The KGB Playbook for Turning Russians Worldwide Into Agents
A KGB manual showed how valuable—and how treacherous—Russian émigrés could be. Did KGB veteran Vladimir Putin learn those lessons?
This is the third and last article in a series based on never-before-published training manuals for the KGB, the Soviet intelligence organization that Vladimir Putin served as an operative, and that shaped his view of the world. (Part 1 can be found here; and Part 2 here.)
Reacting to the first installment in the series, John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of Central Intelligence, drew a direct line between what’s contained in these manuals and the cases being examined by special counsel Robert Mueller: “This is classic spycraft from Sun Tzu (6th century BC) till today. A shadowy mosaic of cut-outs, access agents, plausible denial, gossamer webs. Whether or not Mueller proves collusion, Russia clearly took its best shot.”
This article looks at the way KGB operatives were taught to use Soviet citizens abroad, whether they were willing or not, for the organization’s own purposes.
IT WAS THE TRANSPOSITION of two letters that furnished the easy excuse for dismissing the entirety of the accusation as “fake news.”
Russian diplomat Mikhail Kulagin, the story went, had been yanked from the Russian Embassy on Wisconsin Avenue owing to fears in Moscow that the American press was onto him as something other than a mere diplomat. Kulagin was about to be unmasked for his “heavy involvement in the U.S. presidential election operation,” according to a secret document about to be made public, to much fanfare and controversy. Namely, he’d been part of a complex scheme funneling cash to Russian émigrés in America as compensation for a “two-way flow of intelligence and information concerning the activities of prominent Russian oligarchs and their families.”
This fee-for-service arrangement allegedly relied on “Russian diplomatic staff in key cities such as New York, Washington, D.C. and Miami,” the document stated, who “were using the emigre pension distribution system as cover. The operation therefore depended on key people in the US Russian emigre community for its success. Tens of thousands of dollars were involved.”
Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, could laugh this one off easily. For one thing, there was no Mikhail Kulagin at the Russian Embassy. There was a Mikhail Kalugin and while it was true that he had concluded a six-year posting in August 2016 and returned to Moscow, it wasn’t because he was any kind of spy about to be found out. Rather, his tenure was up and he had simply gone home, as he’d planned to do for about six months beforehand.
Another wrinkle in the story was that Miami hasn’t got any diplomatic staff because it hasn’t got a consulate. Although you’d be forgiven for thinking it should, given its sizable Russian émigré community and its borderline-cliché popularity as a dolce vita vacation spot for Russian billionaires, many of whom own pied-à-terres in South Beach, occasionally even in their own names.
So, did the typo and misapprehension about Russian mission cities in America mean that Christopher Steele, the author of the dossier, got everything wrong about Kalugin? Not exactly.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Kalugin arrived in Washington in 2010 and served for two years in the political section at the Russian Embassy, after which he spent the next four years as head of the economic section. His previous overseas posting, before the United States, had been in Lithuania where he served as the Russian Embassy’s press secretary on bilateral issues. Sources who did meet and know him a little in Washington say that he would often sit in on meetings with Baltic counterparts and present himself as more superior than his nominally higher-grade colleagues from the embassy.
“He rarely spoke on economic matters,” one European diplomat recalls. “I cannot imagine he’d be well prepared to do that kind of work. Probably he was doing something else.” Also, the diplomat adds, it was “very impressive” for someone to go from being a lowly media flack in Vilnius to the head of the economic section at the embassy in Washington, the most important Russian mission on the planet, even with pit-stop postings in the Russian Finance and Foreign Affairs ministries, where Kalugin served in between his Lithuanian and American deployments.
Mark Galeotti, a Prague-based specialist on Russia’s security services, agrees that Kalugin’s true role in the states extended well beyond trade deals and GDP comparisons. “My sources in Russia have told me that Kalugin’s apparent lack of interest in economic matters was because he was otherwise employed at the embassy,” Galeotti says, “and that typically means being an intelligence officer.”
The McClatchy news service reported in February that Kalugin had in fact been “under scrutiny” by U.S. intelligence as part of a multi-agency investigation into Russian interference in the last presidential election. Kalugin was suspected of helping to finance the email hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
Kalugin flat-out denied any involvement in the cyber-espionage or in running a complicated slush fund for hackers via Russian pensioners in America. “I had nothing to do with the distribution of retirement payments to the Russian citizens in the United States,” he told McClatchy. Any mention of him in the Steele dossier or subsequent inquiries into his work constituted a “continuous stream of lies and fake news about my person.”
IT DOESN’T TAKE an opposition research dossier, much less a Senate subcommittee, to see that Russian spies have long taken a keen interest in the views and behavior of Russians in the diaspora, especially those with outspoken hostile attitudes toward the Kremlin and its long-entrenched masters. Two of the most astounding crimes of the last and current centuries attest to the intensity of that interest.
