To say that the Cold War shaped Russian President Vladimir Putin and the 21st-century Kremlin is an understatement. Putin has consistently used the skills and contacts he developed during his KGB career to cement control internally and battle foes abroad. Putin describes himself as a proud “Chekist,” referring to Lenin’s bloody, repressive, and brutal secret police, and celebrates the organization’s birthday every December; he once commented, “There is no such thing as a former KGB man.” It is therefore fair to look at modern-day Russia as the world’s first intelligence-state, and to interpret many of Putin’s actions as those of a superpowered spy chief.
A case in point is the arrest of Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen, at an upscale Moscow hotel on December 28. The whole mess fits the profile and pattern of a Cold War KGB setup.
Espionage stings, hostage taking, and efforts to trade the innocent for the guilty were fairly common KGB ploys. When a Soviet spy without diplomatic immunity was arrested and faced prison time, the Kremlin would use its espionage services to stage-manage the taking of a hostage. Francis Jay Crawford, Frederick Barghoorn, and Nicholas Daniloff are a few of the innocent Americans who unknowingly had classified material shoved into their hands immediately prior to an arrest in Moscow. All were held in the notorious Lefortovo Prison in a shameless effort to pressure the United States into releasing guilty Russian spies. Often, this strategy worked.
Whelan’s background almost assuredly rules out the possibility that he really was involved in state-sponsored espionage. Reportedly, he served in the Marines but was discharged for trying to steal thousands of dollars from the government; he is also a citizen of the United Kingdom, Canada, and Ireland. Neither the United States nor any of these other countries employs intelligence officers that were court-martialed for larceny.
His apparent activities in Moscow are also incompatible with professional training. As any spy worth his salt can tell you, the Russian counterintelligence services are among the best in the world, and devote exorbitant resources to uncovering and thwarting collection by Westerners. Foreign visitors can expect audio and video surveillance in their home or hotel and physical surveillance on the street; to have their phones and computers monitored; and to have everyone they meet questioned. No spy would have done what Whelan is said to have done: stay at a posh central-Moscow hotel and accept secret documents in public, let alone join a Russian social-networking site. Further, it is extremely unlikely that the United States would expose someone without diplomatic immunity to arrest, if for no other reason than to avoid pressure from the Kremlin to release traitors such as Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen.
Although any professional would scoff at the notion that Whelan was on an intelligence mission, there are alternative explanations for why he ended up in a prison best-known for holding dissidents, political prisoners, and spies. Whelan’s multiple passports, military background, and purported fascination with the Russian military may have been seen by the Kremlin as useful props to help sell the story that Whelan was involved in undercover activities. Likewise, the Russians may have assessed Whelan as hopelessly naive, self-important, or a fantasist who would be easy to entrap or convince that he could play some sort of valiant role by accepting secret material. Whelan would not be the first naïf to think that if he could make a big score on his own, he could then appeal to his military contacts or others back home to take him seriously. His public support for Donald Trump could have been an added benefit to the Kremlin. If Putin’s goal is to pressure the White House to negotiate or consider a trade, it certainly helps the bargaining process to hold at risk a vocal supporter. Manipulating Trump’s ego has become standard operating procedure among despots.
In any event, Putin certainly knows that Whelan is not a U.S. spy. He knows how the United States operates in Moscow. He has been in the middle of the many cases, arrests, flaps, defections, and efforts to deceive and thwart U.S. intelligence efforts. He is well aware that Whelan’s activities are not consistent with U.S. practice.
While there may be any number of motivations for Whelan’s arrest, most attention has centered on the notion of a potential swap for the recently arrested Russian operative Maria Butina. Butina has admitted to developing and exploiting relationships in right-wing and National Rifle Association circles on behalf of senior Russian benefactors. In this way, she was playing a role familiar to professional intelligence officers: She was acting as an “access agent,” using her natural network of contacts to spot, meet, and assess potential targets for the Russian espionage apparatus. Such people are the overt face of covert work. They act as force multipliers for Russian intelligence and help insure that when professionals reach out to someone of interest, they have a full understanding of the individual’s access, personality, vulnerabilities, and susceptibility to working on behalf of the Russian state.
Often, when espionage cases are uncovered, the alleged participants are sent home rather than imprisoned due to their assertion of diplomatic immunity. However, when someone like Butina is captured without immunity, Russia has to find leverage for his or her release. In these cases, the rule of law takes a back seat to the Kremlin’s geopolitical interests. Putin may wish to secure Butina’s release before she can testify publicly. Similarly, he could be sending her a signal to stay silent or face the consequences if and when she’s sent back to Russia. Putin may be simply making clear to Washington that he represents a “great power,” and will always act in a reciprocal, tit-for-tat manner when Russian interests are affected. Likewise, he could be taking offensive action to ward off further sanctions, looking to buy the release of the arms merchant Viktor Bout or some other criminal, or looking to reengage with Trump.
In any event, the Butina and Whelan arrests are another indicator of the breathtaking scope and range of Russian disruptive activity: espionage, cyberattacks, disinformation, subversion, assassination, propaganda, fake news, and the weaponization of lies. This is an arena in which Putin is comfortable and proficient, and the United States less skilled. As Americans seek to understand the Kremlin’s motives, they must keep in mind that “there is no such thing as a former KGB man.”