Why is Russia still planting 'sleeper' agents abroad?

Historian Amy Knight on the likely fate of the swapped Russian spies.
A courtroom sketch of the ten Russians who pleaded guilty on July 8, 2010 to being unregistered foreign agents while living undercover in the U.S. (Christine Cornel/Reuters)

The drama of the U.S.-Russia spy swap is over, but in the process 16 lives have been changed forever.

Ten Russian "sleepers" leave behind a comfortable suburban existence in the U.S. and have been returned to a life and family in a Russia for which they may now feel little connection.

An 11th member of the ring, who went by the name Christopher Metsos, is still on the loose and American authorities are in the process of deporting a 12th Russian national who was scooped up later.

For the four Russians, including two former high-ranking intelligence officers, who were released from prison to complete the swap, freedom must be especially sweet.

Nevertheless, their futures are uncertain as they navigate new lives in the West.

Historian and author Amy Knight. (Courtesy Amy Knight)

The world of Russian espionage is mysterious at the best of times. But few know it better than historian Amy Knight, who has studied the KGB and its incarnations for decades.  

A prolific writer on Russia for the New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement and The Globe and Mail, Knight is an independent scholar who has authored five books on espionage and the Russian intelligences services.

The most recent is How the Cold War Began: The Igor Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies.

She spoke with CBC producer Jennifer Clibbon about the likely fates of the individuals swept up in this episode and about the new face of Russia's intelligence operations under Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.

CBC News: What awaits these Russian sleeper spies who have been returned home after years in the U.S.? What kind of role are they likely to play back in Russia?

Knight: Well, these individuals will doubtless find their circumstances changed considerably. 

They will probably continue to be employed by the SVR [Russia's foreign intelligence service]  in some capacity, like translating, teaching new recruits, analyzing reports, etc. But I doubt that they will serve abroad again soon.

Indeed, I think this spy scandal has been a huge setback for the SVR and will cause them to completely rethink their strategy of planting illegal "sleeper" agents abroad. 

As for the agents themselves, Russia is not an easy place to live these days without a lot of money and I doubt that their SVR salaries, even with all the perks they enjoyed in the U.S., have made them rich. 

CBC News: The alleged Western spies who were traded back to the U.S. are being debriefed by British and American security experts. Many served long years in Russian prisons. Can you describe what kind of conditions they would have endured?

Knight: Conditions in Russian prisons and penal colonies are notoriously awful, often ruining the health of inmates or even causing them to die. 

So these four individuals who were pardoned and released to the West probably had to endure a great deal of hardship, both physical and psychological.

President Medvedev has promised to introduce broad reforms to the prison system, but these will take time. In the meantime, prisoners will continue to suffer abuse.  

CBC News: Among this group were two were former senior KGB officials. Who stands out the most?

The most intriguing case is that of Alexander Zaporozhsky, a former colonel who at one point was deputy chief of the SVR's American department. 

According to numerous reports, Zaporozhsky was recruited by the CIA sometime before he suddenly retired in 1997 and moved with his family to the U.S. 

He apparently did not suspect that his former bosses in Moscow knew about his ties to the CIA and in 2001 flew to Moscow for a visit.

He was arrested at the airport and sentenced to 18 years in prison for espionage. As such a high-ranking mole for the Americans, Zaporozhsky will be treated well by his American hosts, but will also undergo extensive debriefing.   

CBC News: There is also the poignant case of the researcher Igor Sutyagin. When I lived in Moscow in 2000 his case was in the headlines. He was a researcher in his 30s who was arrested as an alleged spy and sent to a prison in the Far North. His case seems particularly tragic, given that most experts argue he was no spy.

Knight: Sutyagin's case has long been a cause célèbre among human rights activists. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have labelled him a political prisoner and have drawn considerable international attention to his plight.

He was accused of giving secrets to a British consulting firm, but he reportedly had no access to classified information and, according to Sutyagin's defenders, the information he passed on was available in open-source materials.

