If You Want to Understand Russian Power, Listen to the People Who Leave It

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Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during an expanded meeting of the Russian Defence Ministry Board at the National Defence Control Centre in Moscow, on December 21, 2022. - Putin described today the conflict in Ukraine as a "shared tragedy" but placed blame for the outbreak of hostilities on Ukraine and its allies, not Moscow. Credit - Vadim SAVITSKY- Sputnik/AFP

Understanding Putin’s Russia, like Russia of the Communist Commissars and the Tsars before that, has always been difficult for outsiders. The Kremlin invests substantial state resources to protect its monopoly on power, hide its intentions, and spread falsehoods. Russian citizens who have challenged the Kremlin’s narratives have been threatened, arrested, or killed.

Recently, Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza received 25 years in prison for criticizing the regime (serial killers and mass murderers in Russia receive more moderate sentences). Foreign diplomats and journalists in Moscow face oppressive surveillance, intimidation and disinformation. The arrest of Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich and the flood of false information pumped into western (and Russian) media streams make clear that the days of Potemkin villages and KGB repression are hardly things of the past.

Consequently, the West has often relied on spies and defectors to develop a basic insight into the Kremlin’s intentions. Professional intelligence services have had to uncover or steal the kind of information readily available to the public in the West.

Those Russian spies have told a consistent story to western leaders over the past century. They warned us again and again that the Kremlin is propped up by an evil state-within-a-state, and that Russia will never be a responsible member of the community of nations until its security services are destroyed. While the Soviet Union died over 40 years ago, former KGB officer Vladimir Putin has recreated the oppressive and brutal security system that jailed and killed domestic opposition, and engaged in relentless political warfare against the west. Even if Putin dies tomorrow, the KGB state endures.

Read More: Why Putin Is Right to Fear for His Life

The American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recruits spies and sources around the world, to gain access to specific programs and groups that are not accessible by academics, journalists, diplomats or collection by technical means. The motivations of those who cooperate secretly with the CIA are as varied as there are people. Sources may seek adventure, money, help for their families, revenge against their bosses or the ego gratification that comes with assisting a superpower.

In Russia it is different. The motivation and messages from Russian sources over the years have shown an uncanny similarity and consistency not found in other groups. That is, secret Russian sources almost always make the choice to help the west after concluding that their system is evil and must be destroyed. They usually express love for their culture and homeland, but are committed to smashing the leadership and secret security services that underpin their corrupt, murderous, and oppressive system. From my experience over decades working in the CIA, Russians tend to be the among the most committed sources. They are often their country’s best and brightest who eventually conclude that there is no hope in changing an evil system from the inside.

In recent months, Gleb Karakulov fled while on a business trip in Kazakhstan. Karakulov was a Captain in the Kremlin’s Federal Protection Service. His unit was responsible for protecting and setting up secure communications for Putin wherever he went. He traveled with Putin on over 180 trips abroad. During a recent interview, Karakulov commented that, “Our President has become a war criminal.” He described Putin as isolated and paranoid. He reported that Putin doesn’t use a mobile phone or the internet, insists that those who will be in the same room submit to a two-week quarantine, and avoids airplanes, usually traveling on an armored train. According to Karakulov, “All the information he receives is only from people close to him. That is, he lives in a kind of information vacuum…He is pathologically afraid for his life. He has surrounded himself with an impenetrable barrier of quarantine and a lack of any information from the internet.”

In some ways Karakulov’s decision to flee is similar to that of Boris Bajanov, the first defector to come to the West after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Bajanov was Stalin’s personal secretary and in the Soviet Politburo until 1928 when he fled to British India. Bajanov reported that the Kremlin viewed the British Empire as the Soviet Union’s “main enemy.” He noted that propaganda and agitation were the Kremlin’s main weapons as part of a strategy to weaken Britain from within so that if war came it would be easier to win. Soviet cultural and diplomatic institutions were centers for propaganda, espionage, assassination and means to foment industrial and political unrest. According to Bajanov, their goal was to hoodwink western intellectuals by “throwing dust in the eyes of educated persons in the West.” He warned that the Soviet Union was a terrorist regime that suppressed domestic dissent and spread foreign disinformation because it could not survive if the world knew the truth.

