The campaign involves long standing sleeper cells that the allied spy service has activated to hinder Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine by waging a secret war behind Russian lines.
Years in the planning, the campaign is responsible for many of the unexplained explosions and other mishaps that have befallen the Russian military industrial complex since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, according to three former U.S. intelligence officials, two former U.S. military officials and a U.S. person who has been briefed on the campaign. The former officials declined to identify specific targets for the CIA-directed campaign, but railway bridges, fuel depots and power plants in Russia have all been damaged in unexplained incidents since the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February.
While no American personnel are involved on the ground in Russia in the execution of these missions, agency paramilitary officers are commanding and controlling the operations, according to two former intelligence officials and a former military official. The paramilitary officers are assigned to the CIA’s Special Activities Center but detailed to the agency’s European Mission Center, said the two former intelligence officials. Using an allied intelligence service to give the CIA an added layer of plausible deniability was an essential factor in U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to approve the strikes, according to a former U.S. special operations official.
While command and control over the sabotage program resides with the CIA for legal reasons, the NATO ally has a strong say in which operations go forward since it is their people taking the risks. Sources repeatedly pushed back against any notion that the NATO ally was a CIA proxy, describing it is a close partnership. The European ally whose operatives are conducting the sabotage campaign is not being named here because doing so might endanger the operational security of cells that are still operational inside of Russia.
Any covert action undertaken by U.S. agencies must be authorized by a presidential finding. After the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russia had interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, President Barack Obama signed such a finding for covert action against Russia before he left office, according to The Washington Post. The finding involved the National Security Agency and the military’s Cyber Command in addition to the CIA and included a scheme to plant “cyberweapons in Russia’s infrastructure,” according to the Post.
That 2016 finding also included language about sabotage operations, according to a former CIA official. Other former officials said that the current sabotage campaign would have required either an entirely new finding or an amendment to a pre-existing finding on Russia.
CIA spokesperson Tammy Thorp denied any agency involvement in the wave of mysterious explosions that have struck Russia’s defense and transportation infrastructure in 2022. “The allegation that CIA is somehow supporting saboteur networks in Russia is categorically false,” the spokesperson said. Under Title 50 of the U.S. Code which authorizes covert actions, the CIA can lawfully deny the existence of these operations to everyone except the so-called “Gang of Eight” – the chairmen and ranking minority members of the congressional intelligence committees, the speaker and minority leader of the House of Representatives, and the majority and minority leaders of the Senate.
The NATO ally’s campaign overseen by the CIA is only one of several covert operations efforts being undertaken by Western nations in Russia, according to two former U.S. special operations officials. Alarmed by Russia’s February invasion, other European intelligence services have activated long-dormant resistance networks in their own countries, who in turn have been running operatives into Russia to create chaos without CIA help, according to a former U.S. military official. In addition, as has been widely reported, Ukrainian intelligence and special operations forces are running their own operations behind Russian lines.
The multiple sabotage campaigns are having an impact, according to Mick Mulroy, a former CIA paramilitary officer. “I do not know who is behind these attacks, but their value is substantial and serves multiple purposes,” he said. “Russia has had a significant problem keeping up with its logistical supply lines. These attacks further complicate its effort to supply its forces.”
They also serve to sow doubt in Kremlin minds, because they show that Russian President Vladimir Putin “does not have control over what is happening in his own country,” said Mulroy. “Is it a covert program, is it disgruntled Russians sabotaging their own plant, or is it pure incompetence of the workers? I don’t know, and perhaps the Kremlin doesn’t either. This matters to paranoid autocrats.”
Indeed, by refusing to take credit for individual acts of sabotage committed by the European spy service under the CIA’s direction the two agencies hope to send the Kremlin a message while sending Russia security services scrambling in all directions to find the culprits, according to a former U.S. military official. “With sabotage and subversion, there is a psychological component,” the former official said.
“There have been many fires across Russia over the past few months, particularly in weapons-manufacturing plants and other crucial sites,” said Russia analyst Olga Lautman, a non-resident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. “Russian media has reported on these fires as separate incidents. They have not created any propaganda around these incidents and treat them as accidents.”
For instance, when a Russian Aerospace Defense Forces building burned down in late April, killing more than 20 people, Russian state media reported that the blaze was caused by faulty wiring. But the Kremlin understands that these are not just accidental fires and industrial accidents, despite what official media broadcast, according to a former U.S. intelligence official.
The overlapping nature of the various covert action campaigns behind Russian lines has created problems for the Western spy services running those missions. Over the summer, it became clear to CIA officers that there was increasingly a need for deconfliction amongst their own surrogate forces in Russia, according to two former military officials. Numerous incidents took place in which rail lines or power lines were cut that unintentionally interfered with other missions, one of them said.
