we will not talk about the apartment bombings (1999) and its analysis. In addition, Russia has suffered terrible indiscriminate attacks by Islamist groups, some close – in some others not so – to the independence of certain Russian republics; let us recall the demolition of the Metrojet plane or, earlier this year, the attacks on the subway of St. Petersburg. Their controversial role in conflicts such as the Syrian one have put the country in the target of different groups, so the information needs in this sense are more than justified. In fact, according to some analysts ([8]) APT28 has been very interested in Syria since the beginning of the conflict, something again compatible with the supposed information needs of the Russian government.

Finally, in the political and diplomatic sphere, as in the defense one, Russia has a special interest in what they call “the West”; some European services, such as the Dutch AIVD (4), have publicly alerted the Russian interest in the destabilization of the European Union – and by NATO extension – through a “divide and conquer” strategy in which through different channels, one of which is that of energy supply, Moscow tries to attract member states into its orbit; for this reason, it seems logical that a very relevant interest in information needs for the Russian intelligence is to know how to influence, directly or indirectly, the great decisions of third countries, of course to take advantage of that influence for their own benefit: imagine from a possible false flag operation in the media (or not) to an election intervention in some country (always hypothetically, of course) that weakens NATO a little. Or remember The Dukes and some of its objectives, Foreign Ministries of Eastern European countries, or APT29 and its interest in European and American politics. We will delve into the countries where Russia may have more interest in the next post of the series.

In short, two major objectives and therefore two large families of information needs: on the one hand, the protection of Russia from the perspective of defense of the nation (military, political, diplomatic …) and, on the other, the economic protection of Russia (ecology, economy, technology…), both fronts being related in many cases. Mother Russia must remain a world power in every way, something quite legitimate and usual for intelligence services.

[1] President of the Russian Federation. Strategy for the national security of the Russian Federation up to 2020. may, 2009.
[2] Keir Giles. Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020. NATO Defense College Research Division. June, 2009.
[3] President of the Russian Federation. On Foreign Intelligence. Russian Federation Federal Law no. 5. January, 1996.
[4] General Intelligence and Security Service. Annual Report 2014. AIVD. April, 2015.
[5] Mark Galeotti. Putin’s Hydra: Inside Russia’s Intelligence Services. European Council on Foreing Relations. May, 2016.
[6] Jared S. Easton. The Industrial Spy Game: FSB as Russian Economic Developer. Modern Diplomacy. August, 2015.
[7] Fredrik Westerlund. Russian Intelligence Gathering for Domestic R&D – Short Cut or Dead End for Modernisation? Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI). April, 2010.
[8] FireEye. APT28: at the center of the storm. FireEye. January, 2017.

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