Snowden revelations help fuel Russia's spy machine: Brian Stewart

Russia's spymasters probably can't believe their luck these days, Brian Stewart writes. A succession of global secrets keeps pouring in, either from their own spies or American whistleblowers, strengthening the ambitions of the hard men around Vladimir Putin.

NSA leaks only strengthening the hard men surrounding Vladimir Putin

Freedom to travel? Edward Snowden's Russian refugee documents that allowed him to leave Moscow's international airport on Aug. 1. (Maxim Shemetov / Reuters)

The vast empire of intrigue that is Russia's spying apparatus must be hard pressed to believe its good fortune these days.

A succession of global secrets seems to be pouring in from either its own efforts or American whistleblowers, with each new round strengthening the hand of Moscow's already powerful spymasters within the court of President Vladimir Putin.

The cumulative effect of all this new material simultaneously exposes both the astonishing intelligence-gathering abilities of the U.S. — as well as its chronic security flaws.

From a Russian vantage point, this allows Moscow's spies to demand ever more muscle to guard against the former, and new mandates to exploit the latter.

It's hard to overstate how bountiful these past three years have been for Russian intelligence.

In 2010, WikiLeaks' unprecedented exposé of secret documents — including 250,000 leaked embassy cables and nearly 500,000 Pentagon documents, courtesy of U.S. Pte. Bradley Manning — was a veritable picture window on American foreign policy and war-making.

In 2011, we learned of one of Russia's greatest spy victories in decades after Canadian naval Sub-Lt. Jeffery Delisle was revealed to have sold Russian military agents some of the most closely guarded defence and intelligence secrets of Canada, the U.S., U.K. and Australia over a four-year period.

And now, due to Edward Snowden's leaks, the world gets to see how the U.S. National Security Agency is able to spy on just about all human telecommunications, friend and foe alike.

A natural hypocrisy

While Manning and Snowden both seem like idealistic whistleblowers, quite different from Delisle's secret-files-for-cash spying, the consequences of their acts inevitably help Moscow's super spies at least as much.

The big three? Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin at a meeting of cabinet members last year. (Mikhail Klimentyev / Associated Press)

One immediate bonus comes in the very turmoil and air of distrust that these kinds of security fiascos inflict on all Western intelligence services.

U.S. allies are horrified to find their own secrets, looted by the NSA or CIA, often exposed in these floods of revelations, and can spend enormous time and energy trying to stem the damage done.

Both the British and Americans (though hardly in a position to cast stones) were appalled at the flabby Canadian security that allowed Delisle to run amok inside allied security all that time. Other Western intelligence agencies, and diplomats across Europe, are wondering just who they can trust anymore.

Another bonus for Russian intelligence is that this atmosphere gives its spy masters the chance to play up all the paranoia that already hangs over the often secretive and ever more repressive Putin regime.

Just two weeks ago, for example, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, the Putin appointee in charge of the defence industry, cited the Snowden revelations as justification for a complete overhaul of the country's cyber-security.

Not that Snowden revealed anything Russia didn't already know, Rogozin boasted, not very convincingly. But the extent of NSA spying clearly indicated the need, he suggested, to beef up protective software.

In fact, Russia should build everything itself, even electrical components, he added, as it can no longer "trust foreign equipment won't come with hidden programs or viruses that can be activated to sabotage Russian machines or siphon off information."

Of course, other nations have occasionally accused Russia of exporting just such tampered technology, but in espionage hypocrisy is an official currency.

In bed with the mob?

What's also striking about Rogozin's crash drive for an impregnable Russian cyber-security system is that it appears connected to a much wider ambition.

He's very much a leading figure worth watching, a dynamo who vows to revive a military/industrial base for Russia, aimed at recapturing its old superpower status.

In this drive, intelligence gathering has a huge role, and not just as a defensive manoeuvre.

The ability to steal corporate and international secrets can reduce one's own development costs, so Russia is now pushing its espionage to levels that analysts believe surpass anything they've seen in decades.

Anna Chapman, the alleged Russian spy who was expelled from the U.S. with 10 others three years ago, tweeted a marriage proposal to Edward Snowden earlier this year. (Associated Press)

Edward Lucas, the European editor at the Economist, wrote this year that Putin's obsession with all-out spying is actually creating "a new Cold War."

Russian spy teams have been active across the West, with more than 20 agents being scooped by the FBI alone over the past four years.

All manner of military, technical, commercial and cyber intelligence is being sought, with a relentlessness that astonishes counter-intelligence veterans.

But what many find even more ominous is the close connection of Russia's spy agencies to its frightening world of organized crime.

As I wrote earlier this year, those studying Russian security now ask who really calls the shots, the bureaucrats or their mobster allies, known as the avtoritety (the authorities) who wield enormous influence across the government.

Russia's spy agencies are very much a part of the kleptocracy that many observers feel the Russian state has become, with its tentacles in everything from running heroin out of Afghanistan to human trafficking and bank fraud.

One of the leading experts on the link between Russian espionage and crime, Mark Galeotti, a professor of global affairs at New York University, says they are clearly entwined as never before.

"It's quite clear that, in some cases, organized crime works as another agency of Russian intelligence … and at times Russian spies end up, frankly, doing the dirty work for Russian gangsters."

Some go further. After a massive European Union investigation of organized crime, in 2011, the Spanish lead prosecutor, Jose Grinda Gonzalez, flatly charged that Russia's domestic and foreign spy services "control organized crime in Russia."

Canadian agents got an eerie sense of this marriage when Delisle, after his arrest, told of his surprise that his GRU handlers gave priority to his finding out what the West knew about Russian organized crime's links to top politicians.

Yes, they paid Delisle to deliver vast amounts of allied military secrets. But they were also eager to find out how much we grasped of the who's who within Russia's corrupt elites.

Given this hard, self-interested gang that surrounds Putin, it was inconceivable that he would risk looking weak by sending Snowden back to the U.S. for trial. That President Barack Obama seemingly thought Putin might shows a weak grasp of Russia's power realities.

It's a weakness that Edward Snowden may share. Spare a thought for the whistleblower as he now takes up his temporary home under the watchful gaze of such murky forces.