Archive for June, 2010

What have we learned about spying?

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

What have we learned from the arrests of accused Russian spies?

I need to be sure to say that coming to historical or present-day conclusions about intelligence is very difficult. To borrow a concept from Donald Rumsfeld, the known unknowns are bad enough and the unknown unknowns are nightmarish. If it turns out that a bunch of Russian sleepers work in the Department of Defense, then I’ll look quite silly.

That said, I think there are some conclusions we can draw.


Insult to injury

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Let me present the Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement on the arrest of the ostensible Russian spy ring (original in Russian):

In connection with the accusations presented in the USA in relation to the group of individuals suspected of intelligence activities on behalf of Russia, we communicate that we are discussing Russian citizens who have at various times turned out to be on American territory. They have carried out no actions directed against American interests.

We presume that . . . the American government will guarantee access to them by Russian consular officials and lawyers.

We count on the American side in this question displaying the necessary understanding, in particular bearing in mind the positive character of the current stage of development of Russian-American relations.

My initial reaction to this is disbelief that the Russian Foreign Ministry would say something so stupid.
1) Among other things, the statement has suddenly wrong-footed a whole lot of Russian commentators who said that the accusations couldn’t possibly be true, since no Russian spies would be so clumsy. That would include the Russian Foreign Ministry’s own spokesman who earlier had dismissed the whole thing as “baseless” and reminiscent of Cold War spy novels. Oops.
2) It has also confirmed that a whole lot of people with American or Canadian passports are in fact Russian, which rules out a host of defense strategies when these people go on trial. Though I’m no lawyer, it seems to me this also makes the suspects immediately guilty of using false passports (i.e., forgery). Can’t imagine their getting undercut like that is a comforting thought to the other Russian sleeper agents out there.
3) I note as well that the statement never actually denies that the individuals are spies, but instead only claims that they weren’t acting against American interests. That seems to me to fall into the category of “Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining.”
4) And it’s a basic element of intelligence tradecraft that you never confirm any individual’s status as a spy. But how else would the Russian Foreign Ministry know inside a day that a dozen individuals claiming to be anything but Russian citizens are in fact just that?

Given four egregiously dumb things in a three paragraph statement, how are we to read this? The Russian Foreign Ministry shouldn’t be that stupid. I see two possible interpretations. One would be a conflict between soft-line diplomats who’ve found their carefully-built rapprochement with the US disintegrating thanks to the cloak and dagger types over in the Foreign Intelligence Service, and are racing to try to repair the damage. The other would be a basic misreading of American politics. If the Foreign Ministry really thinks that this comes from right-wing forces inside the American government trying to derail relations with Russia, this may be an effort to try to make common cause with the Obama administration against the Russophobes. That seems to me fundamentally mistaken on lots of grounds. I’m certain that Obama wants good relations with Russia, but no American president can let foreign espionage just slide. Only Israel can spy on the US and get away without lasting political repercussions.

Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Robert Coalson, one of bloggers over at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s Power Vertical, has an excellent sense of timing. Just this week, he pointed his readers to the Czech domestic counter-intelligence service’s report on strong and ongoing Russian efforts to recruit agents and gather scientific and technical intelligence. While it notes a substantial number of intelligence operatives working using diplomatic cover, it also points out that “In the past, activities of Russian intelligence services were by no means limited to those of the abovementioned legal residents. In the opinion of the Security Information Service, Russian intelligence services have in some cases smoothly picked up where their Soviet predecessors left off.”

And now the issue is hitting much closer to home. More commentary on THAT coming soon.

What do Russians think and know about World War II?

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

Pundits love to complain about the abysmal ignorance of history among the American public. They’re right, of course, but I’m not convinced things are any different outside the United States. Everyone should know more history, especially if it involves buying my books. It’s nice to be able to quantify those questions, if only a little bit. The All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) has surveyed Russian opinion and knowledge of World War II, and the results are intriguing (this material has been available for a couple of months, but I only found out about it thanks to a mention in today’s Johnson’s Russia List).

Our GlavKom Scott Palmer will be delighted to know that the Rodina-mat’ monument in Volgograd is an easy winner for the most significant symbol of victory.

