EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — Immediately after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month, the US government expelled 13 Russian diplomats working for the UN. This was done on the basis that they were Russian intelligence officers or operatives working under diplomatic cover. We don’t know the details of their alleged activities, but we do know something for sure: The Kremlin has a long history of using the United Nations (UN) for espionage.
During the Cold War, Soviet intelligence infiltrated key UN units and undermined them. From time to time these operations became public when Western governments expelled Soviet “diplomats”. Contrary to what we might assume, such expulsions were not just a show, but actually paid counterintelligence dividends to the national security of the West.
From the first days of its existence, the Soviet government considered the UN as a platform for delivering its external message to the world. The Soviet government was a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which gave it the power of veto, which it often used.
Between 1945 and 1983, the Soviet government cast 115 vetoes against 38 US government vetoes and 20 UK vetoes. Under the terms of the Yalta Agreement, reached between the Soviet government and Western powers in 1945, the two Soviet Socialist Republics, Ukraine and Belarus (modern Belarus), were independent members of the UN. This effectively gave the Soviet Union three votes to one US government.
These aspects of the open diplomacy of the Soviet Union in the UN are well known. His covert activities are less there. They are revealed in a British Foreign Office dossier declassified in September 2021 titled “Russian intelligence works under UN cover“. The thick, orange-covered file, labeled “Confidential,” contains strict instructions for handling it. As you read it, it becomes apparent that today’s US government expulsions are being dramatically eased.
The case shows that in the 1970s the intelligence services of the Soviet Union, the KGB and the GRU, thoroughly infiltrated the UN in New York and Geneva. Their officers used diplomatic cover to spy. In fact, as the file makes clear, the KGB controlled key parts of the UN bureaucracy. This happened when the Soviet government was allegedly experiencing a thaw in relations with the West during the Cold War, during a period of détente.
The most sensational exposure of Soviet infiltration of the UN came in 1978. That same year, her deputy general secretary, Arkady Shevchenko, a Soviet citizen, defected to the US authorities—the highest-ranking Soviet official ever to do so. Shevchenko soon publicly disclosed that he is a KGB officer.
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Shevchenko had previously been recruited by the CIA, which convinced him to continue — boldly — acting as a UN agent. After his flight and extensive interrogation, he showed the world that the presence of Soviet intelligence in the UN had become deep. The Soviet regime cheated when it came to détente. His intelligence could be corroborated by other sources, which the Kremlin still wants to keep under wraps.
Shevchenko reported that half of the Soviet citizens working at the UN headquarters in New York and its office in Geneva were either intelligence officers or on assignments directly related to intelligence. Having received positions in the UN Secretariat, the Soviet government actually received a Rolodex of information about the civil servants of the Member States working there. For example, the chief of staff at the UN in Geneva was a KGB officer.
The Soviet government also secured the post of director of the Policy Coordination Division in the Office of Personnel in New York, virtually forever. The Soviet intelligence headquarters (“Center”) instructed its UN undercover staff that their success would be measured by intelligence gathered, secrets stolen, and not by their ostensible work for the UN. This was contrary to UN rules, which required citizens seconded there to work for the UN and not for their governments.
The capture of posts in the UN gave the KGB rich opportunities to recruit Western citizens as spy agents or agents of influence. A case in point occurred in the same year as Shevchenko’s flight in 1978.
In May of the same year, FBI arrested and successfully prosecuted two Soviet citizens working for the UN Secretariat on charges of espionage. They were caught trying to steal US ASW secrets from an agent they thought they had recruited into the US Navy, but their source was actually a double agent secretly working for the FBI. His special agents arrested Soviet officials at a New Jersey mall while they were trying to get a microfilm of defense secrets that their Navy “agent” had thrown into an orange juice bag. They did not have diplomatic immunity, hence their arrest, but the third Soviet citizen who was detained at the scene did have it, which allowed him not to be punished for what he had done.
