Expert perspectives – In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month, the US government expelled 13 Russian diplomats from the United Nations. They did so on the basis of Russian intelligence officers or operatives working under diplomatic cover. We don’t know the details of their alleged activities, but we do know for sure: the Kremlin has a long history of using the United Nations (UN) for espionage.
During the Cold War, Soviet intelligence infiltrated and distorted key parts of the UN. These operations are sometimes disrupted in the public domain as Western governments expel Soviet ‘diplomats’. Contrary to what we might assume, such expulsions were not only great, but actually paid counter-intelligence dividends for Western national security.
From its earliest days, the Soviet government saw the United Nations as a platform to convey its external message to the world. The Soviet government was a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which gave it veto power, which it often used.
These aspects of the Soviet Union’s open diplomacy are well known at the United Nations. Its secret activities are less there. They were published in a British Foreign Office file published in September 2021, entitled “Russian Intelligence Service Working on UN Cover”. The thick, orange-covered file, stamped “Secret”, carries strict instructions for handling it. Reading this puts the US government’s expulsion in deep relief today.
The file reveals that in the 1970s, the Soviet Union’s intelligence services, the KGB and the GRU, penetrated the United Nations in New York and Geneva. Their officers used diplomatic cover for espionage. In fact, as the file makes clear, the KGB controls key parts of the UN bureaucracy. This was at a time when the Soviet government was enjoying a rift in its Cold War relations with the West, during Detente’s time.
The most shocking revelation about the Soviet invasion of the United Nations was in 1978. That year, its under-secretary general, Arkady Shevchenko, a Soviet citizen, went to the U.S. authorities – the highest-ranking Soviet official of all time to do it. Shevchenko soon revealed that he was a KGB officer.
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Shevchenko was previously recruited by the CIA, which persuaded him to continue working as an agent at the United Nations – with courage. After his resignation and extensive de-briefing, he revealed to the world that the presence of Soviet intelligence at the United Nations had deepened. The Soviet regime was cheating when it came to detentions. His intelligence could be confirmed by other sources, which to this day, the Kremlin wants to keep secret.
Shevchenko revealed that half of the Soviet citizens working at the UN headquarters in New York and its office in Geneva were either intelligence officers or were clearly assigned intelligence-related tasks. By gaining a position in the UN Secretariat, the Soviet government effectively acquired a rolodex of information about the civilian employees of the member states working there. The head of the UN staff in Geneva, for example, was a KGB officer.
The Soviet government had, in effect, secured the position of director of the policy coordination department of the New York Office of Personal Services, for good. The Soviet intelligence headquarters (the ‘Center’) instructed its secret officials at the UN that their success would be measured by the intelligence they had gathered, and that the privacy they had stolen was not their visible work for the UN. It violates UN rules, which require its citizens to work for the UN, not the government of their country.
The hijacked UN position has enriched the KGB to recruit Westerners as spies or agents of influence. An incident occurred in 1978, the same year that Shevchenko left the party.
In May of that year, the FBI arrested and successfully prosecuted two Soviet nationals working for the UN Secretariat on espionage charges. They were caught trying to steal the confidentiality of the U.S. submarine war from an agent they believed they recruited into the U.S. Navy, but had their source, a double-agent, secretly working for the FBI. Its special agents arrested Soviet officers at a shopping mall in New Jersey as they tried to recover a microfilm of defense privacy that their navy ‘agent’ had dropped into an orange juice carton. They did not have diplomatic immunity, so they were arrested, but a third Soviet citizen was picked up from the scene, which did not allow him to face any punishment for his actions.
The nature of Soviet espionage at the UN was further revealed when Vladimir Rezun, a Soviet military intelligence officer (GRU) serving in the Soviet UN mission in Geneva, passed on to British intelligence in July 1978. His mission, as he later revealed, was to steal scientific and technological privacy from Western powers, particularly the United States. His prey was the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
Soviet intelligence has also entered other branches of the United Nations, such as its Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the World Health Organization (WHO). According to Shevchenko, the UN’s public information department has become the mouthpiece of the Soviet propaganda.
