Russian Spying: “It Didn’t Do Us Much Good”

The recent arrest of a “ring” of Russian spies in the US brings back memories of the Cold War–well, for those of us who were alive and aware at the time.  Readers of this blog know that I have a lifelong interest in Russia that ended up with some interesting business and other types of contacts (probably the most interesting is this one.)

On one of my visits there, I got into a discussion of Cold War related matters, including their extensive intelligence gathering.  It was extensive, all right, but our discussion was after the Soviet Union had come apart, and my Russian contact’s observation about all of his country’s espionage efforts was wistful: “It didn’t do us much good.”

When you have an opponent, it’s always good to have advance knowledge of their secrets; it can save lives and a great deal of effort and resources on your part.  So the Soviets pursued extensive intelligence gathering.  In many cases they were able to acquire technology and other valuable information, but in the end, as my friend observed, it did not prevent his country’s break-up.  And breaking up, as we all know, is hard to do.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see why this took place.  The Soviet Union, at points the greatest military power on the planet, lacked the economic strength to support itself.  In simple terms the weak economy gave out before the strong military could come through with a victory (a task complicated by the high price of nuclear war.)  Although we look like we are a long way from the same state, the fact is that it is possible for us, though irresponsible fiscal policy and growing state socialism, end up in a similar rut.  Their past may well become our future.

But that obscures another question: did the intelligence they gathered really come from “secret” or “top secret” sources?  Or could it be had from public sources processed with basic wisdom and understanding of the other side?  That’s a question that both sides should have given more thought to.  It’s one that Derek Leebaert asks about our own CIA in his book The Fifty Year Wound: was much of what they gathered through all of the methods of spy-craft simply “out there” for the taking and proper analysis?  He offers some examples of that taking place in the Cold War, and there’s no doubt it’s taken place afterwards.  And our lack of understanding of the nature of our Islamicist opponent has bedevilled our efforts in that sphere, too.  (It works both ways: Osama bin Laden doubtless anticipated domestic power challengers would begin an assault on the US government after 9/11, but instead he got his own lair invaded.)

It’s always important to have secrets in both the political and corporate worlds, and it’s obviously good to find out what your opponents/competitors are doing.  But the benefits of espionage are frequently overrated.  If you waste resources gathering secrets that you could find with simpler ways, if you misinterpret the information you have, or if your serious weaknesses catch up with you more quickly than you anticipated, it’s obvious you should have directed your main efforts at something more worthwhile.

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