At the beginning of May, Natalia Arno, the head of the Free Russia Foundation, woke up at her hotel in Prague suffering acute pain in her body, followed by a strange sensation of numbness.
An energetic woman, she decided not to pay much attention, because as a head of the foundation she had been under enormous stress for years lobbying for anti-Kremlin sanctions and promoting the Russian émigré community in Europe in the US. This might just be extreme fatigue, she thought.
Given the fact that her deputy, the Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza was twice poisoned by a nerve agent in Russia — and is now serving 25 years on trumped-up charges in a Moscow prison — she should have been more worried.
On the plane back to the US, things got worse and she went to the emergency room at a Washington hospital. The FBI and European security services launched an investigation, but it’s still unclear what happened, and whether it was a poisoning by a nerve agent or by another substance, as had happened to Kara-Murza and some of the Kremlin’s other enemies abroad. (Arno now feels much better, but still suffers numbness in her limbs.)
Many Russian political activists, opposition politicians, and journalists in exile are well aware that they are the targets of Putin’s security services. Some emigrants have noticed in recent months that they are being openly followed. The exile network has also become aware of several attempts at penetration by FSB agents sent to infiltrate Russian groups.
The reason for that is quite clear — despite multiple mistakes and faux pas throughout 2022 and 2023, Russian political emigration has established itself as an agile and resourceful community. It draws on the millions of Russians who left the country even before the all-out invasion of Ukraine, and has been replenished by the multiple hundreds of thousands or perhaps 1 million who have left since. They are not all political dissidents, but the sheer size of the Russian diaspora is enormous.
The pre-war émigré organizations, like Garry Kasparov’s Free Russia Forum, the former oligarch/political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s numerous organizations, and the Free Russia Foundation, have all survived the war. New organizations have emerged – from the grassroots Feminist Anti-War Resistance movement to the Russian Democratic Club — a coalition of Russian anti-war democratic forces just launched in Paris. And there is, of course, Navalny’s organization which moved into exile.
Russian independent media forced into exile all survived the dramatic change and logistical problems, including wandering from country to country, like TV Dozhd, which was forced to move from Moscow to Tbilisi to Riga, and now to Amsterdam. There are, of course, clashes and intrigues among its ranks, but one thing emerged for certain — the level of communication and coordination between different groups of emigres is unprecedented. These days, it takes a few hours, and one introduction at most to reach out to anyone in the community, and it doesn’t matter where those people are based – in Yerevan, Vilnius, London, or San Francisco.
All of which is watched with growing paranoia in Moscow. The response — as seems increasingly common — is that Putin’s spies look for inspiration to the methods employed 70 years ago by Soviet agents of the NKVD to deal with political emigration.
It is worth detailing Soviet spy structures of almost-byzantine complexity created to face this menace. It is not a secondary issue for the Kremlin. Then, as now, It was of the utmost importance.
At the height of the KGB’s power in the late 1970s to early 1980s, Russia’s enormous counter-exile structure looked like this:
The Fifth Directorate of the KGB, which dealt with ideological subversion, collected compromising material on dissidents inside the country to use in case the dissident moved to the West, and also measured the effects of émigré publications in dissident circles. It had officers assigned to Soviet artists traveling abroad.
Within the country, the KGB’s Soviet Republics departments reported on the activities of prominent émigrés from their respective republics, obtained through agents in organizations like the Society for the Development of Cultural Ties with Estonians Abroad.
For foreign operations, the First Chief Directorate of the KGB (the foreign intelligence branch) also had several units dealing with emigrants.
Service A, in charge of spreading disinformation abroad, made up news about prominent exiles — what they called “active measures.” Department K’s role was to run external counterintelligence, meaning addressing all kinds of threats to Soviet intelligence operations abroad, including preventing defections and unauthorized contacts with Russians abroad. The Fourth Section of Department K helped plant fake news in Western émigré magazines and newspapers since the department ran agents embedded in émigré organizations, abroad including radio stations like Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and Free Europe.
To help inside foreign countries, KGB stations within Soviet embassies — rezidenturas — had several officers whose job was to watch emigrants. They were attached to Line EM—“line” meaning area of operations, and “EM” meaning emigration.
And to coordinate all those efforts, there were two departments in the central apparatus of the KGB. Inside Russia, the KGB had the Tenth Section in the Fifth Directorate (Ideology), charged with dealing with “the centers of ideological subversion abroad” — its goal was to act as contact point between all KGB units in the Soviet Union and all units engaged with émigré groups at the First Chief Directorate (foreign intelligence.) For the coordination of operations outside, the KGB had the Nineteenth section at the First Chief Directorate, staffed with more than thirty intelligence officers.
And it worked like this:
In 1966, a Soviet sailor called Yuri Marin jumped off a Soviet reconnaissance warship 12 miles off the coast of California and made his escape to freedom. The US Army’s Russian institute in Garmisch, Germany — always hungry for fresh Soviet refugees to supply its students (diplomats and spies) with the latest information from behind the Iron Curtain — hired him as an instructor. Radio Liberty, located in nearby Munich, made him a radio host.
The defector turned out to be a KGB agent run by the Fourth Section of Department K. He gathered material on Radio Liberty personnel and personal details about the US diplomats and spies trained in Garmisch. When the sailor defected back to the Soviet Union, he publicly denounced his American hosts in Germany.
The same story was repeated in the 1980s, when another Russian defector Oleg Tumanov (he had jumped off a Soviet ship near Libya) who was hired by Radio Liberty in Munich, fled to the Soviet Union in 1986 and had a press conference in Moscow exposing the CIA presence at the station.
Is something similar happening today? Yes. There are already examples of redefections — a Wagner mercenary called Andrei Medvedev, who had fled to Norway, decided to return to Russia and contacted the Russian embassy in Oslo. There are already examples of successful penetration – for instance, a war correspondent called Pablo Gonzalez was teaching at the Boris Nemtsov Foundation summer journalism school in Prague and was arrested in Poland after the invasion, suspected of working for Russian military intelligence, the GRU. The use of poison, as we see, has been reactivated, as is the surveillance of prominent émigrés.
But the KGB’s preferred method is brutally simple: to exploit paranoia among émigrés. The KGB spread rumors that either the close friends of a prominent emigrant were KGB agents, or that the emigrant was a KGB agent recruited years ago back in the Soviet Union. Most famously, the KGB tried this on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, planting disinformation that it recruited him in the Gulag. These tactics were considered the most effective for creating and maintaining “an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion” (as a KGB instruction manual put it at the time.)
We can reasonably expect similar operations conducted against the present-day Russian political emigration, with two important adjustments.
First, Putin has at his disposal not two but three intelligence agencies (the GRU, FSB, and the foreign intelligence service, the SVR) all of them tasked to deal with the threat posed by emigration. Second, the country’s spies are at war, and they don’t feel like they are limited in any way in their methods.
Expect more, and worse to come.
Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov are Nonresident Senior Fellows with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) They are Russian investigative journalists, and co-founders of Agentura.ru, a watchdog of Russian secret service activities.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.