Last Thursday, Ukraine’s head of intelligence Kyrylo Budanov claimed in an interview with Ukrainian Pravda that members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle are now working as spies for Ukraine, having betrayed their boss. However, the claim is unlikely to be true. Rather, the Ukrainian spy agency is more likely looking to dislodge Putin psychologically and cause him to chase phantoms and self-sabotage.
While it is plausible that Ukrainians have infiltrated spies into the Russian government, those double agents are likely removed from Putin. It is extremely difficult to recruit an intelligence asset, a spy, who is close to Putin. His inner circle is very small, and its members are under heavy surveillance. Russia’s domestic counterintelligence agency, the FSB, employs a technical surveillance system SORM that intercepts phone calls, monitors text messages and emails, and tracks all internet communications of Russians who hold sensitive positions. Foreigners, especially U.S. and Western diplomats, intelligence officers and businessmen are also constantly monitored.
Travel abroad is significantly restricted for Putin’s close allies due to economic sanctions placed on them by the U.S. and European countries, making recruitment even harder. Furthermore, the ubiquitous presence of technology nowadays has dramatically reduced the ability of spies and their handlers to meet and communicate clandestinely.
Finally, Russian counterintelligence is among the world’s most brutal. The risk of working for the opposing side is extremely high, further reducing the number of volunteers. If uncovered, such a person would be eliminated immediately. At the height of the Cold War, Soviet KGB executed 10 Russian citizens who were working as double agents for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Among them was Oleg Vladimirovich Penkovsky, codenamed HERO, a Soviet military intelligence colonel who passed highly valuable military, political and economic secrets to the U.S. and British intelligence. Motivated to help avoid a nuclear war between the U.S. and USSR, Penkovsky played a major role in Washington’s ability to gain the upper hand during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviets executed him on May 17, 1963.
If Ukrainian intelligence did penetrate Putin’s inner circle, Budanov would have never publicly blurted it out. When you do have a human asset in heart of the adversary’s government, you do everything to protect him and preserve the stream secrets he provides. (Spies, i.e. those who betray their country selling secrets to a foreign government, are almost exclusively men.) Loose lips would get the asset killed, making others unwilling to risk their lives for such a negligent spy agency.
Budanov’s Bombshell claim is more consistent with a PSYOP, a psychological operation intended to unbalance Putin psychologically and throw the Russian security apparatus into a loop. The goal is to compel them to hunt for a mole, thus distracting them from the main target – Ukraine.
Playing on Putin’s suspicious nature, Ukrainian intelligence probably wants the Russians to initiate a comprehensive security review of those close to the Russian strongman. This process would entail beefed up surveillance, interrogations, lie detectors and other security procedures. Such reviews drain resources, demoralize personnel, and shift the focus from an outside target, a foreign adversary, to an insider threat.
During the most dangerous time of Cold War, the CIA fell prey to a massive Soviet counter-intelligence scheme which all but paralyzed the agency. Using the tactic of “fake defectors” and playing on the conspiracy-driven mindset of the legendary U.S. counterspy chief James Jesus Angleton, the Soviet KGB spurred an all-consuming witch hunt within the CIA. At the heart of it was the story of two Soviet defectors, Yuriy Nosenko and Anatoliy Golitsyn.
Nosenko, a KGB operative, defected in Geneva in January 1964, shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas. He convinced the CIA to exfiltrate him to the U.S. in exchange for information on the links between Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the KGB. During the CIA debriefings, Nosenko told his interrogators that the KGB-Oswald connection was negligible and that the USSR was not behind the president’s assassination. Angleton, however, believed that Nosenko was a “dispatched defector” sent by the Soviets to confuse the U.S. government. The CIA placed Nosenko in solitary confinement at one of its secret locations near Williamsburg, Virginia. He remained in isolation for three years and was subjected to harsh interrogations that were portrayed in a spy movie “The Good Shepherd.”
Angleton’s thinking was influenced by another Soviet defector, Golitsyn, who was evacuated by the CIA out of Helsinki in 1961, and whom Angleton considered genuine. During his debriefings, Golitsyn claimed that the CIA was penetrated by Soviet spies and that the KGB would send subsequent fake defectors who would try to discredit him and the information he had given to the agency. The controversy over the reliability of the two defectors started a bitter dispute within the agency, causing a split within the CIA Russia Directorate into two camps, those who thought Nosenko was a Soviet “plant” and those who thought he was genuine. The resulting mole-hunt decimated the agency’s operational and analytic capability, as many expert Sovietologists lost their jobs.
Prior to his recent claim, Kyiv’s top spy chief told ABC in January that Putin has terminal cancer and “will die very soon,” contradicting the CIA director William Burns revealed in July that Putin is “entirely too healthy.” On Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy predicted that Putin’s regime will fall to an uprising from his own people who would “find a reason to kill the killer.”
A highly-trained intelligence operative, Putin is an extremely hard target to get to psychologically, as he is acutely aware of being a top target for Ukraine’s and Western intelligence. On Tuesday, Putin called on his domestic security agency, the FSB, to beef up its counter-espionage work, in order to “interdict Ukraine’s sabotage groups.” He knows the spy game playbook, having being a top player in the business, and is not overly concerned about a hidden mole within his immediate circle. However, as a public relations tactic, the KGB spymaster is counter-signaling to his people and the West that he’s got the Ukrainian spy thing under control.
With the war entering a second year with no end in sight, Putin is under enormous stress. Ukraine’s efforts to probe whether the Russian master spy is as indestructible, as he tries to portray himself, and sow suspicion in his inner circle, are entirely sensible. But it is not likely that a Ukrainian James Bond is roaming the Kremlin.