The Russian ‘Spies’: Information vs. Influence

Negotiations to swap the ten alleged Russian spies for U.S. prisoners held in Russia should put a merciful end to this latest embarrassment for the fallen superpower — and oh, what a fall. The formerly formidable KGB was found with its hand in the cookie jar; the old KGB would never have stooped to cookie jars. Obviously, the renamed KGB, operating on automatic pilot set back during the Cold War, never got the memo about the reset. Soviet spies don’t die; they just move to the suburbs.

Keith Gessen called the whole incident “sad and touching” because so “mundane.” How “unbefitting a mighty state.” Even the astute Anne Applebaum is mystified at the idea that the Russians would spend millions of dollars on befriending Harvard professors — “as if a Harvard professor wouldn’t share his views with any old Russian diplomat who knocked on his door.” She concedes that “a darker version of the story may yet emerge,” but the court documents seem to offer no clues. And the swap will probably ensure that it won’t.

Perhaps the reason for the lack of clues — one might even call it cluelessness — is that “espionage” may not be the best word for an “operation” that targets think tanks and other seemingly innocuous targets. This was evidently not exclusively or even primarily about “gathering” classified information but about influence.

The Russians had a name for it during the Cold War: aktivnyye meropriatia, “active measures.” Richard H. Schultz and Roy Godson explain: “Soviet leaders use the term…to describe an array of overt and covert techniques for influencing events and behavior in, and the actions of, foreign countries. Prior to the 1960s the term…was used in some Soviet circles to describe these instruments.…[T]echniques include the use of covert propaganda, oral and written disinformation, agents of influence,” and so on.

When their book appeared in 1984, Shultz and Godson reported that “there is today no scholarly study of Soviet overt and covert propaganda and political influence activities, their interrelationship, and their role in contemporary Soviet strategy.” A few years later, the Soviet Union imploded, Marxist rationalizations for oligarchic government evaporated, and it seemed America could dispense with understanding the Russian way of cultivating political influence.

The ten arrested by the FBI haven’t even been charged as “spies”; charges include acting as unauthorized foreign agents and conspiracy to commit money laundering. But they are employees of a government that has practiced dezinformatsia for nearly a century and continues to pursue foreign-policy objectives that are often divergent from our own. With this spy exchange, it seems that we will continue not to understand how the Russian secret service really operates.

Juliana Geran Pilon, is director of the Center for Culture and Security at the Institute of World Politics.

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