Inside the Secretive Russian Security Force That Targets Americans

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From The Wall Street Journal:

For years, a small group of American officials watched with mounting concern as a clandestine unit of Russia’s Federal Security Service covertly tracked high-profile Americans in the country, broke into their rooms to plant recording devices, recruited informants from the U.S. Embassy’s clerical staff and sent young women to coax Marines posted to Moscow to spill secrets. 

On March 29, that unit, the Department for Counterintelligence Operations, or DKRO, led the arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, according to U.S. and other Western diplomats, intelligence officers and former Russian operatives. DKRO, which is virtually unknown outside a small circle of Russia specialists and intelligence officers, also helped detain two other Americans in Russia, former Marines Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, these people said.

The secretive group is believed by these officials to be responsible for a string of strange incidents that blurred the lines between spycraft and harassment, including the mysterious death of a U.S. diplomat’s dog, the trailing of an ambassador’s young children and flat tires on embassy vehicles. 

The DKRO’s role in the detention of at least three Americans, which hasn’t been previously reported, shows its importance to Russia under Vladimir Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel who led the Federal Security Service, or FSB, before rising to the presidency. The unit intensified its operations in recent years as the conflict between Moscow and Washington worsened. 

As with most clandestine activity carried out by covert operatives, it is impossible to know for certain whether DKRO is behind every such incident. The unit makes no public statements. But officials from the U.S. and its closest allies said that DKRO frequently wants its targets to know their homes are being monitored and their movements followed, and that its operatives regularly leave a calling card: a burnt cigarette on a toilet seat. They also have left feces in unflushed toilets at diplomats’ homes and in the suitcase of a senior official visiting from Washington, these people said.

The DKRO is the counterintelligence arm of the FSB responsible for monitoring foreigners in Russia, with its first section, or DKRO-1, the subdivision responsible for Americans and Canadians.

“The DKRO never misses an opportunity if it presents itself against the U.S., the main enemy,” said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian security analyst who has spent years studying the unit. “They are the crème-de-la-crème of the FSB.”

. . . .

This article is based on dozens of interviews with senior diplomats and security officials in Europe and the U.S., Americans previously jailed in Russia and their families, and independent Russian journalists and security analysts who have fled the country. Information also was drawn from public court proceedings and leaked DKRO memos, which were authenticated by former Russian intelligence officers and their Western counterparts. Gershkovich’s lawyers in Russia declined to comment.

“They’re very, very smart on the America target. They’ve been doing this a long time. They know us extremely well,” said Dan Hoffman, a former Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Moscow, about DKRO. “They do their job extremely well, they’re ruthless about doing their job, and they’re not constrained by any resources.”

. . . .

On March 29, DKRO officers led an operation, hailed by the FSB as a success, that made Gershkovich, 31 years old, the first American reporter held on espionage charges in Russia since the Cold War, according to current and former officials and intelligence officers in the U.S. and its closest allies, as well as a former Russian intelligence officer familiar with the situation.

The Journal has vehemently denied the charge. The Biden administration has said that Gershkovich, who was detained during a reporting trip and was accredited to work as a journalist by Russia’s foreign ministry, has been “wrongfully detained.” Friday is his 100th day in captivity.

Putin received video briefings before and after the arrest from Vladislav Menshchikov, head of the FSB’s counterintelligence service, which oversees DKRO, according to Western officials and a former Russian security officer. During the meeting, Putin asked for details about the operation to detain Gershkovich.

DKRO also led the operation to arrest Whelan, in what U.S. officials, the former Marine’s lawyers and his family have said was an entrapment ploy involving a thumb-drive. The U.S. also considers him wrongfully detained.

When Moscow police held Reed, another former Marine, after a drunken night with friends, then claimed he had assaulted a policeman, officers from DKRO took over the case, according to the U.S. officials and Reed. Reed denied the assault and has said Russian law enforcement provided no credible evidence it had taken place. He was given a nine-year sentence, and eventually swapped for a Russian pilot in U.S. custody.