What about the Western government, we may ask? Weren’t they doing the same thing, using the UN as a diplomatic cover for their spies? The answer is of course yes. Documentary evidence is hard to find, but it would be foolish to assume otherwise. Spy Spy. Get over it.
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Consider for a moment, however, the scale of the Soviet presence in the UN, and you will get an idea of the quantitative difference between how the two sides of the Cold War used (and apparently abused) the UN.
The Kremlin had a phalanx of intelligence officers disguised as diplomats. In November 1984, the Soviets had 126 diplomats recognized at the United Nations in New York. This compares with 59 in US missions and only 20 in UK missions. According to the newly released British Foreign Office file, most of these Soviet officials were “spies.” In 1980, the Swiss government estimated that at least 200 of the 650 or more Soviet officers living in Switzerland were engaged in espionage.
During the Cold War, both sides engaged in the business of expelling suspected diplomats as intelligence officers. We can assume that such expulsions were a gimmick, a tit-for-tat show between the two world powers and their allies. They were, but they have served a purpose. In the world of espionage, sometimes even a blunt instrument like expulsion is needed. By expelling Soviet intelligence officers, Western governments were deprived of the basis for their recruitment and an architecture for espionage in the West.
In September 1971, the British government expelled 105 Soviet “diplomats” from Britain, in what they called Operation FOOT, perhaps a cunning reference to their expulsion. This was the biggest expulsion during the Cold War. By that year, the number of Soviet officials in London had reached nearly 1,000, including the Soviet embassy, its trade delegation, as well as many Soviet “working wives” who had been used by the Kremlin to evade British sanctions. There were so many Soviet officers in Britain that MI5 could not keep track.
Operation FOOT After the defection of Oleg Lillian, a KGB officer in Britain, who worked in its sabotage department. Working under the guise of a Soviet trade delegation, Laylin revealed to MI5 that his goal was to prepare for a sabotage campaign against Britain when World War III broke out – a heated war between the Soviet Union and the West. The British Foreign Secretary, Alec Douglas-Hom, along with his Soviet counterpart, Andrei Gromyko, raised the issue of the large number of Soviet intelligence officers on British soil. Irrationally, the Soviet Foreign Minister replied: “The figures you have given cannot be true because the Soviet Union has no spies.” It was difficult for the British to know what to do with the Kremlin’s ambiguity at this level.
Operation FOOT identified a reservoir for British counter-espionage during the Cold War. Previously classified KGB archives reveal that, for the first time, Britain became a difficult target for Soviet spy chiefs. A high-ranking former KGB officer, Oleg Kalugin, later claimed that FOOT had struck a blow at Britain’s Soviet intelligence from which it had never recovered.
The Kremlin’s spying activities at the UN have not stopped since the end of the Cold War. In Russia, KGB’s successor service, SVR, continues its tradecraft. In the late 1990’s, an SVR defector, Sergei Tretyakov (known as ‘Comrade J’), joined the CIA from Russia’s UN mission in New York, where he was reportedly close to then-Chief Sergei Lavrov.
Today, Western intelligence agencies hope to recruit disgruntled Russian intelligence officers, working under diplomatic cover in the West, who will follow in the footsteps of their Soviet predecessors. It’s not hard to imagine Russian foreign intelligence officials feeling frustrated and annoyed by Putin’s war in Ukraine — now they’re willing to share secrets on the right side of history.
Hopefully the Western case officers are busy with the operation which we will one day read in the declassified files. With better luck, Westerners will be able to get the modern equivalent of the KGB archivist, Vasily Mitrokhin. He was so terrified of the Soviet government’s brutality that he smuggled a KGB archive (“Mitrokhin Archive”) to the West with the help of MI6. Today, the West needs a similar ally to unravel Putin’s dark intelligence.
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