Moscow's Spy Game

Why Russia Is Winning the Intelligence War in Ukraine

A supporter of Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev, April 2007. Vasily Fedosenko / Courtesy Reuters

Eight weeks after Ukraine’s new government and pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east agreed to a cease-fire, the war continues to simmer. It is fought with guns and rockets on the ground and with warnings and sanctions at the negotiating table. But, nearly invisibly, the war is also being waged along a third dimension: intelligence. On that front, both Ukraine and the West are scrambling to counter Russia’s vast advantage.

For Kiev’s new leaders, still struggling to set their country right after popular protests toppled the pro-Russian government of President Viktor Yanukovych last year, accurate and reliable information about the rebels in the east is critical. But obtaining intelligence about the aims, intentions, and capabilities of the rebels—let alone those of the Russian government that supports them—is nearly impossible. As Kiev attempts to react to Russian and rebel initiatives, both military and political, it often has only a faint idea of whether they represent serious moves or feints and what endgame they pursue. Even the numbers of rebel troops and the weapons they’ve acquired from Russia are frequently little more than guesswork. Meanwhile, Moscow enjoys a significant upper hand over Kiev when it comes to intelligence—the Ukrainian communications and command structures are thoroughly permeated by Russian agents—and is using this advantage to further tilt the playing field in its favor.  

Time is working against Ukraine. To reverse the trend, Kiev must not only ramp up its intelligence and counterintelligence efforts but do so while radically reforming the Ukrainian security apparatus. Relying on Western assistance is of little help: the West, too, is short on reliable sources in eastern Ukraine and outmatched by Russia’s prior preparation. Ukraine’s ongoing political transition and last weekend’s parliamentary elections give its government a window of opportunity in which to reclaim control over this key instrument of security policy. Otherwise, Ukrainian credibility and sovereignty will both continue to be under question.


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