Photo: Red Square, Moscow. By Vicente Villamón, via Flickr.
Gordon Corera, Russians Among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories and the Hunt for Putin’s Spies. New York: William Morrow, 2020. 444 pages.
This book tells the story of a ring of deep-cover Russian agents in North America – the sleeper cells, or illegals – uncovered by the FBI and expelled in 2011. It is the story of young Russians selected and rigorously trained to take up lives as middle-class Americans (and Canadians) – but it is also far more. Indeed, it offers real insight into the man who runs Russia. To understand Vladimir Putin and Russia’s meddling in elections in the United States and elsewhere, one needs to begin at the time the Soviet Union was teetering, and Putin was a KGB agent based in East Germany. Gordon Corera, the BBC’s security editor, who has reported on intelligence agencies for two decades, suggests that the United States and United Kingdom have failed for too long to appreciate that Putin’s understanding of the world has been that of an intelligence officer in a polarized world. Hence, to understand Putin and his associates, you must understand the KGB and its domestic successor agency, the FSB.
Going back to the 1990s, Corera recounts how the new leadership of the KGB appointed by Boris Yeltsin apparently decided to end its sophisticated surveillance of Westerners in what had been the Soviet Bloc. In response MI6, Britain’s international spy organization, stopped monitoring the London branch of the SVR, the former “First Directorate” of Russian foreign intelligence. This, he argues, was shortsighted. Beneath the changes, the Soviet intelligence infrastructure remained, to be reinstituted by Putin who
believed in the cult of the spy and understood its power among the public. The new leader breathed life into his own decaying spy services, turbocharging them with more resources and a renewed sense of purpose. Just as he would build a cult of personality around himself, so he built one around his spies. They would once again become heroes and the source of pride – and that particularly applied to illegals.
At the core of the book is the story, based on interviews and other first-hand information, of the 11 illegals. It begins with their recruitment and the efforts invested in preparing them for their task. Especially interesting to readers of Inroads is the detailed narrative, evidently based on long discussions with the author, of Andrez Bezrukov, born in 1960, and Elena Vavilova, born in 1962, a couple who had met as students at Tomsk State University where they were recruited. They were given their new identities as Donald Heathfield and Ann Foley (the names of two deceased Canadians) and were trained for four years before arriving in Canada in 1987, working first in Montreal and then moving to Toronto three years later.
The plan was to send them to the United States at the appropriate time. In the meantime, two sons were born, and from Toronto they watched mystified as the old Soviet Union was replaced by the new Russia. But despite a period of some uncertainty, there was no question of ending their mission. In 1999 they moved to Massachusetts where Donald had been accepted into Harvard’s Kennedy School, considered a ticket into a world of leaders in business and government. He soon took a position in high tech business in Cambridge, all the while carrying out his basic function, that of a “talent spotter” identifying possible recruits who would spy for Russia. In fact, we find out, almost from the start their true identity was known to the CIA, but Heathfield and Foley were not arrested. Instead the FBI placed them under surveillance. It was only in 2011 that they were two of the exposed Russian spies traded for four jailed Russians who had spied for the West in the famous swap on the tarmac of Vienna airport.
This swap came at the culmination of almost a decade of observation of the illegals by the FBI. We learn of this in Corero’s recounting of the role of Alexander Poteyev, one of 60 spies in New York based at the UN. During the Yeltsin period, the FBI recruited Poteyev as a counterspy. After returning to Moscow, Poteyev joined the senior ranks of “Directorate S,” the secret unit inside the KGB which ran the operation, in 2000. He was thus in a position to learn the identities of the illegals, and it was he who exposed Heathfield and Foley along with the others. Poteyev’s appointment thus turned out to be “a godsend.” Now the United States “had its window into the illegals program.” It was only a decade later, when Poteyev realized that the FSB was closing in on him, that the window was closed and the spies exchanged.
Corera describes how what to do with the illegals was placed before President Obama and his top aides. They had only a brief window once Poteyev was pulled out of Russia before Putin would realize that the illegals had been exposed. In the meeting the heads of the FBI and CIA, supported notably by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sought to immediately arrest the spies and expel the diplomats who had facilitated their efforts. They did not believe that the new Russian President, Dimitri Medvedev, about to arrive in the United States to sign a new START nuclear treaty, was any different from then Prime Minister Putin. But Obama, Vice President Biden and key advisers disagreed. The resolution was that the spies would be quietly arrested but, rather than tried, they would be swapped. The arrests took place on June 27, 2011, just after Medvedev left. To be swapped, the illegals were required to first plead guilty before a New York court, which they did 10 days later. Putin, Corera reports, was furious and “drew a lesson he would not forget. Medvedev had been played. Russia had been humiliated.”
According to Corera, the Obama Administration treated the whole incident as a throwback initiated because of “some old-fashioned Russian spying, and it was time to put the whole thing behind them.” From his description of this decision and what came afterward, it is clear that he sympathizes with the dismay expressed by the American intelligence officers. Misjudging Putin, he concludes, would have consequences.
