The Russian ICC (XVI): objectives. Countries

Any country in the world is a potential target of Russian-or non-Russian-espionage. As an example, infiltration in America has historically been high, not only in the United States, a country of highest priority for Russian intelligence, but also throughout Latin America.

However, the maintenance of a large ecosystem of intelligence is not cheap – although it is certain that, thanks to the particularities and relations of the Russian services, it is not as expensive as it would be in other circumstances. So as in any country, Russians should prioritize their usual activities and interests, leaving for temporary occasions those temporary objectives: for example, the Middle East (Syria, Iran …) can be considered in the list of these temporary objectives, for reasons of security —counterterrorism— as well as economic —customers or suppliers of basic goods for Russia.

In addition to these, countries such as Australia or New Zealand, technologically developed and close to the West —not from the physical point of view, of course —are also targets of Russia for different reasons, such as industrial espionage. We have highlighted in gray the target countries of Russian espionage:

But beyond these objectives, which we insist involve any country in the world, Russia has always been clear about its natural priorities and objectives; to speak of them we must return to referring to the “Cold War” mentality and its root concept, “Russia is in danger”, with the historical fear of an invasion increased by the absence of natural borders and compensated, among other safeguards, through the creation of a security zone around Russia.

In this way, the geographic targets of Russian intelligence are focused on everything that can disrupt that area of security:

  • Its direct neighbors, the former Soviet Republics, of course with different priorities: Armenia is not as relevant as Ukraine, although the infiltration in the latter will be more complex than in Armenia (it goes without saying that Russian-Armenian relations are good).
  • Those who try to get closer to Russia or its neighbors: the West, basically the NATO area, which is dangerously expanding towards the Russian borders according to their point of view.

Of course, all this without forgetting Russia itself, a priority objective of its own services. We will analyze in this post the Russian threat in some of these environments, bearing in mind that some country may obviously be in more than one of the previous groups.

Let’s start with the last one we have cited: Russia is an undeniable target for its own intelligence services; so much so that the FSB, the largest Russian service, has as its main mission the internal intelligence – in front of the SVR, focused on foreign intelligence – although as we have said these concepts of interior and exterior are quite blurred.

In this series we have spoken of SORM, of the cyber activities and relations of Russian services – especially the FSB – with third parties, of the degree of social and political penetration … ultimately, of the interest in the control of information and activities which could pose a threat to the national security of Mother Russia.

The Kremlin is often accused, and by extension its intelligence services, of actions directed against elements not related to the government (more than not related to Russia itself), for example in the use of SORM, of which we have already spoken, or activities against actors considered to be harmful to the country.

Outside the Russian borders, the most interesting and priority group for Russian services is the group of former Soviet Republics, partly because of the historical fear of the Russians to be invaded as we have indicated and, additionally, to try to penetrate and to control the governments of these countries in order to influence their policies and decisions; this influence is realized through multiple channels, one of them the media and Internet – we speak once again of the concept of Russian information warfare.

That the Russian government is able to control its neighbors is vital to rebuild a Russian space of influence in the image of the old Warsaw Pact, thus guaranteeing the national security and survival of Mother Russia (3); In addition, this interest in the area geographically close to Russia is not limited only to the former Soviet Republics but reaches other points, such as Scandinavia: countries such as Sweden (we have already cited different references of FOI), Denmark ([10]), Norway ([11]) or Finland ([4], [9]) identify the interest of Russian intelligence in all spheres, in their respective nations, and even in this latter reference directly name APT28.

Within this group of countries the most worrisome and therefore priority for Russia are those geographically close to NATO influence (or those that are already part of the Alliance), from Estonia to Georgia. The intelligence services or armed forces of these countries publicly identify the Russian interests in their respective states. We have already cited in this series of posts some of the cyber activities against Estonia, Ukraine or Georgia; additionally Lithuania speaks openly of Russian activities of espionage and attack, including social engineering ([1]) or Latvia of the information war and disinformation of the FSB against its interests ([2]), to cite just a few examples. Perhaps from this group of countries is Belarus – the former Soviet Republic closest to Russia politically – that least expresses, at least openly, these concerns about the activities of the Russian intelligence against their interests, and even collaborates in certain areas with the FSB ([5]).

As for the former Soviet Republics geographically farther away from NATO, those of Central Asia, because of its size and physical situation, Kazakhstan is undoubtedly the highest priority for Russian intelligence ([13]), since it protects much of the Russian Asian flank and also the hottest area of the flank. Relations between the Russian and Kazakh services (KNB) are apparently good – as are KNB and US services—, or at least better than the relations with the European area: there have been no major actions, neither physical nor cyber, against Kazakh interests with potential origin— in Moscow, although some Russian APTs like Turla did have victims in that country. Of course, Russian interest in Kazakhstan is obvious, above countries such as Kyrgyzstan, to give an example. To deepen Russia’s relations with these former Soviet republics of Central Asia an excellent study is [14].

