Master spy novelist John le Carré’s depictions of Cold War spy games carry such a strong whiff of inside knowledge that his books, to his obvious embarrassment, were considered essential reading by Russia’s KGB, and scrutinized by the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence. Despite predictions that the fall of the Berlin Wall and triumph of capitalism—“the end of history”—would also lead to his downfall as a novelist, the former British spy has kept writing. His latest and highly anticipated novel, A Legacy of Spies, is publishing this week.
Aug. 25 (UPI) — North Korea may have hired more than 10 former KGB agents as military advisers as concerns grew that leader Kim Jong Un could become the target of an assassination, according to a Japanese newspaper.
The Asahi Shimbun reported Friday concerns about Kim’s safety prompted the regime to bring in Russian spies, many of who had been active in the former Soviet Union.
An ex-KGB chief suspected of helping the former MI6 spy Christopher Steele to compile his dossier on Donald Trump may have been murdered by the Kremlin and his death covered up. it has been claimed.
Oleg Erovinkin, a former general in the KGB and its successor the FSB, was found dead in the back of his car in Moscow on Boxing Day in mysterious circumstances.
Renovations at Latvia’s Academy of Sciences have uncovered a secret “KGB room,” where agents of the Soviet secret police could surreptitiously monitor visitors at a concert hall during conferences and performances, Latvian media reported.
The Stalin-era building in the capital, Riga, was being renovated after decades of disuse that followed the 1991 Soviet collapse, Latvia’s Diena newspaper reported Wednesday.
“Renovating the hall, we found a very interesting object: a KGB room from which they [agents] could observe the entire auditorium,” producer Juris Miller, who is in charge of the renovations, was quoted as saying.
Restorers plan to preserve the room and turn it into a museum, similar to DDR Museum in Berlin, to “expose” features of life under the Soviet regime, Miller told Diena.
The KGB room was at least the second secret found during renovations at the Academy of Sciences building.
While restoring the molded ceiling of the concert hall, workers found a handwritten note left behind a panel by their Soviet-era predecessors.
The note, dated March 1955 and apparently planted during continued work on the building after Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s death in 1953, reads:
“At a distance of one meter from the emblem, two half-liters [bottles] of Moscow vodka have been drunk, to mark the completion of work on the ceiling and the border.”
The Soviet Union annexed Latvia in 1940, and then reclaimed control of the country again in 1944, following an interim period of occupation by Nazi Germany.
The renovated concert hall will open to the public on Sept. 20, Diena reported.
Anyone who wants to understand Vladimir Putin today needs to know the story of what happened to him on a dramatic night in East Germany a quarter of a century ago.
It is 5 December 1989 in Dresden, a few weeks after the Berlin Wall has fallen. East German communism is dying on its feet, people power seems irresistible.
Crowds storm the Dresden headquarters of the Stasi, the East German secret police, who suddenly seem helpless.
Then a small group of demonstrators decides to head across the road, to a large house that is the local headquarters of the Soviet secret service, the KGB.
“The guard on the gate immediately rushed back into the house,” recalls one of the group, Siegfried Dannath. But shortly afterwards “an officer emerged – quite small, agitated”.
“He said to our group, ‘Don’t try to force your way into this property. My comrades are armed, and they’re authorised to use their weapons in an emergency.'”
That persuaded the group to withdraw.
But the KGB officer knew how dangerous the situation remained. He described later how he rang the headquarters of a Red Army tank unit to ask for protection.
The answer he received was a devastating, life-changing shock.
“We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow,” the voice at the other end replied. “And Moscow is silent.”
That phrase, “Moscow is silent” has haunted this man ever since. Defiant yet helpless as the 1989 revolution swept over him, he has now himself become “Moscow” – the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
“I think it’s the key to understanding Putin,” says his German biographer, Boris Reitschuster. “We would have another Putin and another Russia without his time in East Germany.”
The experience taught him lessons he has never forgotten, gave him ideas for a model society, and shaped his ambitions for a powerful network and personal wealth.
Above all, it left him with a huge anxiety about the frailty of political elites, and how easily they can be overthrown by the people.
Putin had arrived in Dresden in the mid-1980s for his first foreign posting as a KGB agent.
The German Democratic Republic or GDR – a communist state created out of the Soviet-occupied zone of post-Nazi Germany – was a highly significant outpost of Moscow’s power, up close to Western Europe, full of Soviet military and spies.
Putin had wanted to join the KGB since he was a teenager, inspired by popular Soviet stories of secret service bravado in which, he recalled later,
“One man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not. One spy could decide the fate of thousands of people.”
