Circling the Lion's Den

Increasing the intelligence stations in the West

The scandal surrounding the Russian spy ring that was exposed in the United States in summer 2010 sparked increased fears in the West about Russian intelligence operations. But illegals seem to be only the latest example of a decade-long concern: since 2000 Western media has been reporting on the significant growth in the numbers of Russian intelligence agents abroad. The problem with these reports that they are based on Western secret services' claims, which are virtually impossible to corroborate, especially since Russia's intelligence agencies showed no interest in commenting on them.


In spring 2001 three Western countries - the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany - almost simultaneously reported increased activity by Russian intelligence agents abroad.

On March 21, the U.S. State Department announced the expulsion of 50 Russian diplomats. Four accused of direct involvement with a former FBI agent-turned-spy Robert Hanssen were expelled immediately while the remaining 46 were given three months to leave .By then two other diplomats suspected of links to Hanssen’s case had already left after U.S. investigators determined they were involved in the case. The scandal was considered to be the most serious spy row between the US and Russia since the end of the Cold War. The last time the US expelled dozens of Russian diplomats was in 1986.

Two days later, on March 23, Vladimir Putin came to the two-day EU summit in Stockholm where the spy scandal between Moscow and Washington understandably superceded the official agenda on long-term plans to make the European economy competitive. Putin’s meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair turned out to be the most sensational. On 25th March the Sunday Times claimed that Blair privately warned Vladimir Putin over Russian spies, this time in Britain. The paper quoted a Foreign Office official as stating that the UK had witnessed a growth in Russian intelligence activity in Britain. It was said that for the last five years the numbers of diplomatic personnel stationed in London has significantly increased and the British wanted to know the reason why.

Four days later, on March 29, the German Federal Agency for the Protection of the Constitution (the country’s counter-intelligence service) has released its annual report stating that Russia has increased the number of spies operating out of its diplomatic missions in Germany. The report seemed to merely echo British claims: "The number of intelligence operatives has increased as the amount of embassy personnel has grown."

These public allegations towards Russian secret service activity abroad were the first that Vladimir Putin faced as the new Russian president. There was little doubt that the Robert Hanssen affair was the biggest blow to the US since the high-ranking CIA official Aldrich Ames had been exposed as a Russian spy in February 1994. But that was only part of the explanation. The expulsions from America were preceded by the defection in October 2000 of Sergei Tretyakov, a colonel of the SVR Foreign Intelligence service, who was a chief of station in New York in charge of spying at the UN headquarters where he had been since 1995.

Tretyakov was happy to present the proof to U.S. counter-intelligence that the SVR posed a more menacing threat than Soviet espionage during the Cold War. Eight years later he was to tell Agentura.Ru:

    - “After the fall of the Soviet Union Russian intelligence, meaning the SVR, became even more aggressive. At least it seemed so judging on what requests appeared and what appetites came to be shown. It can be explained through the fact that there are a lot of our former employees in the government, and our brains were made at same “factory”. Those who worked in the intelligence service always considered that information from the foreign ministry was unworthy as it was just reframing of what could be found in the newspapers. So they count on intelligence service information. I assure you, nothing has changed in the SVR: same lines and same directions.”

Meanwhile, the Western allegations all but coincided with the changes in the leadership of the SVR. In May 2000, a year before the scandals Putin replaced General Vyacheslav Trubnikov, SVR director since 1996, with Sergei Lebedev. It was seen as a turning point in SVR history.

The SVR was established in 1991 out of the ashes of the PGU, the Russian acronym for the First Chief Directorate of the KGB. In the nineties its leadership was generally known as the Mid-Eastern mafia.

Yevgeny Primakov, a well-known Arabist who spent years in the Middle East and gained a reputation as of one of the leading Soviet experts on this region, was chosen to lead the now independent Foreign Intelligence. In his previous posts he had contacts with the intelligence (don’t understand this? He obviously knew it well if he was an intelligence officer), “knew it well”, fulfilled earlier intelligence tasks and “had continuing contacts with the First Chief Directorate of the KGB”. Some of Primakov’s KGB colleagues were still at Yasenevo (PGU/SVR headquarters in a southern suburb of Moscow) when he took over the SVR: General Gurgenov accompanied Primakov during his visits to Saddam Hussein before the Desert Storm campaign, General Kirpichenko with whom he studied at the Oriental Institute was his senior consultant. He also knew General Trubnikov (who served in India and Bangladesh), who was later to replace him as SVR director.

