EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — Instantly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine final month, the US authorities expelled 13 Russian diplomats working on the United Nations. It did so on the grounds they have been Russian intelligence officers or operatives working underneath diplomatic cowl. We have no idea particulars about their alleged actions, however we do know one thing for sure: the Kremlin has a protracted historical past of utilizing the United Nations (UN) for espionage.

Throughout the Chilly Warfare, Soviet intelligence penetrated and subverted key components of the UN. Sometimes these operations crashed into the general public area, when Western governments expelled Soviet ‘diplomats’. Opposite to what we’d assume, such expulsions weren’t simply grandstanding, however in reality paid off counterintelligence dividends for Western nationwide safety.

From its earliest days, the Soviet authorities seen the UN as a platform for delivering its outward message to the world. The Soviet authorities was a everlasting member of the UN Safety Council, which granted it a proper of veto, which it steadily used.

Between 1945 and 1983, the Soviet authorities solid 115 vetoes, versus 38 by the US authorities and 20 by the British. Below the phrases of the Yalta settlement reached between the Soviet authorities and Western powers in 1945, two of the Soviet Socialist Republics, Ukraine and Byelorussia (current day Belarus), have been members of the UN in their very own proper. This successfully gave the Soviet Union three votes versus the US authorities’s one.

These elements of the Soviet Union’s open diplomacy on the UN are well-known. Its clandestine actions there are much less so. They’re revealed in a British international workplace file that was declassified in September 2021, titled “Russian intelligence service operating under UN cover”. The thick, orange-covered file, stamped “Secret”, carries strict directions for its dealing with. Studying it throws the US authorities’s expulsions right now into sharp reduction.

The file reveals that within the Seventies, the Soviet Union’s intelligence companies, the KGB and the GRU, completely penetrated the UN in New York and Geneva. Their officers used diplomatic cowl for espionage. Actually, because the file makes clear, the KGB managed key components of the UN’s paperwork. This was occurring when the Soviet authorities was supposedly having fun with a thaw in Chilly Warfare relations with West, throughout the interval of détente.

Essentially the most sensational disclosure about Soviet penetration of the UN occurred in 1978. That 12 months, its Undersecretary Normal, Arkady Shevchenko, a Soviet nationwide, defected to US authorities – the highest-ranking Soviet official ever to take action. Shevchenko quickly publicly revealed that he was a KGB officer.


Register to your personal Knowledgeable-Stage Briefing on Ukraine and How Private Sector Intelligence is Defining a New World with Mandiant CEO Kevin Mandia

Wednesday, March 23 from 1:30p – 2:30p ET


Shevchenko had been beforehand recruited by the CIA, which satisfied him to proceed— bravely— to function as an agent in place on the UN. After his defection and in depth de-briefing, he revealed to the world that the Soviet intelligence presence on the UN went deep. The Soviet regime was dishonest when it got here to détente. His intelligence will be corroborated by different sources, which to today, the Kremlin needs stored secret. 

Shevchenko revealed that half of the Soviet nationals working at UN headquarters in New York, and in its Workplace in Geneva, have been both intelligence officers or have been explicitly assigned intelligence-related duties. By acquiring posts within the UN Secretariat, the Soviet authorities successfully obtained a rolodex of details about civil servants of member states working there. The top of personnel on the UN in Geneva, for instance, was a KGB officer.

The Soviet authorities additionally secured for itself nearly, in perpetuity, the submit of Director of the Division for Coverage Coordination within the Workplace of Personnel Companies in New York. Soviet intelligence headquarters (‘the Heart”) instructed its undercover officers on the UN that their success can be measured by intelligence collected, the secrets and techniques they stole, not their ostensible work for the UN. This contravened UN guidelines, which required nationals seconded there to work to work for the UN, not their house governments.

Hijacking UN positions gave the KGB wealthy pickings for recruiting Western nationals as espionage brokers or brokers of affect. A working example occurred the identical 12 months as Shevchenko’s defection in 1978.

In Could that 12 months, the FBI arrested and efficiently prosecuted two Soviet residents working within the UN Secretariat on fees of espionage. They have been caught making an attempt to steal US anti-submarine warfare secrets and techniques from an agent who they believed that they had recruited inside the US navy, however their supply was in reality, a double-agent, secretly working for the FBI. Its particular brokers arrested the Soviet officers at a shopping center in New Jersey, as they tried to retrieve a microfilm of protection secrets and techniques that their Navy ‘agent’ had dropped in an orange juice carton. They didn’t have diplomatic immunity, therefore their arrest, however a 3rd Soviet citizen picked up on the scene did, permitting him to face no penalty for what he had completed.

The character of Soviet espionage on the UN was additional revealed when a Soviet army intelligence (GRU) officer working on the Soviet UN mission in Geneva, Vladimir Rezun, defected to British intelligence in July 1978. His mission, as he later publicly revealed underneath the alias Viktor Suvorov, was to steal scientific and technical secrets and techniques from western powers, particularly the US. His looking floor was the UN Convention on Commerce and Improvement (UNCTAD).

