Soviet Active Measures in The
'Post-Cold War' Era 1988-1991

Looking To The Future

The Russian government has little incentive to spread anti-American disinformation. Instead, the logical targets for its derogatory disinformation are opponents of Russian policies in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), particularly Ukraine and those opposed to a significant Russian role in the affairs of other Commonwealth members. This might explain why, according to Moscow's Postfactum news service on February 8, 1992, 68 members of the Kiev City Council had issued an appeal complaining about "an unbridled anti-Ukrainian campaign the Russian mass media has unleashed," including what they termed an "outright provocative torrent of misinformation which is pouring muddy waters on the heads of sea-men serving in the Black Sea fleet, and on the heads of all other Ukrainian citizens." On the same day, Kiev radio reported that the mayor of Sevastopol had charged that programs broadcast by Moscow television contained "political disinformation." Such motives would also explain the stance of groups such as "Peace to the Oceans," which opposed Ukrainian policies on dividing up the former Soviet armed forces.

On October 4, 1991, the newly appointed head of what was then the Soviet foreign intelligence service and is now the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Yevgeni Primakov, touched on some of these issues in a press conference. Primakov stated that the newly independent states of the former USSR were potential targets for Moscow's intelligence operations, which, of course, included active measures. According to the newspaper Trud:

the head of Soviet foreign intelligence stated that its activities may be extended into the former republics, which now have become independent states, if they represent a threat to the security of our country.

When the USSR was dissolved and Russian president Boris Yeltsin took control of the USSR's central institutions, including its foreign intelligence service, he kept Primakov as its head. On April 6, 1992, ITAR-TASS reported that 8 of the 11 countries comprising the CIS had recently signed an agreement on cooperation among themselves in which they pledged not to conduct intelligence activities against each other. It remains to be seen how this agreement will work in practice or whether Primakov's earlier warning will remain relevant.

In his October 1991 press conference, Primakov also pledged that the then-Soviet foreign intelligence service would "strive to provide objective information in order to avoid any disinformation." on March 17, 1992, while recruiting for the RFIS at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Primakov initially appeared to bolster this reputation for truth-telling by admitting that the KGB had fabricated and planted disinformation stories blaming the United States for the creation of the AIDS virus.

But there appeared to be a mischievous element in Primakov's admission of KGB wrongdoing. According to the March 19, 1992 issue of Izvestia, he then claimed - falsely - that the U.S. had retaliated for the USSR's AIDS disinformation campaign by spreading rumors that the USSR had been involved in the attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II. The article stated:

The head of the Foreign Intelligence Service made a number of really sensational announcements. He mentioned the well. known articles printed a few years ago in our central newspapers about AIDS supposedly originating from secret Pentagon laboratories. According to Yevgeni Primakov, the articles exposing the U.S. scientists' "crafty" plot against mankind were fabricated in KGB offices. In revenge for this, the U.S. special services cooked up their own version of the attack on the Pope in the early 1980s, accusing the Soviet Union of organizing this terrorist act.

Primakov's claim was clearly impossible because charges of Soviet involvement in the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II began to appear in 1981 and 1982, well before the USSR's AIDS disinformation campaign began. (The original AIDS charge, planted in the KGB-founded Indian newspaper Patriot in July 1983, went unnoticed by the world until October 1985, when the Soviets began to replay it in a concerted media campaign.) Even if the U.S. government had wished to respond to the AIDS disinformation campaign in kind - which it did not - it could not have retaliated for something that had not yet occurred. Furthermore, charges of Soviet involvement in the attempted papal assassination were the result of investigations by independent journalists, not the U.S. government, which never blamed the USSR for this event.

Other false charges have also appeared in the Russian press. On April 9, 1992, the Russian news service ITAR-TASS carried an item containing falsehoods that, if believed, would lend credence to fears that the breakup of the USSR may result in Soviet nuclear materials and expertise being transferred to other countries. It reported:

An attempt to take 180 kilograms of "red mercury" - the strategic metal used in the production of nuclear weapons - out of the country has been foiled by the efforts of the Russian and Ukrainian militias.

Militia Colonel Vladimir Puchnin, chief of the internal affairs directorate of Tambov Oblast today told a CRIME PRESS correspondent that workers at the Tambov plant where "red mercury" is produced were among the plunderers. Fortunately, the cargo, which was seized in Poltava, has been returned to the enterprise.

"Red mercury" is not "a strategic metal used in the production of nuclear weapons," as purported in the article, but a hoax. According to the April 13, 1992 issue of the British newspaper The Independent:

For the past two years, and particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union, offers for the sale of red mercury have been cropping up across Europe at prices up to $500,000 a kilogram. The network stretches from the former Soviet Union to Italy, via the Bulgarian-Romanian frontier, bonded warehouses in Switzerland, the Viennese underworld, (and] agents in Denmark and Hungary ....

But what is red mercury and what is its function? The rumor in the black market is that it is a vital component in the detonation process of certain types of Soviet nuclear warheads and in the guidance systems of missiles. ... But independent experts say its alleged properties are scientific gobbledygook and that it has about as much strategic worth as the mercury in a household thermometer.

