3 August 2017 – San Fransisco, USA

by Kseniya Kirillova

There has been a sort of reawakening when it comes to the Russian internal and external spy agencies. The cyber-attacks directed at Latvia, the annexation of Crimea, the alleged interference in the US and French elections created a lot of interest in Russia’s espionage activities. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Russia can use for espionage not only special services intended for external intelligence (SVR and GRU), but also internal ones, such as the FSB. The target of internal Russian special services are the countries of the so-called “near abroad” (post-Soviet space), as well as all foreigners traveling to Russia.

In these cases, Russians have been using the traditional tools of the trade – provocateurs, eavesdropping and the use of information. Here are just a few of them, most often used inside Russia:


There are different kinds of provocateurs. The first and most common are the brawlers who attend public events:  lectures, exhibitions, presentations, press conferences, etc.  It’s practically impossible to avoid them, and therefore the only thing that will help is moral preparedness and good defensive measures.

The second type of provocateur is a bit more dangerous in that such people are harder to spot.  They operate more like “double agents” with the distinction that their task is not to win your trust over a long period of time, but only to entrap you into a discussion of scandalous topics that later can be used to charge you with “planning sabotage” and the like. We can recall the example of Stepan Chernogubov who had a conversation with a representative of the American Consulate in Yekaterinburg about human rights internships.  The conversation was presented as “exposing the CIA rezidentura in the Urals.”


Here we are not speaking of conscious provocateurs or professional “informers.” But it’s important to remember than many dissidents and rights defenders may not be able to withstand pressure from the security services. Anyone meeting with foreigners will likely be interrogated by the FSB and impressed by a certain logic:  “The foreigner will go home, but you have to live in Russia.” Not all dissidents reason in such a way, but one will always come across a few people who make compromises that seem small in their eyes.


The FSB has been known to carry out surveillance on Western visitors and on the its own citizens. But the level of surveillance over such people in Russia is such that even the most secret meetings are known beforehand, and even the most private conversations may be recorded on a hidden video camera. In short, if you’re in Russia, forget about privacy. This does include instances of wiretapping and ‘bugging’ a room with audio and video devices.

The Embrace with New Technology

Traditional espionage tactics are being blended with new technologies. This has allowed Russia’s intelligence services to be far more intrusive than before. Forbes reported, last year, that Russia adopted an American Android/Apple Malware for their intelligence and surveillance purposes. The Moscow-based surveillance tech dealer, OpenGSM, made a deal with the American Killer Mobile company for cell phone tracer programming. This is where the open market for malicious spyware tools meets international espionage and the infringement of one’s right to privacy. The use of this technology is not just directed on foreigners, but also on the Russian people and more importantly, its journalists. Russian Social networks are under the control of special services and, according to the current Russian legislation, are obliged to provide personal data of their users at the request of Roskomnadzor and the FSB. Last month, Ukraine blocked access to the site as part of a greater sanctions move. Setting up an account with VKontakte is not as easy as it is with Facebook. VKontakte requires a cell phone number and to gain a cell phone number also requires a Russian passport and therefore is a multi-tiered method of the Russian intelligence services to track its own citizens and those abroad. Similar tactics are being utilized for spying abroad. It is believed that the Russian intelligence service spied on people involved on Emmanuel Macron’s election campaign through Facebook.

It would be easy to shrug this all off, but there is a crux. Last year it was reported that Putin wants to overhaul Russia’s domestic and foreign intelligence services – Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the Federal Security Service (FSB). It is believed that the SVR and the FSB will merge together to create an intelligence monolith reminiscent of the KGB. Although it is still in its planning stages, the Ministry of State Security which was a ministry with the same namesake under Joseph Stalin, will employ up to 250,000 people. The new Ministry of State Security will be all encompassing and so will their approaches – a mixture of old and new. The surveillance methods will also be a mix of the old and new and unfortunately, will continue to evolve.


Feature Photo: Moscow at Night, Pixabay 2017

Inset Photo: “Cell phone user”, Wikimedia Commons, 2017

DefenceReport’s Analysis is a multi-format blog that is based on opinions, insights and dedicated research from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The analysis expressed here are the author’s own and are separate from DefRep reports, which are based on independent and objective reporting

By Kseniya Kirillova

Kseniya Kirillova is a Russian journalist that focuses on analyzing Russian society, political processes in modern Russia and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. She writes for Radio Liberty and other outlets and is an expert of the Ukrainian Center for Army, conversion, and disarmament studies and the Free Russia foundation.