Enemy of the People

Reviewing “Russians Among Us”

“The Russians”: Rachel Maddows favorite narrative to belch from her very non-feminine voice box on her lame excuse for a political talk show each weekday evening on the Marxist propaganda rag known as MSNBC.

Source: By. Devlin Kostal | TheStrategyBridge.org | January 18, 2021

Reviewing Russians Among Us

By. Devlin Kostal | January 18, 2021

Russians Among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories, and the Hunt for Putin’s Spies. Gordon Corera. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2020.

“What if spies are not after secrets, but influence?”[1]

This single quote from the beginning of Gordon Corera’s book sets the stage for a politically nuanced, superbly informative history of the Russian Illegals Program and other intelligence and covert action programs around it, embedded within a rich storyline of Russian relations with, and paranoia of, the West. Corera is a journalist by trade, and has been the BBC’s security and intelligence correspondent since 2004. He is also a respected researcher and author (The Art of Betrayal: The Secret History of MI6, Corera’s work on Kim Philby, is also excellent), and was a Frank Knox Fellow at Harvard.

Corera expertly draws us in through the first 100 pages or so, with personal narratives of both the Illegals—a group of Russian deep-cover espionage agents operating in Western countries—and the intelligence agencies chasing them. He overlays engaging material, including spy tradecraft and eye-raising information that has become available sporadically over the past several years.

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The aggregation of the material in Russians Among Us tells a story almost unbelievable in its scope and depth, but the narrative is constructed with an eye for the personal hook. Corera returns frequently to the challenges endured by the Illegals—their frustrations and their determination. He even cites pop the Amazon series The Americans, which former Illegal Donald Heathfield/Andrey Bezrukov (his American name and true Russian name) said was “close to reality, though without the killings and wigs.” Bezrukov said the depiction of the personal difficulties experienced by the characters in the show was very realistic.[2]

Corera posits a thesis midway through the book, that Russian hybrid warfare, in all its forms, does not constitute military hard power, but it also does not conform to the traditional definitions of soft power—deferring to Joseph Nye’s description of soft power as attractive instead of coercive. Instead, Corera defines the Russian influence effort as “dark power,” playing on “greed and ambition.”[3] The combination of this dark power with the hybrid warfare model creates a stark picture Corera argues is virtually impossible to combat.

Ultimately, Corera uses an expertly researched specific example to weave together a perspective about Russia’s view of the world and the reason for its actions. Corera begins this story by challenging the paradigm from which we have historically viewed these cloaked conflicts of espionage and tradecraft. Early on, he touches on the concept of hybrid warfare and the idea that the remaining Cold Warriors in the West failed to understand Russia’s goals were not the same as those of the U.S. and the UK, and were not the same as they used to be. Western intelligence agencies played the spy game for so long, they fell into the trap of thinking secrets were really important. Corera exposes that flawed mindset as he draws from examples throughout Soviet and Russian history and up to the present—skillfully embedding the rise of Vladimir Putin—that detail the intent to influence, and not to simply observe and report. As Corera notes, when he was first elected President of Russia in 1999, “Putin would double down on his intelligence services as a means to wield power and influence.”[4] Corera’s underlying criticism rings of Mark Galeotti—who created the term for the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine: “The point is this: if the subversion is not the prelude to war, but the war itself, this changes our understanding of the threat.”[5]

While he does not actually refer to hybrid warfare by name until much later in the book, Corera shows his intuition is correct. He explains the concept that power equals influence, and hybrid warfare uses any means necessary to achieve that influence over other countries. Through that explanation, his book becomes one—but certainly not the only—story of Russian hybrid warfare, told through the eyes of the Illegals and the Western intelligence and counterintelligence agencies that hunted them.

Fear is a type of influence, and the idea that Russia has embedded agents who look just like the natives is exactly the type of outsized influence Putin has been phenomenally successful at achieving. The Illegals established the successful precedent for Russia’s Internet Research Agency to wield disguise in another domain: cyber. The U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence investigation into U.S. election meddling in 2016 revealed 2,752 Twitter accounts directly attributed to the Internet Research Agency impersonating U.S. political groups, and another 36,000 accounts linked to Russian bots proliferating misinformation.[6] From this standpoint, Corera in some ways does a bit of Putin’s work for him: no one knows (read in a purposely spooky voice) exactly how many Illegals are out there, which perpetuates the aura of pervasiveness. One single act can create a legend, much like the poisoning of Russian defector Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, after which Putin awarded the honorary title of Hero of the Russian Federation to one of the perpetrators, Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga.[7]

Corera points out that “Russia has long had a program to go after those seen as traitors,” with Department 8 of Directorate S carrying out those acts.[8] Any potential Russian spy worth targeting knows this, but Putin could not have asked for better publicity when Ruslan Borishev and Chepiga were identified by the investigative website Bellingcat as having brought a military-developed nerve agent into England for the express purpose of killing the former spy.[9] Russia put out the appropriate denials, but the world was put on notice that Russia would never forget betrayal by one of its own. Apart from enacting a Vizzini-like strategy to slowly develop an immunity to iocane powder, polonium, or novichok, as the cliché goes, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…except Russians. Russians will kill you.”