David Kay, the director of the Uranium Institute in London and the leader of the U.N. team sent to inspect Iraq's nuclear facilities after the Gulf war, was quoted in the March 15, 1992 issue of the London Times as stating that the "red mercury" rumor began long ago:

"A rumor started about 15 years ago that the Soviets had found a new reactor base (that had] something to do with mercury," he said. "Nobody knew quite what it was but everyone got very excited. We thought it could be an ingredient in a hydrogen bomb or facilitate a pressurized water reactor. It became known as 'red mercury' purely because it was Russian. People are now trying to sell off ordinary mercury tainted with coloring."

Kay, who led three IAEA (International Atomic Energy Administration] inspection teams in Iraq last year, said his hosts told him they had two filing cabinet drawers stuffed with offers of red mercury.

A variety of scam artists have been involved in the "red mercury" hoax. According to the April 13, 1992 issue of The Independent, individuals have been arrested "trying to peddle trace quantities of plutonium and slightly enriched uranium, although neither in remotely strategic quantities." One person simply placed mercury in a red-tinted vial. As CIA Director Robert Gates told the U.S. Congress in testimony on January 15, 1992:

Because of the great demand for these materials, the difficulty in determining the authenticity of nuclear materials, and the widespread availability of small quantities of uranium and plutonium in research facilities, we can expect to see many scams and hoaxes.

The April 13 issue of The Independent cited reports that "the Russian mafia are said to be closely involved" in the red mercury scam. It also stated:

A further theory is that the Russians may have fostered the traffic in order to persuade the West of the real threat of nuclear proliferation and thereby win funds and assistance to combat it.

Thus, although the "red mercury" rumor appears to have started on its own, and a number of confidence artists have apparently used it as a money-making scam, individuals or intelligence organizations in the former Soviet Union may also have circulated the rumor for their own purposes.

In other instances, Russian Foreign Intelligence Service officials have made quite simplistic disinformation claims. For example, in the May 4, 1992 issue of Izvestia, RFIS spokesman Yuri Kobaladze claimed, falsely, that recent revelations in the press in United States, France, and Belgium about extensive, ongoing economic espionage by the RFIS were "forgeries" aimed at pressuring the RFIS to curtail its intelligence activities abroad.

The veracity of some conciliatory statements by Russian government leaders has also been questioned by some observers. For example, the Russian government pledge that it no longer intends to target U.S., European, Japanese, or Chinese targets with its nuclear missiles has been questioned by President Kravchuk of Ukraine and by the captain of a Typhoon nuclear submarine armed with 20 strategic ballistic missiles carrying 200 warheads. The submarine captain stated in an interview in the joint Russian-American newspaper We in March 1992 that targeting instructions for his strategic missiles have not changed:

"No one has changed my punched tapes yet," Yefimenko says. "I don't know where my missiles are targeted. You should ask the General Staff people who program flight patterns. But I can guess that the targets are military installations of one of the nations currently sending us food aid," implying the United States.

An article in the May 8, 1992 Washington Times illustrated how conciliatory themes are currently being used by Russian government authorities in efforts aimed at foreign media. The article, entitled "Envoy proposes U.S. and Russia curb spy efforts," stated:

Russia's ambassador to the United States has challenged the Bush administration to negotiate mutual reductions in intelligence activities.

The Russian government is willing to discuss the idea of reducing levels of its intelligence cadres to a "zero level," Vladimir P. Lukin, the first Russian - not Soviet - ambassador to the United States since the Bolshevik revolution, said in an interview Wednesday.

...The former Soviet KGB was transformed into the Russian External Intelligence Service ... this year, and its activities in the United States have diminished only slightly, FBI and CIA officials say.

...The ambassador also said the U.S. government has not reciprocated for the former KGB supplying diagrams showing electronic listening devices planted throughout the new U.S. embassy in Moscow.

"So it is very questionable who has changed more since the Cold War," he said.

U.S. officials said privately the wiring diagrams were incomplete and did not reveal any information about the bugging that was not known previously.

By making a highly public offer that it presumably had calculated in advance would be rejected as unrealistic, the Russian government was thus able to appear to be taking the high moral ground with regard to the issue of intelligence collection, without running any real risks that it would have to curtail any of its intelligence gathering operations. This is an illustration of how a post-totalitarian government can use a seemingly conciliatory gesture to enhance its own image and to try to make a democratic government appear in a bad light.

This offer was reminiscent of a similar suggestion made during the last days of the Soviet regime. On Russian television on November 27, 1991, Soviet academician Georgi Arbatov suggested that the CIA and the Soviet foreign intelligence services reach a reciprocal agreement on their activities. Arbatov suggested that the intelligence services of both countries abandon covert operations and stop recruiting citizens from each others' countries as agents. Such utopian suggestions have no likelihood of being implemented, but they do improve the image of the side making the noble-sounding suggestion and make the other side appear, by contrast, to be somewhat unethical. This appears to be their purpose.

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