Worse yet, two sabotage cells compromised each other while casing the same target, according to the two former military officials. One operative died and another was captured in the resulting firefight with Russian security services, they said. A lot of work has been done since then to prevent a repeat of such incidents, according to one of the former special operations officials.
The roots of these sabotage missions inside Russia go deep. The allied spy service had emplaced some of the caches of explosives and gear used by these cells more than a decade previously, according to two former military officials. At the time, that spy service was acting unilaterally, without any CIA participation, according to a former U.S. special operations official and a person who has been briefed on the sabotage campaign.
The CIA became involved in reaction to Russia’s 2014 partial invasion of Ukraine. After the Kremlin occupied the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine, the agency began planning with the allied spy service to push more operatives into Russia with orders to lay low until they were needed. The first of these sleeper cells under the combined control of the CIA and the allied spy service infiltrated into Russia in 2016, according to a former U.S. military official and a U.S. person who has been briefed on the campaign.
With the CIA’s knowledge, the allied spy service provided the undercover sleeper cell operatives with what the intelligence community calls “legends” – false biographies that would explain their presence in Russia – and the documents to back those cover stories up. There is also what a former military official called “an extensive network” of front companies that were established as platforms to support such behind-the-lines operations. “Some of them go back almost 20 years,” the former military official said.
Both intelligence agencies have made it a priority to ensure that the operatives had plausible deniability should they be discovered by the Russian security services, according to two former intelligence officials. Another priority is to minimize the risk to Russian civilians. “Part of their targeting guidance is to stay away from civilian deaths,” said a former military official.
After the 2016 infiltrations, more teams slipped into Russia over the next several years. Some smuggled in new munitions, while others have relied on the original caches, according to two former military officials and a person who has been briefed on the sabotage campaign.
Two days before February’s invasion of Ukraine, the allied spy service through which the CIA is running the sabotage campaign used a covert communications system to activate its sleeper cells across Russia, according to a former military official and a person who has been briefed on the campaign. Those cells discreetly moved to the locations of buried munitions caches around the country and dug up explosives and other material needed for upcoming operations. After inventorying and checking their equipment, the operatives waited for the orders to hit their targets.
When Russian tanks crossed the Ukrainian border on February 26, the sleeper cells were standing by, ready to act.
Some of the first sabotage attacks behind Russian lines occurred outside Russia, in Belarus, when “a clandestine network of railway workers, hackers, and dissident security forces” began attacking rail lines that connected Russia and Ukraine, according to The Washington Post. “Starting on Feb. 26, two days after the invasion began, a succession of five sabotage attacks against signaling cabinets brought train traffic to an almost complete halt,” the Post reported, quoting a former railway worker now living in Poland.
As the war in Ukraine has continued, some of the teams overseen by the CIA and the NATO ally’s spy service have moved back and forth across international borders to collect more munitions and to conduct mission rehearsals, according to a former military official.
The CIA and the host nation’s elite special operations unit have overseen some of those mission rehearsals, which are conducted in the allied spy service’s home country, according to a former U.S. military official and a person who has been briefed on the campaign. JSOC has also supported the sabotage operations with targeting information from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, such as drones, that can see and hear deep into Russia, they said.
“The elite-level teams that we have the best relationships with are almost always given air surveillance support for major sabotage ops” behind Russian lines, the person who has been briefed on the campaign said, adding that some of the ISR platforms are models that have never been publicly revealed. “Drones we don’t even know about yet are loitering all over the Ukrainian and Russian airspace,” the person said.
The CIA has been conducting sabotage operations since the agency’s inception in 1947. During the Cold War the agency planned and executed such operations from Cuba to Vietnam and throughout Central America. Similar missions were also a key part of the agency’s plans for Western Europe, should the Soviet Union ever have invaded.
But while those plans for a Soviet-occupied Europe involved so-called “stay behind” networks of partisans – civilians living normal lives until the enemy invades, at which point they activate to begin conducting sabotage and espionage missions – the current campaign inside Russia itself bears a closer resemblance to CIA operations ahead of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In the run up to that invasion, CIA Ground Branch paramilitary officers trained 70 Kurdish cells and then deployed them into Saddam Hussein-controlled portions of Iraq, targeting infrastructure. “We ended up with a lot of teams…operating inside Iraqi-controlled space,” said former CIA operations officer Sam Faddis, who led one of the agency teams. Their activities included derailing a 90-car train and blowing up the office of an Iraqi intelligence officer. “It’s a way of saying screw you, we’re here, this is over,” Faddis said.
While sabotage may seem like a dated concept, recalling the exploits of T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) in World War I and the Office of Strategic Services in World War II, it remains a relevant tool for disrupting an enemy’s logistics and sowing confusion in his rear areas.
