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Espionage: Putin reminisces

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9 July 2010 12:48

Associate Professor Stephen Fortescue is a Russia specialist at the University of New South Wales.

With all the excitement over the Russian spy-ring in the US, it's worth noting that there has been an increased, if less sensational, interest in Russian industrial and R&D espionage in recent times. In April this year, the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) released an open-source paper on the topic. 

The report – which is, not surprisingly, short on detail and evidence – argues that the Russians have the motive and the capacity to engage in such activities, and cites the concerns of US, German and British intelligence agencies. It concludes that there is no doubt the Russians are active, but expresses the usual doubt that anything stolen could be efficiently assimilated into Russian industry.

Perhaps Prime Minister Putin had just read the report when he attended the annual general meeting of the Russian Academy of Sciences on 18 May. Rather out of the blue, as he commented on the need for scientific research to be used efficiently, he suddenly reminisced about his days in the KGB (article in Russian; translation is mine):

You know, when I worked in a different place – in an earlier life – a moment came – I remember it very well, sometime in the late 1980s – I think that many of those here today will agree with me – undoubtedly you were also aware of this – when our own R&D and the R&D of our colleagues obtained from abroad using special means were not put to use in the Soviet economy. There wasn’t even the equipment with which to put it to use. 

This is called, if I’m not mistaken, industrial-scientific espionage. Or more accurately, when they do it its industrial-scientific espionage. But when we do it it's scientific-technical intelligence. It existed not only in the USSR, and to this day there are a few people who casually admit that they were engaged in it. And so there we were, working and working away, getting hold of more and more of the stuff – but nothing came of it! We asked: 'Where is it? Where is it in the economy?' It wasn't there! We couldn’t use it!

It's not clear from this whether, regardless of the assimilation problems, Putin thought that the 'intelligence' was a good thing or a bad thing. He was more precise on 30 June at the 'Technology in Engineering 2010' forum, in response to a presentation by Frank Schauff, the head of the Association of European Businesses in Russia. The text of Schauff's speech is not available, but in stressing that Russia was prepared to buy the technology it needed and to protect intellectual property, Putin said:

You should not allege that Russians are out to do what the character from one of our famous literary works does: snatch a juicy morsel from the boss' kitchen and then quietly gobble it up in bed, hiding under the blanket. Russia never pursues such policies.

From what we know of the ring in the US, it was unlikely to have stolen much of value. One imagines that there are more threatening operations out there, but it could well be the case that Putin is sceptical of their value.

Photo by Flickr user Jonathan_W, used under a Creative Commons license.

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