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Spy Defection Roils Russian Intelligence Service

  • Gregory Feifer

The Federal Security Service (and former KGB) headquarters in Moscow

The Federal Security Service (and former KGB) headquarters in Moscow

The exposure of 10 Russian deep-cover spies in the United States last summer brought accusations that Russia was still fighting the Cold War two decades after the Soviet collapse.

But some believe the Kremlin leaked this week's news that they were exposed by a top Russia intelligence officer to justify taking a real step back toward the Soviet Union by reconstituting a security service that would closely resemble the communist-era KGB.

That's one of the possible moves discussed in Moscow about what's expected to be a major shake-up of the foreign intelligence service, the SVR.

"Kommersant" newspaper broke the story on November 11, reporting that a "Colonel Shcherbakov" defected to the United States after exposing 11 so-called illegal agents, who worked without diplomatic cover and legal protection. One escaped after disappearing in Cyprus.

Internal Disputes

The news has prompted speculation the Kremlin wants to fold the SVR into the domestic Federal Security Service, the FSB. They were the two major agencies created when the KGB was split after Boris Yeltsin came to power in 1991, in what was seen as a major step toward dismantling the Soviet security system.

Intelligence expert Leonid Velikhov of the Sovershenno Secretno publishing house told RFE/RL's Russian Service the two "Kommersant" reporters who reported the defection this week had previously never written about intelligence affairs.

"All of a sudden they conduct a grandiose research project, citing several unnamed sources who all say the same thing," he says. "In fact, there was probably only one source who made the leak for domestic political purposes."

Legislators have demanded SVR chief Mikhail Fradkov be sacked. Some believe the calls are meant to clear the way for presidential administration chief Sergei Naryshkin, a reputed former KGB officer with close ties to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, to replace him.

After the spies were exposed in July, many believe Putin -- a former KGB officer who has often praised the service -- hinted he'd known about the betrayal, saying, "This was the result of treason and traitors always end badly. They finish up as drunks, addicts, on the street."

"Kommersant" reported that Shcherbakov headed the American department of Directorate S, which runs illegal agents. "Kommersant" reported that he handed the FBI the personal file of one of the illegals, Mikhail Vlasenko, known as Juan Lazaro, a longtime spy who'd been awarded the most prestigious Hero of the Soviet Union award and promoted to general.

Those who criticize the SVR say Shcherbakov's refusal to accept a promotion last year -- possibly because he would have had to take a lie-detector test -- should have raised alarm bells, along with the fact that such a high-ranking intelligence officer had a daughter living in the United States. His son, who worked for the Russian Federal Drug Control Service, left Russia last June, "Kommersant" reported.

Infiltrating Policy-Making Circles

Former KGB officer Viktor Cherkashin, who recruited the KGB's two biggest-ever spies, Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, in Washington in 1986, says spying on that level should never have been able to take place.

"The head of a department shouldn't have had access to that amount of information about so many people," he says.

The FBI says Russia's foreign intelligence service, the SVR, tasked its agents with infiltrating U.S. policy-making circles, from which they gathered no sensitive information. The alleged operatives aren't even charged with espionage, only for failing to register as agents of a foreign government and for money laundering.

Military analyst Alexander Golts says the information about Shcherbakov may have been leaked because it's easier to explain intelligence failures by blaming them on a traitor. He says it makes little sense for Russia to run illegal agents, which he says are a holdover from the Cold War, when the Soviet Union groomed them partly for use as possible saboteurs in case real war broke out.
Anna Chapman was one of the Russian spies

"Kremlin officials see illegals as a necessary attribute of a great power," he says, "along with nuclear weapons."

Former KGB London station chief Oleg Gordievsky escaped from Moscow after he was found to have spied for Britain in the 1980s. He says the maintenance of so many spies in the United States reflects Russia's growing authoritarianism.

"All the killings on the streets, all the manipulated court cases, all the rigged elections show Russia is becoming a new totalitarian country," he says, "although to a lesser degree than before."

Gordievsky says the latest news about the spy scandal won’t affect relations between the two countries because Moscow and Washington have agreed "not to let such an insignificant group of spies" affect ties.

But Golts says the presence of so many Russian spies in the United States shows the countries are returning to a situation in which "they constantly spy on one another."

"In that case, how can you talk cooperation over missile defense or Afghanistan?" he says. "At the very least, this story reflects Moscow's very deep mistrust of the United States."

Moscow's intelligence services have seen major leaks of information in the past, including KGB archivist Vassily Mitrokhin, who fled Russia in 1992 with a massive trove of hand-copied archive information that came to be known as the Mitrokhin archive.

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