Emigrant espionage: how the Kremlin affects vulnerable Russian diaspora abroad

05.05.2020 Off By Polyanska
Emigrant espionage: how the Kremlin affects vulnerable Russian diaspora abroad

Ksenia Kirillova, in article for Byline Times, explains the influence compelling Russians abroad to trust the words of Vladimir Putin and how to counteract this.

“Putin, bring in the troops!”

Last week, the chairman of Russia’s main think tank, Foundation for national values protection, suggested amending the Russian Constitution to include, according to Alexander Malkevich, the right to protect Russians abroad.

In particular, the Foundation wants to amend Article 61 of the Constitution, guaranteeing the support and protection of Russian citizens outside the country.

“The Russian Federation recognizes its right to use any force to protect the life and property of its citizens abroad in cases where the receiving country cannot or does not wish to grant them the protection to which they are entitled.”

The key phrase is to use “any force” to protect not only the lives but also the property of Russian citizens. At the same time, Malkevich does not explain what protection Russian immigrants are entitled to.

Judging by the fact that the reason for the amendment was the recent arrest of a Russian woman named Olesya Krasylova in Spain at the request of the United States and the extradition of several Russian hackers to America. It extends to the prosecution of Russian citizens by the authorities of other countries.

Russian vulnerability abroad: diconnected

Not only the willingness to use force against other countries under the pretext of protecting Russian citizens but also the fact that this kind of initiative is supported by Russian diasporas abroad is the most worrying over the course of this issue.

Western intelligence services trying to track Russian intelligence activity on their territory often do not pay due attention to Moscow’s cooperation with Russians abroad.

Although, it is possible to compare, without exaggeration, the Kremlin policy on the Diaspora with German agents during the Third Reich. The popularity of Russian president Vladimir Putin among Russians living abroad during the 2018 presidential election far exceeded his results in Russia. There are various psychological reasons for this.

The psychological connection of many expatriates to their homeland carries a sense of guilt. The idea that emigration to a “hostile” country (especially to the United States or Britain) is a betrayal is gradually being spread by Russian propaganda until it somehow settles in the subconscious of people, especially those who do not consciously embark on the path of dissent. Even after they decided to leave Russia for personal reasons (for example, due to lower living standards, the need to fulfil or provide their children with a good education and prospects) such people are not really ready to be called “traitors.”

The Kremlin creates numerous associations, forums and congresses of Russian-speaking compatriots, who openly declare their intention to resume communication with the “Great Motherland”. Most of these associations support Putin’s current foreign policy. Many expatriates, even if they were initially indifferent to politics, are ready to accept this unwritten condition in order to continue living abroad peacefully and at the same time to feel that they have been “forgiven” by Russia.

For example, during the recent conflict between two different groups of the pro-Russian part of the diaspora in the United States, one of the parties threatened to ban another to take part in any activities conducted by Russian consulates and embassies in the US. Even the threat of “the excommunication from the embassy”, these people perceived as the harshest punishment.With no other connection to their “historical homeland,” these Americans care about formal contact with the Russian state more than their reputation in their own country.

Longing and belonging

Another weakness used by the Kremlin is the need forcultural identity among immigrants from Russia. Manyorganizations created or developed with the support ofthe Russian Foreign Ministry, although formallycultural and educational, are also secretly lobbying bythe people of Kremlin.

As a rule, 90% of the activities of such organizationsare non-political in nature, but people who are deeplyinvolved in their work are sooner or later forced to dealwith its political aspect.

For example, the Congress of Russian Americanspositions itself as the oldest national organization”rooted in religious Orthodox Christian values.” It isresponsible for religious and charitable activities, butthey also send letters to the US president him to cancelsanctions against Russia.

Main activity of such organizations cover the topic ofhistory of Russian Immigration and Russian languagestudying. However, as the organizers themselves note, there is also a message about “the role of the UnitedStates in creating colour revolutions around theperimeter of Russia.” Occasionally, the conspiracytheories of a “deep state that demonizes Russia” andthose that openly support Donald Trump are spread onthe events.

The third vulnerability actively used by Moscow is theso-called “emigration crisis”. According topsychologists, almost all expats go through a stage ofrejection, and sometimes even hatred, to a new country- including those who now live comfortably in thatcountry.