VTsIOM also surveyed turning points in the war. Russians were asked what they considered to be a decisive moment in the Great Fatherland War, and the moment in the Great Fatherland War. Stalingrad wins both: 68% of Russians saw it as a decisive moment, and 31% as the turning point of the war. Kursk and Moscow essentially tied for second place in both circumstances, as Kursk scored 49% as a decisive moment and 17% as the turning point; Moscow got 46% and 15%.

That surprises me to some degree. I’m not surprised at all to see Stalingrad winning, though my own inclination would be to see Moscow as the most significant moment, an issue that we can perhaps argue about in the comments. Finding Kursk in 2nd is odd, though I’ve been aware that it looms far larger in the Russian consciousness than in the Western. I’m not sure what to make of that. Back during perestroika, Duma member and former Deputy Minister of Defense Andrei Kokoshin argued for the importance of the battle of Kursk as showing the viability of a fundamentally defensive strategy, though it’s hard to imagine that view affecting the general public. I also note that Operation Bagration–the destruction of Army Group Center in Belorussia in summer 1944–only rates 4% as a significant moment, well below the breaking of the Leningrad blockade (34%), the taking of Berlin (13%), and tied with the Rzhev operation [?!?!?!?].

There’s also a pattern in the data: young people are significantly less likely than older people to see any of the big events of the war as decisive–74% of those over 60 see Stalingrad as a decisive moment; only 58% of those 18-24. The sole exception is Moscow, where there is no drop-off by age. I think can be attributed to ignorance–Moscow is important now, one might think, and so it must have been important then. The youngest cohort is by far the most likely (14%) to fail to name a single decisive moment in the war.

What about the question of ignorance? One of the ways VTsIOM measures this is by asking people to name hero-cities.

This is a task I would fail miserably. I’d have no trouble with the obvious ones–Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad–but then I’d start thinking too much. Kursk? Big battle, but it wasn’t actually fought that close to the city itself . . . . Brest-Litovsk? More a fortress than a city, but I’m pretty sure I remember it from the Aleksandrovskii Garden outside the Kremlin . . . No way I’d get Kerch or Novorossiisk. The oddity here is that despite Stalingrad’s centrality to Russian memories of the war, it’s only mentioned by 45% of the respondents as a hero-city; Moscow (59%) and Leningrad (57%) both beat it.

In terms of more substantive knowledge of the basic facts of the war, I was not able to find detailed breakdowns on VTsIOM’s website, so I’m going by the summaries available here.

First, it’s reassuring to know that Russians are clear (88%) that Germany started the war, and only 1% blame the US.

The good folks at VTsIOM are bothered that only 22% percent of Russians can name the correct start date of World War II (1939), and the bulk of the rest, 58%, name 1941. That one doesn’t bother me so much, and I would imagine you’d get very similar answers from an American audience. For Americans and Soviets, World War II really did start in 1941, though as a good broad-minded historian I certainly know the war begin in 1939. While seeing 1941 as the start of the war betrays a certain Russocentrism or Americacentrism, insisting that the start date is 1939 suggests a similar Eurocentrism. If we look at the Far East, one could make a decent case for 1937, or even 1931.

Similarly, in response to the question of who commanded the Red Army, only 49% say Stalin, with the bulk of the rest (31%) naming Zhukov. As above, that large number of errors is understandable, and the supposed wrong answer isn’t entirely wrong. Stalin certainly wasn’t commanding armies in the field.

What about unambiguous questions? The record on dates isn’t impressive. Only 34% can name 1942 as the start of the battle of Stalingrad, and 35% can name 1944 as the lifting of the siege of Leningrad. Things look somewhat better when we get to who fought on what side. 62% can identify the US as an ally, and 53% Britain. 82% got Germany as an enemy, but only 30% Japan. Since Japan was only at war with the USSR for about two weeks, that’s hardly surprising.

Those figures are not entirely out of line with American ones. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a right-of-center American organization, did a survey in which 69% of Americans could identify Germany and Japan as America’s enemies in a multiple choice test. Of course, it’s appalling that 31% couldn’t manage even that, but I’m not sure it’s any more or less appalling than 18% of Russians not managing to hear that Germany was the enemy in World War II.