Nonetheless, the fact that Sutyagin was included in an exchange together with three other bona fide spies for the Americans, and that he confessed to his guilt before being pardoned and sent out of Russia, detracts from the argument that he was a completely innocent victim who the Russian security services chose to persecute as a warning to scientists about ties with Westerners.    

CBC News: You are an expert on the Russian security service. Can you describe the new face and priorities that Putin and Medvedev are trying to implement?

Knight: Basically, the Kremlin's strategy has been to bring significant numbers of former security officials into the government and government-run corporations, as well as encouraging security officials to take over the running of private businesses. 

President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev walk through Lafayette Park in Washington just days before the FBI announced the arrests of 10 alleged deep-cover Russian agents, who had been under suspician for years. (Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

At the same time, the Kremlin has given the domestic arm of the security apparatus, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, significant new powers and resources. 

Such powers include the legal right to hunt down and assassinate enemies of the Russian government abroad and the newly acquired authority to force people to submit to questioning by the FSB even when they are not suspected of a crime. 

This is basically a form of intimidation similar to the methods of the former KGB. 

As for the SVR, we know much less about its powers and prerogatives because it is still a very secret organization. 

But the Russian government sponsors a great deal of publicity — documentaries, films and books — that glorifies the past and present activities of the SVR. 

And reports from Western governments suggest that the SVR, after suffering an initial cut in resources and manpower after 1991, still conducts ambitious and extensive intelligence-gathering efforts against the West.   

CBC News: These latest sleeper agents were laughed off as ineffective by many in the media. Are they indicative of a deteriorating cadre of spies, or is the network changing and these agents are just one face of a multifaceted organization?

Knight: The use of sleeper agents, or illegal agents under deep cover, is a throwback to the days of the Cold War and has continued since the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

In this Feb. 11, 1986 file photo, unidentified people accused of spying for the West board a bus at the Glienicke bridge checkpoint between West Berlin and East Germany. Soviet Jewish dissident Anatoly B. Shcharansky was the first prisoner exchanged. (Heribert Proepper, Associated Press)

Despite the fact that the Cold War ended, the SVR, which is very much an old-boy, elite network of cadres, continued on with the same methods and strategies that it had been using for decades.

And some experts have suggested that it was never subjected to the significant reorganizations that the domestic security agencies underwent.

The program of training illegals at special schools and sending them abroad under false identities is a good example of an outmoded strategy that has out-lived its usefulness.

No doubt this recent scandal will cause the leadership of the SVR to revamp its strategy and some heads will probably roll.

CBC News: What kinds secrets are the Russians really after from the U.S. or Canada?

Knight: Conventional wisdom has it that the Russians have changed their focus completely from political secrets to economic ones. 

While it is probably true that the SVR is more preoccupied with gaining information about advanced technology in the West than it is with information on high politics, I assume that trying to find out what is going on in the upper echelons of the decision-making bodies in other governments is still very much on the SVR's agenda.  

CBC News: There are famous stories about former Russian spies in the West, like the so-called Cambridge group in Britain, and how their lives changed dramatically  once they were discovered and defected to Russia. Life for a former spy, when you came out of the cold, was something quite grim. Will this be the case for these Russian spies?

Knight: The spies who were recently deported back to Russia are a very different breed from men like Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean.

Irina Kushchenko, the mother of Anna Chapman, one of 10 alleged Russian spies arrested in the United States, holds a photo of her daughter as she speaks to Russian news website in Moscow in July 2010. ( Press)

First of all, the members of the Cambridge group were "moles" who were spying against their own countries. Philby was working for MI6 when the Gouzenko case broke in 1945 and was reporting to Moscow everything that was being discussed among the Allies.

The damage they did to their government was huge and much more valuable to Moscow than anything these agents operating as illegals in the U.S. could have contributed. 

They were also acting, initially at least, out of ideological considerations. 

This new group of spies are simply SVR employees with varying decrees of patriotism and loyalty to their country. 

Unlike Philby and they others, they have gone back to live in their native country, where they still have jobs and family and friends. 

To be sure, they are unlikely to receive promotions, given that they allowed themselves to be discovered by the FBI.  But they won't be sent to labour camps like they would have been in Stalin's day.