When Ramon Mercader plunged an ice-axe into the skull of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940, just as the Old Man of the Soviet opposition perused an article written by a supposed acolyte who was really an undercover assassin, it was the culmination of a plot personally put into motion by Josef Stalin himself and carefully organized by Pavel Sudoplatov, the head of the Administration for Special Tasks, then one of two arms of Stalin’s foreign intelligence apparatus.
Not long after the founder of the Red Army was killed in Mexico, and the same year as World War II ended, one of Stalin’s military intelligence officers turned over a freshet of documentary evidence showing just how extensive the Soviet penetration of the West had been, even during the anti-Nazi alliance.
“When Igor Gouzenko, a GRU cipher clerk, defected to Canada in 1945 with a cache of top secret documents, the West suddenly realized the extent of the Soviet effort to recruit sympathizers to its cause,” says Amy Knight, the author of How the Cold War Began: The Igor Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies. “Soviet spies, disguised as diplomats, had infiltrated western governments and their atomic bomb enterprises on an impressive scale. The West went on high alert and the Cold War was officially started.”
It arguably began anew in 2006, when Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the FSB, the successor organ of the KGB, quaffed a cup of green tea at the Pine Bar at the Millennium Hotel in London, the city to which he and his family defected a few years before. He unwittingly swallowed an exponentially lethal dose of polonium-210, a radiological poison slipped to him by two men who worked for his former service, which he had since denounced for its corruption, its ties to organized crime, and its acts of state terrorism. Polonium-210 is manufactured in exactly one place on earth: in the Russian city of Sarov, at a plant closely guarded by the FSB.
“Virtual mafia state”—that unforgettable phrase from the U.S. State Department cables published by WikiLeaks—was actually a reference to Litvinenko’s own appraisal of the Russian government’s close integration with the Russian mob, as relayed to Spanish intelligence, to which Litvinenko was subcontracted by his new employer, Britain’s MI6.
Gangsters had long operated in the USSR, usually in opposition to it, which is why the uppermost echelon of non-political criminal prisoners in the gulag were known as vory v zakone, or “thieves in law.” But organized crime proliferated with the demise of communism, and its functionaries spread across Europe like spores, from Latvia to London.
By the 2000s, Litvinenko had come to believe that mobsters were functioning as quasi-state institutions unto themselves. They could murder and steal with impunity because they were also tasked with doing so by the FSB and SVR, the Russian foreign intelligence operation, which sought to outsource such undertakings to unsavory characters more accustomed to claim credit for them. (To this day, hitmen are contracted by the siloviki to dispose of insurgent veterans from the Caucasus now domiciled in Turkey.)
Litvinenko’s thesis became his end. After having been a marked man for at least three years before he ingested the polonium, he was murdered not for ideological subversion, as in the bad old days, or even as the result of some hysterical purge of the security organs. His “modern assassination was about money,” as the British journalist Luke Harding has written in A Very Expensive Poison, his definitive book on the snuffing of the Russian spy and the attendant British wrangle to get to the bottom of it. “He threatened the revenue streams of some very powerful people. So they killed him.”
Just how powerful these people were had long been known to Westminster, which, out of fear of what the case might do to relations with the Kremlin (not to mention the steady stream of rubles pouring each year into the London real estate and commercial markets) never quite laid blame for this extrajudicial murder on the men who sanctioned it. Then last year came a much-publicized public inquiry headed by High Court Judge Sir Robert Owen. Litvinenko’s assassination, Owen concluded, was likely ordered by the then-head of the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, himself acting at the instruction of his more famous predecessor, Vladimir Putin.
The man who was and still is Russia’s president had his own commercial ties to the underworld, according to Karen Dawisha, author of Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, a recent work of scholarship that ably synthesizes the encyclopedic history post-Soviet graft and racketeering. One of the syndicates Litvinenko had been tracking in Spain was the Tambov Gang, which notoriously monopolized gasoline sales in St. Petersburg for a time in the 1990s. Putin, who worked in the city’s mayoral office, “granted” the mob that monopoly, Dawisha writes.
FOR SOMEONE WHO fetishizes the concept of “sovereignty” when it suits him—usually when he doesn’t want the United States interfering in foreign countries he prefers to interfere in—national borders ceased to exist for Putin when they attempt to circumscribe the metaphysical orphans of a fallen empire or the traitors to its glorious resurrection.
It is often forgotten that he cited as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century the collapse of the Soviet Union. “For the Russian people, it became a real drama,” Putin said. “Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.”
Russia is thus honor-bound to come to the fraternal assistance of its “compatriots” whenever necessary, and even if they haven’t asked for it. According to John Sipher, the former CIA station chief in Moscow and the former head of the agency’s Russia operations, “Putin’s policy has always been: where there are Russians, that is where Russia is.” For Sipher, the notion that the Kremlin might thus turn to a handful of Russian émigrés to facilitate a clandestine financial pipeline from the motherland to vested U.S. political interests tracks with stated Kremlin policy.
