In the five years since former KGB spy Vladimir Putin assumed power, the number of Russian spies has swelled to meet or exceed Cold War levels in the United States and Germany, according to Western media reports and a former KGB agent in London.
Former KGB spies living in Russia, however, scoffed at the notion of increased spy activity, saying Putin has no reason to jeopardize relations with two of Russia’s closest allies. They suggested that the spy claims may be part of a disinformation drive to spoil ties with Russia or divert more funds to Western intelligence.
In the United States, the spies are reportedly engaged in industrial espionage and are aggressively collecting information about government strategies regarding former Soviet republics, China, the Middle East and energy. In Germany, they are said to be spying on scientific research institutes, the armed forces, political parties and companies.
Russia has more than 100 spies working under diplomatic cover through its embassy in Washington and the United Nations in New York, while an unknown number are working under unofficial cover as businesspeople, journalists and academics, Time reported in Monday’s issue, citing government sources and unidentified experts.
“Although the Cold War is long over, Russia is fielding an army of spooks in the U.S. that is at least equal in number to the one deployed by the old, much larger Soviet Union,” the American magazine said.
Infiltration has been made easier by simpler immigration rules and a shift in FBI priorities from counterespionage to counterterrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, it said.
In Germany, the number of Russian intelligence operatives has grown to about 130 Â— almost as many as the KGB deployed in Soviet times, Focus, a German magazine, reported last week, citing an unidentified official from the German Federal Criminal Investigation Agency.
The reports are in line with a report in Britain’s The Independent, which said the number of Russian spies in Britain has reached Cold War levels and that MI5, the British counterintelligence service, lacks the money to handle the problem. MI5’s counterespionage funding was cut in half to reallocate resources to efforts targeting al-Qaida and other terrorist threats, the newspaper said in October.
Retired KGB Colonel Oleg Gordiyevsky said Russia has stepped up its spying activities and its U.S. network is even bigger than reported in Time. “I communicate with people who keep tabs on the situation,” he said by telephone from London. “There has been an increase in activity over the past five years, after Putin became prime minister” in 1999.
He said Russian spies under official diplomatic cover number more than 300 in the United States, while Russia has about 40 working under unofficial cover there. As for Germany, he said the estimate of 130 operatives was “close to reality.”
In Britain, there are 31 officers under official cover and 13 under unofficial cover, about the same as during the Cold War, he said.
Gordiyevsky said the number is lower than for many other Western countries because Britain has often expelled Russia spies, as in 1971, when it declared 105 Soviet diplomats personae non gratae.
He said the number of spies in Germany has sharply increased since the Cold War, when Moscow could rely on East Germany to assist in its espionage efforts. Putin was a KGB spy based in East Germany in the late 1980s.
Gordiyevsky said, however, that he believes Moscow has always maintained its network of spies at Cold War levels in the United States.
He said many of the operatives are Russians who are working abroad but who were recruited while they still lived in Russia. In addition, he said, many Russian spies travel to the United States with fake documents identifying them as citizens of Eastern European or Baltic countries.
While the number of spies may be growing in some places, what is truly remarkable is a surge in their aggressiveness, Gordiyevsky said.
Under President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, they were instructed to avoid scandals and expulsions, but it is different now, he said.
“They are trying to build connections to lawmakers, journalists and businessmen,” he said.
Focus appeared to confirm the claim, quoting a source as saying that the Russians are spying “in an extremely aggressive way.”
Boris Labusov, spokesman for the Foreign Intelligence Service, refused to comment on the Western media reports. “Not a single security service will comment on its activity,” he said.
Moreover, the Russian side cannot discuss the reports because they relied exclusively on unidentified officials for specific information, Labusov said.
“The only name is that of the FBI’s assistant director, but he doesn’t talk about anything like that,” he said.
The FBI’s assistant director for counterintelligence, David Szady, told Time that he wants to double the number of agents chasing foreign spies over the next five years, but he did not mention Russia specifically.
Szady also said that the FBI placed counterespionage units of at least seven agents in each of its 56 field divisions last year, but again he did not mention Russia.
If the reports had identified their sources, Russia would have been forced to formally react, and that could have sparked a diplomatic dispute, said Nikolai Poroskov, a military columnist at Vremya Novostei.
Defense Ministry officials could not be immediately reached to comment on behalf of the military’s espionage branch, the Main Intelligence Directorate.
The United States is using a so-called Technology Alert List to filter out visa applicants who might want to illegally export sensitive information or goods.
Background checks on Russian applicants, however, are more connected to concerns about nuclear proliferation than espionage, said Maury Harty, head of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. “That is a nonproliferation question,” Harty said in an interview Thursday. The Technology Alert List “does not represent a group of people that we think are all spies.”
James Pettit, consul general at the U.S. Embassy, said the number of Russian visa applicants who get red-flagged by the Technology Alert List has increased, but that is only because more people are applying for visas.
“If there has been a tilt, it’s only in proportion with the general population,” he said.
The embassy does not disclose numbers for applicants who have undergone background checks or been denied visas.
A number of veterans of the Russian and Soviet intelligence services discounted the idea that Russian spy efforts are growing.
The stories are “premeditated disinformation,” said the last head of the KGB’s foreign intelligence department, retired Lieutenant General Leonid Shebarshin.
Given friendlier relations with the United States and Germany, “I don’t accept the possibility that an increase in espionage activity is possible in this situation,” he said.
“I think this is all in the past,” said Mikhail Lyubimov, a retired KGB colonel. “With the current relations with the West, why step up the number of agents?”
Lyubimov said the reports could be an effort by U.S. and German intelligence agencies to use a nonexistent threat to obtain more funding.
Or, he said, the reports could be an attempt to cast Russia in a bad light and prevent it from growing closer to Western countries. “There have always been forces that wanted to undermine relations,” he said. “There are forces that don’t want closer ties Â— they are better off catching spies.”
Putin moved quickly to align Russia with the United States in its struggle against terror after the Sept. 11 attacks, and he has had a warm friendship with U.S. President George W. Bush over the past four years.
Moscow also enjoys cordial relations with Berlin, and Putin, who speaks fluent German from his spy days as a KGB lieutenant colonel in Dresden, has a close friendship with Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der.
A former espionage officer, retired Major General Yury Kobaladze, suggested that the Time report may be linked to displeasure in the Bush administration over what it considers a rollback of democracy under Putin. “I don’t see any reason to have more spies abroad now than, say, five years ago,” he said.
Bush is expected to bring up his concerns about Russian democracy with Putin at a summit in Slovakia later this month.
Lyubimov expressed doubt that Russia had had the money to expand its network of spies and said it probably prefers less expensive ways to obtain information, such as using the Internet.
He said Russian spies are primarily interested in collecting information about next-generation weapons. Gordiyevsky said operatives also could be seeking information about the U.S. struggle against terror, “especially now that the U.S. has bases in former Soviet republics” where Russia wants to dominate.
According to Time, Russian agents are looking to get access to dual-use technologies such as the latest lasers, and to learn the Bush administration’s plans for former Soviet republics, China, the Middle East and energy. Focus said agents are spying on scientific research establishments, the military, political parties and companies.
Gordiyevsky said Russia’s spies are more efficient in obtaining commercial secrets these days because they are better educated in business and technology than their Soviet-era counterparts.
However, there is a limit to how much they can achieve: Russia’s economy is not able to swallow all of the information that can be gleaned through industrial espionage, he said.