.S. officials blame DKRO for cutting the power to the residence of current U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Lynne Tracy the night after her first meeting with Russian officials in January, and for trailing an embassy official’s car with a low-flying helicopter. U.S. diplomats routinely come home to find bookcases shifted around and jewelry missing, for which they have blamed DKRO officers.

More recently, a Russian drone followed a diplomat’s wife as she drove back to the embassy, unaware that the roof of her car had been defaced with tape in the shape of the letter Z, a Russian pro-war symbol. U.S. officials say they believe the group was behind that. U.S. officials strongly believe that the Russian police posted around Washington’s embassy in Moscow are DKRO officers in disguise.

American diplomats posted to Russia receive special training to avoid DKRO and other officers from the FSB and are given a set of guidelines informally known as “Moscow Rules.” It was updated recently to reflect the security services’ increasingly aggressive posture. One important rule, say the officials who helped craft it: “There are no coincidences.”

In May, the spy agency arrested a former U.S. consulate employee, Robert Shonov, and charged him with collaboration on a confidential basis with a foreign state or international or foreign organization. At the time of his arrest, the Russian national was working as a contractor to summarize nwspaper articles for the State Department, which called the arrangement legal and the allegations against him “wholly without merit.” Like Gershkovich, Shonov is now in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison.

. . . .

“Today, the FSB is incredibly powerful and unaccountable,” said Boris Bondarev, a Russian diplomat who resigned and went into hiding shortly after the invasion of Ukraine. “Anyone can designate someone else as a foreign spy in order to get promoted. If you are an FSB officer and you want a quick promotion, you find some spies.”

DKRO officers occupy a privileged position within the security services and Russian society. Its predecessor was the so-called American Department of the KGB, formed in 1983 by a hero of Putin, Yuri Andropov, the longtime security chief who became Soviet leader.

. . . .

The unit’s officers are well-paid by Russian standards, receiving bonuses for successful operations, access to low-cost mortgages, stipends for unemployed spouses, preferential access to beachside resort towns and medical care at FSB clinics that are among Russia’s best.

The FSB emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union subject to little legislative or judicial scrutiny. Since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, its official duty to expunge spies and dissidents has given it such expansive control over many aspects of Russian life that some security analysts now call Russia a counterintelligence state. In one of his final articles before his arrest, Gershkovich and colleagues reported that the invasion was mainly planned by the spy agency, citing a former Russian intelligence officer and a person close to the defense ministry, and was filtering updates from the front lines—roles usually reserved for the military.

In April, Russia passed new treason legislation that further empowered the FSB to squelch criticism of the war. In May, the spy agency, using wartime powers, said it would start to search homes without a court’s approval.

Putin has publicly berated his spy agencies several times since late 2022, after his so-called special military operation fell short of his expectations. Around that time, U.S. officials noticed an uptick in aggressive actions toward the few Americans still in Russia.

. . . .

“You need to significantly improve your work,” Putin told FSB leaders in a December speech to mark Security Agents Worker’s Day, a Russian holiday. “It is necessary to put a firm stop to the activities of foreign special services, and to promptly identify traitors, spies and diversionists.” 

He repeated the admonishment during a visit to Lubyanka, the FSB headquarters, a month before Gershkovich’s arrest. 

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in April denied that Putin had a role in authorizing the arrest. “It is not the president’s prerogative. The security services do that,” he said. “They are doing their job.”

Putin likes to be personally briefed on the FSB’s surveillance of Western reporters, said U.S. and former Russian officials. Leaked FSB documents from previous surveillance cases against foreign reporters show agency leaders along the chain of command adding penciled notes in the margins of formal memos, so that higher-ups can erase any comments that might upset the president. 

DKRO memos often begin with greetings punctuated by exclamation marks to indicate urgency and militaristic formality—a common style in the Kremlin bureaucracy—followed by meticulous notes about the movements of Westerners in Russia and the locals they meet.

