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Ex-KGB Agent Kalugin: Putin Was 'Only A Major'

Former KGB General Oleg Kalugin lives in the United States and has been sentenced by Russia to 15 years in prison for treason.
Former KGB General Oleg Kalugin lives in the United States and has been sentenced by Russia to 15 years in prison for treason.

Vladimir Putin is merely posing as a lieutenant colonel.

The Russian president also oversaw war crimes in Chechnya and helped frame a prosecutor-general to derail a probe into massive Kremlin corruption.

These are some of the claims made by Oleg Kalugin, a former high-ranking KGB officer and fierce critic of Putin in an interview with RFE/RL.

According to Kalugin, Putin was "just a major" in the KGB, which he resigned from in 1991. "He could have become a lieutenant colonel a year later but he didn't," he tells RFE/RL.

Kalugin, who lives in the United States and has been sentenced by Russia to 15 years in prison for treason, says Putin's 1998 appointment as director of the KGB's main successor agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), actually violated guidelines stipulating that only a general can hold this post.

He also confirms speculation that the FSB was behind a sex-tape scandal that ended the career of Yury Skuratov, Russia's combative prosecutor-general in the late 1990s.

Kalugin says Skuratov was framed to prevent him from further investigating corrupt deals believed to have been conducted by former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the man who brought Putin to power, and his close entourage -- including his own daughters.

"It was a special FSB operation to discredit an official with the help of a video featuring a person who resembled the prosecutor-general," he says, referring to a controversial 1999 video showing a man purported to be Skuratov in bed with prostitutes.

In his interview, Kalugin also names two alleged former KGB collaborators: firebrand nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky and late Patriarch Aleksii, the former head of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church.

He says that he personally knew Aleksii and that the cleric had admitted to him his Soviet-era ties with the secret services, arguing it had been the only way to save the church at the time.

Markov Assassination

Kalugin also looks back on one of the 20th century's most brazen assassinations, the killing of Bulgarian writer and dissident Georgi Markov in London in the midst of the Cold War.

Markov was a prominent playwright and journalist who fled Bulgaria in 1969, and criticized the Bulgarian communist government in a series of reports for the BBC and Radio Free Europe between 1975 and 1978 that many Bulgarians listened to in secret.

Kalugin says that Markov was killed by the Bulgarian secret services and that Yury Andropov, who then headed the Soviet KGB, gave the green light for the assassination.

Markov, who was living in political exile in the British capital, was poisoned with the tip of an umbrella as he waited for a bus on Waterloo Bridge in September 1978.

He died four days later, aged 49, leaving behind a wife and a 2-year-old daughter.

Kalugin claims Andropov initially planned to reject the Bulgarian security service's request for assistance in the killing. According to him, Andropov relented only because a refusal could have hurt Moscow's clout within the Bulgarian intelligence agency.

He says the KGB only aided its Bulgarian colleagues, with Andropov formally barring his subordinates from directly taking part in the assassination. "Through the KGB laboratory we transferred the poison that was then used in the umbrella," Kalugin says. "There was literally a milligram of poison, a small drop of ricin placed in a capsule at the tip of the umbrella. When the umbrella opened, it flew off at a distance of 3-5 meters, which is enough to prick someone."

Kalugin was detained in London in 1993 and questioned about the assassination. He was released without charge.

Markov's killers were never brought to justice.

Killed For Exposing Putin?

Incidentally, Kalugin is also connected to the case of Aleksandr Litvinenko, the former FSB officer who died in London in November 2006 after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium-210.

Kalugin believes Litvinenko was killed by the FSB for disclosing what he describes as "uncomely aspects" of Putin's private life.

He says he had warned Litvinenko about the dangers of making such details public. "I called him when he was in London and told him he shouldn't be writing things about [Putin's] private life," he says. "Then he died, my warning had come too late."

The incident has not deterred Kalugin from openly criticizing Putin and his policies.

The two men have exchanged acerbic barbs, with Kalugin branding the Russian leader a "deadbeat" and a "war criminal" for sanctioning the atrocities perpetrated by Russian forces during the second Chechen War.

Asked whether he is not afraid of meeting the fate of Markov and Litvinenko, Kalugin claims to be protected by influential friends in Putin's close circle.

But there is one topic that he intends to keep under wraps for his own safety: Putin's shadowy private life. "When I'm asked about Putin," he says, "I answer, 'Ask his wife, he spent 30 years with her.'"

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