World War I

   Neither the Okhrana nor Russian military intelligence was prepared for a general European war in 1914. Russian military intelligence had good basic intelligence on the border districts of imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as a great deal of information on the enemies’ general staff plans, thanks to an agent within the Hungarian Ministry of War, Colonel Alfred Redl. Russia also provided one of the first military intelligence coups of the war. Having retrieved a code book from a stranded German warship in 1914, the Russians immediately made the contents known to their British ally, who used it to break German military and diplomatic codes throughout the rest of the war.
   Nevertheless, in 1914 the Okhrana was having difficulty coping with a series of major industrial strikes that had exploded in 1912 and continued for almost two years, while military intelligence was very short staffed. Even more critical for the survival of the regime, neither service was capable of countering German subversion inside the imperial court. German military intelligence had agents inside the army’s general staff, and Berlin was well informed of the regime’s plans. As the war progressed, German intelligence was able to recruit agents within the Russian court and manipulate policy.
   The tsarist regime also lacked basic military communications security. Radio traffic frequently was sent using primitive or very elemental codes. The German general staff’s ability to read Russian military traffic in the summer of 1914 allowed it to counter the first Russian offensive of the war and win the battle of Tannenburg. As the war progressed, the Russian military intelligence service did far better in providing information about the Austrian enemy than the German. Even fighting on their own territory, the Russian service had only a limited number of reliable sources with access to German military or political intelligence.
   The war stretched the ability of the Okhrana and military intelligence to the breaking point. By 1916 troops in many urban garrisons were in a state of mutiny. While frontline troops were loyal, troops in St. Petersburg were under the influence of agitators from a number of left-wing parties. The most successful covert action of the war was Germany’s financing the travel of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin and a number of his supporters from Switzerland to neutral Sweden in a protected train in 1917 after the March Revolution. Lenin and his entourage then made their way to the Finland Station in Petrograd (St. Petersburg). The German leadership realized how fragile Russia was, and believed—correctly—that Lenin might upset the provisional government and bring peace on the Eastern Front.
   Demobilized frontline Russian soldiers and deserters played a critical role in the newly minted Workers and Peasants Red Army and the Cheka. Many disillusioned noncommissioned and junior officers joined the Bolsheviks. World War I ensured the destruction of the tsarist regime and provided the new revolutionary authorities with many of its most effective military commanders and intelligence agents.

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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