• Russia’s programme for placing sleeper agents in foreign countries — spies who live ordinary, mundane lives — is probably bigger now than it was in the Cold War, the House of Commons Defence Committee has been told.
• The so-called “illegals” are trained and controlled by two separate and sometimes competing Russian agencies, the mysterious “Directorate S” within the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR); and the “Main Intelligence Directorate” (GRU).
• The end of the Cold War actually made it easier for Russia to place illegals inside the UK and US.
• Russia wants its illegals to remain quiet and anonymous, developing low-level contacts on the edges of power. They don’t act like James Bond.
LONDON — There are probably more Russian “sleeper” agents in the UK and US today than there were during the Cold War, according to Victor Madeira, a senior fellow at The Institute for Statecraft who testified to Parliament about Russian covert interference in Britain.
In written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Committee, Madeira — a Russia expert — described the resources Russia commands in its efforts to subdue British, European and American influence.
Most of his evidence focused on the fact thatRussia’s intelligence services vastly outnumber their counterparts in the UK. But he also included this tidbit about Russia’s “Main Intelligence Directorate,” the GRU, and its “illegals” operation, which places spies in Britain and the US where they live seemingly ordinary lives, until called upon by Moscow:
“GRU has long deployed ‘illegals’. These hand-picked, deep-cover intelligence officers live abroad under assumed ‘legends’: carefully constructed false foreign identities and life stories (over decades in some cases), allowing ‘illegals’ to blend in.”
“… Nowadays, UK CI and CE [counterintelligence and counterespionage] resources are much diminished, while former Warsaw Pact nationals can easily travel across NATO. This is a particular problem if an intelligence officer/asset uses ‘natural cover’ (i.e. their own identity, sometimes called ‘non-official cover’ or NOC). A banker or travel agent may be just that – or they may also be intelligence officers or assets (the latter willing or coerced). Having few(er) or no traceable links to a hostile intelligence service, NOCs are far more difficult to detect, monitor and counter. This is why they are so valued.”
“‘Illegals’ are the most prized of intelligence officers,” Madeira, the author of “Britannia and the Bear,” a history of espionage between the two nations, concluded.
“Despite the ‘end’ of the Cold War in 1989-1991, Russia’s decades-long ‘illegals’ programmes didn’t miss a beat. These programmes remain as strategic, long-term, resource-intensive in nature and prized as ever, with a single purpose: placing hand-picked Russian intelligence assets across foreign societies and governments, regardless of the current state of East-West relations,” he told Business Insider recently.