The nature of Soviet espionage at the UN was further exposed when a Soviet military intelligence (GRU) officer working at the Soviet UN office in Geneva, Vladimir Rezun, defected to British intelligence in July 1978. His mission, as he later publicly revealed under a pseudonym Victor Suvorov, was supposed to steal the scientific and technological secrets of the Western powers, especially the United States. His hunting ground was the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
Soviet intelligence also infiltrated other UN entities such as the Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as well as World Health Organization (WHO). Shevchenko said that the UN Department of Public Information had been substituted to become a mouthpiece for Soviet propaganda.
What about Western governments, may we ask? Didn’t they do the same, using the UN as a diplomatic front for their spies? The answer is definitely yes. It is difficult to find documentary evidence, but it would be naive to assume the opposite. Spy spies. Get over it.
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Think, however, for a moment about the extent of the Soviet presence at the UN, and you will feel the quantitative difference between how the two sides of the Cold War used (and clearly abused) the UN.
The Kremlin had a phalanx of intelligence officers masquerading as diplomats. In November 1984, the Soviets had 126 diplomats accredited to the UN in New York. This is compared to 59 in the US mission and just 20 in the UK mission. As noted in a recently released British Foreign Office dossier, most of these Soviet officials were “involved in intelligence work.” In 1980, the Swiss government estimated that out of approximately 650 Soviet officials living in Switzerland, at least 200 were involved in espionage.
During the Cold War, both sides exchanged expulsions of diplomats suspected or recognized as intelligence officers. It can be assumed that such expulsions were a ploy, a tit-for-tat show between the two world superpowers and their allies. They were, but they also served a purpose. In the world of espionage, even such a dumb tool as exile is sometimes needed. By expelling Soviet intelligence agents, Western governments were depriving them of recruitment grounds and architecture for espionage in the West.
In September 1971, the British government expelled 105 Soviet “diplomats” from Britain, as they dubbed it, Operation NOGA, perhaps a sly link to kicking them out. It was the largest such expulsion during the Cold War. By that year, the number of Soviet officials in London had swelled to nearly 1,000, including those accredited to the Soviet embassy, its trade office, and many Soviet “working wives,” a ploy the Kremlin used to get around British restrictions on Soviet expansion. diplomatic presence in London. There were so many Soviet officials in Britain that MI5 couldn’t keep track of them.
Operation FOOT followed the defection of a KGB officer in the UK, Oleg Lyalin, who worked in his sabotage department (Department V). Working undercover at a Soviet trade mission, Lyalin told MI5 that his mission was to prepare for sabotage operations against Britain when World War III, a hot war between the Soviet Union and the West, broke out. British Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home raised the issue of the vast number of Soviet intelligence agents on British soil with his Soviet counterpart Andrei Gromyko. Absurdly, the Soviet Foreign Minister replied: “These figures you cite cannot be true, because there are no spies in the Soviet Union.” The British found it hard to figure out what to do with this level of Kremlin confusion.
Operation FOOT marked a turning point for British counterintelligence during the Cold War. Formerly classified KGB archives show that for the first time Great Britain became a hard-to-reach target for the leaders of Soviet intelligence. One high-ranking former KGB officer, Oleg Kalugin, later claimed that the FUT dealt a blow to Soviet intelligence in the UK from which it never recovered.
The Kremlin’s espionage activities at the UN did not stop with the end of the Cold War. The successor service to the KGB in Russia, the SVR, continued its prowess. One SVR defector in the late 1990s, Sergei Tretyakov (known as “Comrade J”), defected to the CIA from the Russian UN mission in New York, where he was reportedly close to then-head Sergei Lavrov.
Today, Western intelligence agencies hope to recruit disgruntled Russian intelligence agents 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 officers despondent and disgusted by Putin’s war in Ukraine and now willing to share secrets they know are on the right side of history.
Let’s hope that Western operatives are busy with operations that one day we will read about in declassified files. With luck, the West will be able to get a modern analogue of the KGB archivist Vasily Mitrokhin. He was so horrified by the brutality of the Soviet regime that he smuggled the archive of KGB secrets (the Mitrokhin Archive) to the West with the help of MI6. Today, the West needs the same Mitrokhin to uncover the darkest secrets of Putin’s intelligence.
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