Russia probably has more undercover 'sleeper' agents who can assassinate Western targets today than during Cold War

LONDON — If the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal really was poisoned by Putin's agents, it might have been done by a "sleeper" agent activated for precisely that task.

That is because there are probably more Russian sleeper agents in the UK and US today than there were during the Cold War, according to Victor Madeira, a senior fellow at The Institute for Statecraft who testified to Parliament about Russian covert interference in Britain.

Russia's assassins have been active in Europe recently.

When conflict broke out on the Ukraine-Russia border, Madeira says, one of the first things that happened was senior Ukrainian security experts began to die. In June 2017, Colonel Maksym Shapoval, a Ukrainian military intelligence officer, was blown up in his car. The most recent attempted killing, of a far-right politician, was in October 2017.
Fourteen people are suspect to have been killed in Britain by Russian spies since 2003, according to BuzzFeed.

"They identify experts for assassination ... confusion is half the battle." Their targets were "senior military and counter-intelligence officers," Madeira says. "Those people were very carefully targeted for assassination."

Assassinations work because "at the very least it's disruptive and demoralising ... at best it's years of knowledge and contacts - that's all gone," Madeira says.

"The media underestimated considerably just how much of a continuous element this represents from a Russian point of view."

RELATED: A look at the case of Sergei Skripal's poisoning

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The case of Sergei Skripal's poisoning
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The case of Sergei Skripal's poisoning
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 08: Forensic police officers wearing hazmat suits examine a vehicle believed to belong to Sergei Skripal on March 8, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Police investigations continue into the use of a nerve agent to poison Sergei Skripal, who was found ill in a Salisbury park with his daughter on March 4. Both Sergei Skripal and his daughter remain in critical condition in hospital. Sergei Skripal was granted refuge in the UK following a spy swap between the US and Russia in 2010. (Photo by Rufus Cox/Getty Images)
Chairs are seen on tables inside the Mill pub which former Russian inteligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia visited before they were found poisoned on a bench nearby in Salisbury, Britain, March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 06: Witness Freya Church, 27, walks with a policeman near a forensic tent where Sergei Skripal, 66 and his duaghter Yulia Skripal, in her 30s, were found unconscious in Salisbury town centre two days previously on March 6, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010 and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Londoners pass-by the London newspaper Evening Standard's latest headline about ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal's suspected poisoning by Russia in southern England, on 6th March 2018, in the capital's financial district, the City of London, England. As both Skripal and a woman believed to be his daughter Ylulia remain in a critical condition at Salisbury hospital where he was taken ill on Sunday 4th, British Counter Terrorism Police have taken over the investigation from the local Wiltshire force. The British press have been quick in blaming President Putin's involvement just weeks before his Presidential re-election. (Photo by Richard Baker In Pictures via getty Images)
Former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal attends a hearing at the Moscow District Military Court in Moscow on August 9, 2006. Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent whose mysterious collapse in England sparked concerns of a possible poisoning by Moscow, has been living in Britain since a high-profile spy swap in 2010. Police were probing his exposure to an unknown substance, which left him unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury and saw media draw parallels to the case of Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-spy who died of radioactive polonium poisoning in 2006. / AFP PHOTO / Kommersant Photo / Yuri SENATOROV / Russia OUT (Photo credit should read YURI SENATOROV/AFP/Getty Images)
A forensics tent covers the bench, where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found slumped, in a cordoned off area in the centre of Salisbury, Britain, March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville
Police officers seal off the road on which Russian Sergei Skripal and his daughter have been staying in Salisbury, Britain, March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville
Police officers stand on duty outside a restaurant which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley (R) and Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies give a statement on March 7, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. A police officer who was the first to attend the scene is now also in a serious condition in hospital. Police are treating the suspected poisoning as attempted murder by nerve agent. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Police officers stand on duty outside a pub which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/ Henry Nicholls
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley leaves after giving a statement on March 7, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. A police officer who was the first to attend the scene is now also in a serious condition in hospital. Police are treating the suspected poisoning as attempted murder by nerve agent. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 08: Forensic police officers wearing hazmat suits examine a vehicle believed to belong to Sergei Skripal on March 8, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Police investigations continue into the use of a nerve agent to poison Sergei Skripal, who was found ill in a Salisbury park with his daughter on March 4. Both Sergei Skripal and his daughter remain in critical condition in hospital. Sergei Skripal was granted refuge in the UK following a spy swap between the US and Russia in 2010. (Photo by Rufus Cox/Getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley (R) and Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies give a statement on March 7, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. A police officer who was the first to attend the scene is now also in a serious condition in hospital. Police are treating the suspected poisoning as attempted murder by nerve agent. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Police officers stand on duty outside a pub which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/ Henry Nicholls
Londoners pass-by the London newspaper Evening Standard's latest headline about ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal's suspected poisoning by Russia in southern England, on 6th March 2018, in the capital's financial district, the City of London, England. As both Skripal and a woman believed to be his daughter Ylulia remain in a critical condition at Salisbury hospital where he was taken ill on Sunday 4th, British Counter Terrorism Police have taken over the investigation from the local Wiltshire force. The British press have been quick in blaming President Putin's involvement just weeks before his Presidential re-election. (Photo by Richard Baker In Pictures via getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: A police tent is seen behind a cordon outside The Maltings shopping centre where a man and a woman were found critically ill on a bench on March 4 and taken to hospital sparking a major incident, on March 7, 2018 in Wiltshire, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal attends a hearing at the Moscow District Military Court in Moscow on August 9, 2006. Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent whose mysterious collapse in England sparked concerns of a possible poisoning by Moscow, has been living in Britain since a high-profile spy swap in 2010. Police were probing his exposure to an unknown substance, which left him unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury and saw media draw parallels to the case of Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-spy who died of radioactive polonium poisoning in 2006. / AFP PHOTO / Kommersant Photo / Yuri SENATOROV / Russia OUT (Photo credit should read YURI SENATOROV/AFP/Getty Images)
A tent covers the park bench where former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after they were poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
A tent covers the park bench where former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after they were poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
A police officer stands at a cordon around the bench where former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after they were poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Britain's Home Secretary Amber Rudd, accompanied by Temporary Chief Constable Kier Pritchard, visits the scene where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after having been poisoned by a nerve agent in Salisbury, Britain, March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
A police officer stands on duty outside a restaurant which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Police officers work at a supermarket near the bench where former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MARCH 6, 2018: Pictured in this file image dated August 9, 2006, is retired colonel Sergei Skripal during a hearing at the Moscow District Court. File image/Press Office of Moscow District Military Court/TASS (Photo by TASS\TASS via Getty Images)
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If you are baffled as to why Russia might want Skripal dead, that is the whole point