Initially, though, much of his work in Dresden was humdrum.
Among documents in the Stasi archives in Dresden is a letter from Putin asking for help from the Stasi boss with the installation of an informer’s phone.
And there are details too of endless Soviet-East German social gatherings Putin attended, to celebrate ties between the two countries.
But if the spy work wasn’t that exciting, Putin and his young family could at least enjoy the East German good life.
Putin’s then wife, Ludmila, later recalled that life in the GDR was very different from life in the USSR. “The streets were clean. They would wash their windows once a week,” she said in an interview published in 2000, as part of First Person, a book of interviews with Russia’s new and then little-known acting president.
The Putins lived in a special block of flats with KGB and Stasi families for neighbours, though Ludmila envied the fact that:
“The GDR state security people got higher salaries than our guys, judging from how our German neighbours lived. Of course we tried to economise and save up enough to buy a car.”
Revisiting old haunts on a visit to Dresden in 2006
East Germany enjoyed higher living standards than the Soviet Union and a former KGB colleague, Vladimir Usoltsev, describes Putin spending hours leafing through Western mail-order catalogues, to keep up with fashions and trends.
He also enjoyed the beer – securing a special weekly supply of the local brew, Radeberger – which left him looking rather less trim than he does in the bare-chested sporty images issued by Russian presidential PR today.
East Germany differed from the USSR in another way too – it had a number of separate political parties, even though it was still firmly under communist rule, or appeared to be.
“He enjoyed very much this little paradise for him,” says Boris Reitschuster. East Germany, he says, “is his model of politics especially. He rebuilt some kind of East Germany in Russia now.”
But in autumn 1989 this paradise became a kind of KGB hell. On the streets of Dresden, Putin observed people power emerging in extraordinary ways.
A heavily redacted Stasi document referring to Vladimir Putin and little else
In early October hundreds of East Germans who had claimed political asylum at the West German embassy in Prague were allowed to travel to the West in sealed trains. As they passed through Dresden, huge crowds tried to break through a security cordon to try to board the trains, and make their own escape.
Wolfgang Berghofer, Dresden’s communist mayor at the time, says there was chaos as security forces began taking on almost the entire local population. Many assumed violence was inevitable.
“A Soviet tank army was stationed in our city,” he says. “And its generals said to me clearly: ‘If we get the order from Moscow, the tanks will roll.'”
After the Berlin Wall opened, on 9 November, the crowds became bolder everywhere – approaching the citadels of Stasi and KGB power in Dresden.
The former KGB headquarters in Dresden
The block of flats nearby, where the Putins lived
Vladimir Putin had doubtless assumed too that those senior Soviet officers – men he’d socialised with regularly – would indeed send in the tanks.
But no, Moscow under Mikhail Gorbachev “was silent”. The Red Army tanks would not be used. “Nobody lifted a finger to protect us.”
He and his KGB colleagues frantically burned evidence of their intelligence work.
“I personally burned a huge amount of material,” Putin recalled in First Person. “We burned so much stuff that the furnace burst.”
Two weeks later there was more trauma for Putin as West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl arrived in the city. He made a speech that left German reunification looking inevitable, and East Germany doomed.
Kohl praised Gorbachev, the man in Moscow who’d refused to send in the tanks, and he used patriotic language – words like Vaterland, or fatherland – that had been largely taboo in Germany since the war. Now they prompted an ecstatic response.
It’s not known whether Putin was in that crowd – but as a KGB agent in Dresden he’d certainly have known all about it.
The implosion of East Germany in the following months marked a huge rupture in his and his family’s life.
“We had the horrible feeling that the country that had almost become our home would no longer exist,” said his wife Ludmila.
“My neighbour, who was my friend, cried for a week. It was the collapse of everything – their lives, their careers.”
One of Putin’s key Stasi contacts, Maj Gen Horst Boehm – the man who had helped him install that precious telephone line for an informer – was humiliated by the demonstrating crowds, and committed suicide early in 1990.
This warning about what can happen when people power becomes dominant was one Putin could now ponder on the long journey home.
“Their German friends give them a 20-year-old washing machine and with this they drive back to Leningrad,” says Putin biographer and critic Masha Gessen. “There’s a strong sense that he was serving his country and had nothing to show for it.”
Putin worked for the mayor of St Petersburg (1990-96), then moved to Moscow and rose rapidly to the top
He also arrived back to a country that had been transformed under Mikhail Gorbachev and was itself on the verge of collapse.
