Former Russian spy Alexy Yurievich Artamonov fled Moscow in 2008 and defected to the United States, where he spilled state secrets to the CIA and FBI. Russia considers him a traitor for exposing government corruption and giving up the identities of high-ranking Russian intelligence officers to the CIA and FBI. But he was a valuable asset to America.
Yes, when it comes to espionage, one country’s traitor is another’s hero.
I first met Artamonov (who legally changed his name to Jan Neumann) in 2015, publishing my first story about his troubles – both in Russia and the U.S. – in Newsweek magazine. We’ve had many conversations over the last couple of years, and I must acknowledge that Neumann remains a bit of an enigma to me. He hates the corruption rampant in the Russian government, especially in the federal security service (FSB) in which he rose to the rank of captain.
But he still loves his homeland and its people.
For that reason, he’s the perfect Russian to ask five burning questions about the continuing Cold War, presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, and the latest iterations of “Kremlingate.”
Vladimir Putin seems to hate criticism more than President Trump. When Russian citizens and journalists speak out against Putin, they often end up in prison -- or worse. Five such dissidents have turned up dead, under mysterious circumstances, in the last eight months. Some Russia watchers suggest Putin sanctioned these slayings, directly or indirectly. Yet Russia’s long-time leader remains beloved by many in his country. How can Putin remain so popular?
Putin’s popularity is not magic. It’s part of a historical narrative. Over the centuries, 99 percent of Russians thought the tsars were good guys and didn’t blame them for corruption, bureaucracy, and the poor quality of their lives. In the Soviet days, they blamed Communist Party elites for their miseries, not dictators such as Joseph Stalin. Since the 1990s, Russians have blamed their problems on the nation’s oligarchs, who came up through the communist system, and President Boris Yeltsin’s crooked young reform movement.
For his part, Putin merely employed some of the same public relations tricks as his predecessors. Putin’s people blame their government and oligarchs, not him, for Russia’s corruption. They view him as the “Guy in the Trench Coat,” who dedicated his life to serve the state in the mold of Peter the Great.
Putin came from the KGB. He’s a professional spy and politician. He survived the tough “Wild West” days of the 1990s as Russia remade itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin knows how to wait, plan, calculate, manipulate, and reach his goals. He’s not a quick-solution guy. He won’t make a move without being certain that it won’t come back to harm his long-term plans.
As for the recent killings, I doubt we’ll ever learn who gave the order to kill these people. And it’s unlikely the majority of those assassinations could ever be tied to Putin or his inner circle. No news investigation over the last 17 years has provided enough solid evidence to show Putin gave orders to kill a soul.
Take the 2015 assassination of Boris Nemtsov, a Putin critic shot to death within a few hours of calling on Russians to resist Russia’s war in Ukraine. It appeared to be classic political revenge – the Kremlin versus a freedom fighter. But ordinary Russians didn’t condemn Putin, only some journalists and foreign governments. Why? Because Nemtsov was no angel. He was a top official in the Yeltsin administration, one of his young reformers who turned the government into a criminal syndicate. Nemtsov used his official position to make his own fortune.
On Christmas 1991, the day the Soviet Union dissolved, CIA staffers threw a boozy party at their Langley headquarters to celebrate victory over their Cold War nemesis. But the U.S. intelligence community would later conclude that the Cold War never ended. Some intelligence officials suggest there are more Russian spies in the U.S. today than during the height of the Cold War. How much of a threat do these Russian spooks pose to America, and what should we be doing to guard against these intrusions?
For Russians, the Cold War never ended. They lost the battle, but not the war. The federal security service (FSB), military intelligence service (GRU) and foreign intelligence service (SVR) went through catastrophic restructuring throughout the 1990s. They lost resources, power, and veteran personnel. Worst of all, they lost the respect and support of the Russian people and their government. But the intelligence services were reborn in 1998, when Putin ascended to head the FSB, which was the main successor to the KGB.
The Russian Intelligence community soaked up the tactics of their adversaries, including the CIA and Britain’s MI6, and integrated those skills into their own models of espionage. This made them more dangerous than ever. Russian intelligence officers grew cozy with criminal organizations, which allowed them to keep tabs on the mob. But this integration allowed crime figures to pick up some of the old KGB skills from their new friends, making organized crime much more dangerous.
Thousands of former Soviets migrated to the West over the last 26 years, opening many possibilities for Russia’s intelligence services. It was much easier to send deep-cover Russian spies, known as “illegals,” into the U.S. after the Cold War. Americans were more trusting and welcoming to Russian immigrants after the fall of communism. Russian spies inveigled themselves into U.S. society to steal secrets that could help Russia to return one day as a global superpower.
