In another attempt to recruit disenchanted Russians to share their country’s secrets, the US government, this time through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has released a slickly-made advertisement to woo potential dissenters.
Ending with secret instructions on how to get in touch with the agency, the entire promotional video is in Russian. The agency released it on a Telegram channel since the social media platform is hugely popular among official and civilian users in Russia.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in March last year did something similar. It created geographically targeted mobile internet ads aimed at Russian diplomats and intelligence personnel, who might disapprove of President Vladimir Putin’s governance or the war in Ukraine.
The ads of Russian diplomatic or military personnel posted abroad appeared on Facebook, Twitter, and Google.
While it is unknown if the bizarre attempt succeeded, the latest counterintelligence strategy has certainly irked the Russian leadership. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said their special services are “monitoring Telegram very well.”
But the CIA effort is different from last year’s FBI attempt. It aims to attract ordinary Russians working in Russia’s technology, finance, medical, industrial, retail, and energy sectors.
Also, in May 2022, the CIA’s Instagram account posted a similar outreach. This post had step-by-step instructions for potential Russian informants on avoiding detection by Russia’s security services by using virtual private networks (VPN), using the Tor web browser, and through encryption, contacting the agency on the Dark Web (or Deep Web).
What The CIA Video Shows
The latest two-minute video is customized with particular Russian cultural and societal sensitivities in mind, with a common theme of a family running throughout. The emotional video shows different Russians going about their lives while contemplating major decisions.
It shows a young girl in a hospital bed with a lady who appears to be her mother; a woman working at what looks like a government computer; and a man walking into a government building, flashing his ID before sitting at a desk with a large stack of files.
Disrupt Russian Intelligence & Bait Officials, Citizens
The unusual attempt to openly recruit informants or spies possibly has different intentions than the ones advertised. For one, counterintelligence is meant to disrupt and detect an adversary’s intelligence-gathering attempts.
The public call for disillusioned Russians to get in touch with the CIA will burden the bulk of Russia’s internal and external intelligence agencies (the FSB and SVR) to keep a watch on their own citizens. This might impact their core mandate of gathering intelligence on their foreign targets.
This assessment aligns with the view of Peter Lapp, a former FBI counterintelligence officer, who was quoted in a Washington Post report on the FBI internet ads in March last year.
“Russian counterintelligence officers are currently in an all-hands-on-deck mode to ensure their folks don’t stray. This will probably cause those folks to work even harder, and they may end up chasing ghosts, things that aren’t there, and spending time doing this. That in and of itself is a counterintelligence success for the FBI,” Lapp said in the post’s article.
It is also likely that the open publication of the CIA’s page on the dark web might also be to lure Russian agents and cyber specialists, who are certain to access it even for investigative purposes. Then learning about their identity or gaining access to their computers – or both – could be the next step.
It is a common practice among cyber criminals to get their victims to visit pages or download malicious applications or attachments and then gain entry into their emails and bank accounts.
The possibilities of controlling the private and official computer systems of even a few hundred Russians – who might have visited the CIA site albeit out of curiosity – are endless.
Diplomatic & Political Narrative
There is also a secondary motive of such ‘legitimate’ espionage attempts that rests on the narrative of citizens of a country being unwilling watchers of a heavy-handed government – in this case, Vladimir Putin’s administration.
It further pushes the broader US international narrative about how citizens are oppressed politically in non-democracies like Russia and how liberal electoral democracy is superior to other forms of government.
Asking such a ‘silent majority’ in Russia to open up to the CIA creates the perception internationally that such a group exists and lives under constant fear of Putin’s retribution. This harms Russia’s global image and can have diplomatic fallouts.
According to state media Tass, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that Moscow will not leave the CIA’s endeavors to carry out propaganda in Russia without a proper response.
“Such malicious activities, including dissemination of inciting materials, will not be left without an effective response. They know that we won’t keep them waiting, and you, probably, were able to make sure of that as well,” she said, answering a question about the CIA’s attempts to recruit Russian nationals via the Telegram messenger.
“This includes attempts to carry out aggressive espionage, as well as attempts to interfere in our internal affairs, and attempts to destabilize the situation in our country from the inside by recruiting various marginalized individuals. Overall, this approach is nothing new, unfortunately. There are some innovations, technological ones, but they did not hide their aims and goals in recent years,” Zakharova added.