“He found himself in a country that had changed in ways that he didn’t understand and didn’t want to accept,” as Gessen puts it.
His home city, Leningrad, was now becoming St Petersburg again. What would Putin do there?
There was talk, briefly, of taxi-driving. But soon Putin realised he had acquired a much more valuable asset than a second-hand washing machine.
In Dresden he’d been part of a network of individuals who might have lost their Soviet roles, but were well placed to prosper personally and politically in the new Russia.
In the Stasi archives in Dresden a picture survives of Putin during his Dresden years. He’s in a group of senior Soviet and East German military and security figures – a relatively junior figure, off to one side, but already networking among the elite.
Vladimir Putin is standing second from the left in the front row
Prof Karen Dawisha of Miami University, author of Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, says there are people he met in Dresden “who have then gone on… to be part of his inner core”.
They include Sergey Chemezov, who for years headed Russia’s arms export agency and now runs a state programme supporting technology, and Nikolai Tokarev head of the state pipeline company, Transneft.
And it’s not only former Russian colleagues who’ve stayed close to Putin.
Take Matthias Warnig – a former Stasi officer, believed to have spent time in Dresden when Putin was there – who is now managing director of Nordstream, the pipeline taking gas directly from Russia to Germany across the Baltic Sea.
That pipeline symbolised what was seen, until recently, as Germany’s new special relationship with Russia – though the Ukraine crisis has at the very least put that relationship on hold.
Putin-watchers believe events such as the uprising on Kiev’s Maidan Square, have revived bad memories – above all, of that night in Dresden in December 1989.
“Now when you have crowds in Kiev in 2004, in Moscow in 2011 or in Kiev in 2013 and 2014, I think he remembers this time in Dresden,” says Boris Reitschuster. “And all these old fears come up inside him.”
Inside him too may be a memory of how change can be shaped not only by force, or by weakness – but also by emotion. In 1989 he saw in Dresden how patriotic feeling, combined with a yearning for democracy, proved so much more powerful than communist ideology.
So when wondering what Vladimir Putin will do next, it’s well worth remembering what he’s lived through already.
One thing seems sure. While Vladimir Putin holds power in the Kremlin, Moscow is unlikely to be silent.
One of the major themes of my work is how Russia, drawing on decades of rich experience with espionage, aggressively employs intelligence in what I term Special War to defeat, dissuade, and deter its enemies without fighting.
As I’ve reported many times, Russian espionage against the West has been rising since the mid-2000’s and has returned to Cold War levels of effort and intensity — and in some cases, more so. In recent years, the Kremlin has endorsed aggressive espionage against a wide range of Western countries, members of NATO and the European Union (often both), to learn secrets and gain political advantage.
This is simply what the Russians do, as Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer, understands perfectly. Such things are well known to counterintelligence hands the world over, but are seldom discussed in public.
What this looks like up close has recently been exposed by the Parisian newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur, in an exclusive report that draws on deep research and interviews with a wide array of in-the-know French intelligence officials. The world-weary French are a pretty unflappable bunch in matters of espionage, but the piece, which has caused worried discussion in Paris, makes clear that Moscow’s spies are aggressive, indeed “hyperactive,” in France, representing a serious threat to the country’s security and well-being.
The story begins with the case of Colonel Ilyushin, who was ostensibly the deputy air attache at the Russian Embassy in Paris, but in reality was an officer of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff (GRU), who was discovered to be peeking a bit too closely into President Francois Hollande. Specifically, Ilyushin was detected by French counterintelligence trying to recruit one of Hollande’s senior aides; in other words, GRU was seeking a mole at the president’s side. Ilyushin wanted information not just regarding matters of state, but about the president’s salacious personal life too. Fortunately, French counterspies were onto the GRU officer, and surveilled him for months, cutting short his secret plan. But the French were impressed by the colonel, only thirty years of age and a diligent case officer; unlike many of his predecessors dispatched to Paris by the Kremlin, particularly in Cold War days, Ilyushin was neither a drunkard nor a slacker.
Ilyushin was a busy man, always on the lookout for recruits. He regularly made his presence felt at a wide array of French defense establishments and think tanks, where he constantly tried to “bump into” senior officials, researchers, and journalists, especially those working on security affairs. As a French counterintelligence official explained about Ilyushin’s efforts to recruit influential Parisian reporters,
“Before approaching them, he learned everything about them: their families, their tastes, their weaknesses too.” He would invite promising targets to lunch at an expensive restaurant and continue to do so every two weeks, per usual GRU practice. During these meetings, Ilyushin would volunteer juicy insider information about Russian defense matters and ties between Moscow and Paris.