“We ask you to identify an employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs at his place of employment, interrogate him about the goals and nature of his relations with the British, and as a result, draw a conclusion,” read one 2006 memo reviewed by the Journal. 

The FSB has oversight for espionage trials conducted in secret using specialist investigators and judges. During Putin’s 23 years in power, no espionage trial is known to have ended in acquittal.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG notes that the lives of 20th and 21st Century dictators have often ended in premature death.

For those who manage to hang on and direct the affairs of their nations for more than a brief period of time, the fact of their dictatorship tends to impoverish many of their people and results in a nation in which the economy substantially lags those nations which have non-dictatorial political structures.

Populations that live under dictatorships seldom produce world-class technology innovations or other types of creativity. Persistent anxiety and uncertainty regarding one’s standing with those who are part of the extensive government agencies principally assigned to controlling the populace and rooting out enemies of the government shrivel the creative impulses of all but a miniscule percentage of the larger population.

Leaders who gain and hold their positions using thuggery snuff out creativity and economic dynamism among their people and inevitably fall behind nations with a stable tradition of democratically- elected leaders.

6 thoughts on “Inside the Secretive Russian Security Force That Targets Americans”

  1. Every moment spent pondering the distal DKRO is a moment spent not pondering the proximal FBI.

  2. The reason the FSB is unaccountable is because *they* are Russia.

    When the Soviets collapsed the only institution that survived was the KGB, which rebranded as FSB and placed its top folks in charge of what came afterwards. Putin was one of them but a low level operative in Germany tasked mostly with low level industrial espionage. Anybody thinking things would magically get better if he vanished will be sorely disappointed. The only change possible is if things get so bad the entire country breaks up in civil war. With nukes.

    As to authoritarian system innovation, that one is a bit murkier.
    Lenin and especially Stalin forcefed industralization over a generation or so and after they stole nuclear weapons tech (thanks to the Rosenbergs, et al) and captured a good chunk of the German rocket experts they were able to leapfrog the west thanks to a solid “vocational” educational system. They had entire armies of engineers and techs and held their lead through the Kruschev era but by the late 60’s the inherent corruption and oligarchic factionalism of *russian* culture (dating back to Ivan the terrible) had frittered away the legacy of “industrialization by massacre” of Stalin.

    Most notable was their computer science:

    In rocketry Russians were among the best for the first half of the 20th until 1966 when their prototype moon rocket exploded on lift off and took out their control center, killing Sergei Korolev, their genius Chief Designer. They never recovered.

    Then, in late soviet era, mid-80’s, their educational system was so degraded it collapsed before the Soviet Union itself. Since then they’ve been coasting off the last graduates and western tech. In another five years they’ll have lost most of their space tech.

    In some other universe, the Bolchevik revolution failed and democratic russia became a true world power on its merits. But that’s not the world we live in. In our world, the Old Russian Empire (whose legendary secret police gave the world THE PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION” and evolved into the CHEKA, NKVD,MSG, KGB, and FSB) remains, first under the name of Soviet Communism and more recently under Putin/FSB control of the “United Russia” party. Which is more of a coalition in which, believe it or not, Putin ranks as center right. There are worse monsters in that culture.

    To date every single autocracy has destroyed every single country it took over, but not always fast. Some have lasted centuries, some a couple generations, but all leave behind national destruction.

    It’s a good bet we are approaching the endgame for the current russian empire and behind it a bit, the CCP dynasty in China.

    (China is a slightly different story but the endpoint is looking similarly limited: either they have a wave of “LOGAN’S RUN-style massacres, a war, or Xi replaces the CCP ideology with outright nationalist socialism and a crown. Either way, they’ll no longer be globally significant by the mid-30’s.)

    Meanwhile, the story of autocracy in the US is still in chapter one. TBD.

    • F.: I just finished watching Major League Baseball’s annual Home Run Derby.

