Russian experts scoff at alleged spy ring


A national shame. An abject absurdity; a circus stunt. And a waste of money besides. In the old days, the organizers would’ve been jailed. Or maybe shot.

Former officials of Russia’s spy agencies and analysts are heaping scorn on the alleged espionage operation in the United States rolled up this week by the FBI. What it showed more than anything, they said in interviews Thursday, is the pitiful state of spy craft in the Federal Security Service, the successor to the feared KGB.

Russian spy operations: An article in Friday’s Section A about experts discussing Russian spying operations implied that the Federal Security Service is the sole successor to the Soviet KGB. That agency is responsible for domestic affairs and counterintelligence. The Foreign Intelligence Service is responsible for international operations. —

Vladimir Putin has tried during his decade in power to rebuild the Russian spy services, which disintegrated along with the Soviet Union. A few former intelligence officials said they believed the Kremlin’s denials that anything illegal was afoot, but most Russians seem inclined toward the FBI’s unflattering version.

Meeting over iced tea at an empty cafe just outside Moscow, one recently retired spy master who agreed to an interview on condition he not be identified, just shook his head as he reviewed a printout of quotes from the FBI affidavit.

“It is really a national shame and humiliation for Russia and its special services,” said the retired officer, who worked for many years as a spy-controller in the West. The U.S. documents “scream of the despicable level of professional training of the alleged Russian spies and those who trained and prepared them for this work.”

“I can’t believe they could try to pull a circus stunt like that — send to the United States a whole bunch of obviously unprofessional young men and women to work as ‘illegals,’ ” he said.

The former spymaster was a neatly dressed figure; fit and nondescript — looking rather like a bank clerk you wouldn’t remember the next day.

In his day, he said, a special department would train such agents for up to 10 years, carefully building their stories, helping them master accents, creating family histories and ties. They would learn operative skills, as well, while specialists would create impeccable personal documents.

The system came apart quickly when the Soviet Union collapsed. Funding was slashed to the minimum.

“Agents were sitting put in their host countries filing no information to the center, receiving no instructions and having no incentive to continue and no clue what to do,” said the spy controller. “The center was dead, with the remaining people sitting there, playing Solitaire.”

More than a third of Russia’s foreign spy missions were shut down, said Mikhail Lyubimov, a Soviet spy in Western Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, who now writes fiction. While the Obama administration has called for a “reset” in relations with Russia, the two countries still are rivals, he said, “But we don’t seem to have the human resources to continue this competition with dignity.”

In a telephone interview, historian Nikita Petrov characterized the operation as a waste of money that smacked of anachronistic Soviet-era thinking, which came into open conflict with “the desires of a gang of adventurist individuals to lead ordinary lives and build their family future in the United States at the expense of the Russian taxpayers.”

Popular author and commentator Yulia Latynina dismissed the alleged operation as “an imitation of espionage.”

“Putin’s Russia has an imitation of democracy, an imitation of the empire and now an imitation of espionage,” she said in a telephone interview. “The only thing Putin’s Russia is not even pretending to have is an imitation of an economy.”

“Why should these young people under fake aliases walk their dogs in an American street and take their kids to an American school at our expense?” Latynina said. “Of course it is much more pleasant to live in the United States,” she added, predicting that the accused spies would spill everything they know to U.S. authorities, and then beg to stay.

One of the few taking the opposite view was retired KGB Maj. Gen. Yuri Drozdov, a former chief of undercover intelligence operations. “I am inclined to think this is a provocation concocted by the United States special services,” he said. “They are masters of such provocations.”

Gennady Gudkov, deputy chairman of the State Duma’s security committee, said diplomats could obtain from official sources the same information the alleged spies were sent to get. If the charges are true, he said, parliament might organize hearings about how the spy services spend their money.

“In the best times of Soviet history, the organizers and controllers of such a sloppy operation would have ended in prison,” said Gudkov, a graduate of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Academy. “And at the worst times, they would have been shot.”

When funding was cut in the 1990s and foreign operations were limited, spies and instructors began to leave the service, the former spymaster said. Some defected, but many went into business.

“The only people remaining in the center by the mid-90s were very young inexperienced guys and old folks just biding their time before retirement,” the spymaster said. “The quality of training immediately went down and the number of failures and exposures in the field went up.”

Putin, a former KGB officer himself, increased funding when he became president in 2000, and seems intent on rebuilding the network’s abilities — including in the West, said the former controller. “But you can’t achieve it by sending a whole army of spies there all at one time.”

Lilia Shevtsova, a Moscow-based commentator and associate of the Moscow Carnegie Center, said despite the urge to modernize, the spy agencies might still be stuck in the mindset of the glorious past when they recruited agents such as Guy Burgess and Kim Philby.

“If that is really the case, they should be all sacked for wasting the state funds on things an ordinary student can get hold of operating a laptop in a remote Far East village nowadays,” she said. “This spy scandal sounds like an abject absurdity neither side needs at the moment.”