At first, he asked for nothing in exchange. Au contraire, Ilyushin was a generous man, and eventually he would offer his quarry a nice gift, an expensive pen or high-end bottle of liquor: “standard first gifts from the former KGB, sufficiently expensive for being a little compromising, but not expensive enough to be considered corruption,” as Le Nouvel Observateur noted. If the gift was accepted, Ilyushin would move forward to full-fledged recruitment of the source. What followed conforms to standard Russian practice in such matters:
Then Ilyushin asked for information, initially anodyne, then less and less so. He put forward to them some small pre-written article, part of a disinformation campaign conceived in Moscow. In exchange, he offered more substantial gifts: for example, a family trip to some sunny paradise. If the interlocutor accepted, he entered into the murky world of espionage. Like in manuals, Ilyushin moved to phase three, the handling (“manipulation”) of his agent, with clandestine meetings abroad and stacks of cash.
One of the journalists whom Ilyushin was seeking to recruit became wary, and he turned to French counterintelligence just in time, as the man had access to Hollande’s inner circle, just as GRU wanted. When the journalist realized he was soon to be a paid Russian agent, he told his story to Parisian counterspies (DCRI, since May termed DGSI), specifically their H4 team that conducts counterintelligence operations against the Russians in France, which already was aware of who the “deputy air attache” really was. Ilyushin was summoned for a meeting and told by French officials to cease his espionage. When he did not do so, a few months later Ilyushin was sent packing back to Moscow, where he was promoted to general, presumably as a reward for his excellent clandestine work in Paris.
The never-before-revealed Ilyushin case represents, in the words of Le Nouvel Observateur, “but the tip of the iceberg that is the broad offensive by Russian spies in Europe, in particular in France.” As a senior French official explained, “In the last few years, particularly after Putin’s return at the Kremlin, they are increasingly numerous and aggressive.” Another added, “They are twice as active as during the Cold War.” The Ukraine crisis has only made Russian spies in France more zealous, and they are seeking everything: political secrets, military secrets, nuclear secrets, economic secrets, plus anything to do with French relations with NATO, the EU and the UN. Hence DGSI’s H4 team is very busy and has been increased to meet this new threat, but today they only number thirty, including secretaries, versus more than eighty when the Berlin Wall fell.
French counterintelligence is aware that several members of the French parliament have been approached by Russian intelligence over the last two or three years; the Russians especially look for unwitting sources who inadvertently reveal too much about defense and security matters. DGSI recently detected one such seeker of “soft” intelligence, Vladimir F., ostensibly a press attache at the Russian Embassy but actually an officer of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). Once detected, he was discreetly sent back to Russia.
SVR officers try to recruit politicians and also influence-shapers in Paris: “Some MP’s agree to relay information supplied by these spies, most of the time without realizing it, acting like ‘useful idiots’ … Some give diplomatic cables to their new ‘Russian friends’.” Think tanks represent another common SVR and GRU target, with prominent researchers reporting many approaches from suspected Russian intelligence officers, while French counterintelligence has tried to keep known Russian operatives away from prominent think tanks, not always successfully.
Industrial espionage is a perennial Kremlin interest, having been a major source of Soviet technology during the Cold War, since it is always cheaper and easier to steal cutting-edge technology than to develop it, but it is now perhaps less tempting than in the past:
“These days, the Russian secret services, obsessed as they are with political and military matters, are less effective as regards economic intelligence than their counterparts.”
Nevertheless, there are Russian successes in this arena too. Last year, according to DGSI, the Russian company Rosatom sold a nuclear reactor to a European country because the SVR had been secretly informed about the offer made by its French competitor, Areva.
Back in 2010, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy warned Vladimir Putin about rising Russian espionage. According to one of his top aides, Sarkozy told his Russian counterpart, “almost as if in jest: ‘Instead of spying on our country, you had better deal with terrorists’.” This came after a major spy scandal, never before revealed to the public. A Russian deputy naval attache at the Paris embassy — again, a GRU officer, in reality — sought super-secret information about the sound signatures emitted by new French nuclear submarines.
He developed a French naval officer, gradually, eventually showing up at his house with a suitcase filled with cash to exchange for the desired purloined data. But the French officer had reported the GRU approaches, and French counterintelligence played a trick on the Russians. The “top secret” documents exchanged for cash were fakes. Although Paris hushed up the affair, the GRU officer was declaredpersona non grata and sent home without delay.