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Corera’s attention to detail amplifies Putin’s sinister message in many ways, pointing out the breadth of the program as well as highlighting that determination. That said, Corera’s attention to detail is the most important aspect of his book. There are a surprising number of books—most of them written by Russian defectors—that spell out the details of the long-running Illegals Program; two of Viktor Suvorov’s books, Inside Soviet Military Intelligence and Inside the Aquarium, come to mind. On 28 July 2017, during a public celebration of the 95th anniversary of the Illegals Program attended by Putin himself, SVR Director Sergey Naryshkin discussed the founding of the program in 1922. On an even more covert note, many of the details about Department S of Directorate 8, the “active measures” department, have been discussed semi-openly for decades.[10] While it is possible to piece together many of the details of these programs, Corera makes explicit connections between various operational categories that paint a clear picture of the diverse, hybrid nature of this type of warfare.

Corera’s story also uses another narrative woven throughout, the obverse Clausewitzian cliché: politics is war by other means. This refers specifically to the paradigm in which Russia has always been at war with the West. Consider stereotypical Russian paranoia, from the halcyon days of glasnost when officials of the disbanded USSR never trusted the openness of the West. Corera cites the head of the KGB First Chief Directorate, Leonid Shebarshin, who, in 1991, maintained that “what had not changed was the ambition of the United States to weaken the Soviet Union.” Corera then overlays a 2007 statement by FSB Head Nikolai Patrushev that “giving themselves the credit for the disintegration of the USSR, [Western foreign intelligence services] are now nurturing plans aimed at dismembering Russia.”[11] Corera’s point is amplified through the nonchalance of captured IllegalMichael Zottoli/Mikhail Kutsik as he tells his FBI captors “we lost this one and you guys won. That’s just how this one went.” This echoes the 1994 arrest of Aldrich Ames and the SVR’s response then as well: “These things happen…it’s the nature of the business.”[12]

Corera utilizes that overarching narrative with a subtext that in fact the West may have contributed to or even prompted the Russian paranoia and animosity in the mid-1990s; Corera cites then-SVR Chief Vyacheslav Trubnikov’s belief that “the belief that the other side had not stopped meant you could not, either.” Putin carried that spy fever forward in the early 2000s, and Corera ties it into the 2013 Gerasimov Doctrine as “an explanation of what Russia thought it was being subjected to by the West.”[13]

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Following the detailed history of the Ghost Stories case and the Illegals who were eventually caught and sent back to Russia, Corera discusses what he calls the “new Illegals,” who do not operate under the same clandestine stricture as the previous generation, instead openly—in many cases brazenly—vying for attention, contacts, and influence. Referring back to the tie-ins to hybrid warfare, we can see immediate parallels with theories from Evgeny Messner as cited by Ofer Fridman, which “does not consist of making the artillery the main weapon…but [rather] the [power of the] ‘word.’”[14] Corera’s book is urgent in its message, drawing examples from the 2016 U.S. election and observing the alarming actions being taken openly by Russia, including cyber influence campaigns that resulted in physical manifestations,[15] a phenomenon noted by Thomas Rid in Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare through a discussion of the “disinformation value-creation chain” and Russia’s ability to effectively exploit activist culture, breakneck news cycles, and a victim society to embed messages and conspiracies.[16]

Corera incorporates and builds on these themes throughout the book—hybrid warfare, hard power and soft power—to great effect as he builds the story to its logical conclusion: that there is no conclusion, only a continued need for awareness of motivations, methods, and vulnerabilities. More to the point, Corera notes that if the West does not change its paradigm about what constitutes a threat, there is no way to combat it: “If your opponent was not stealing secrets, were they really an intelligence threat?”[17] Corera seems to be pointing out that the problem is actually that we look at this as an intelligence problem and not just a problem.

Corera expertly uses both facets of his experience in creating a fast-moving storyline held together with deeply researched histories and first-person testimonials, in some cases from the Ghost Stories Illegals themselves. This book belongs on a professional intelligence scholar’s shelf next to the likes of Andrew, Suvorov, and Penkovskiy, as a solid and comprehensive compendium of the Ghost Stories chapter in American-Russian relations.

Devlin Kostal is a U.S. Air Force officer, currently serving as an Instructor of Military and Strategic Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Still from The American (Variety)


[1] Gordon Corera, Russians Among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories, and the Hunt for Putin’s Spies (New York: HarperCollins, 2020), 7.

[2] Corera, Russians Among Us, 310.

[3] Corera, Russians Among Us, 165-66.

[4] Corera, Russians Among Us, 111.

[5] Mark Galeotti, “I’m Sorry For Creating the Gerasimov Doctrine,” Foreign Policy, March 5, 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/03/05/im-sorry-for-creating-the-gerasimov-doctrine/.

[6] U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, “Exposing Russia’s Effort to Sow Discord Online: The Internet Research Agency and Advertisements,” Social Media Content, https://intelligence.house.gov/social-media-content/.

[7] Hayley Dixon, “Skripal ‘hitman’ unmasked as GRU colonel awarded Russia’s highest military honour by Vladimir Putin,” The Telegraph, 27 September 2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/09/26/skripal-hitman-unmasked-gru-colonel-awarded-russias-highest/.

[8] Corera, Russians Among Us, 387.

[9] Corera, Russians Among Us, 387.

[10] See Aleksei Myagkov, “The Soviet Union’s Special Forces,” Soviet Analyst, January 9, 1980, which informs myriad subsequent articles and papers.

[11] Corera, Russians Among Us, 13, 179.

[12] Corera, Russians Among Us, 296, 58.

[13] Corera, Russians Among Us, 13, 111, 343.

[14] Ofer Fridman, Russian “Hybrid Warfare”: Resurgence and Politicization (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 58.

[15] Corera, Russians Among Us, 363.

[16] Thomas Rid, Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020), 434.

[17] Corera, Russians Among Us, 362.

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