Since the dramatic events of September 11 and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of support for the United States in its efforts to defeat international terrorism, the meaning and implications of Putin’s bold move as well as its impact on the future of US-Russian relations have been hotly debated. Some Russian observers feel that the anti-terrorist coalition has no strategic value and has been formed exclusively as a working body to tackle a specific task. They argue that such a decision to cooperate with the United States needs the approval of the Duma and the main political forces in the country. Hence, Putin’s decision appears to them to be a tactical move to exploit the political situation for his own benefit.
Others believe that the attack against the United States has created a unique window of opportunity for the Russian leader. This latter point of view has found a sympathetic response in the United States. The Nation magazine contributors Stephen Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel have asserted that Putin “became the Bush administration’s most valuable ally in the war against terrorism.” However, they noted that although “Russia’s contribution to the US counter-terror operation in Afghanistan exceeded that of all of America’s NATO allies together … The promise of a historic US-Russian partnership is being squandered by President Bush’s polices.”
It is inevitable that there will be a public controversy over the anti-terrorist coalition’s ability to transform into a fundamental, long-term union based on mutual trust and common goals. Can the coalition survive the turbulent currents of international politics, overcome the lingering Cold War mentality on both sides, and evolve into a true partnership? An overview of the alliances of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in past decades may help answer some of these questions. This essay will focus on one crucial aspect of the issue: cooperation in matters of intelligence and security.
To better appreciate the principal stand of the Soviet leadership on these problems, it is helpful to recall the words of Joseph Stalin in December 1952: “at all times, adjust to the world situation … Our main enemy is America. But the principal effort should not be on America proper. Illegal residences should be created first of all in neighboring states.” These words summarize the experience of Soviet intelligence and subversive activities of the two previous decades: the NKVD’s (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) assistance to Spain and China in the 1930s, the Grand Alliance with the United States and Britain during World War II, and Soviet state security’s crucial role in the creation of the Soviet bloc after the war when Eastern European security services were set up in the image of the KGB (Committee for State Security) and overseen by Soviet advisers.
The first contacts of Soviet security organs with similar foreign entities go back to the 1930s when the NKVD—an early predecessor of the KGB—fearing Japanese incursions into the Soviet Far East, helped create and strengthen security establishments in Outer Mongolia and Tuva, two Asiatic countries bordering the USSR. Tuva was later incorporated into the USSR while Mongolia remained a communist outpost in the region, claiming formal independence.
During the Spanish Civil War, the Soviet government, although represented on the “nonintervention committee” at the beginning of the conflict in 1936, sent a considerable amount of aid to the Spanish Republicans. Soviet intelligence regularly provided the Republican government with information on the secret plans of Nazi Germany and Italy against the new regime. It helped in the clandestine transfer of hundreds of “volunteers” and tons of arms to Spain from neighboring countries, and, after the Republicans’ defeat, aided in the evacuation of the military and political cadre to the USSR.
Perhaps the most extensive allied relationship in the prewar period is the one Soviet intelligence developed with China. Stalin ordered the intelligence services to help the Kuomintang Army repel Japanese aggression. In 1938, the first formal coordination between Soviet and Kuomintang intelligence officials was instituted under the name “The Joint Bureau.” Under its auspices, regular exchanges of intelligence information were carried out for several years. The NKVD provided the Chinese with assistance in training their special units, which operated in the Japanese occupied territories as guerrillas and saboteurs. Simultaneously, Soviet intelligence took advantage of the situation and set up “legal” residences in about 20 Chinese cities. The heavy Soviet presence in China facilitated the eventual victory of the Chinese Communist Party.
World War II opened new channels and opportunities for the KGB. In August 1941, the British government, through its ambassador in Moscow, proposed to establish ties and cooperation between the Soviet and British intelligence services in their common struggle against Nazi Germany. A major agreement was subsequently signed, which envisaged an exchange of intelligence information about Germany, joint operations involving sabotage on German and occupied territories, infiltration of agents into these areas, and the aid of communication lines and equipment. The initial results of cooperation looked very promising. By March 1944, Soviet intelligence had sent 36 agents to England, 28 of whom were transported by the British into Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy. However, Ivan Chichaev, head of the Soviet official intelligence mission in England, complained about delays and the suspicious behavior of his British partners and recommended the operation be concluded. Intelligence cooperation was ended by British government in September 1945. The British representative in Moscow was recalled home because, according to Russian sources, the British side resented Soviet suspicion and lack of progress in their relationship.
Chichaev played another role outside his duties as the liaison officer in the United Kingdom. He was charged with the task of maintaining relations with allied governments exiled from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Greece, Norway, Belgium, and France. While performing these duties, Chichaev and his staff recruited a number of spies from émigré circles. One of his contacts from France would later become the prized KGB asset “Daedalus” Pierre Cot, a future minister in Charles de Gaulle’s cabinet.