They are also suspected of killing Mikhail Lesin, Vladimir Putin's former media czar, in Washington, DC in 2015, according to BuzzFeed.

If you are baffled as to why Russia might want Skripal — who ceased to be active as a spy in 2004 — dead, that is the whole point, Madeira told Business Insider recently. The Russian security and counterintelligence apparatus likes it when its enemies are confused and distracted, and they put a lot of effort into keeping it that way.

In written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Committee, Madeira — a Russia expert — described the resources Russia commands in its efforts to subdue British, European and American influence.

Most of his evidence focused on the fact that Russia's intelligence services vastly outnumber their counterparts in the UK. But he also included this tidbit about Russia's "Main Intelligence Directorate," the GRU, and its "illegals" operation, which places spies in Britain and the US where they live seemingly ordinary lives, until called upon by Moscow:

"GRU has long deployed 'illegals'. These hand-picked, deep-cover intelligence officers live abroad under assumed 'legends': carefully constructed false foreign identities and life stories (over decades in some cases), allowing 'illegals' to blend in."

"... Nowadays, UK CI and CE [counterintelligence and counterespionage] resources are much diminished, while former Warsaw Pact nationals can easily travel across NATO. This is a particular problem if an intelligence officer/asset uses 'natural cover' (i.e. their own identity, sometimes called 'non-official cover' or NOC). A banker or travel agent may be just that - or they may also be intelligence officers or assets (the latter willing or coerced). Having few(er) or no traceable links to a hostile intelligence service, NOCs are far more difficult to detect, monitor and counter. This is why they are so valued."

"'Illegals' are the most prized of intelligence officers," Madeira, the author of "Britannia and the Bear," a history of espionage between the two nations, concluded.

"Despite the 'end' of the Cold War in 1989-1991, Russia's decades-long 'illegals' programmes didn't miss a beat. These programmes remain as strategic, long-term, resource-intensive in nature and prized as ever, with a single purpose: placing hand-picked Russian intelligence assets across foreign societies and governments, regardless of the current state of East-West relations," he told Business Insider recently.

The scariest part is what they are capable of if Russia wants to activate them in an emergency. Some illegals will be used to identify targets for assassinations.

Anna Chapman, the spy who worked at Barclays

The most famous of the "illegals" is probably Anna Chapman, who was arrested and deported from the US with nine other sleeper agents in 2010. (Coincidentally, Skripal arrived in the UK because he was one of the Russian spies taken in by the West as part of that swap.)

When Chapman (real name Anna Vasilyevna Kushchenko) was arrested, the media treated the event like a joke. Chapman did not appear to be engaged in any serious spying.

She gained UK citizenship through a marriage to a British citizen she met at a rave. She lived in London for at least five years, between 2001 and 2006, and worked at NetJets and Barclays, before moving to America. Perhaps, people said, the Chapman ring was a set of Soviet agents that the Russians forgot about after the wall came down? The story was later used as the premise for a TV show, "The Americans," starring Keri Russell. It tells the story of two KGB officers posing as a married couple who live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Today, little is known about the true scale of Russia's "illegals" programme, beyond the fact that the Chapman arrests proved it was alive and well in 2010. What we do know comes from the Cold War, when Western counter-intelligence took the Russian threat more seriously.

In the mid-1980s, researchers estimated that the KGB's First Chief Directorate unit operated 200 "illegal" agents, and the GRU, separately, another 150.

