Back channel


Back channel
   Moscow frequently used intelligence officers and journalists working with the intelligence services as a back channel of communication with other governments. An alternative channel of communications allowed Moscow to speak candidly with politicians and address issues that were off-limits to diplomats. This tactic probably developed out of the 1920s and 1930s, when the Soviet government had diplomatic relations with only a few Western governments. In the 1970s, the KGB maintained separate channels of communications with West German politicians as the Socialist Democratic administration of Willy Brandt developed its policy of Ostpolitik. An American historian of the KGB noted: “The KGB back channel combined the secrecy of 19th century cabinet diplomacy with the speed of 20th century transportation and communications to transform Soviet–West German relations.”
   Senior KGB officers, including Yuri Andropov, were strong supporters of back channel diplomacy, arguing that the intelligence service was less corrupt and more competent than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Andropov, according to a subordinate, believed that he could solve the Soviet Union’s international problems with enough back channels to the major powers.
   While back channels were undoubtedly useful in many cases, they could also create unintended confusion about Moscow’s intentions. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Moscow used Georgi Bolshakov, an intelligence officer under journalist cover, as a back channel between Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Bolshakov relayed assurances that the Soviet government was not considering placing nuclear weapons in Cuba just as missile units were arriving on the island. Revelations of this deception badly damaged Soviet credibility, and it reduced the effectiveness of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and the ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin.

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.