The United States came late with its offer to cooperate with Soviet intelligence. At the end of 1943, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt dispatched Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Director William Donovan to Moscow to negotiate an agreement with the Soviets and open a liaison mission in the USSR. The US side suggested exchanging intelligence information about adversaries, discussing acts of sabotage behind the front lines, assisting in infiltrating agents in enemy territory, and swapping radio communication devices and materials related to sabotage activities.
By early spring 1944 the Soviet liaison mission headed by Lieutenant Colonel Andrei Graur was ready for departure to the United States when the visit was suddenly cancelled by Washington. Within days, Soviet intelligence learned that it was J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, who opposed the opening of another Soviet spy nest in the United States. Eventually, Hoover’s resistance was overruled by Roosevelt, and by June 1944 the exchanges, as defined by the agreement, had begun.
Both the KGB and Soviet military intelligence were generally satisfied with the level of cooperation, but the US-Soviet partnership lasted only a year and a half. With World War II over and the OSS disbanded in October 1945, the Cold War was looming on the horizon. The Venona documents (the US code-breaking project that deciphered Soviet intelligence messages in the 1940s) revealed that the period of US-Soviet amity turned out to be an opportune time for Soviet espionage against the United States. Soviet intelligence oversaw over 200 spies in the United States during the 1940s. Curiously, the number of KGB intelligence officers stationed in the United States in 1941 was only 18. By comparison, at the peak of the Cold War in the early 1980s the KGB had over 200 officers in the United States under various covers, while the number of assets was close to 20.
Controlling the Bloc
Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe posed new challenges to the Soviet security and intelligence apparatus. Keeping control of the internal situation in the “liberated” countries and weeding out anti-socialist and anti-party elements, Zionists, and “enemies of the people” were not easy tasks. The organized forms of KGB cooperation with its counterparts in Eastern Europe gradually began to take shape after 1948. By then, the Soviets had helped local communist party officials select the right people for their security services. Instead of being directly involved in running the national interior and security ministries, as before, Soviet advisors began to coordinate their activities, exchange information, and plan joint operations. But this new approach to mutual cooperation could be ended instantly if a Soviet partner from Eastern Europe had views different from those of Moscow. When the Yugoslav and Albanian leaders rejected Soviet interference in their domestic affairs, they were branded as traitors, and their “accomplices” were executed. In Hungary, for example, during the 1956 popular uprising against communist rule and Soviet domination, Prime Minister Imre Nagy, an NKVD agent since the 1930s, was arrested and subsequently executed for his refusal to obey Soviet orders.
The Hungarian lesson and public unrest in East Germany and Poland were not forgotten by the new Soviet leadership. Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin and KGB brutality led to significant changes in the Soviet treatment of allies. Relations became more civilized, subtle, and orderly. The equality in partnership defined in the Warsaw Pact Treaty was proclaimed to be the crux of the new Soviet policy in Eastern Europe.
However, the events in Czechoslovakia in 1968 jolted Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev out of complacency and unleashed the KGB’s wrath against a new breed of revisionists in the Socialist camp. Yuri Andropov, the KGB Chairman, insisted on military intervention in Czechoslovakia. He secured the support of other hardliners in the Politburo who overwhelmed Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin and the wavering Brezhnev and dispatched Soviet tanks to suppress the “Prague Spring.” The KGB’s trusted agents arrested the Czech Party leader Alexander Dulcek and installed a new pro-Moscow government. Secret caches of arms allegedly stashed by NATO spies were then “discovered” by the Czech Security Service. Anti-communist leaflets and similar tactics were also part of the KGB’s psychological warfare to influence the public opinion to support Soviet military “assistance” to “healthy” socialist forces in the country.
The Czech events had far-reaching consequences for KGB operations in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Frustrated by the lack of objective and reliable reports from KGB liaison offices, Andropov ordered covert actions to obtain desired information. From 1968 onward the moods and views of governments in Eastern Europe were monitored by experienced Soviet illegals, who operated under the guise of Western businessmen, journalists, and tourists and pretended to sympathize with critics of the communist regimes. In 1969, the KGB started opening “legal” residences in Eastern European and other friendly capitals in addition to its liaison missions. Operating under diplomatic, journalistic, and other official covers, KGB officers were now allowed to recruit agents among local citizens, with an emphasis on government officials, party functionaries, and security service personnel.
With Czech discontent ruthlessly suppressed and other satellite nationals left in fear, the KGB tightened its grip on its allies. Only Romania did not comply and left the alliance in 1971 when Romanian State Security terminated its ties with the KGB. Other Eastern European secret services became even more subservient to the Soviets. From assistance in preparing assassinations of political dissidents in Bulgaria to approving East German Stasi involvement with foreign terrorist groups to joint operations in double agentry to stealing Western technologies, the pattern was always the same: the KGB stood behind and directed its allies.