The term encompassing this is Russkiy mir, the “Russian world,” which denotes a global sodality defined by the shared inheritances of culture, language, and the Orthodox Christian religion. Putin cynically couched his invasion and annexation of Crimea as a prophylactic measure to rescue peninsular Russians from certain annihilation at the hands of a “fascist junta” in Kiev, which supposedly swept to power in wake of the Maidan Revolution in 2014.
Elsewhere his non-military interventions have seized upon similar pretexts in other former Soviet satellite countries.
For instance, the cultural organization Rossotrudnichestvo, run by Sergei Lavrov’s Foreign Ministry, has financed any number of European governmental nongovernmental organizations—“GONGOs”—dealing with this mythical double-headed beast of resurgent Nazism and Russian persecution, from Tallinn to Tbilisi. In some inspired cases, Russian neo-Nazis have stolen across the border to appear as Estonian neo-Nazis, for the purpose of furnishing fresh “evidence” for these GONGOs where little or none may naturally exist.
If Christopher Steele is to be believed, Rossotrudnichestvo also served another underhanded function in the 2016 election: Its facilities in Prague were used to host a secret liaison between Trump attorney Michael Cohen and Kremlin officials in August 2016, a dossier allegation that Cohen has vehemently denied and has never been proven.
PUTIN WILL NO DOUBT have been taught at the Andropov Red Banner Institute in Moscow, where he was trained as a KGB case officer in the ’70s, the service’s primary interest in the diaspora was twofold: either recruit them as agents or informants, or ferret them out as agents or informants of the West. Sometimes it was difficult to tell which was which.
The third and final set of intercepted KGB documents given to The Daily Beast by a European intelligence service shows just how paranoid Moscow Center was about Russian exiles. “The Use of the Soviet Committee for Cultural Ties with Fellow Countrymen Abroad in the Interests of State Security Agencies,” as it’s called, resembles the previous two documents in its thoroughgoing obsession with counterintelligence threats and botched operations. Where this document deviates from the other two is that it delves into greater anecdotal detail about some of those screw-ups and even names names—or codenames, anyway.
Such added color may owe to the fact that unlike the other two, which were produced in the late ’80s, this file was published for internal KGB use in 1968, an annus horribilis for the Soviet spy services, which failed to predict and preempt the Prague Spring. Surely an excellent time to fret about what “compatriots” were getting up to everywhere inside and outside of the Warsaw Pact’s jurisdiction.
In a sense, this relic of Cold War tradecraft is as much a monument to the West’s nimble manipulation of émigré circles as it is a manual on how to recruit them for Moscow.
We learn, for instance, that in 1965, a “small patriotic group”—a euphemism for a Soviet front—was established in Hanover, West Germany, by a man called Simeonov, described in the document as a “traitor to the Motherland, sentenced in his day by a Soviet court to severe punishment,” but in absentia.
Despite Simeonov’s ideological black record at home, the KGB allowed his group to establish contact with the Representative Office of the Soviet Committee for Cultural Ties in East Berlin. Trips were then arranged for members of this group to travel into the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) to meet with committee officials.
In “talks with these emissaries, the impression was formed that the Simeonov group was well-organized, regularly conducted patriotic meetings with fellow countrymen, and had launched work to attract other émigrés to the organization who lived in Hanover [Germany] and its suburbs.”
Suspicions were duly allayed. Eventually, Simeonov himself went to East Berlin and, although still supposedly subject to immediate detention because of the outstanding verdict against him, was allowed to move freely through the city, then return home and continue expanding his fifth column.
The committee and by extension the KGB, which supervised its work, believed the information that Simeonov and his cohort passed along about the activities of their fellow émigrés in Hanover was genuine. It wasn’t.
The entire group was rife with West German moles. The KGB only became aware of the deception when it discovered that the “patron” of the group was a Catholic priest who generously loaned space in his church to host gatherings, which he often attended. “A check of the priest through operational lists indicated that we were dealing with a former Hitlerite officer… who maintained a connection to the local police agencies.” (Whether the priest was in fact a former Nazi officer or simply described as one is unclear; the Soviets had a propensity for labeling anti-Communist clerics, even those who had stood up to Hitler, as stooges of National Socialism.)
Simeonov, too, wasn’t quite the rehabilitated “patriot” he appeared to be even under surveillance in East Berlin. He was found to be a “provocateur” working for his adoptive fatherland, West Germany. But rather than cut ties, the KGB shifted the operation from trying to run the group to using it to try to reverse-engineer the network of West German agents who had penetrated it. The Russians even went so far as to gauge the possibility of poaching some of these German assets. The takeaway in the instruction manual, however, was to emphasize the need not only to influence émigrés through the dissemination of ideology but of owning and controlling them outright, lest they fall prey to hostile intelligence forces.