In the decades to come, defector after defector has arrived in the West with the same message. The Kremlin had created a ruthless police state capable of mass surveillance, empowered to destroy perceived domestic threats, and intent on relentless attack on foreign foes.

In the early 1960s Soviet military colonel Oleg Penkovsky spied for the U.S. and Britain, providing the intelligence that allowed President Kennedy to navigate the Cuban missile crisis. Penkovsky was so motivated to destroy the Soviet system that he even offered to plant a nuclear device near to the Kremlin in central Moscow.

In 1980, senior KGB officer Victor Sheymov defected to the U.S. Among much else, Sheymov passed intelligence on KGB plans to kill the Pope, details of the KGB assassination of the Afghan President, and the massive technical penetration of the American Embassy in Moscow which forced the US government to spend billions to tear down and build a new, secure diplomatic facility. Sheymov was a brilliant analyst and became a successful U.S. businessman. While inside the KGB with access to secret files, Sheymov studied the Soviet system and concluded that the problem was much more than corruption of the leadership. “The evil in the system was fundamental, inherent in its nature.” Of his own institution he commented, the KGB “is supposed to defend the Soviet people, but it doesn’t. It works against them and the whole world.” He and his family risked capture and death in an effort to inflict as much damage on the system as possible.

The head of the KGB mission in New York City Sergei Tretyakov defected with his wife and daughter to the U.S. in 2000. He passed on details of Soviet infiltration of the United Nations and its diplomats. He was a bigger-than-life figure who appeared destined for the top rungs of the Russian intelligence services. Tretyakov was initially optimistic that the changes that led to the fall of the Soviet Union would lead to a new, democratic, and powerful Russia. However, Tretyakov quickly lost hope. “I saw firsthand what kind of people were and are running the country. I came to the ultimate conclusion that it became immoral to serve them…Russia has been repeatedly raped and looted by its leadership. I call this process genocide of the Russian people performed by a group of immoral criminals…I realized that the intelligence information I delivered was only used to contribute to the totally corrupt political system that didn’t show any signs of improvement.”

In democracies, security services exist to protect their citizens; while in Russia their sole purpose is to keep the regime in power. Countries that spring from revolutionary roots often create a powerful system of regime security rather than national security. Their rule is illegitimate and they need a powerful force to destroy any internal opposition. They are about protecting the leadership at all costs. Costs to the country be damned.

Indeed, the Soviet founding fathers were terrorists who were in and out of Tsarist prisons. Even today we know them by their underground revolutionary names – Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky. They knew when they took over the massive Russian landmass via a political coup, they needed to arrest or kill all potential opponents. Lenin’s first act was to create a powerful personal security service (the Cheka), calling for “merciless mass terror” and immediately ordering the arrest of opposition parties. The leader of the Cheka stated publicly, “We stand for organized terror…this should be frankly admitted. The Cheka is obliged to defend the revolution and conquer the enemy even if its sword does by chance sometimes fall upon the heads of the innocent.”

The Russian security services became an unaccountable state within a state. They killed and jailed tens of millions over the past century, and due to former KGB officer Vladimir Putin’s system of rule, are still alive and well today. The Kremlin engages in war, lies, and murder. We in the West experience it in a relentless form of political warfare of subversion, sabotage, agitation, disinformation, and even assassination. Russian citizens are unable to engage in politics and are under constant threat of being imprisoned or killed as a traitor for even mild criticism.

Western leaders and diplomats have long tried to find a means to work with the Kremlin in hopes of evolving the system. The Ukraine war has finally convinced many that Putin will never change. If we had listened to those hundreds of brave Russians defectors who came to us over the years with powerful warnings, we would have known long before 2022 that reforming Putin’s rotten system is a fool’s errand. Russia will never be a trustworthy member of the family of nations as long as the Russian security services maintain their power over the people.