Analysis & Opinions - The Cipher Brief

Soviet Espionage Under the Cover of Diplomacy

| Mar. 16, 2022

Expert Perspective

Immediately after Russia's invasion of Ukraine last month, the US government expelled 13 Russian diplomats working at the United Nations. It did so on the grounds they were Russian intelligence officers or operatives working under diplomatic cover. We do not know details about their alleged activities, but we do know something for certain: the Kremlin has a long history of using the United Nations (UN) for espionage.

During the Cold War, Soviet intelligence penetrated and subverted key parts of the UN. Occasionally these operations crashed into the public domain, when Western governments expelled Soviet 'diplomats'. Contrary to what we might assume, such expulsions were not just grandstanding, but in fact paid off counterintelligence dividends for Western national security.

From its earliest days, the Soviet government viewed the UN as a platform for delivering its outward message to the world. The Soviet government was a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which granted it a right of veto, which it frequently used.

Between 1945 and 1983, the Soviet government cast 115 vetoes, as opposed to 38 by the US government and 20 by the British. Under the terms of the Yalta agreement reached between the Soviet government and Western powers in 1945, two of the Soviet Socialist Republics, Ukraine and Byelorussia (present day Belarus), were members of the UN in their own right. This effectively gave the Soviet Union three votes as opposed to the US government's one.

These aspects of the Soviet Union's open diplomacy at the UN are well known. Its clandestine activities there are less so. They are revealed in a British foreign office file that was declassified in September 2021, titled "Russian intelligence service operating under UN cover". The thick, orange-covered file, stamped "Secret", carries strict instructions for its handling. Reading it throws the US government’s expulsions today into sharp relief....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walton, Calder.“Soviet Espionage Under the Cover of Diplomacy.” The Cipher Brief, March 16, 2022.