Under normal conditions, the period of heightenedcriticism for the new homeland is temporary andinferior to the place of adaptation. However, theRussian authorities are persistently trying to create a special environment for Russians abroad toideologically and mentally isolate them from theircountry of residence. As a result, the host country – perceived as a source of solace and comfort in a crisis – may subsequently become a “psychological trap” thatimpedes true assimilation.

The goal is to ensure that the soul of a person whojoins the host country remains attached to their “true” homeland embodied in immigration organizations.

How diasporas are used by intelligence services

Moscow’s main goal in dealing with expatriates is to turn «Russian Americans» or „Russia Englishmen“ into an instrument of soft power, lobbying Russia’sinterests abroad.

In early November 2018, British media reported thathalf of the Russian diaspora in the UK were informantsfor Russian intelligence services. This sensationalheadline was based on a misinterpretation of ProfessorAndrew Foxal’s report on the scope of Russianespionage. In fact, citing sources in the intelligencecommunity, the report has more modest numbers: 500 agents led by 200 curators. But the Russian expatriateswho spoke with Fox suggested that every secondcompatriot could secretly work for Russia.

Russian authorities have an effective way of puttingpressure on expats if they have a business or family inRussia. If the Russian goes home, FSB officers can askhim questions they do not dare to answer. According tothe emigrants themselves, up to half of Russiansabroad are in such a potential risk zone.

However, recruiting people in this way has someadvantages. Western intelligence agencies cannot keeptrack of Russian intelligence contacts with Russianvisitors, so Russians can do their job for a long time, which Western counterintelligence will not notice. These people are also not on the state payroll, so therisk of being exposed by defectors is minimized.

For example, in October 2013, the FBI accused a Russian diplomat and the head of the WashingtonRussian Cultural Center, Yuri Zaitsev, of recruitingAmericans as potential intelligence assets. The FBI argued that part of Zaitsev’s mission was “to sendyoung professionals from the US to Russia as part of a cultural program in which participants are evaluatedfor Russian counterintelligence.”

In 2014, Zaitsev left the United States, but hissuccessor in the same position, Oleg Zhiganov, wasexpelled for the same reason in late March 2018 as partof a group of 60 Russian diplomats accused ofespionage.

Another problem is that representatives of the Russiandiaspora do not always voluntarily and knowinglyagree to work in their former countries. Theintelligence services of both countries often use fraudand blackmail to get information from former citizens.

The famous Soviet dissident Boris Perchatkin says heknows of cases where KGB agents invaded religiousorganizations and then were sent abroad, where theyreceived political asylum, joined real dissidents, andeven created religious communities. He mentionsseveral goals pursued by KGB agents and his successorwhen they join a religious organization in the UnitedStates.

“Of course, this involves espionage,” says Perchatin. “Protestant parishioners are not only the elderly butalso the young, the students. They get an educationhere, get a job, for example, at Boeing, and then, byconfession, the pastor collects the necessaryinformation from them or passes them on to otherpeople. ”

How to help the diaspora

It is very difficult to determine how many Russianshave participated in cooperation with foreignintelligence at different times, but the most effectiveform of counteracting such a threat is to work toeliminate these psychological vulnerabilities indiaspora communities.

It is important for Russian expatriates to encourage thecreation of cultural and educational initiativesindependent of the Kremlin. The emergence of an”alternative culture” created in Russian but free fromthe influence of propaganda is Vladimir Putin’sgreatest fear.

It is important to pay special attention to the Russian-speaking media in the diaspora. The part of theRussian-speaking community that prefers to read thepress in their native language is often in an informationvacuum, creating hiring opportunities for structuresassociated with the Russian embassy. It is alsoimportant to create programs that help migrants adaptto a new country or at least help them solve pressingproblems.

It is perhaps equally important to set up a specialagency for victims of blackmail, threats and otheraggressive forms of coercion from other countries. Notall expatriates are prepared to deal withcounterintelligence agencies, and many do not seek tohelp the victims, but only use them for their ownpurposes and then leave them alone with mortaldanger.

Expatriates need to know what they have where to gofor help, including psychological help that is equallynecessary for people in prolonged stressful situations.