Following the second Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24, 2022, several platforms, including news reports and social media, have suggested that Russia is nearly exhausting its resources, such as qualified weaponry like various forms of long-range combat missiles. A decisive factor has been attributed to Russia's lack of capacity to produce certain crucial components required, with export bans on these being regarded as an effective measure.
This article adopts a historical perspective of Soviet industrial smuggling before and during the Cold War to understand how Russia continues, and possibly therefore, can produce advanced weaponry using components from other countries despite export bans. France, Sweden, and the USA will serve as examples. The sources, books, and articles used in this article are fact-checked (peer-reviewed). They all maintain at least level 1 on the so-called "Norwegian list", The Norwegian Register for Scientific Journals, Series, and Publishers, at the time of their publication.
In October 1924, France recognized the Soviet state. Following World War I, the Soviet Union regarded France as possessing highly advanced weapon systems, which became a critical factor in Soviet efforts to gather intelligence, especially with regard to tank and aircraft development in France. Industrial espionage played a significant role in executing the Soviet transition from an agrarian to an industrial society. Part of this involved illicitly obtaining blueprints, among other things, to construct similar items, while another part involved various ways of acquiring a finished design and replicating it.1
Soviet industrial espionage against France continued after the end of World War II. Part of Soviet industrial espionage involved more or less open gathering of information, which could be carried out during various visits to French factories. The Soviet Union used France as a bridge to extract American knowledge. The Soviet Union's intelligence gathering focus was on French submarine research, as well as on the Concorde airplane and its autopilot function, its ability to land in limited visibility, and the Mirage fighter aircraft. Information relating to the French nuclear energy program and its space program was also targeted.2
In the final stages of the Cold War, often referred to as the second Cold War, the primary intelligence gathering by Soviet intelligence services, KGB, and GRU, was focused on science and technology. From a French perspective, Soviet intelligence services had three different methods for conducting this gathering. The first involved outright purchases, the second included concealed purchases without legitimate contracts and export licenses, and the third consisted of classic espionage to gain access to blueprints, etc. The reason for the extensive gathering was, as before World War II, the Soviet Union lagging in scientific and technical expertise compared to Western countries.3
Soviet industrial espionage in the USA before and during World War II took on more or less the same forms as in France, such as visits to industries in the USA. Similar to France, industrial espionage served as a means to facilitate the Soviet Union's industrialization. Intelligence gathering was conducted against, for example, the petrochemical industry, warship constructions, the American aviation industry, and of course, American nuclear energy research during World War II.4
When it comes to industrial espionage in the USA, it is impossible not to mention the spy ring around Julius Rosenberg before, during, and after World War II, and thereby the onset of the Cold War. This spy ring is most known for being involved in Soviet espionage against the American atomic bomb project, more commonly known as the Manhattan Project. What is perhaps less known is the extensive amount of information on various conventional systems that Rosenberg's spy ring transferred from the USA to the Soviet Union. This can be considered, among now known cases, one of the most effective intelligence-gathering operations in the modern history of industrial espionage.5
The transfer of conventional systems included various forms of radar systems, proximity fuses, sonar systems, jet engines, jet aircraft, experimental aircraft technology, bombsights, analog computer technology, and weather balloon technology.6 Additionally, research knowledge on non-applicable technology was transferred, likely saving the Soviet Union time in research, to avoid exploring what was considered non-developable. The cumulative impacts of Rosenberg's spy ring continued throughout the entire Cold War, and after Western countries considered it ended, alongside other industrial espionage conducted by the Soviet Union against the USA during the Cold War.7
During the Cold War, industrial smuggling was carried out in Sweden on behalf of the Soviet Union. For instance, a Swedish company tried to smuggle VAX computers to the Soviet Union, via a front company belonging to a Soviet GRU intelligence officer. In the 1980s, the VAX computers in question were considered the most powerful on the market and were subject to an export ban to the Soviet Union. Other computer equipment was also smuggled to the Soviet Union. Attempts were also made to smuggle, for example, a prototype of an aircraft-mounted thermal camera from West Germany via Sweden to the Soviet Union. Judging by these two examples, economic gain appears to have been the motive for the Swedes involved in smuggling, as opposed to political conviction.8
The previously unnamed Soviet GRU intelligence officer was also, at the behest of the Soviet Union, to start operating from East German territory to fulfill his tasks.9 An interesting part of this goods smuggling is that the Swedish government at a later stage will approve the sale of two so-called hot isostatic presses to East Germany, which, in addition to civilian uses, also have a military application, namely the production of nuclear weapons.10
In this context, it should be specially noted that East Germany carried out extensive industrial espionage against Sweden during the later part of the Cold War. The Soviet intelligence service also appears to have been involved in close cooperation with its East German colleagues in this operation. The agents recruited by East Germany abroad conducted about 40% industrial espionage on behalf of East Germany.11 Given the close cooperation between the East German intelligence service and the Soviet Union, it is likely that information was disseminated from East Germany to the Soviet Union.