The Ukrainian diaspora in Canada apparently merited special attention during the late ’60s as a hotbed of anti-Soviet skulduggery. According to this text, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police counterintelligence planted a man known as “Khameleon” among this community in the role of middleman filing petitions for travel to the USSR. Khameleon told Ukrainians in Canada that the petitions had to be filled out in Russian, giving him a pretext to meet with scores looking to travel to Kiev or Odessa as tourists or businessmen.
Khameleon was doing for Ottawa what Moscow would have liked him to do for them: studying these expatriates for recruitment or surveillance, sketching personality profiles of them, gauging their dispositions toward the USSR, and determining what if any affiliations they might have to “progressive” (read: pro-Soviet) organizations in Canada. All this information was then sent back to Khameleon’s Mountie handlers.
“Bekker” was part of the Belgian-based Union of Soviet Citizens (SSG), an émigré association, whose members regularly visited the USSR and even met with officials in the Soviet Committee on Cultural Ties. Belgian counterintelligence learned that Bekker was planning such a trip back to the USSR and had him called into a local police station. He was interrogated about the “state of affairs in the SSG, his intentions regarding the trip,” and then he was made an offer of recruitment—one the Belgians thought he couldn’t refuse.
They blackmailed him using undisclosed material in the form of a “bulging dossier,” as the KGB manual puts it. Bekker refused to collaborate. He was let go, with the phone number of the officer who tried to blackmail him and instructions to be in touch in case “any difficulties arose” with regard to his trip. Bekker instead walked straight into the Soviet Embassy in Brussels and sang about what had just happened to him.
In America, where Russian émigrés had generally thrived and didn’t look back to what they’d left behind because they’d left it behind for good reason, they and their children could work their ways up into sensitive positions in business, government, and the military, making them of course prime targets for the Soviet Committee’s very special “outreach.”
The document recounts the case of “Kapitan,” who was involved in “secret work in the U.S. Army.” Kapitan’s uncle, codenamed “Stary,” had written a letter to the Soviet Committee on Cultural Ties explaining what he, his family and friends were up to in the States. Presumably out of carelessness, he mentioned his nephew’s job.
The Soviet organs seized upon this enticing morsel as a reason to obtain more information on Kapitan through continued correspondence with Stary. Several letters were changed, the ones from Moscow “carefully encoded” with indirect questions. Through this method, Kapitan’s address and other “basic data” about him were obtained. Soon, the rezidentura confirmed that Kapitan was actually an officer in Air Force intelligence, the KGB stopped writing to Stary and began trying to develop his nephew. But the plan failed, this time owing to the KGB’s own carelessness:
“When our agent visited Stary, through whom access to Kapitan was intended, introduced himself as a Soviet citizen, Stary immediately warned that his correspondence with the Soviet Committee was known to the FBI which was in the process of holding all these letters. He said that he had the assignment to immediately inform the FBI about people who came to him and would be interested in Kapitan. Stary advised our person not to visit him any more to avoid unpleasantness.”
The FBI had intercepted the committee’s correspondence and deciphered the “encoded” messages to Stary, after all. This operation could have turned out much worse, however. Kapitan’s uncle refused to give up the Soviet agent who had come to call on him seeking an introduction to his more important nephew.
“ORIGINALLY YOU HAD the diaspora, which involved a lot of Russian Jews who were escaping and routinely receiving American visas because of the repression of Soviet Jewry,” Steven Hall says. “By the same token, the Russian intelligence services took a strategic view of other waves in the diaspora. A lot of them realized what was going to happen and in some cases did happen: Those who had difficulties resettling in the West began to long for home.
“Give it a few years, and a KGB officer under cultural attaché cover knocks on your door and brings a bottle of vodka or has a cup of tea talking about how great life was. The Soviets always saw these exiles as a target for operational use even though they’d fled.”
Contrast that with the present-day. There are hardly any travel restrictions into and out of Russia, providing you haven’t fled because of political pressure. There is a greater and faster accumulation of wealth by Russians, much of it kept (or stashed) abroad by a generation of billionaire oligarchs reared on the domestic oil and gas industry who have lately moved into international finance, real estate, sports team ownership, and much more.
Such fabulously wealthy Russians may not be émigrés in the traditional sense—plenty still live, at least part of the time, in Moscow—but they are seen as public exponents of Putin’s regime, cultural diplomats intended to put a nice face on a deeply corrupt kleptocracy. Are they being monitored? In today’s world the KGB’s heirs needn’t bank on fond memories from childhood; they can bank on something far more persuasive: money.
Special thanks to Catherine A. Fitzpatrick for her translation of these documents.