The Central Intelligence Agency has launched a new effort to capitalize on what US intelligence officials believe is an “unprecedented” opportunity to convince Russians disaffected by the war in Ukraine and life in Russia to share their secrets, posting a slickly produced, cinematic recruitment video online on Monday.
The push includes a new CIA channel on Telegram, the social media network that is a highly popular source of unfiltered news in Russia. The CIA first posted the video on Telegram, which ends with instructions on how to get in touch with the CIA anonymously and securely. The video is also being posted to its other social media platforms, including YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
CIA officials involved in the project said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created a historic opening “to have Russians come to us and deliver information the United States needs.” It also comes after a previous recruitment drive following the launch of the invasion that the officials said has been successful, with “contact coming in.”
The message, one official said, that they hope Russians who work in sensitive fields with access to valuable information now hear is: “We understand you, maybe better than you think.”
“We wanted to convey to Russians in their own language we know what they’re going through,” added the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive project.
The official insisted the video is “absolutely not” meant to be incendiary or fuel unrest among the broader population – where Russian President Vladimir Putin still enjoys a high level of support – but rather targets individuals who may be on the fence, and “demystifies” the process of contacting the CIA. It does not mention Putin or even the war Ukraine, in part because it would be “redundant,” but also because they argue it draws on “timeless” themes that have long convinced disaffected Russians to reach out to the CIA.
“Ukraine is top of mind but that’s more or less a symptom of something larger,” one of the officials said. “There are always individuals in Russia who identify with what we have to say here.”
The video attempts to appeal to Russian patriotism
What the spy agency believes Russians are going through – what they believe could convince Russians to become assets – is doubt, lack of purpose and oppression. It appeals to their sense of patriotism and plays on Russian culture, quoting lines from Leo Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.
“We will live with dignity, thanks to my actions,” the narrator says in Russian as a woman in her car uses her phone to contact the CIA, before the agency’s logo and contact instructions appear.
The emotional two-minute video shows different Russians going about their lives, appearing to contemplate major decisions. The theme of family runs throughout, showing a young girl in a hospital bed with a lady who appears to be her mother. The target audience is clear: a woman works at what appears to be a government computer and a man walks into a government building, flashes his ID before sitting at a desk full of files.
Monday’s video mirrors a more blunt outreach on social media by the CIA a year ago, two months into the war in Ukraine. Those posts included similar step-by-step instructions for would-be Russian informants on how to avoid detection by Russia’s security services by using virtual private networks, or VPNs, and the Tor web browser to anonymously and through encryption contact the agency on the so-called Dark Web.
A lot has happened in a year of war, the CIA officials said, noting the crackdown on opposition voices, independent journalism and the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of more Russian men sent to the front.
“[Putin’s] military continues to suffer heavy losses and manpower and materiel. When he undertook a partial mobilization late last year far more Russians of military age fled the country than the Kremlin managed to round up and send to the front as cannon fodder,” CIA Director William Burns said in a speech last month. “Disaffection with the war will continue to gnaw away at the Russian leadership beneath the steady diet of state propaganda and practiced repression.”
The target of the video is a pool of Russians the CIA believes numbers in the thousands or even tens of thousands – in Russia and abroad – who could have valuable information to share. Individuals who are outside the daily “spy vs. spy” competition of the US and Russian security services and intelligence agencies, the officials said, who work in fields like cybersecurity, tech, finance, the military and diplomacy.
Many of those people may not know how to get in touch with the CIA or may simply not be aware that what they know is of interest, the officials said. The success they’ve seen with the earlier effort of the past year to try to get Russians in touch has been good enough to encourage them to now make a more aggressive push with the video.
“If it were unsuccessful we would not be attempting a similar endeavor,” one official said while declining to offer any specifics about what or how many informants they’ve managed to recruit over the past 15 months.
Since war began US intel has been ‘open for business’
Since Russia launched its war against Ukraine last February, the US intelligence community has been “open for business,” according to the CIA’s director of operations, David Marlowe.
“We’re looking around the world for Russians who are as disgusted with that as we are,” Marlowe said at George Mason University’s Hayden Center in November.
A former CIA head of counterintelligence, James Olson, praised the social media efforts and agreed that today is “probably the best period of recruiting Russians that we’ve had.”
“There are a lot of disaffected Russians out there now,” he said, “they’re ashamed and disgusted by what [Putin is] doing to their brother and sister Slavs in Ukraine. He’s destroying Russia. He’s killing Russian boys. And there are good people in Russia, including intelligence officers, who want to strike back.”
While the CIA looks for Russians overseas, the FBI launched a similar project aimed Russians in the United States, including specific targeting of cell phones of those coming and going from the embassy in Washington. This was also happening before the war in Ukraine, as CNN reported.
The FBI ad used a quote of Putin’s and told readers, in Russian: “We’re ready to listen.”
The embassy responded by tweeting that “attempts to sow confusion and organize desertion among the staff of the [embassy] are ridiculous.”
“Let’s spread the net as widely as possible, we’ll take everybody,” Olson added. “We can offer them protection. We can offer them security. We can offer them full anonymity. And we can offer them a package that corresponds to the value of the information they’re providing.”
CNN’s Alla Eshchenko contributed to this report.