All of them spent years in the East and they were to define the policy of the SVR in the years to come. Kirpichenko was appointed as chief of the SVR’s advisory board; Trubnikov was named First Deputy director and Gurgenov – Deputy Director of the SVR. Primakov even tried to get back Leonid Shebarshin, the last chief of the PGU (Shebarshin spent his career as an intelligence officer in Pakistan, Iran and India), offering him the position of First Deputy Director, but Shebarshin declined the offer. For five years Primakov did his best to strengthen the SVR positions. According to Gordon Bennett, a researcher at the CRSC:

    The nomination of Primakov was the next best thing the service could expect. He was highly experienced in bureaucratic combat and manipulation at every level and was a foreign affairs specialist... He attempted to undo the damage done to the service by politicians and the collapsing economy. His most urgent and immediate problem was intelligence personnel leaving the service. He succeeded in bringing intelligence personnel back to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by successfully lobbying Yeltsin who personally signed orders transferring intelligence personnel to the Ministry.

In 1996 Primakov was appointed Foreign Minister, but he managed to secure the positions of his team in the SVR: Trubnikov, who was chosen as a chief of the SVR, was seen as a direct successor of Primakov’s line.

The Primakov’s team’s doctrine appeared to be quite simple: physically distant from other parts of the KGB (if the Committee of State Security's leadership was stationed in Lubyanka HQ, the SVR occupied Yasenevo), the PGU was removed from the internal affairs of the country, thus letting the SVR deny all claims in involvement in dissidents’ suppression and at the same time keeping its distance from the internal politics in new times.

As a result, the SVR appeared not to be involved in turf wars between the secret services in the nineties, and managed to keep itself away from the career-breaking war in Chechnya. Primakov, with his orthodox and active communist past, in the liberal nineties was keen to present the SVR as a sort of think tank or research institution: he even renamed the operatives into reviewers, and sections into sectors.

While this may have suited Boris Yeltsin, when Putin was elected in 2000, he undoubtedly had his own view of the role of the SVR. He chose Sergei Lebedev as the new SVR chief, who was the opposite of the old team. Unlike Primakov’s people, Lebedev spent his career in the West, initially in Germany, and before his appointment he worked for the SVR in the United States. It was obvious he was appointed to reshape the SVR according to Putin’s wishes. Lebedev was quick to change the team: in November 2000 he appointed Vladimir Zavershinsky as his First Deputy. Zavershinsky had served in Germany as well as Lebedev and Putin.

9/11 terrorist attacks and subsequent Putin's phone call to the U.S. president George W. Bush postponed the confrontation.

Russian intelligence did help American intelligence in Afghanistan. On 18 September 2001 Richard L. Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State, and Cofer Black, then the Director of the Counterterrorism Center of the CIA, flew to Moscow to seek help from top Russian diplomatic and intelligence officials. The Russians indicated they would help. According to Bob Woodward, “the Russians soon sent a team to the CIA to provide extensive on-the-ground intelligence, especially about topography and caves in Afghanistan”.

At the end of 2001 Putin announced the closing down - against the Cuban authorities' will - of the SIGINT center located at Lourdes in Cuba (). It was a priceless gift to the US intelligence.

Less than 1,000 miles from Key West, the Lourdes facility which covered a 28 square-mile area and where 1,000-1,500 Russian engineers, technicians and military personnel were based, was among the most significant intelligence collection capabilities targeting the United States. According to a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency statement in 1996 to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “the strategic location of Lourdes makes it ideal for gathering intelligence on the United States.” The complex was capable of monitoring a wide array of commercial and government communications throughout the southeastern United States, and between the US and Europe. It was closed down in 2002 along with another Russian military base abroad – Cam Rahn, Vietnam.

On 6 December 2004 FSB director Nikolai Patrushev and FBI director Robert Mueller signed a memorandum of cooperation between the two services. Patrushev then said: “The memorandum which particularly stipulates our cooperation on a lot of directions is signed. First of all, this cooperation in struggle against the international terrorism, in struggle against the crimes connected with the weapon of mass destruction, and in other directions.”

Russia even allowed the use of an airport in Moscow for the highly controversial Programme of rendition. According to information collected by British investigative journalist Stephen Grey, author of “Ghost plane”, at least once, on 14 November 2003, a rendition flight from Frankfurt landed in Sheremetievo.