The NATO area, “West”, is another set of countries especially relevant to the interests of Russian services, obviously including Spain, which we will discuss in another post. Although indirectly we have already mentioned a NATO country because of its geographical proximity to Russia or for even being former Soviet Republics. Other intelligence services from European countries, such as the United Kingdom, publicly consider Russia a real threat in our days, with high information needs and increasing aggressiveness (6): to such an extent that MI5 has publicly stated that the threat associated with Russian espionage – in this case against British interests – not only is it not reduced but is maintained at the levels achieved during the Cold War.

Just a few months ago the director of the service, Andrew Parker, stated in an interview in The Guardian that Russia is working in Europe and the UK more and more aggressively to achieve its foreign policy objectives (what a more elegant way to cite these activities, the truth …) through military means, propaganda, espionage, subversion and cyber-attacks ([7]); this opinion of the director of MI5 is shared by Alex Younger, his counterpart in MI6 ([8]).

But not only does the UK talk about the Russian threat; the Scandinavian countries within NATO that we have already referred to, such as Denmark or Norway, identify Russia as a very relevant actor for their interests, especially in the cyber sphere, both as members of NATO and because of their geographical proximity and influence in the Baltic Sea. This proximity — and perhaps a certain Soviet reminiscence – also makes countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Hungary interesting for Russia to, to give some examples of states behind the Iron Curtain that are in the Alliance itself.

Thus, the Czech services, BIS, warned in their 2015 annual report ([15]) of Russian —and Chinese— activities in their country, including the cyber domain and accusing Russia of cyber espionage campaigns against Czech interests. And of course France or Germany, as especially strong European countries, have not been alien to Russian intelligence: from the supposed activities in the last Gallic presidential elections (supposed, as always, but remember that a weak Europe or NATO imply a stronger Russia) to double agents of the German BND working for Russian intelligence. Mind you, the same as for the American one or that of other countries; the Russian services do nothing more or less than the rest, perhaps with other tactics and of course with a lot more budget than other countries, but in this war may the one who is free of sin throw the first stone.

By the way, let us remember that NATO is not only Europe, but also —and very important — America. We will not delve into —it would take several posts— the hypothetical Russian activities in the United States, both in a “classic” setting, for example with the arrest of ten SVR members in 2010 (Illegals Program) and cyber activities, always assumed, of APT28 and/or APT29 in the DNC, which we have already referred to in this series). Neither has Canada been spared the interest of Russian services: for some years now, their intelligence services indicate the Russian interest in political, economic or military information ([12]).

To sum up: like anyone else, Russia’s interest is global, but also as anyone, it should prioritize objectives to maintain a stable and efficient intelligence ecosystem. Anything that approaches or borders on Russian frontiers and poses a threat to Mother Russia has been, is and is likely to be a clear intelligence target. In other words, any country in the world is a potential target of Russian intelligence on special occasions, but only a few have the privilege of being “serial”. Both in a physical environment and in a cyber environment —which at the time of speaking of information needs and interests differ little—…

[1] Ministry of National Defence of the Republic of Lithuania. Assessment of threats to National Security. 2nd Investigation Department under the Ministry of National Defence. 2014.
[2] Latvian Security Police. Security Police Annual Report 2015. Latvian Security Police. May, 2016.
[3] Stratford. Russia’s Expanding Influence, Part 1: The Necessities. Stratford. Marzo, 2010.
[4] Finnish Security Intelligence Service (SUPO). SUPO 2015 Year Book. Finnish Security Intelligence Service. 2016.
[5] Marcin Andrzej Piotrowski, Kinga Ras. Baltic States’ Intelligence Services Report Increased Threat from Russia. PISM, The Polish Institute of International Affairs Bulletin. No 42 (892). July, 2016.
[6] Mark Galeotti. Putin’s Hydra: Inside Russia’s Intelligence Services. European Council on Foreing Relations. May, 2016.
[7] The Guardian. MI5 head: ‘increasingly aggressive’ Russia a growing threat to UK. The Guardian, 31 octubre 2016.
[8] The Guardian. Hostile states pose ‘fundamental threat’ to Europe, says MI6 chief. The Guardian, 9 diciembre 2016.
[9] Finnish Security Intelligence Service (SUPO). SUPO 2016 Year Book. Finnish Security Intelligence Service. 2017.
[10] Danish Defence Intelligence Service. Intelligence Risk Assessment 2015. An assessment of developments abroad impacting on Danish security. DDIS. October, 2015.
[11] Norwegian Police Security Service. Trusselvurdering 2017. PST. January, 2017.
[12] Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Public Report 2013-2014. CSIS. 2014.
[13] Stratfor. Russia’s Expanding Influence. Stratfor Worldview. March, 2010.
[14] Stéphane Lefebvre, Roger N. McDermott. Russia and the Intelligence Services of Central Asia. En International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntellience. Vol. 21, No. 2, PP. 251-301. Routledge. February, 2008.
[15] Intelligence Service of the Czech Republic. Annual report of the Security Information Service for 2015. BIS. 2016.

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