      Out of the eight competitors, three were Cubans who had left the country for better opportunities in the United States, runner-up Randy Arozarena, Adolis García and Luis Robert Jr.

      Bad governance results in the exodus of those who have the ability to leave, including many with substantial talents. As you may know, following Castro’s revolution in 1959, the Cuban population in the United States grew from 79,000 to 439,000 between 1960 and 1970 as thousands of Cuban exiles sought asylum in the U.S. This diaspora included a large portion of Cuba’s professionals and other highly-educated people.

      The exodus continues to this day – In the 2022 federal fiscal year, over 220,000 Cubans came to this country via the U.S.-Mexico border. Most have settled in Miami, often with extended family, at a time when many of those who left Cuba in the 1960’s and 70’s are dying off.

      The Cuban Adjustment Act, passed in 1962, is still in force, allowing most Cubans admitted and given immigration parole to apply for residency after a year and a day in the U.S.

      • Excellent example of *how* authoritarian regimes destroy their countries.

        The soviets needed their “Iron Curtain*, sealed borders, Berlin Wall, to keep their people from voting with their feet whereas western democracies, in europe as well as the US, struggle to control the flow of peoples, both ill-intentioned (smugglers, trafickers, terrorists) and refugees from mismanaged regimes. Because as a rule, authoritarian systems tend to be monomaniatic ideological straight jackets that are incapable of adjusting to the everchanging realities of modernity. So given half a chance, people who can vote with their feet, whether it be Cuban rafters, Venezuelans walking across a border bridge, or russian elites paying tens of thousands to fly away from Putin’s war and conscription, will simply give up on their homeland and leave. And once dispossesed, their odysseys begin.

        The mismanagement is innevitable: Venezuela is a textbook case, as a low level military ideologue came to power, institutionalized his power through the education system, took over the courts, packing them with sycophants, repeatedly rewrite the constitution (any of this sound familiar?) and in twenty years the richest nation in South America became the poorest, with piracy and starvation, people reduced to hunting wildlife, spawning a giant diaspora of misery, and squandering the resources generations worked to build up, all the while failing to do even basic upkeep on the equipment that enabled that wealth.
        And bear in mind, unlike the Bolcheviks, Castro, or Mulahs of Iran, Chavez didn’t stage a mikitary coup to build up his regime (when he tried it he failed); instead he was properly and legally elected–“one person, one vote, once”–by promising to give away all sorts of goodies. (Again, that raise any bells? Restitution, debt cancellation, trillion dollar spending bills for friends of the party?) All paid for by the taking of the output of the productives to buy the support of the non-productive.

        Examples of taker regimes are all over for they have always existed, from Pharaonic Egypt and Xerxes Persia, to the CCP empire in Asia, regimes that consider humans the property of the state, who are considered to exist solely to cater to the whims of their “betters” be it through corvee or taxation. (“Wear a mask to protect others!” Not yourself. Self-protection is bad, compliance is good. Collectivism at its “finest”.)

        Yes, the US is a magnet from the disaffected of taker regimes but let’s not be too self-congratulatory because we have our own takers working off the same textbook of indoctrination, institutionalization, and coercion. Of buying the support of the many with the product of the few, of starting grandiose (and expensive, the better to skim hundreds of billions) projects that promise much and deliver little. (What happened to the ” shovel ready” projects of 2010?) All within the bounds of the existing legal framework.

        Done the modern ideological way, it is way easier to destroy a country by shackling its minds than by shackling its bodies. To start with.
        The bodies can always be shackled later.

        It is the updated blueprint to build THE ROAD TO SERFDOM.

        De Tocqueville warned us but nobody listened. It’s still early but the warning signs are visible and usually by then the endgame is nigh. A lot more attention might be due to the local authoritarians and a bit less to the collapsing empires abroad before the grandiose promises deliver us to serfdom and the american diaspora begins.

        (Story fodder for cautionary tales at best but at worst…?)

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