But in April 2003 the public image of Russian intelligence in the West was worsened again because of a new spy scandal involving the SVR.

In early April Robert Collier, a journalist on The San Francisco Chronicle, discovered documents in the Baghdad office of the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi secret police, which indicate that at least five agents graduated from a two-week course in surveillance and eavesdropping techniques in Moscow. The documents were found in personnel folders, hidden in a back closet in a center for electronic surveillance located in a four-story mansion in the Mesbah district, Baghdad's wealthiest neighborhood. According to the certificates, three of the five Iraqi agents graduated in September 2002 from a two-week course in “Photo-technical and Optical Means” given by the so-called “Special Training Center” (Specialny Uchebny Center) in Moscow, while two graduated from the center's two-week course in “Acoustic Surveillance Means.”

The San Francisco Chronicle's reporter Bill Wallace sent scans of one of the certificates to Agentura.Ru, to ask for them to be checked. It turned out to be the certificate of one Sami Rakhi Mohammad Jasim al-Mansouri, which bears the insignia, resembled the official insignia of the SVR. The certificate stated in English that al-Mansouri entered the Special Training Center's advanced course in acoustic surveillance means on September 2, 2002 and graduated on September 15 of the same year.

We turned to the SVR press office for comments, and Boris Labusov, then the SVR spokesman, acknowledged that Iraqi agents had been trained by his agency, officially claiming: “The SVR does not refuse cooperation with secret services of different countries in the areas of counter-terrorism, fighting drug traffic and investigating the illegal trade of weapons”. The story was reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, causing the scandal. A few days later the US Ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, was quoted as saying “we knew that there were contacts between the intelligence services of Iraq and Russia” at a press conference in Moscow. “We hope to find more information given the media reports published last weekend”, added the Ambassador.

Much later it was discovered by the authors of this book, that the SVR's Special Training Center does exist. In 2006 the SVR celebrated a number of Jubilees, including 85 years of foreign intelligence. For the celebration the Academy of Russian symbolic “MARS” designed a few medals, and sketches of them were duly published on the website of the Academy Among them there was the photograph of a medal for “30 years of the Special Training Center of the SVR”, which bears exactly the same insignia found on the certificates in Baghdad – the same title, the Russian flag above, below the opened book and the globe in the middle. The figure “30 years” meant that the Center was inherited from the KGB past, when the Soviet instructors trained foreign freedom fighters for anti-colonial wars.

In the years ahead concerns over increased activity by Russian intelligence were further strengthened. The most active with the allegations were the British. In May 2005 the Daily Telegraph published a story headlined “Russian spies are trying to steal our secrets again, MI5 warns the Government”.

The newspaper reported a confidential document entitled “Security Service Espionage Alert” released by the British security service MI5 in response to an increase in the activities of Russian intelligence agents. The document warned that Russian spies were traveling widely throughout Britain and posed a “substantial” espionage threat. The MI5 document reportedly claimed that about 30 accredited Russian diplomats were spies who were busy attempting to obtain secret information about Britain's military capabilities, its defense industry and also were interested in the activities of Chechen asylum seekers. According to the newspaper, the document stated that “SVR is believed to have about 18 offices in Britain while the GRU is said to have 14 – all in the guise of official Russian organizations, with diplomatic status”. The newspaper never questioned how over 30 Russian spies could managed to cope with 18 and 14 (32 on the whole) regional spying organizations.

It was not the first leak from MI5 on the Russian espionage threat. In October 2004, the Independent newspaper published the excerpts from another MI5 confidential document entitled “Espionage threat”. The figures contained in the document oddly resembled the 2005 report: “Among the spies are at least 32 Russian diplomats... The SVR has 18 officers in Britain, while the GRU has about 14, all of whom have diplomatic status, according to intelligence sources.” Thus, in one year the officers were turned to offices, to strengthen the allegations.

On 4th July 2008 The Times stepped in, stating that Britain's security services identified Russia as the third most serious threat facing the country. Security officials said that only al-Qaeda terrorism and Iranian nuclear proliferation were greater menaces to the country's safety than Russia. The Times reported the “deep irritation within the services that vital resources are having to be diverted to deal with industrial and military espionage by the Russians.”

