Earlier this month, as Russia began its takeover of the region of Crimea, U.S. spy agencies reportedly found a worrying silence in the spot where they were listening most attentively — the digital space around Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military brass. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday, U.S. intelligence services could not intercept any communications on the start of the Crimean invasion. One U.S. official called it a piece of “classic maskirovka,” the Russian spy term for masking sensitive data. But at least part of the radio silence may have a simpler explanation: Putin, by his own admission, does not have a cell phone for the Americans to tap.
Nor can he be called a man of the Internet age, which he has long derided, most recently on March 20, two days after he formally annexed Crimea from Ukraine. During a meeting that day with Russian industrialists, one of them cited documents that could be found online. “I rarely look at that,” Putin retorted, “into that place where you apparently live, that Internet.”
Outmoded as that may sound, the remark was in line with Putin's long-established communication habits, which have apparently made him a very hard target for foreign spies. Unlike German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose phone was tapped for years by the U.S. National Security Agency, Putin does not do text messaging. He has no social-networking pages. He gets his news from the daily briefings of his own spy agencies. And as early as 2005, at the start of his second term as President, Putin said that he does not own a cell phone.
“If I had a mobile phone, it would never stop ringing,” Putin said when asked about this most recently in 2010. “More than that, when my home phone rings, I don't ever answer it.”
That seems astounding for the leader of a country that has more activated cell phones than people and more Internet users than any other nation in Europe. But in some ways Putin's technophobia is part of a Russian tradition older than the telephone itself: an aversion to blabbering that has been hardwired into the national psyche after a century of life in an industrial police state. In Soviet times, the eavesdropping practices of Putin's alma mater, the KGB, even gave rise to a Russian saying that my grandmother still uses when talking to my mother. “This is not a telephone conversation,” Russians like to say in the middle of a telephone conversation, reminding each other that only the most innocent chatter is safe to transmit over an insecure line.
“This is a Soviet habit,” says Andrei Soldatov, a Moscow-based expert on the Russian surveillance state. “Nothing can beat it out of us.”
In Putin's case, though probably not in my grandmother's, the Kremlin devotes massive resources to keeping conversations private. The Russian school of cryptography, says Soldatov, has a long track record of standing up to Western spies. Most recently in 2009, both American and British spy agencies reportedly attempted to tap the communications of Dmitri Medvedev, who was then serving as Russia's President, during a summit of world leaders in London. According to documents provided to the Guardian newspaper by NSA leaker Edward Snowden, they bugged the phones, but they could not break the Kremlin's encryption, says Soldatov. “Our special services may not be great. But when the task is to protect the data of just a few top people, they can manage.”
Putin, a former spymaster himself, makes that as easy for them as possible. During one of the rare instances when state TV showed him using what appeared to be a cell phone in 2010, it was not the type of smartphone that the NSA has proved so adept at tapping. It was a bricklike device, black and clunky, which Putin held to his ear while standing in a forest of birch. Whatever that gadget was, it earned him a lot of ridicule from the snarky Russian blogosphere.
So did the contents of his private office, which was first shown to the public in 2012 as part of a fawning documentary aired on state TV in time for Putin's 60th birthday. On his desk, there did appear to be a computer, although Putin made clear that this was not his source of news. The stack of red folders from his intelligence agencies provided that, and as for his methods of communication, there was a bank of ancient yellow telephones on his desk, the type found in any Kremlin office. Instead of a dial pad, these usually have just one button with a name beside it, and my only attempt to play with one a few years ago, in the pressroom of Putin's residence, revealed no secrets. The line was dead.