The numbers of 'illegals' undercover in the West "are much higher nowadays."

"Personally, I am certain those figures are much higher nowadays," Madeira told Business Insider.

The reason: Russian state security agencies tend to think in terms of decades or generations, not years. The end of the Cold War made it easier for Russians to travel to Western countries, and the KGB's successor agencies will have regarded this as a long-term opportunity.

Spies no longer need to make a tortuous journey from Moscow through Asia or the Middle East, changing passports multiple times, before arriving in Europe. At the same time, the UK's commitment to counter-intelligence dwindled, as we entered the decade-long period of peace in the 1990s that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

That made it easier for illegals to operate. Now they can get on a Moscow-to-Heathrow plane in the morning and disappear in London by lunchtime.

The "Directorate S" training process can take years

The Chapman spy ring was run by Russia's SVR, or Foreign Intelligence Service (Russia has a multitude of often competing intelligence services). The SVR is a former unit of the KGB. Within the SVR is the mysterious "Directorate S," which recruits, trains, and supervises "illegals."

The process can take decades, and some "illegals" are sent over as married couples while their grown children stay behind in Russia as semi-free "hostages," to guarantee they will not defect. An account of the process was published in 1984 by Viktor Suvorov, a GRU agent who defected to the UK in 1978. It begins when the illegal trainee is housed in a secret Moscow dacha outfitted entirely as if it were a home in the West:

"... he wears the clothes and shoes, and eats the food, even smokes cigarettes and uses razor blades procured from overseas. In each room a tape recorder is installed which runs twenty-four hours a day while he is occupying the dacha. These tape recorders continuously broadcast news from the radio programmes of his target country. From the first day of his training he is supplied with the majority of papers and magazines. He sees many films and descriptions on video tapes of television broadcasts.

The instructors, for the most part former illegals, read the same papers and listen to the same radio programmes and spend their time asking their pupil the most difficult questions imaginable with regard to what has been read. It is quite obvious that after a number of years of such training, the future illegal knows by heart the composition of every football team, the hours of work of every restaurant and nightclub, the weather forecasts and everything that is going on in the realm of gossip as well as current affairs, in a country where he has never been in his life."

They become ordinary citizens, leading mundane lives

The curious aspect of the illegals programme is that once activated, these agents do not turn into Le Carre characters. They don't immediately infiltrate the military or MI6 or the CIA and transmit secret information back to Moscow. Rather, they become ordinary citizens, leading mundane lives.

The obvious question is, why do the Russians bother? The answer is that the mere ability to place foreign agents inside another country is an end in itself. Only then do they set about actually trying to conduct espionage.

"Historically, it's been exceedingly rare for 'illegal' Russian intelligence officers themselves to penetrate foreign governments generally. As good as 'illegal' legends can be for daily life, it'd be impossible for 'first-generation' 'illegals' to pass proper security vetting (I would hope!)" Madeira says.

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"The role of the 'illegal' intelligence officer is to remain undetected by foreign counter-intelligence and counter-espionage services, while recruiting assets/agents/sources that either already have access to valuable information or are assessed to have the potential to do so," he told Business Insider.

"These assets/agents/sources are the ones working inside foreign governments, corporations, NGOs, media, academia, etc."

Suvorov has a good description of this:

"... On his arrival at his objective, the illegal sets about basic legalisation. He has been provided with good papers by the best forgers of the GRU on genuine blank passports. At the same time he is extremely vulnerable if he is not registered with the police or the tax departments. Any check may give him away and for this reason he endeavours to change jobs and places of work often to get his name onto as many company lists as he can and to acquire character references signed by real people. The ideal solution is for him to obtain new documentation from the police department under some pretext or another. Often he will marry another agent (who may already be his wife); she will then be given a genuine passport, and he will 'lose' his false one to have it replaced with a real one on the production of his wife's genuine document. The acquisition of a driving licence, credit cards, membership documents of clubs and associations are a vital element in 'legalising' the status of an illegal."

"One of their favourite means is to go through Western cemeteries, find a deceased child that passed away very young, then they will take that identity"

They will often steal the identity of a dead baby, Madeira says. "One of their favourite means is to go through Western cemeteries, find a deceased child that passed away very young, then they will take that identity, and if the checks work out they will create a false 'legend' and that person will gradually develop a life history, a foreign passport, they will speak foreign languages with no trace of an accent."

In addition to NetJets and Barclays, Chapman also ran a real estate agent office in New York.

The aim is to start at the outer circles of influence and develop a network that reaches upward to the top. Illegals have been "travel agents, think tanks, students," Madeira says.

"But what they all had in common was they were gradually trying to find their way, through work and networking, to the centres of power, the policymakers, the special advisers, people who have privileged insight to decision-making, or people who have a way of influencing. A wealthy individual who happens to be a party donor ... they may have gone to school with a senator, they may have gone to school with an MP."

Note to readers: A version of this story was originally published on December 9, 2017, and updated with more recent information about the Skripal poisoning.

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