The allegations about Russian espionage were echoed by the US media. In January 2005 Time Magazine claimed Russia is fielding an army of spooks in the US that is at least equal in number to the one deployed by the old, much larger Soviet Union: “Russia runs more than 1,000 known spies under official cover in the US, senior US Intelligence and law-enforcement officials say.” In September 2007 the claims were repeated by Mike McConnell, the director of US National Intelligence, who said that Chinese and Russian spies are stalking the United States at levels close to those seen during the tense covert espionage duels of the Cold War.

In 2008 the German Federal Agency for the Protection of the Constitution said Russia and China were responsible for a good deal of intelligence-gathering activity in Germany, according to the Agency's 2007 report. “Intelligence and security services are under orders to actively support Russian industry”, said the report. This time there were obvious grounds for such allegations. In December 2007 Vladimir Putin replaced the SVR chief Sergei Lebedev with Mikhail Fradkov, a former Russian prime-minister. Presenting the new director, Putin was quoted as saying: “the intelligence services need more actively to stand up for the defense of the economic interests of our companies abroad.”

In 2009 the discontent of Russian intelligence in Germany was exposed again. In June the director of Counterintelligence at the Federal Agency for the Protection of the Constitution Even Burkhard ven told Die Welt newspaper that “The Russian intelligence services, keeping up with their government's changing information needs, have intensified efforts in recent years to investigate German firms illegally.”


The illegals' failure in the US does not seem to have harmed the SVR's reputation in the Kremlin. On December 15, 2010 Dmitry Medvedev congratulated SVR personnel on the agency’s 90th anniversary, and presented SVR chief Mikhail Fradkov with the Commander in Chief Honorary Certificat. Medvedev even referred to the illegals' scandal in his speech, saying: "This year is a significant anniversary for our Foreign Intelligence Service, but it has not been an easy year. I think, however, that the agency still has all the capacity it needs for the timely, professional, and most importantly, effective accomplishment of the tasks before it." Medvedev gave no indication that reform or any change in tactics is needed.

Agentura.Ru, January 17, 2011


  • The Sunday Times 25.03.2001 “Blair warns Putin over Russian spies in Britain”
  • Reuters 30.03.2001 “Germany Says Russia Has More Embassy Spies”
  • Novaya Gazeta 01.02.2008 “Return of Comrade Jean”. Interview with Sergei Tretyakov by Andrei Soldatov
  • Razvedka: Litsa I Lichnosti, Lt-Gen Vadim Kirpichenko, Geya 1998, p277 & 285.
  • Leonid Mlechin“Yevgeny Primakov, Istoriya Odnoy Karyery” Tsentrpoligraf, Moscow 1999, p. 211
  • Bob Woodward “Bush At War” Pocket Books, 2003 p.103
  • Defense Intelligence Agency answers to questions for the record (excerpts) Current and projected national security threats to the United States and its interests abroad. February 22, 1996 – Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
  • ITAR-TASS 6/12/2004 FSB Rossii I FBR SCHA podpisali memorandum o sotrudnichestve I borbe s terrorismom
  • / Flight logs
  • The San Francisco Chronicle 13.04.2003 “Iraq-Russia spy link uncovered. Secret files: Documents reveal Iraqi agents trained in Moscow”
  • The San Francisco Chronicle 17.04.2003 “Russia now admits training Iraqi spies. But it says intent was to fight crime, terror”
  • Newsru.Com 16.04.2003 “Washington proverit dannie o sotrudnichestve spezcluzhb Rossii i Iraqa”
  • The Daily Telegraph 15.05.2005 “Russian spies are trying to steal our secrets again, MI5 warns the Government”
  • The Independent 26.10.2004 “Carry on spying: Russian agents flood UK in revival of intelligence Cold War”
  • The Times 4.07.08 “Russia rated UK's biggest threat after al-Qaeda and Iran”
  • Time Magazine 30.01.2005 “The Russians Are Coming”
  • AFP 18.09.2007 China and Russia spying at Cold War levels : US spy chief
  • The New York Times 15.05.2008 “Germany cites threat of Russian espionage”
  • Prime-TASS 19.10.2007 “V.Putin lichno predstavil novogo glavu Sluzhbi Vneshnei Razvedki RF M.Fradkova / rashirennaya versia /”
  • Reuters 21.06.2009 “Top German spy says more Russian snooping on firms”