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“You are very special.” How Russians cultivate their agents in the West

Russian intelligence employs a patient, meticulous approach in cultivating assets, playing long games spanning decades. Defectors reveal files from the 1970s and 80s, exposing the depth of this Cold War-era cultivation strategy.
Set of Russian nested dolls. Photo: depositphotos
“You are very special.” How Russians cultivate their agents in the West

Russia favors psychological manipulation over bribery when targeting individuals, according to Nathalie Vogel of the Center for Intermarium Studies in an interview with the European Resilience Initiative Center. By cultivating long-term relationships, Russia builds comprehensive profiles to exploit personal vulnerabilities. Vogel argues Russian intelligence relies more on sophisticated influence strategies rather than simple bribery or blackmail. A more in-depth analysis of her views is available here.

  • Courting people at academic conferences

The Russians use academic conferences to recruit people as intelligence assets. They may approach attendees directly or use non-Russian proxies. Targets tend to be narcissistic yet insecure academics who crave validation. Valdai and similar conferences serve as ‘shopping malls’ where Russian intelligence agencies recruit foreigners who prioritize access over merit.

“The Russian narrative in such cases is always: You are very special, you understand us much better than the others,” elaborated Vogel.

  • Pampering method

Russians usually employ a pampering method when they deal with people who willingly share their propaganda. 

“They would say, “Look, it’s so rare to have people who master the subject so well, and you have such an in-depth understanding of the issues. So, we can work,” explained Vogel.

  • Honey traps’ 

Russia uses “honey traps” of seduction, blackmail, and career assistance to cultivate assets. However, their primary approach is developing relationships that help individuals’ careers. For example, they create fake obstacles for someone at an international organization dealing with Russians and then ensure that person succeeds in removing those barriers.

“So, this person is viewed by their organization as someone who really can deal with the Russians. Germany and Austria are full of them,” said Vogel.

This cultivation can span decades, revealing a patient, long-term strategy targeting politicians, backbenchers, and hopeful notables. Meticulous files track assets since the 1970s or 1980s.

Gerhard Schroeder: the triumph of Russian influence

Europe’s most successful Russian intelligence operation involves co-opting entire political parties and cultivating prominent leaders. Former Chancellor of Germany Gerhard Schroeder stands out as a prime example. Post-public office, Schroeder has been associated with Russian state-owned energy companies like Nord Stream AG, Rosneft, and Gazprom. Schroeder’s early identification and cultivation by Russian agents underscore the effectiveness of this long-standing tradition.

“I think they spotted him in his younger student years. He was more inclined to collaborate with the Soviet Union and had a certain disdain for anything American,” said Nathalie Vogel. 

Gerhard Schroeder and Vladimir Putin in Moscow, 2018. Photo: TASS

Counterintelligence blindspots

Discovering patterns and identifying individuals is straightforward, yet Western intelligence often fails to counteract. Why? This depends on the country. Germany is one where problems with this are greatest. Counterintelligence services there struggle due to legal constraints, rendering them “paper tigers”. Many American professionals view German agents as bureaucrats fancying themselves James Bonds, and little has changed since Russia invaded Ukraine.

In a recent opinion piece, former BND heads August Hanning and Gerhard Schindler proposed moving the agency under Defense Ministry control. This aims to avoid politicization by the chancellery and address failures to act, as in the Schroeder case where German intelligence knew of Russian cultivation but did nothing.

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