Russia's espionage activity is soaring to Cold War levels, but its spy game can be pretty 'unreliable'

  • The number of Russian spies has hit Cold War levels and now more proxies are being used.

  • These proxies, often foreign nationals, sometimes unknowingly engage in activities like theft of trade secrets.

  • Despite the risks, including recent intelligence leaks, Russia continues to rely on this strategy.

Russia's spy activity is the highest it has been in decades; however, their increased use of proxies and recent leaks risks exposing their covert operations.

Russian activities "are as high or even higher than during the cold war," a western intelligence officer told The Financial Times. A larger number of spies has caused Russia to change its tactics.

It appears that Russia in working remotely, Russia is increasing its use of foreign nationals as proxy actors. These proxies are diverse in background and can consist of academics, criminals, and government leaders.

"[Proxies] may not know that they work for the Russians," another intelligence officer told FT. While the foreign proxies may be unaware that they are working for Russia, but they are getting paid for their involvement in spy operations.

These proxies can be highly effective for trade secret theft, deniability, establishing export schemes that circumvent sanctions, and breaking into computers networks.

To improve its security and control of growing proxies, Russia has begun to employ spies without military experience and train them in multiple locations to better hide their identities, according to the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

This new strategy is still a work in progress, as authors of this report found, and Russia generally deems remote handling "unreliable."

This weaknesses in Russian intelligence can cause a slew of issues related to proxies getting caught and security breaches.

Last month, Tihomir Ivanov Ivanchev, a Bulgarian national, was charged as a suspect involved in a Russian spy ring in the UK. And in January, a Latvian member of European Parliament, Tatjana Ždanoka, was investigated in connection with Russia's secret service.

Also last month, France discovered 193 websites spreading European election disinformation that were linked back to Russia. Russia has faced numerous intelligence leaks and agent investigations since its invasion of Ukraine, it's own intelligence failure.

Russian President Vladimir Putin believed, in large part due to stunning failures in Russia's spy apparatus, that Russia could win the war against Ukraine within a few days. Foreign agents in many cases didn't come through, the intelligence picture was largely incomplete, and they've been at war now for over two years, amassing thousands of casualties.

RUSI experts have also previously found that there have been instances of agents underreporting their shortfalls or missteps. Oftentimes agents have been inaccurate in reporting their findings and have disproportionately reported their achievements over their losses.

This discrepancy comes off to intelligence experts as Russian agents lacking self awareness, and accidents have come of that. In October 2023, Moscow mistakenly leaked its own government safehouses and other sensitive addresses.

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