Why Trump Will Be Putin's Ultimate Villain Sidekick: Spies

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

PARIS—Just inside the art deco doors of the French Institute of International Relations, the beefy director of the Estonian Intelligence Service straightens his shoulders and shoots icy stares at some 80 people gathered to hear him address what the organizers describe as the “Spectre” of the growing Russian menace in Europe.

“There are a couple of Russian agents and a couple of Russian contacts here,” Kaupo Rosen informs the seated audience, fomenting an anxiety that triggers the man with the turtle-head mole over his right eyebrow to turn around and glower at me for asking Estonia’s ersatz James Bond to reckon how many in the room were on Vladimir Putin’s espionage payroll.

Through Soviet-era dental work, he says casually in Russian: “не смей—don’t you dare.”

The story unfolds—and it’s a doozy.

French, American and Ukrainian intelligence officers have told The Daily Beast that Putin’s spy agencies, largely templated on Joseph Stalin’s villainous SMERSH, have tapped into the cinematic style and ghoulishly deadly rituals of 007 author Ian Fleming’s SPECTRE.

For those who might have missed Fleming’s 14 Bond novels or any of the 27 movies starring the world’s most famous secret agent, the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence Terrorism Revenge and Extortion (SPECTRE) is a fictional cabal of World Economic Forum-style bad guys headed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who wields the group’s financial and technical clout to puppet-master global banks, markets, and politicians. A heinous CEO, Blofeld often poisons those who thwart his plans and clearly enjoys throwing his enemies into a swimming pool of sharks.

SMERSH, the Russian acronym for the phrase “death to spies,” was a real espionage agency and the prototype for Putin’s FSB state security apparatus and the GRU, Russian military intelligence. Although SMERSH agents were a grisly group, Fleming replaced Stalin’s premier division henchmen with the viler SPECTRE as the greatest threat to global stability.

And of course it’s pure pulp fiction silliness, right?

“It isn’t an entirely mirthful diversion, either,” insists an American intelligence analyst, who monitors Putin’s spy agencies, pointing out that Fleming first broached the idea of creating the CIA when he spearheaded a covert commando unit during WWII.

“Hold the world to ransom, using nuclear weapons, banks, petroleum products, and compliant elected officials in the U.S. and Europe,” the analyst says. “It’s very SPECTRE.”

But is such an observation simply cultural flotsam from the tedious and expensive war in Ukraine and growing fears that Putin’s chum Donald Trump might re-inhabit the White House? Therein lies a tale of life imitating art that will drive conspiracy theorists to drinking hemlock.

Panicked Russia Is Now Telling Reluctant Soldiers They Will Be Resurrected

Russia’s fossil fuel revenues are on the rise. Russian central bank securities and cash in the Eurozone tops 190 billion euros. Western banks also hold a king’s ransom in billions of euros, pounds, dollars in Russian assets. The lawless toehold Putin’s merchant class holds over Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East has allowed a portfolio of Russian companies such as Wagner Group to hand the Kremlin near-unfettered control of strategic metals and other critical natural resources.

When it comes to untangling Russia, there’s nothing wrong with lunacy in moderation.

“Back in my day John le Carré stories were part of our curriculum in the Boîte [the Box],” says a French field agent, employing the term his colleagues use to describe the country’s intelligence agency DGSE. “The world of James Bond battling SPECTRE was a completely false representation of the trade, but that was then.”

Indeed, Chatham House Rules—no direct quotes from the 90-minute powwow—offers superb cover for the hobgoblins and mountebanks attending Le Conference Spectre de la Menace Russe pour l'Europe in the leafy 15th arrondissement, which is coincidentally also the home of FIRCO, SPECTRE’s front organization in Thunderball.

Fact or fiction, outside the conference, the director general of Estonian Internal Security, Margo Palloson, warns everyone to watch their back. He says Putin has increased bomb scares, cyberattacks, election interference and other mischiefs against Western targets. All of them smack of SPECTRE.

“The most significant change in the security threat picture over the past year is the shift in Russian influence activities towards more physical and brutal tactics, something which we also refer to as state vandalism,” Palloson says. “Russia has intensified hybrid operations against Estonia and several other European countries, attempting to use all non-military means as weapons against us.”

And these attacks aren’t fictional. The DGSE, for instance, now suspects the dumping of five full-sized coffins covered with the French flag at the Eiffel Tower last weekend was an FSB operation in response to French President Emmanuel Macron saying he might send military instructors to Ukraine.

At the same time, a report released by Microsoft says Putin’s people in March launched a cyber-SWAT unit called Storm-1679. Its mission is to manufacture and flood France with bogus alarms about terrorist attacks during the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, as well as against targets in the U.S. and Europe. Daniel Stenling, head of Sweden’s SAPO counterespionage unit, charged Russia’s ally Iran of hiring known criminal networks to target Israeli and Jewish interests inside NATO’s newest member country.

“There are two realities: Putin’s intelligence network is growing and a Russian victory in Ukraine would be a green light for him to invade Europe,” cautions Anastasiya Shapochkina, director of the Eastern Circles research group and lecturer on Russian economic and military policy at Sciences Po in Paris. “You’ll never get any European politician or spymaster to talk about how Trump fits into Putin’s plan.”

But make no mistake. Many officials at the SPECTRE conference were privately terrified of a Republican win in November, coupled with a Putin victory in Ukraine. That would set the stage for a sequel to You Only Live Twice, in which Trump is cast as SPECTRE flunky Helga Brandt, whom Blofeld feeds to the piranhas for having slept with Bond.

“Bon appétit,” 007 said at the time. Estonian intelligence officials declined to comment.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get the Daily Beast's biggest scoops and scandals delivered right to your inbox. Sign up now.

Stay informed and gain unlimited access to the Daily Beast's unmatched reporting. Subscribe now.