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When Russia's Intelligence Services Play At Politics

According to the Foreign Intelligence Service, the 1939 nonaggression pact was the Soviet Union's only possible means of self-defense.
According to the Foreign Intelligence Service, the 1939 nonaggression pact was the Soviet Union's only possible means of self-defense.
Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) has made its contribution to the president’s recently declared struggle against the falsification of history.

According to Interfax, the SVR has issued a collection of documents that point to some sensational conclusions. For example -- the newly released documents assert that the Soviet Union’s decision to conclude a nonaggression treaty with fascist Germany in August 1939 was the only possible means of self-defense for the country in the situation that had developed at the time.

“The British and French governments, by signing the 1938 Munich Agreement, staked their hopes on an agreement with Hitler. In August 1939, delegations from these countries broke off the Moscow talks on the creation of an anti-Hitler coalition,” the SVR’s documents state. Moreover, according to these historians-in-uniform, the West’s deal with Germany “enabled the Nazis to seize the Baltic region and transform it into a staging ground for an attack on Soviet territory.”

There is really nothing surprising in the fact that the government has so passionately taken up the defense of Stalin’s foreign policy. Vladimir Putin’s understanding of realpolitik is the same as Stalin’s; everything is decided by military might and if there is a chance to bite off a chunk of someone else’s territory, you should go for it.

But the conclusions of the SVR’s new book don’t stand up to criticism. The agreement with fascist Germany on the delineation of spheres of influence did nothing to help the Soviet Union prepare for the coming war.

The two-year “breathing space” led to a massive strengthening of the power of Hitler’s Wehrmacht. If the weight of the intelligence reports of that period really convinced Stalin that his only choice was to conclude an agreement with Hitler, then it was one of the most dramatic failures of Soviet intelligence ever.

But such a conclusion can only be made on the basis of an objective analysis carried out by authoritative historians with access to all the documentation. Unfortunately, the only research of this type attempted so far was undertaken in 1998, with the publication of the two-volume study “1941,” edited by Aleksandr Yakovlev. That collection included more than 600 documents from the archives of the president of the Russian Federation, military intelligence, the Defense Ministry, the Federal Security Service, and -- of course -- the SVR.

Dangerous Games

With the latest SVR publication, we are obviously talking about something else. Russian intelligence has rushed to find evidence confirming the correctness of the opinion of the country’s top leadership.

It is the same thing that happened in 1941, when their predecessors obsequiously interpreted all the intelligence reports about the looming attack as specially prepared disinformation. Of course, they were telling Stalin what he wanted to hear out of fear of being shot. Today’s intelligence chiefs are just being servile, nothing more.

But none of them – not the spymasters, nor the political leaders of the country – really understand what these political games might result in. They are all used to the idea that the intelligence services – the eyes and ears of the state – don’t report what is, but what the leadership wants to hear.

For the sake of fairness, I should mention that until very recently, military intelligence (GRU) was giving the SVR stiff competition in terms of obsequiousness. For instance, on the basis of information from the GRU, Russian news agencies recently reported the “exact date” of a U.S. attack on Iran and the absolutely pointless (although extremely boastful) information that recent Russian submarine-launched missile tests came as a complete surprise to the United States (ignoring the fact that Moscow is obligated under existing agreements to notify Washington in advance of all missile launches).

The new book is not the SVR’s only attempt to play at politics. In 1995 it published a report called “The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: Problems With Its Extension,” in which our spies hinted strongly that all the problems with proliferation stem from the position taken by the United States.

The experts at the SVR wrote this about the prospects that North Korea would be able to build a nuclear bomb: “The current scientific-technical level and technological capacity of the nuclear facilities of North Korea do not allow their specialists to create a nuclear explosive ready for testing or to model a cold test of a plutonium warhead under laboratory conditions. Even if they were able to produce a certain quantity of weapons-grade plutonium, the development of a practical nuclear weapon is unlikely.”

Were the SVR analysts simply blind? Of course not. They were just acting in accordance with a certain political line and so, despite the evidence, felt impelled to prove that the nuclear threat from North Korea was exaggerated.

Now the participants in this game have persuaded themselves that they are carrying out a remarkable move by producing intelligence information that confirms the Kremlin’s political line. In reality, they are destroying the already minimal confidence that exists between the intelligence community and the political leadership of the country.

When asked once about the most important quality of a diplomat, Igor Andropov – son of the former secretary-general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union -- answered, “honesty.” This is doubly true for intelligence agents. If they become nothing more than a means of confirming the opinions of the political leadership, then why waste money on them?

If the Kremlin wants to know the truth from its intelligence services, it should realize that the publication of books such as this collection of documents about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact simply makes that impossible. It just pushes the intelligence community to the realization that the country’s leadership can be the object of manipulation.

I know some readers are thinking that the Kremlin is not the only one putting pressure on intelligence services. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush pushed the CIA in 2003 to produce evidence that Iraq was attempting to produce an atomic weapon. But there was a small difference in that case. Back then, a few high-ranking CIA officials quit their jobs – unwilling to participate in an obvious fabrication.

In our case, it appears the entire SVR is happy to do whatever it thinks the bosses want. This means that our country’s leaders are utterly without objective information about what is happening in the world.

Aleksandr Golts is deputy editor of “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” where this commentary originally appeared. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL