The saboteur who came in from the cold

The long tradition of Russian interference in the west

December 15, 2016
The former headquarters of the KGB—where
The former headquarters of the KGB—where

The day before the US election, the blog "War on the Rocks" published a long article called “Trolling for Trump: how Russia is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy.” It was a careful analysis of how the Russian propaganda machine had apparently interfered in the American election campaign, identifying the ways that overt propaganda dovetailed with grey activities on social media and black ops such as the use of trolls, bots and hackers. In a short space of time, the Kremlin’s tactics of political interference have evolved from fairly crude hacking and service denial techniques to a sophisticated exploitation of social media.

By planting false stories and then promoting them through aggregators, bots, controlled accounts and in many cases unwitting bystanders, the Russians appear to have sown doubts and prejudice in the minds of American voters. Social media has proved to be the perfect vehicle for this type of work, since a campaign like this can be mounted from anywhere and carried out anonymously, making it very hard to distinguish genuine social media accounts from fraudulent ones. The conspiracy theories of a few extremists that once had only limited audiences now, with the assistance of outside help, have global reach. “In sum,” the article states, “these influence efforts weaken Russia’s enemies without the use of force.” And in the zero-sum world that Russian security forces reside in, anything that weakens your rival strengthens your own hand.

In all the discussion about these new cyber techniques, it is often forgotten that this kind of activity is part of a long tradition of interference that goes back to the early days of the Cold War. For decades, the Kremlin sought to undermine Europeans’ trust in their own institutions, and exploit weaknesses in the democratic processes of western countries.

However, in the days before algorithms and cyber trolls, the interference in communications and the planting of disinformation often had to be done physically. In 1967, Yuri Andropov, who embodied this offensive mindset, took over the KGB and set up a unit in the organisation called Department V. Its purpose was to carry out acts of sabotage inside western countries to cause confusion and alarm and precipitate a crisis in government. One of the most fascinating characters to pass through Department V was a KGB officer called Oleg Lyalin. After graduating from the KGB’s elite training school, KUOS, he was posted to London as a member of the Soviet trade delegation in 1970.

The UK was one of Andropov’s top targets for sabotage as it was seen as the vital link joining Europe and the US in the west’s security alliance. The Soviet embassy in London was bulging with so many KGB officers that it was estimated that one in three diplomats was a spy. When the Russians couldn’t fit any more in the embassy, they started packing their trade delegation. Since it took nine watchers to run surveillance on a single suspect, MI5 often complained that there were many more KGB agents running around London than they could keep track of. But this was the age of ostpolitik and detente and their pleas fell on deaf ears at the foreign office.

The KGB were so confident of their perch in London that when they created a front export/import company for Lyalin and others to operate in, they held a launch party at the embassy. Using the company as cover, Lyalin traveled across the north of England ostensibly visiting clothing factories to purchase knitwear for export to Russia. In fact, his mission was to investigate ways of undermining British society.

Andropov believed that, even in peacetime, it was the KGB’s duty to disrupt communications and public services in order to demoralise the west. One of Lyalin’s more jaw-dropping tasks was to identify sites on the North Sea coast where teams of saboteurs might be dropped off undetected from submarines. He investigated ways to sabotage the early warning system at Fylingdales, how to flood the London Underground and disrupt the train timetables on British Rail. He had been sent into Britain not just to spy on its institutions but to try to subvert them.

In February 1971, a sharp-eyed MI5 watcher spotted Lyalin coming out of an apartment building with his secretary Irina Teplyakova. The watchers started to track Lyalin’s movements and quickly discovered that he and Irina were having an affair. They broke into the apartment building and secretly filmed them making love. Irina was three years younger than Lyalin and had a husband and son back in Moscow. MI5 knew Lyalin was a member of the Russian trade delegation, but was he also working for the KGB?

MI5 approached Lyalin and told him that it had evidence of his affair. He admitted that he was a KGB operative and to its surprise, offered to become an “agent in place,” the most valuable kind of asset and the first that MI5 had managed to secure inside the KGB. In return for co-operation, he asked only for access to a safe house where he and Irina could continue their relationship, which he was given in Fulham.

As the MI5 interrogators began to debrief him, they realised he was no ordinary KGB operative. Lyalin described Department V, the training he had received in assassination, bomb-making and sabotage, and how he was to prepare the way for teams of saboteurs to enter Britain. He said the teams came from a secret military unit called Spetsnaz—this was the first time western intelligence agencies had heard that name, which was to become very familiar to them over the next 20 years. He described his plans to flood the London Underground and to clog the British train network, of disrupting critical communication functions such command and control posts, and even the BBC and Post Office.

The foreign office initially greeted what he was saying with incredulity. Espionage was one thing—every country used diplomatic cover to try to gain intelligence—but the idea that the Soviets were actively planning to undermine the British state in peacetime seemed implausible. The MI5 interrogators were told to ask for evidence. Lyalin had a map showing preparations for a submarine landing at the remote cove of Hayburn Wyke on the Yorkshire coast. A few days later, he gave precise details for locations where arms had been buried to help saboteurs. Then he revealed the names of some of his agents, including one who worked at the motor licensing department at the GLC. Lyalin explained that the clerk had access to the classified list of cars that belonged to the MI5 and Special Branch. The Soviets knew the number plates of every watcher’s car.

MI5 told the government that the only appropriate response was a mass expulsion of KGB agents from Britain. There was heavy opposition to the idea within Whitehall; the home office was concerned that trade deals with Russia would be cancelled; MI6 worried that they would lose agents in Moscow in a tit for tat. But as Lyalin listed out all the agents operating under diplomatic cover, Edward Heath’s government decided MI5 was right. They called it Operation Foot, a joke on the idea of giving the Soviets the boot. Then as the net was closing in, Lyalin cracked under the pressure of being a double agent. One night, he was stopped on Tottenham Court Road by the police for drunk driving. Terrified that he would be sent back to the Soviet Union, he called the pre-arranged emergency number to say that he wanted to defect with Irina.

On Friday 24th September 1971, the Evening News broke the story of Lyalin’s defection. “Top Russian flees to London” screamed the headline. The foreign office had to move fast. That afternoon, they summoned the Soviet charge d'affaires to Whitehall where he was given two lists of names: one with the names of 90 KGB and GRU agents that were to be expelled and the other with the names of 15 more agents that were on holiday outside the country and would not be allowed to return. Forty-five minutes later, the FCO spokesman told a press conference of stunned journalists that the UK was expelling 105 Soviet diplomats. To rub salt in the wound, the FCO released footage of Viktor Drozlov, a KGB agent, emptying a dead-letter box in Surrey. It gave the impression that KGB spies were rampant. The FCO didn’t mention that the film had been taken three years earlier.

It was the single biggest expulsion of Soviet diplomats by any western government during the course of the Cold War. That evening there was a party in MI5 which lasted long into the night. Oleg and Irina were given new identities and lived as a couple in English society for the next 30 years. Lyalin died in 1995 without returning to Russia. Much of what he revealed back in 1971 has never been released, but it was clearly extensive; the debriefing dossier ran to five volumes. For the first time, a western intelligence agency had been able to construct the KGB’s entire order of battle in one of its foreign stations.

Department V was disbanded by Brezhnev in 1972, but the mindset did not disappear. During the 1980s, when Andropov became leader of the Soviet Union, sabotage and political interference were the operating environment in the KGB and the one in which the young officer Vladimir Putin was schooled. Today, the Russian government appears to be combining these familiar Cold War mindsets with new technologies. Only these days the saboteurs operate online.

Tom Carver is writing a book on Oleg Lyalin. His previous book was “Where the hell have you been?”