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'Russians Among Us' Author On Actual Russian Spycraft


This next conversation is about ghosts - the ghosts of spies that have haunted relations between Russia and the West even after the Cold War ended. Gordon Corera writes about Russian spies and the British and American spies trying to catch them in his new book, "Russians Among Us." It chronicles years of espionage efforts, years during which Corera has had a front-row seat as the BBC's security correspondent, reporting on MI6, the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Gordon Corera joins me now from our New York offices. Hey there.


KELLY: Hey. So your book spans the Putin years and really tracks how he has shaped the spy campaign against the West since he came to power two decades ago. I want to focus my time with you on right now, on what has changed just in the last few years, one factor that you discussed being technology. Things like facial recognition and iris scanners have made it impossible, nearly, for Russian spies or spies from anywhere else to operate in the ways that they once did.

CORERA: That's right. If you go back to the Cold War, the Russians spent decades trying to build deep cover for their spies who would live and burrow themselves deep into American society, the so-called illegals like the TV series "The Americans." But what they found was that starting after 9/11, really, technology was making that harder. It became harder to create some of those false identities in the way they'd done in the past. In that era, you started to have biometrics come in, in which you are basically confirming someone's biological or other characteristics that they were who they said they were.

KELLY: Yeah. It doesn't matter if you have an excellent fake passport if you still have to scan your iris coming through...

CORERA: Exactly.

KELLY: ...Airport security. Yeah.

CORERA: It will say you came in as a different identity three months ago. So the days in which you could just pick up a passport as a spy and a new identity and just pick it up out of your safe and then go into another country was really changing. So you start to see a shift in lots of countries in how they think about spying, but the Russians have always thought more about this than others. And so one of the things they shifted to in - starting in the 2000s was to stop using, if you like, deep cover illegals who were posing and had turned themselves into Americans and actually using Russians who no longer hid who they were but hid what they were doing.

KELLY: Yeah. You cite as a maybe very - you know, one of the more famous examples Anna Chapman, the famous redhead who was expelled from the U.S. in 2010 but who was here under her real name, who didn't try to hide that she was Russian. She did try to hide that she worked for Russian intelligence.

CORERA: Exactly, and I think she was emblematic of that shift you saw in how the Russians did some of their espionage. They could take advantage of the closer relations between the West and Russia that weren't there in the Cold War and could use the Russians who were moving back and forth sometimes. They'd come over as students or as young people, sometimes businessmen and oligarchs. And they could use those for espionage and influence, and they could co-opt Russians who were already in the West and start to use them. So you start to see that as one of the shifts.

KELLY: Although you do hit on another thing, which is that the mission has changed in the sense that a lot of these new intelligence assets coming in from Russia are not going after powerful, influential Americans, the top cadre of American administration officials. They're going after regular old Americans.

CORERA: Yeah, and I think that was one of the interesting developments - is that there was this old model in which spying was about stealing secrets. And this was the way the FBI kind of monitored Russian spies, but they started to see shifts in which actually, the Russians were interested in people who didn't necessarily have access to secrets but who had influence in society and in politics. And they started to look to target and cultivate those people increasingly - so looking for influence rather than espionage, which actually became much harder for the FBI to deal with. They struggled in a way because it's much easier when someone steals a secret to say, well, that's illegal, and we're going to prosecute you or go after it. And you see that also shift into politics, into political interference and the way in which Russia deployed some of these fake identities to try and manipulate American politics and to further some of the divisions in America.

KELLY: How does Maria Butina fit into this picture? We should remind people. She was another redheaded Russian...


KELLY: ...Who came under her own name, was arrested and who pleaded guilty to operating here as an unregistered foreign agent.

CORERA: And had built up very interesting connections with the National Rifle Association and in political circles on the right. And what was interesting about her is she was another evolution on from the Anna Chapman model. She was much more someone who was being used potentially at arm's length and was working through an oligarch, a Russian businessman, someone - rather than directly with any kind of intelligence service. And it goes back to the idea that the Russians would increasingly try and use people at arm's length and perhaps co-opt them to do things. Those people don't even always know that they're working for Russian intelligence.

KELLY: Well, and I interviewed Maria Butina last year from prison and asked her directly, are you a Russian spy? And she said no.

CORERA: And I think in many ways, she could well be right because she may well have thought, I'm merely doing something for this businessman or oligarch who is asking me to collect this information and to develop contacts. But in turn, that person could have been tasked by the Russian security service. So you can see how it's a more fluid picture in the way Russia spies now.

KELLY: How does the case of Sergei Skripal fit in, the former Russian spy who, along with his daughter, was poisoned in this brazen chemical weapons attack in Britain on British soil in 2018? What does that tell us about Russian tactics?

CORERA: I think it tells us quite a lot about Russian tactics. One of the things that, in my book, I focus on is the 2010 spy swap, when a group of Russian illegals in America were arrested and they were swapped for four Russians in prison who'd been spying for the West or were accused to be of spying for the West. One of them was Sergei Skripal. Now, I think that 2010 swap was misunderstood at the time because I think it was seen as a bit of a kind of strange, almost comic Cold War throwback. But for Putin himself, personally, he was, I'm told, deeply angry about that swap. And I think the fact that they went after, eight years later, one of those who'd been swapped and were willing to use nerve agent on the streets of Britain to try and kill one of the people who'd been swapped out and technically pardoned shows how angry he was and the Russian system was and how desperate they were for revenge.

I think it also tells you that the capacity and the willingness to take risks, their tolerance for risk, their willingness to be brazen, to not even care about being caught or found out has certainly changed. And that's something which I don't think has always been understood until, often, it's too late after these incidents.

KELLY: Do we assume that this is not a one-way street? Hopefully not the chemical weapons poisoning and that type thing, but that - do we assume that the U.S. and Britain and other Western powers are very busy in Russia trying to figure out new ways to spy?

CORERA: Absolutely. The spying never really ended when the Cold War ended. It kept on going, and the West has been particularly aggressive in spying inside Russia and around its neighborhood. And also, it feels that the West has been subverting its politics, and I think it is important to understand even if we don't agree with that perspective because it explains why Russia does what it does. Putin has used that sense of threat, the sense in which the Kremlin and Russia is a besieged fortress constantly under fire from foreign spies who are there manipulating its politics. It's part of his identity and something he's used to solidify his hold on power and which explains why he acts in the way he does and why he feels entirely justified and is willing to use his spies to interfere in Western politics.

KELLY: Gordon Corera, thank you.

CORERA: Thank you.

KELLY: He is the BBC's security correspondent and author of the new book "Russians Among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories And The Hunt For Putin's Spies."

(SOUNDBITE OF LELE MARCHITELLI'S "LATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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