Soviet intelligence additionally penetrated different UN branches, like its Academic, Scientific and Cultural Group (UNESCO), and in addition the World Health Organisation (WHO). The UN’s Division of Public Info was, Shevchenko revealed, subverted to change into a mouthpiece for Soviet propaganda.

What about Western governments, we’d ask? Had been they not doing the identical, utilizing the UN as diplomatic cowl for his or her spies? The reply is definitely sure. Documentary proof is difficult to return by, however it might be naïve to suppose in any other case. Spies spy. Recover from it.


At the moment’s fixed barrage of data makes it straightforward for nations to wage disinformation campaigns and your feelings are the weapon of selection.  Learn the way disinformation works and the way we will struggle it on this short video.  That is one link you may be ok with sharing.


Take into account for a second, nonetheless, the dimensions of Soviet presence on the UN, and also you get a way of the quantitative distinction between how the Chilly Warfare’s two sides used (and apparently abused) the UN.

The Kremlin had a phalanx of intelligence officers masquerading as diplomats there. In November 1984, the Soviets had as many as 126 diplomats accredited to the UN in New York. This in contrast with 59 within the US mission and simply 20 within the UK mission. Because the newly unveiled British international workplace file notes, the vast majority of these Soviet officers have been “engaged in intelligence work”. In 1980, the Swiss authorities estimated that of the 650 or so Soviet officers residing in Switzerland, no less than 200 have been engaged in espionage.

Throughout the Chilly Warfare, either side traded in expulsions of diplomats suspected, or established, to be intelligence officers. We’d assume that such expulsions have been gimmicks, tit-for-tat reveals between the world’s two superpowers and their allies. They have been, however in addition they served a goal. Within the espionage world, typically even a blunt instrument, like expulsions, is critical. By expelling Soviet intelligence officers, Western governments disadvantaged them of their recruiting grounds and an structure for espionage within the West.

In September 1971, the British authorities expelled 105 Soviet ‘diplomats’ from Britain in what they dubbed, Operation FOOT, maybe a sly reference to kicking them out. It was the biggest such expulsion throughout the Chilly Warfare. By that 12 months, the variety of Soviet officers in London had swollen to just about 1,000, together with these accredited to the Soviet embassy, its Commerce Delegation, in addition to many Soviet “working wives”, a ploy the Kremlin used to bypass British restrictions on the swelling Soviet diplomatic presence in London. There have been so many Soviet officers in Britain that MI5 couldn’t hold monitor.

Operation FOOT adopted the defection of a KGB officer in Britain, Oleg Lyalin, who labored in its sabotage division (Division V). Working underneath cowl within the Soviet Commerce Delegation, Lyalin revealed to MI5 that his mission was to arrange for sabotage operations towards Britain when World Warfare Three broke out—sizzling struggle between the Soviet Union and the West. Britain’s international secretary, Alec Douglas-Residence, raised the problem of the massive variety of Soviet intelligence officers on British soil together with his Soviet counterpart, Andrei Gromyko. Absurdly, the Soviet international minister replied: “These figures you give can’t be true as a result of the Soviet Union has no spies”. It was tough for the British to know what to do with this degree of Kremlin obfuscation.

Operation FOOT marked a watershed for British counter espionage throughout the Chilly Warfare. Beforehand categorized KGB archives reveal that for the primary time, Britain grew to become a tough goal for Soviet spy chiefs. One high-ranking former KGB officer, Oleg Kalugin, later claimed that FOOT dealt a blow to Soviet intelligence in Britain from which it by no means recovered.

The Kremlin’s espionage actions on the UN didn’t cease on the finish of the Chilly Warfare. The KGB’s successor service in Russia, the SVR, continued its tradecraft. One SVR defector on the finish of the Nineteen Nineties, Sergei Tretyakov (generally known as ‘Comrade J), defected to the CIA from Russia’s UN mission in New York, the place he was reportedly near its then head, Sergei Lavrov.

At the moment, western intelligence companies are hopefully recruiting disaffected Russian intelligence officers, working underneath diplomatic cowl within the West, who will observe within the path of their Soviet predecessors. It’s not tough to think about Russian international intelligence officers feeling despondent and disgusted by Putin’s struggle in Ukraine— now prepared to share the secrets and techniques they know to be on the appropriate aspect of historical past.

Hopefully Western case officers are busy with operations that in the future we are going to examine in declassified information. With even higher luck, the West will be capable to get hold of the modern-day equal to the KGB archivist, Vasili Mitrokhin. He was so horrified in regards to the Soviet regime’s cruelty, that he smuggled an archive of KGB secrets and techniques (the “Mitrokhin Archive”) to the West, with the assistance of MI6. At the moment, the West wants an analogous Mitrokhin to reveal Putin’s darkest intelligence secrets and techniques.


Wish to go a degree deeper? Change into a Cipher Temporary Subscriber+Member for unique entry to expert-led briefings on nationwide safety points. Upgrade your access today.


Sharing knowledgeable views is vital.  Opinion items symbolize the varied views of The Cipher Temporary viewers and don’t symbolize views of The Cipher Temporary.

Learn extra expert-driven nationwide safety insights, perspective and evaluation in The Cipher Brief as a result of Nationwide Safety is Everybody’s Enterprise