Development and Defeat
Despite greater Soviet involvement, the KGB could stop the growing discontent and disillusionment of neither Eastern Europeans nor of its own people. The Polish crisis of the 1980s proved to be insoluble for Soviet leaders, as the old, tested ways did not work. KGB reports from Warsaw left no doubt that the Czech account of the events would be vigorously opposed not only by the Polish people but also the Polish Communists. The elevation of a Polish cardinal to the papacy made it practically impossible to resort to force. The Soviet retreat in the face of potentially unacceptable consequences compounded by new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reluctance to be drawn into further intelligence enterprises led eventually to the demise of the Warsaw Pact.
The KGB accepted the collapse of the Soviet empire with great reluctance. Prior to the final fall of the Soviet Union, it devised a special program of active measures in a desperate attempt to stave off the downfall of the communist regime, but it was denied permission to implement them. Leonid Shebarshin, the last head of the KGB intelligence service, explains his opposition to the empire’s dissolution by pointing out that “the leaders of Eastern Europe were told to fend for themselves. But they were educated only to be friends of the Soviet Union; they were never prepared to stand on their own feet.”
With Soviet domination in Eastern Europe coming to an end, the KGB was facing yet another defeat, this time in the developing world, where the KGB had also been running liaison missions and transforming a number of nations into Soviet satellites. General Nikolai Leonov, a former KGB chief analyst, summarized the views of his colleagues on this issue in the following words: “In the Cold War confrontation, we accepted as a matter of principle that geopolitical victory will be won by those with whom the Third World will go.” Leonov further described the involvement of third parties in Cold War strategy, explaining that “some countries linked to us by political and military ties received our ideological encouragement and arms, but their real economic ties were with the West. For instance, Syria was very close, very friendly to our country, was our ally. Our Navy operated from their bases, but 98 percent of their economy was tied to the West.”
The inability of the Soviet Union to effectively help developing nations in building their economies could not be compensated by KGB manipulations. From Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia, to Somalia, Syria, and South Yemen, KGB missions were failing. The last Soviet stronghold was Afghanistan, where many leaders had been under the influence of the KGB ever since the local communists had taken power in 1978. Between 1980 and 1989, the KGB trained nearly 30,000 Afghan officers—one-half of the Afghan Security Service—but to no avail. The communists fell under pressure from the Afghan resistance movement in 1989.
After Gorbachev’s rise to power in 1985, the KGB was encouraged to widen its contacts with foreign intelligence and security agencies outside the Soviet bloc. In 1988, KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov traveled to India for confidential talks with Indian Prime Minister Radjiv Gandhi. During the visit, Kryuchkov raised the question of cooperation with Indian Special Services and exchange of intelligence information on Pakistan and China. Kryuchkov’s initiative was essentially a political gesture because the KGB had thoroughly infiltrated the Indian security and intelligence establishment over the years.
The first high-level informal KGB contact with the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) occurred in 1987 when Kryuchkov accompanied Gorbachev during his official visit to Washington. He met with CIA Deputy Director Robert Gates, but according to published reports, the meeting produced no practical results. In 1989, Kryuchkov made an unprecedented gesture by receiving the US ambassador to the USSR in his office. Subsequently, the KGB chairman, later the mastermind of the anti-Gorbachev plot, touted his desire to strengthen ties with his counterparts in the West. Kryuchkov declared that the KGB “should have an image not only in our country but worldwide, which is consistent with the noble goals I believe we are pursuing in our work.”
Before the demise of the USSR, as part of the KGB’s “new image” campaign, Moscow established informal ties with the special services of Italy, France, Spain, Austria, and South Korea. The overall effect of these contacts was practically nonexistent. With a new Russia emerging from the ruins of the Soviet empire, the KGB’s successors renewed their efforts to develop working relations with Western special services. Areas of common interest included exchange of information and occasional joint efforts in combating organized crime, money laundering, drug trafficking, illegal arms sales, nuclear proliferation, ecological and computer security, and international terrorism.
The intelligence support provided by Moscow to the United States after September 11 represents one of the most important events in post-Cold War history. Putin’s desire to internationalize the Chechen War and legitimize the indiscriminate use of Russian force against the civilian population of the breakaway republic, as well as expectations of some rewards (forgiveness of Russia’s foreign debts, for instance) undoubtedly played a significant role in his decision to join the anti-terrorist coalition.
At the International Forum of Secret Services held in March 2001 in St. Petersburg, Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev, addressing 100 heads of intelligence services from 39 nations, called for the “unification” of espionage agencies, and a “new level of cooperation” with the West. Undoubtedly, Patrushev was toeing the party line. Ironically, at about the same time British counterintelligence arrested an employee of one of the country’s largest defense contractors for stealing confidential materials and sending them to Moscow, and Japan charged a Russian trade representative with attempting to obtain US military secrets from a former Japanese Air Force officer.
Andrei Piontrovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Research in Moscow and one of Russia’s top political analysts, said, “It’s highly unlikely that, in the places he did his studies, Putin was taught to love the West. But those places probably did teach him to base his actions on real circumstances and the real distribution of forces on the world political stage, rather than let himself be guided by emotions, complexes, and fantasies.” In Stalin’s words, “At all times adjust to the world situation.” At no time has the window of opportunity been open wider than it is today.