Rail and power lines are linear targets that can be destroyed using explosives and other techniques. “While materials have improved, the assembly of rail lines has remained essentially unchanged since trains were invented,” writes Army Maj. Daniel Meegan in his 2020 Naval Postgraduate School thesis “Breaking Other People’s Toys: Sabotage in a Multipolar World.”
Meegan used three case studies in his research: Lawrence’s campaign against the Turks in World War I, OSS operations in Greece in World War II and the Weather Underground’s domestic terrorism activity in the United States in the 1970s. He concludes that such operations “show that very small groups of saboteurs can have dramatic impacts on much larger enemy organizations. This utilization of small sabotage forces allowed leaders and planners to focus their limited manpower and materiel elsewhere while presenting their enemies with multiple dilemmas.”
The U.S. government has met news of the mysterious fires and explosions in Russia with silence. But Ukraine has been goading the Kremlin on social media about the events, suggesting more than once that careless smokers are responsible for unexplained fires at Russian military facilities. After a mysterious August fire destroyed a Russian ammunition depot in Belgorod just across the border from Ukraine, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Twitter account taunted Moscow with a warning that “smoking kills!”
“Another detonation of ammo ‘due to the heat’ in the Belgorod region in russia,” Ukraine’s Defense Ministry quipped on Twitter in August after news of an explosion at an ammunition depot in Belgorod. “In a few months we will find out whether russian ammo can explode because of the cold.”
Ukrainian officials have also begun to hint at their own ability to strike targets with guerrilla operations behind enemy lines — both within occupied parts of Ukraine and in Russia. In August, a senior Ukrainian official told The New York Times that an attack on a Russian airbase in Crimea was carried out by “partisans” and that a Ukrainian “elite military unit” was responsible for blowing up a Russian ammunition depot on the occupied peninsula.
“It’s been widely reported that after the 2014 invasion of Crimea, U.S. intelligence started a robust training program for Ukrainian special operations forces. It is likely that these same forces are leading the effort of these sabotage operations in Crimea now,” said Mulroy.
Meanwhile, the mysterious explosions deep in Russian territory have continued. While these acts of sabotage can have both a psychological and substantive impact on the Kremlin’s offensive, they also run the risk of escalating conflict between the Western world and Russia beyond either side’s ability to estimate — or control.
So far, the targets struck by the operatives being run by the CIA through the allied spy service have largely been of tactical, rather than strategic, value. However, the danger exists that the acts of sabotage could, along with battlefield losses, potentially paint Putin into a corner and risk nuclear escalation.
Such strikes let Russia’s leaders know that they can be hit in their backyard. That could have a double effect of constraining Russia’s military options while encouraging Putin to escalate the conflict further, according to observers. “Though their military value can be debated, such acts might play to Putin’s greatest concerns and have outsized impact on his escalatory calculus,” said former CIA officer Douglas London.
But such considerations need not necessarily inhibit covert operations, according to Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at the Center for Naval Analyses. “There is always the danger of miscalculation regarding an adversaries’ red lines,” Kofman said. “It is a persistent risk, but it must be weighed against one’s objectives and an opponent’s likely options for retaliation. The key is to navigate a space between risk aversion to the point of paralysis, and wanton recklessness.”
As the war has dragged on, some NATO allies have backed away from supporting behind enemy lines operations in Russia. As the war matured, the political implications of such operations frightened some governments, however the United States and its key NATO ally running the sabotage programs have remained aggressive and forward leaning.
The longer the war lasts, the more likely it is that the sabotage campaign will become more brazen, according to a former special operations official, particularly if Putin escalates to the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction. “As we need to send a stronger message to Putin, you may see ops in Moscow and other key cities,” the former official said.
A note on the publication of this article:
Many will ask why an article of this importance is appearing on my personal website rather than in a prestigious publication. I will not detail the entire journey this article took at this time, but will say that while working with editors at mainstream publications I was asked to do things that were illegal and unethical in one instance, and in another instance I felt that a senior CIA official was able to edit my article by making off the record statements, before he leaked a story to the New York Times to undermine this piece.
I don’t begrudge the intelligence community for attempting to keep covert operations out of the newspapers. That’s their job, and in this case they were quite effective at it. However, I do blame the press for not fulfilling the most basic premise of their job.
This article went through a vigorous fact checking process, and was deemed newsworthy as the strategic bombings of Laos and Cambodia or the CIA’s secret drone campaign in Pakistan. Yet, it nearly never saw the light of day. Journalists can lack the circumspection to examine how their organizations come to mimic the institutions of power that they claim to speak truth to. At some point the equities they build with the intelligence community and military commands become more important than informing the public.
Indeed, the Russian government knows perfectly well who is sponsoring these sabotage strikes. Moreover, the intelligence community wants them to know. The only party left in the dark is the public at large, left unaware of the shadow war taking place behind the scenes.
Ultimately, I felt that I was being asked to compromise my work and put careers ahead of my own integrity.
That’s why this piece appears here.