Sarkozy’s warning had no effect, and Russian espionage against France is today more robust than ever. According to French counterintelligence, there are some fifty Russian intelligence officers — roughly forty SVR and ten GRU — posing under diplomatic cover at the Paris embassy and the Russian consulates in Nice, Marseille, and Strasbourg. There are also a few officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB)* in France serving undercover as well. The head of SVR activities in France, termed the rezident by the Russians, usually poses as a third secretary at the embassy in Paris, while the GRU rezident masquerades as a TASS journalist or as the senior naval attache.
The Russians also employ Illegals, meaning intelligence operatives who work without benefit of any formal cover. They enter the country under aliases and wholly fake identities, through third countries, following years of training, and are notoriously difficult for even top-notch counterintelligence services to detect. (America got a rare break in 2010 when it rolled up a ten-strong SVR Illegals network in the USA, including the famously photogenic Anna Chapman.)
There is as little contact as possible between the SVR’s “legal” presence, meaning officers serving under various official covers like diplomats and journalists, and Illegals, to protect the identities of these elite spies. French counterintelligence estimates that there are between ten and twenty Russian Illegals currently in the country. How DGSI’s H4 team came to this number was explained by an official:
SVR headquarters in Moscow communicates with Illegals by regularly sending flash high-emission frequencies. They last about half a second and they are encrypted. A spy receives them at their place on an ad hoc receiver-transmitter piece of equipment. The discreet radio-electric DGSI center in Boullay-les-Troux in the Essonne, is capable of intercepting all these emissions. Given that there are some twenty different ones, and that some are probably for training purposes, one can estimate that the clandestine people are between ten and twenty.
Paris believed that there were as many as sixty KGB Illegals in France when the Cold War ended, but French counterintelligence never had much success detecting exactly who they were. Now, however, DGSI claims to have a better handle on Moscow’s Illegals. One official revealed that the Anna Chapman network rolled up in the USA in 2010 had links to an Illegal in France as well:
“We discovered his apartment, in which there was material for transmissions. We did not arrive in time to arrest him, he had disappeared.” Nevertheless, officials toldLe Nouvel Observateur that DGSI has good information on SVR Illegals in France but is playing the long game: “We are watching them permanently. We learn. We will ‘squeeze’ them at the right time…”
Cooperation among Western security services is a major help in detecting Russian espionage. Such collaboration has never been better, Parisian officials made clear. Everybody in the West is on a heightened state of alert these days regarding Kremlin espionage:
“Every time we identify a Russian spy, particularly a rezident, we warn our friends in Berlin, London, or Warsaw,” explained a French official. Top security officials in Germany and Britain have admitted that Russian espionage is at unprecedented levels in their countries as well, while the head of the Belgian security service recently stated that there are “hundreds” of spies operating in Brussels, where NATO and the European Commission are headquartered, “chiefly Russians.”
In contrast, French officials have been more circumspect in public, rarely mentioning the extent of Russian espionage in their country. Indeed, the last time Parisian higher-ups raised a public fuss about such Kremlin activities was way back in 1992, when a French nuclear official was caught passing top secret documents to the Russians. Why this silence persists despite the rising clandestine threat from the East is not difficult to discern. As one Paris official noted wryly:
“How can one explain to public opinion that Russian spies are a threat and, at the same time, that it is necessary to deliver Mistral warships to Moscow?”
This laissez-faire attitude in Paris about Russian espionage seems unlikely to change soon. The only game-changer potentially on the horizon would be Western reactions in the event Russia actually invades Ukraine with major conventional forces. In that case, the counterintelligence gloves would come off and Russian spies — hundreds of them — who are known to Western counterspies would be expelled en masse.
Unless that happens, Russian espionage in France will continue at a fever pitch. Although DGSI and other French security services are highly professional, and get a great deal of help from Western partners in identifying and blunting SVR and GRU activities to the extent that they can, without political resolve to seriously confront this problem it can only be expected to get worse.
Moreover, the same tradecraft employed by Russian spies in France is played out on a daily basis in every Western country, including — perhaps especially — in the United States. American politicians, journalists, researchers, and academics are targeted by the SVR and GRU just as their counterparts in France are and, we can assume, with similar success. This is a SpyWar, and Moscow intends to win.
*Although Le Nouvel Observateur does not state this, these FSB officers working undercover in France are mostly signals intelligence (SIGINT) specialists conducting covert electronic collection from Russian diplomatic facilities, as the FSB is Russia’s civilian SIGINT agency, as well as the domestic security service.