An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Spies Were No Joke

Anna Chapman and Co. may have seemed silly, but they were actually carrying out Putin's master plan: re-creating the KGB.

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

For many, the arrest of 12 Russian spies in the United States was a signal that the drama of the Cold War had returned as farce. Much fun was had examining the activities of the "illegals" in the United States (they seemed to have accomplished little more than garnering invitations to think-tank lunches). But as innocuous as those details seem, the West would do well to pay attention to just how closely the methods and intentions of Russia’s current intelligence agency, the SVR, replicate those of Soviet-era intelligence agencies.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a KGB veteran, has concertedly molded the SVR in the image of its Soviet-era predecessor, most of all in its relentless focus on spying on the West. Indeed, the Russian spy ring wasn’t an aberration, but a reflection of precisely the way that Putin wants his intelligence agencies to operate.

Before Putin took office, that wasn’t the direction the Russian spy services were heading at all — indeed, it was quite the opposite. When the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, the KGB was divided into several independent agencies, with the intention of preventing the emergence of another all-powerful security state. The KGB’s former foreign intelligence directorate was transformed into a new espionage agency called the Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR by its Russian initials.

Yevgeny Primakov, a well-known Arabist who spent years in the Middle East and had earned a reputation as one of the Soviet Union’s leading experts on the region, was chosen to lead the now-independent bureau. After bringing in a fleet of new deputies — all of whom were also primarily familiar with the Middle East — Primakov’s primary focus was on cleaning house. He wanted to distance the SVR from its KGB past as quickly as possible.

Primakov’s first step was to open a press office; he also encouraged SVR officials to present themselves in the Russian media as the most Westernized, liberal representatives of the Russian secret services. The effort was aided by the fact that the SVR was located in a Moscow suburb, far from the other intelligence agency spinoffs. Primakov also insisted that the agency have nothing to do with Russian internal affairs so that it wouldn’t be tainted by any potential future suppression of domestic dissidents.

Primakov retained some nefarious covert Soviet intelligence practices, such as the disinformation campaigns that were called "active measures." But he was keen to present the SVR as something more akin to a think tank or research institution. From 1993 through 1998, he had the bureau publish four open research reports on international issues, including the proliferation of chemical and nuclear weapons. It was an effort obviously inspired by the CIA; he even renamed the intelligence operatives "reviewers" or "analysts."

When Putin was elected president in 2000, he was intent on putting his own stamp on the SVR. By tapping Sergei Lebedev to become the new SVR chief, Putin indicated he was intent on going in a different direction. Unlike Primakov’s circle, Lebedev had spent his entire intelligence career in the West, working (like Putin himself) for the KGB in East Germany and for the SVR in the United States. When Lebedev selected Vladimir Zavershinsky, another former Germany agent, as his first deputy, it was clear that the agency’s attention had shifted westward and that its stance was more antagonistic than it had been before.

Almost immediately, three Western countries — the United States, Britain, and Germany — reported increased activity by SVR agents. On March 23, 2001, the U.S. State Department announced the expulsion of 50 Russian diplomats — at the time, it was considered the most serious spy scandal between the United States and Russia since the end of the Cold War. Two days later, British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned Putin about an increase in Russian intelligence activity in Britain. Four days after that, Germany’s counterintelligence service released a report concluding that Russia had increased the number of spies operating out of its diplomatic mission in the country.

Putin eased up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, even directing the SVR to aid the United States during the invasion of Afghanistan. Russians provided extensive on-the-ground intelligence during the war, especially on Afghan topography and the country’s network of caves. Putin also ordered the shutdown of a monitoring station at Lourdes, Cuba, that was presumably used to gather intelligence on the United States, and he allowed U.S. rendition flights to land and take off from a Russian airport.

But the Russian détente didn’t last long. In April 2003, reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle discovered documents in the Baghdad office of the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi secret police under Saddam Hussein, indicating that at least five Iraqi agents had graduated from a two-week surveillance course in Moscow. When the journalists asked us to check the documents, our sources in the SVR confirmed that they were genuine.

It quickly became clear that the Russians were still intent on harboring an adversarial relationship with the West. In September 2007, Mike McConnell, then the U.S. director of national intelligence, told Congress that Chinese and Russian spies were stalking the United States with a fervor unseen since the espionage duels of the Cold War. In 2008, Germany’s domestic counterintelligence service declared in its annual report that Russia and China were responsible for most of the intelligence-gathering activity in Germany. "Intelligence and security services are under orders to actively support Russian industry," the report said. In late 2007 Putin seemed to confirm the German allegation about the new trend in the SVR’s activities when he openly insisted that "the intelligence services need more actively to stand up for the defense of the economic interests of our companies abroad."

If there is one consolation for the West, it’s that while the SVR’s obsession with the West is a holdover from Soviet times, so, evidently, are some of its techniques. The use of illegals, of the type rounded up in the United States, is an old KGB throwback that traces to the Stalin era. The Comintern — an international network of Communist sympathizers — had once provided an ideal recruiting ground for spies who could blend seamlessly into their home countries while serving Moscow. But when Stalin turned on the Comintern during the purges, the Soviet Union was increasingly forced to train local talent for far-off missions.

Ultimately, the use of illegals is as much a sign of desperation as of malicious intent. Perhaps the SVR is proud of upholding these traditions, but the U.S. intelligence services should be forgiven for not feeling envious.

<p> Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan are co-founders of the website and authors of the forthcoming book The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB, to be published in the United States in September by PublicAffairs. </p>

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.