November 11, 2011: In Russia, every November 5th is "Spy Day," and celebrates a century of Russian espionage. This special day is not a leftover from the Soviet Union. Spy Day was established in 2000, by Vladimir Putin, the recently elected president of Russia, whose professional experience was as a Soviet era spy. But this was not an effort to regain some respect for Soviet era spies (many of whom were out of work after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991). Rather, Putin was bringing attention to peace time spying. Like China, Russia has been very active in stealing foreign technology, and needs skilled spies to do it.
While Putin is a veteran of the Soviet era KGB (the Soviet CIA), most senior government officials are not. Of the top hundred officials in the Russian government, only twelve percent had worked for the KGB. But the KGB influence in the Russian government is real, although far less than dominating. Most KGB officials have found better paying jobs in the booming civilian sector. The KGB was always known as where the "best and brightest" of Soviet society went. These guys are smart enough to avoid getting tied down in a government job, no matter how high up in the food chain.
But Putin has made a major effort to revive the huge Soviet era espionage capability. Five years ago a new, $300 million, headquarters for GRU (similar to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency) was opened. This was but one of many examples of Russia's increased interest in espionage. The 62,200 square meter (670,000 square foot) GRU complex contains the latest of everything for what used to be the smallest of Russia's intelligence services (the domestic, and foreign, intelligence services were always larger). Over the previous five years, the increasing flood of oil revenue has made it possible to rebuild the intelligence services. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there followed a decade of decline for the intelligence services. The feared overseas KGB spies became the threadbare SVB, with domestic intelligence taken over by the FSB. Many Soviet spies defected, and sold their secrets to Western intelligence agencies. The GRU, however, got more of this new money, and was expected to expand its efforts overseas.
These changes were partly due to the new Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. But the Russians are also back to their old Soviet ways, in that most of their espionage appears to be directed towards stealing technology. In a way, this doesn't make a lot of sense. During the Soviet period, the Russians did not recognize a lot of foreign patents, did not export their best military technology, and stole Western technology they needed. For the Soviets, stealing technology was a cheap way of keeping pace, although always behind, with the West. Now Russia has Western quality manufacturing capabilities and the ability to license most of what they need. But there are some military technologies it cannot license. So whatever tech Russia steals, it can now duplicate more effectively than during the Soviet period. But it can't let any stuff, built using stolen technology, get discovered by foreigners. Otherwise, the lawsuits and trade sanctions will arrive, and cause more harm than the lack of foreign technologies.
What the Russians are looking for are not so much patented technologies, as the "trade secrets" that are not filed with the patent office, and given legal protection from copying. Russia is especially eager to get military technology, and intel on government and business decision making. But mainly, the Russians are eager to get ahold of whatever foreign companies or governments do not want them to see. So, after a ten year hiatus, Russia spies are again being found everywhere, as they have been for the last 70 years. It's estimated that there are at least a hundred Russian spies active in the United States, with most other industrialized countries having 20-40 of them. Some are locals, working for the Russians, the others are Russians pretending to be something else.
This enthusiasm for espionage was not without its problems. During the 1990s, most of the experienced KGB and GRU espionage experts left or were fired. In the last decade, attempts to rebuild the spy agencies have relied on a lot of much less experienced supervisors and administrators. Even Putin noticed the drop in capabilities. There have been numerous botched overseas espionage operations, and lots of feuding within and between the SVR and GRU. This has led to the suggestion that another wave of firings take place in senior management, and the two spy agencies be merged into one organization that will handle everything. The military is strongly opposed to this. But the military does not have the clout it used to possess. If Putin gets behind this unification proposal, opposing generals will find themselves swiftly retired. There are plenty of younger generals who are enthusiastic about reforming GRU, which is seen as old-fashioned and run by dolts. The younger officers are willing to take their chances with a combined SVR/GRU spy agency.