Analysts at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), in their report on Russia’s use of unconventional warfare methods, has examined the origins of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and determined that the Kremlin relied heavily on covert, special, and clandestine psychological operations, sabotage, subversion, and reconnaissance activities to keep Kyiv within its sphere of influence. RUSI's analysis is based on numerous interviews conducted with members of the Ukrainian intelligence community and with Ukrainian military and law enforcement officials, both before and during the war. The report also draws on material recorded on the battlefield or obtained directly from the Russian security services.
Even before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moscow had managed to establish an extensive network of agents inside Ukraine, the RUSI analysts write. This internal threat significantly limited the political and military options available to the Ukrainian state, narrowing the room for manoeuvre and impacting the Ukrainian public’s preparation for the conflict. Moreover, much of the Kremlin's recruitment apparatus remained operational even after the invasion, ensuring the flow of intelligence and acting as an intermediary for the Russian leadership.
The primary method of recruitment preferred by the Russian security services has been to enlist high-level agents in another country. These agents, in turn, must directly spread Russian influence through the bureaucracy or institutions of power in that country. This practice dates back to the Soviet practices of the First Main Directorate of the KGB and, as the analysts point out, is still used by the Foreign Intelligence Service, the Fifth Service of the FSB, and the GRU.
Among those recruited by Russia were the leadership of Enerhoatom, politicians, and generals of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Security Service of Ukraine. At the same time, the network of agents was supposed to be used not only for the direct preparation of the invasion but also for the destabilisation of the domestic situation in Ukraine more generally. In particular, the RUSI experts highlight the pressure applied to Volodymyr Zelensky, the disruption of interaction between the Ukrainian leadership and NATO, and targeted phone calls urging Ukraine not to move its troops out of their barracks and not to resist the invasion, so as to prevent bloodshed. In other words, the initial plan for Russia’s invasion was based on the Crimean scenario: a rapid seizure of critical positions and command posts, the suppression of Ukrainian army activity, and subsequent promotion of Kremlin agents to key administrative positions.
Despite its extensive efforts, Russia was unable to achieve the planned destabilisation in the run-up to the invasion, despite the presence of influential agents within Ukraine’s state and military structures. The reality is that Russia's unconventional warfare methods have their own significant shortcomings. First, the construction of dual, if not triple principal-agent relations between Russia's political elite (the main principal), its own special services, representatives of the Ukrainian political and military elite and their subordinates results in an enormous information asymmetry within this communication chain. On a fundamental level, this relationship structure and the secrecy it implies generates a desire to enhance reporting and to provide information that satisfies the principal in the relationship. All the links tend to exaggerate their degree of effectiveness in order to ‘sell’ themselves at a higher cost. At the same time, there is little or no scope for verification and control in such conditions of extreme secrecy.
On the one hand, betting on theoretical or unrealistic assumptions and exaggerated successes leads to inevitable failure; on the other hand, it breeds self-confidence and thus, disaster becomes inevitable.
Another key vulnerability of this Russian approach is its formulaic and conservative nature. RUSI analysts point out that the security services of post-Soviet Russia have almost a complete re-creation of the Soviet model, which was based on the construction of a network of agents rather than the application of classic methods of strategic and operational intelligence. This practice runs counter to global trends of primarily employing digital forms of espionage. Moreover, subordination to a single principal within a hierarchy, the scale of operations, and the need to meet set performance indicators all turn the work of intelligence agencies into a conveyor belt of formulaic approaches and constant reporting to those higher-up (according to a previous report by RUSI’s analysts,this failure has essentially resulted from a series of counter-reforms to how the special services were run under Putin's rule). At the same time, the use of well-established patterns of operation by intelligence agencies has enabled Russian special services and their networks of agents to be uncovered relatively quickly. The latter fact was the key to the Kremlin's preparations for the current phase of the conflict. Joint activities and information exchanges between Ukrainian counter-intelligence and Western intelligence services have revealed information on Russia's preparations for the invasion and on many Russian agents of influence, inhibiting the effectiveness of their activities.
The paradox, however, is that these failures, which have resulted in an unplanned large-scale protracted war, have not undermined the influence of the Russian secret services, but rather have strengthened their power. Fear of accountability for the setbacks witnessed on the battlefield has strengthened their resolve, resonating with the political leadership's fears of unforeseeable consequences which may arise as a result of a protracted conflict. Consequently, despite the setbacks, the security services as a corporation are becoming increasingly influential as an actor in Russian foreign and domestic policy and will play a significant role in the possible escalation or de-escalation of the conflict.