To counter this network of Russian spies, as well as intelligence assets from other hostile nations, Americans must learn an important fact of life: National security is everyone’s job, not just the government’s. Ordinary citizens must guard secrets of the four pillars of America’s success: science, technology, politics, and the economy.
The U.S. intelligence community’s 16 agencies – including the CIA, NSA, and FBI – must cooperate better with each other. They could take a cue from Russia and borrow techniques and methods from rival intelligence agencies. Also, I think the CIA should have the ability to operate inside the United States, perhaps not independently, but as chief coordinator of all counterintelligence operations. The intelligence community should put more effort into changing public perceptions of what they do. Americans should feel that cooperating with those agencies is their duty and that it’s an honor to protect their nation. Americans must understand that supporting their intelligence services protects the nation not only from foreign spies, but from global terrorists and other threats.
Putin sometimes outmaneuvered the Obama administration in matters of foreign policy, including how to combat ISIS and restore order in Syria, a problem that now bedevils the Trump administration. The fear among many Americans is that Trump’s advisers, even folks in his cabinet, have unhealthy ties to Russia and a peculiar disdain for the CIA. Trump went so far as to liken the U.S. intelligence apparatus to “Nazi Germany.” If you could sit down with Trump, what would you tell him about Putin, his intelligence services, and their capabilities to harm America?
We’re not in medieval times. It’s common sense for Mr. Trump to listen to his intelligence agencies, cooperate with them, and learn about the threats posed to America by Russia and other countries.
Russian intelligence agencies are aggressive. They have sophisticated cyber and electronic abilities and technologies. They are extremely good at human-to-human intelligence gathering. They have highly sophisticated recruitment capabilities. They know the methods and techniques the U.S. has used to spy on them, and they have used that knowledge to infiltrate the U.S. and the rest of the Western world.
Their tight connections with Russian mafia and the financial elite has dramatically improved their spying capabilities. In my opinion, Russian intelligence is more dangerous, sophisticated and resistant to counterintelligence measures today than the KGB was in the golden age of the Cold War.
Political writers are calling possible links between the Trump administration and Russia “Kremlin-gate.” FBI Director James Comey recently acknowledged that the bureau is investigating possible connections between some of Trump’s minions and the Russian hackers accused of swaying U.S. voters to vote for Trump. Why would Putin and Russia want Trump to be president rather than Hillary Clinton? What do you think Putin hopes to get out of Trump? And how do you think they will get along when they finally meet?
It’s clear why Russia wanted Trump to win. The U.S. and Russian Federation were locked in conflict on issues in the Middle East and Ukraine. Neither were cooperating. A Clinton victory would have been disastrous for Moscow because it would have meant more sanctions against Russia and a continuation of the Cold War.
Americans should have been prepared for Russia’s efforts to steer votes toward Trump. Back in the FSB Academy, we were taught three basic steps in counterintelligence: identification, prevention, and suppression of threats. I don’t want to poke anyone in the eye, but the FBI should have considered in advance that a foreign government would attempt to influence the presidential election. Now the FBI is a few steps behind the bad guys, partly because I think they underestimated Russia’s capabilities.
The FBI was aware that the FSB was using hackers all around the globe for nearly a decade and that the Putin administration’s goals were to build zones of influence throughout the Middle East, resolve the firestorm in Ukraine and rebuild Russia – a reincarnated version of the Soviet Union – as a global superpower. So President Trump has to keep in mind that he's going to play chess with a chess master, who also has a brilliant team of advisers and analysts. Putin has already outplayed two presidents in the last couple of decades. Trump should not underestimate him. If he wants to play on equal terms with Putin, he has to build a very strong team – including the intelligence community.
Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, one of his advisers, recently offered to testify before the U.S. Senate about his associations with Kremlin officials and his December 2016 meeting with Sergey Gorkov, chairman of the state-run bank VneshEconomBank (VEB). The U.S. sanctioned VEB three years ago. As a former Russian intelligence officer – and one who also worked in Russia’s corrupt banking system – what can you tell me about Gorkov, his bank, and what Gorkov might have wanted from his meeting with Kushner?
Sergey Nikolaevich Gorkov is a professional manager with a very interesting career. He graduated from the FSB Academy, has an economics degree from Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, and held positions at a bank and an oil company owned by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was imprisoned by the Putin administration for fraud. The bank Gorkov now runs is under direct management of the Russian government, and its main role is to bring investors to Russia.
Gorkov serves as Putin's "financial firefighter." His job at VEB is to optimize operations and stabilize the bank during its crises and the U.S. sanction. I think, we only can speculate on what Gorkov and Kushner discussed. But one thing is clear: Russians are looking for investors. They need more money to put into the Russian economy. And they must find a way to get VEB off the sanctions list. Gorkov might consider Kushner and his connections a perfect avenue for Russians to enter the American financial market.