The magnitude of Soviet industrial espionage became evident through a Soviet agent recruited by France in the 1980s. A Soviet intelligence officer named Vladimir I. Vetrov offered his services to French counterintelligence in 1981. This individual coordinated much of both KGB and GRU intelligence gathering against science and technology. Through Vetrov, the West came to understand that the Soviet Union had collected a vast amount of documentation and materials. Thus, Vetrov revealed the wide-ranging Soviet industrial espionage to the Western security and intelligence services.12
What can then be concluded from history? Initially, it can be concluded that industrial espionage constituted a fundamental direction for the early Soviet intelligence services. Moreover, it was a form of existential operation, necessary to reform the Soviet Union. Therefore, it can also be concluded that Russian intelligence services likely inherited all the knowledge accumulated by the Soviet Union concerning how industrial espionage, as well as how smuggling under strict embargos, can be carried out. That is to say, the Soviet Union, and consequently Russia, likely wrote the book on how to smuggle critical resources under an embargo.
The ongoing conduct of smuggling operations, now by Russia, is seen as highly likely. It also seems probable that there exist two types of methods for the procurement of materials subject to export bans to Russia. One way is that a seller is effectively deceived and thus tricked into selling the materials in good faith. The other way consists of the straightforward exploitation of profit-driven interests, such as the Swedish vendor who attempted to smuggle VAX computers to the Soviet Union during the 1980s. Thus, assuming that Russia has consolidated experience in carrying out such operations since the 1920s, its ability to procure materials under embargo should be significant.
From a Russian perspective, similar to the Soviet viewpoint, the ability to execute such smuggling and other information gathering concerning science and technology would constitute an existential need, given that Russian technological advancement in many areas is considered to lag behind numerous Western countries. As a result, Russia would likely take extensive measures to ensure that such activities can continue, despite the substantial efforts of Western security and intelligence services to disrupt them.
From a counter perspective, it becomes crucial to conduct targeted information campaigns to companies that could potentially be deceived into selling materials that could facilitate the continuation of the Russian war industry. It is also essential to monitor, for example, companies that could sell such materials and also might be in a position of financial distress, whereby they might be tempted to sell such materials under conspiratorial terms to continue receiving capital that enables their operations. Additional methods might be considered, but these two main lines are seen as the most evident.
Russia likely has well-established smuggling routes to supply its war industry with vital materials. The capability to carry out this form of smuggling was established as early as the early 20th century and has been further developed into our present day. This, coupled with extensive industrial espionage that likely did not cease after the end of the Cold War, constitutes an existential capability for Russia, which will likely be protected by extensive measures by Russia against various forms of interference.
Have a good one! // Jägarchefen
Murphy, William T. Soviet Espionage in France between the Wars. International journal of intelligence and counterintelligence. Vol. 35, no. 1, 2022, s. 1-30. DOI: 10.1080/08850607.2020.1861581
Murphy, William T. Soviet Espionage in France during the Cold War: An Overview, International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. Vol. 36, no. 2, 2023. s 466-491. DOI: 10.1080/08850607.2022.2077634
Sibley, Katherine A. S. Soviet industrial espionage against American military technology and the US response, 1930–1945. Intelligence and National Security. Vol. 14, no. 2, 1999. s. 94-123. DOI: 10.1080/02684529908432541
Usdin, Steven T. The Rosenberg Ring Revealed: Industrial-Scale Conventional and Nuclear Espionage. Journal of Cold War Studies. Vol. 11, no. 3, 2009, s. 91–143. DOI: 10.1162/jcws.2009.11.3.91
Usdin, Steven. The Rosenberg Ring's Continued Impact. International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. Vol. 23, no. 4, 2010. s. 663-679, DOI: 10.1080/08850607.2010.501682
Almgren, Birgitta. Inte bara spioner: Stasi-infiltration i Sverige under kalla kriget. Stockholm: Carlsson, 2011.
Andersson, Christoph. Operation Norrsken: om Stasi och Sverige under kalla kriget. Stockholm: Norstedt, 2013.
1 William T, Murphy. Soviet Espionage in France between the Wars. International journal of intelligence and counterintelligence. Vol. 35, no. 1, 2022, s.1, 3-5.
2 William T, Murphy. Soviet Espionage in France during the Cold War: An Overview, International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. Vol. 36, no. 2, 2023, s. 468, 475, 477, 482-485.
3 Ibid., s. 487.
4 Katherine A. S, Sibley. Soviet industrial espionage against American military technology and the US response, 1930–1945. Intelligence and National Security. Vol. 14, no. 2, 1999, s. 100, 103-104, 107, 109.
5 Steven T, Usdin. The Rosenberg Ring Revealed: Industrial-Scale Conventional and Nuclear Espionage. Journal of Cold War Studies. Vol. 11, no. 3, 2009, s. 92, 94-96, 113.
6 Ibid., s. 116, 119-120.
7 Steven Usdin. The Rosenberg Ring's Continued Impact. International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. Vol. 23, no. 4, 2010. s. 675, 677.
Sibley. Soviet industrial espionage against American military technology and the US response. s. 94-95.
8 Christoph Andersson. Operation Norrsken: om Stasi och Sverige under kalla kriget. Stockholm: Norstedt, 2013, s. 140-142, 144, 167.
9 Ibid., s. 151.
10 Ibid., s. 155-157, 161.
11 Birgitta Almgren. Inte bara spioner: Stasi-infiltration i Sverige under kalla kriget. Stockholm: Carlsson, 2011, s. 87-88.
12 Murphy, William T. Soviet Espionage in France during the Cold War: An Overview, International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. Vol. 36, no. 2, 2023, s. 485-487.