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AskUs: What happened to Soviet sleeper cells in the U.S after the Soviet Union collapsed?

So one of our readers asked us this question the other day: What happened to Soviet sleeper cells in the U.S after the Soviet Union collapsed?

ANSWER

The first thing to note is that sleeper agents, in the classic spy fiction sense (à la The Americans) are almost certain less common in real life than they are in fiction. Long-term, speculatively-placed agents under assumed identities with no immediate assignment or concrete objectives are difficult to recruit, position and handle, with no guarantee that they will ever become useful sources of information.

The arrest in 2010 of 10 SVR agents living under deep cover in suburban America demonstrates that sleeper cells do exist — but it also reignited in the popular imagination a rather overstated sense of how widespread or effective the use of these kinds of sleeper cells are/were.

Really, there’s a problem of definition here: what do we mean by ‘sleeper’? Agents can become inactive for many reasons; a change in personal or professional circumstances can curtail an agent’s usefulness, and while they might be reactivated later, they’re not necessarily a ‘sleeper’. Many intelligence officers work under ‘illegal’/’non-official‘ cover, often for prolonged periods; they’re not really ‘sleepers’, either.

Semantics aside, though, if we take the broadest possible definition of a ‘sleeper’ as ‘an inactive agent’, the answer to your question is: nothing drastic, at least in the short term. And in the longer term, it’s reasonable to assume that at least some portion of the KGB’s foreign agent network was (and likely still is) in use by the Russian intelligence services.

When the KGB was broken up in late 1991, its First Chief Directorate (responsible for foreign intelligence) was reconstituted as a standalone external intelligence service, the SVR. During this period of internal political and institutional turmoil, there was significant disruption to intelligence gathering (and thus, presumably agent relationships) — but it’s also the case that the SVR wasn’t built from the ground up.

Although the Russian intelligence community declined in size significantly following the collapse of the USSR, the SVR and FSB (the successor to the FSK, which took over the KGB’s internal security and counterintelligence functions in late ’91) were built around a kernel of experienced Soviet-era intelligence professionals, and was on the road to recovery by the mid-1990s.

The post-1991 Russian intelligence agencies are the direct successors and inheritors of the KGB’s core directorates — including their roster of agents-in-place. Consider the example of Robert Hanssen, the FBI counterintelligence agent who was one of the Soviets’ (and then the Russians’) most prized assets in the US from 1979 until his arrest in 2001 — he switched from being handled by the KGB to being an agent of the SVR with only the briefest of breaks in the winter of 1991/92. Aldrich Ames, the CIA counterintelligence officer and another extremely valuable Soviet agent of the late-Cold War, was also handled by SVR between 1991 and his arrest in 1994.

History offers us prior examples of chaos and recovery in Soviet foreign intelligence: during the late 1930s, Stalin’s purges dealt a near-lethal blow to the NKVD’s foreign intelligence network. By the end of 1938, an entire generation of experienced intelligence officers had been purged, the agency’s network of foreign residencies lay in ruins and contact with much of its agent network had lapsed. But after the outbreak of the Second World War, the NKVD recovered — and large parts of its pre-war network were successfully reactivated, including some of the best-placed agents the Soviets ever possessed in both the UK and the US.

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