At the time of the swap, Heathfield and Foley’s two sons were on what they thought would only be a short visit to a foreign country, Russia, apparently still unaware that this was the native land of their parents. Knowing no one and not understanding the language, they found it hard to become Russians (Alex, born four years after Timothy, chose to go to court to try to regain his Canadian status, and in 2018, at age 23, he succeeded).
It was not hard, however, for their parents to go back to being Russians. Donald Heathfield, now again Andrez Bezrukov, was soon hired as assistant to the president of the energy giant Rosneft and as a lecturer at the Moscow Institute of International Relations. When asked by students what his previous life was like, he told them to watch The Americans, the television series about an illegal family like theirs. Corera quotes from an interview with Elena Vavilova: “The producers captured well the atmosphere of the eighties … the illegals’ human side with believable emotions and problems,” though the violence, she believed, was added “to keep the attention of viewers.” Andrez and Elena did not regret their decision, except that “nobody asked my kids whether they wanted to live like that. Or the consequences of being the sons of spies.”
In the swap on the tarmac of Vienna airport, among the four exchanged Russians who had spied for the West and been caught and jailed in Russia was military intelligence (GRU) officer Sergei Skripal, who had been recruited when operating out of the Russian mission in Madrid. Years later, in 2018, Skripal and his daughter Yulia, then living peacefully in Salisbury in the U.K., were poisoned by GRU agents. These well-known events are recounted in a later chapter and needn’t be retold here, but it is useful to cite Corera’s answer to the question he poses – “why was Skripal targeted?” – since it goes well beyond this particular case.
It was about sending a message … to those within Russia … Your former colleagues would come looking for you … even after close to a decade, when you thought you were living a quiet life, they would hunt you down and try to kill you and not care about hurting those you loved as they did it.
Corera suggests that Skripal was targeted in part because the British were seen as weak. That weakness was revealed in an earlier, similar case recounted here, that of Alexander Litvinenko, who had been recruited by MI6 and poisoned in 2006 by radioactive material Russian agents had placed in his tea, “leaving tiny particles scattered across London … The British state did its best for years to block an inquiry, an inquiry that was launched only years later and whose chair, Robert Owen, reported 10 years after the murder that it had been carried out by the FSB and probably approved by President Putin.” Another case in point is that of the attempted murder of exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky: the British state turned his assassin over to be deported to Russia where he (was) disappeared.
Corera stresses that to understand Putin’s attitude, one needs to understand his basic conviction, strengthened by certain events like the revelations of Edward Snowden, that Russia is a fortress besieged by the West, and everything is legitimate in fighting back: “Because the West was trying to undermine his grip, he believed it had become … vital to keep the West off-balance and divide it.”
He is especially critical of the attitudes of his compatriots. At the time of the swap, in 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron was visiting Russia to drum up business and invite Putin to come to the U.K. the following year. And still today, Corera notes bitterly, wealthy Russians continue to buy British soccer teams and mansions in Knightsbridge and Belgravia. They pay handsomely for the services of London professionals and their companies are listed on the London stock exchange. They open art galleries in Mayfair, attracting the attentions of diplomats and celebrities and all sorts of interesting people for spies among them to report on. Huge mansions “lie dark and dormant. No one is living there. In these places, but also in its heart, London has become a ghost town.”
The last chapter of Russians Among Us tells of cyberspies who replace and complement flesh-and-blood ones, building up “a massive machinery of disinformation.” The new illegals pretending to be U.S. grassroots activists need not physically exist; they can be “ghosts” controlled by someone at a computer in Moscow, like the spy who penetrated the Democratic National Committee computer system during the 2016 election campaign. The objective was to undermine the credibility of the DNC process that chose Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, and all was set to do so with the election results should Clinton have won. In March 2016, Clinton campaign chair John Podesta was contacted, supposedly by Google, to change his password, inadvertently giving GRU hackers access to 50,000 emails. By late August more than 100 real Americans had been contacted by fake U.S. persons to organize rallies.
But some traditions continue. I end with excerpts from Corera’s two closing paragraphs:
On the evening of June 28, 2017, Putin went to Yasenevo for a special gala to celebrate ninety-five years of illegals. Standing at a podium in the main auditorium, he paid tribute to Directorate S as a “legendary unit” and gave a roll call of its heroes … who had displayed valor and courage while fulfilling special missions in life-threatening circumstances … “They were needed more than ever.” Putin ended with a call to arms for those in front of him and for “the agents who are now serving abroad”. “I wish you good health, good luck, and new victories for the greater good of Russia.”
Make no mistake, somewhere – living in suburbia, picking up their children from parties, smiling at the neighbours as they water the hydrangeas – illegals are still out there. “We don’t consider ourselves heroes,” Elena Vavilova said looking back, nearly a decade after she had been swapped in Vienna. “We just honestly did our duty.” Her husband also plays down his role. “I am an average undercover agent. Hopefully not the worst, definitely not the very best. You have never heard about the best ones. And never will.”