Shock waves have rattled Washington following reports by The New York Times and The Washington Post that Russian operatives paid bounties to members of the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.
Why would Russian President Vladimir Putin countenance such a thing, or indeed order it? (For the record, the Kremlin and the Taliban have said the stories are untrue.)
Two new books examine Putin’s vendetta against the West, particularly the United States, and search for answers. Of special interest is his time in the Soviet KGB, disbanded almost 30 years ago when the USSR ceased to exist. But a close look at the books, and at the record, suggests that’s misleading. Much more important to Putin and his cronies than the ideological crusade of the KGB is their desire to share in the pillaged wealth of post-Soviet Russia, and their hatred of anyone who would hold them accountable.
Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West by British journalist Catherine Belton sees Russia’s campaign to undermine Western democracy as driven by the goals ingrained in Putin and his former KGB colleagues in Soviet days.
But the fact that Putin worked for the KGB and brought his friends from that agency to the Kremlin in 2000 does not mean that his regime is continuing the KGB’s foreign policy legacy. As veteran Russian analyst Lilia Shevtsova observed in her book Putin’s Russia: “It would be wrong to overstate the KGB component in his [Putin’s] biography and to see it as the root cause of all his subsequent actions…Putin drew security officials into his team not because he wanted to create a regime of siloviki [representatives of the “security” ministries] and hand power over to the successors of the KGB. He chose his team, not on the basis of professional allegiances or ideological or political affiliation, but simply because these were the people he knew.”
Most of Putin’s former KGB colleagues, including the head of the National Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, had worked in the domestic arm of the KGB, fighting dissidents, as Putin did for 10 years. But Putin’s system is based on cronyism, and many of his cronies are oligarchs who helped him get rich and who have no KGB background.
Although hatred of the West is still a strong motivation, the men who call the foreign-policy shots, including Putin, are driven above all by the goal of enriching themselves financially. And they are not being held accountable, as they might be, under the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act that authorizes sanctions of governmental and non-state actors for corruption and human rights abuses.
To be sure, as British journalist Luke Harding shows in his insightful new book, Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West, many methods used today by Russia’s security services are similar to those employed by the Soviets—disinformation, assassination, the use of kompromat (possibly even against Trump, as Harding suggests) and other so-called active measures. But the old KGB, which combined foreign intelligence with counterintelligence, was tightly controlled by the Communist Party’s Politburo, whose members led austere lifestyles. The $100 million yachts, Swiss ski trips, and Cartier watches that Putin and his “people” covet would have been unthinkable for Brezhnev, Andropov, et al.
Belton argues that Putin and his allies have a goal that goes beyond their personal enrichment. Continuing the KGB tradition, Belton says, they “embraced capitalism as a tool for getting even with the West” by funneling corrupt Russian money, connected with organized crime, into Britain and the U.S., including Donald Trump’s coffers. Belton quotes a former senior KGB officer as saying, “You can’t use nuclear weapons every day, but you can use this black cash every day. It can be deployed to dismantle the Western system from the inside.”
But the shady world of dirty money she describes seems more a reflection of Russian corruption merging with global capitalism than a conscious plan by Russia’s foreign intelligence agencies to “take on” the West.
To show how the KGB shaped Putin’s mindset, Belton revisits his career in that agency, a subject that has been extensively explored by his biographers. But she skims over the first 10 years of Putin’s KGB employment, 1975-85, spent as a junior counterintelligence officer in the Leningrad KGB. Former KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin, who was one of Putin’s bosses, later described what Putin did: “Work here was not among foreigners, but rather among Soviet citizens… the system was focused on exposing those with reformist attitudes, people who wanted to change, to improve things. These were the people the KGB was occupied with, instead of focusing on actual spies.”
In 1985, Putin managed to move to the KGB’s more prestigious First Chief Directorate (foreign intelligence) and was posted to Dresden. In contrast to Berlin, Dresden was a backwater, consisting only of a small group of KGB officers whose job was to liaise with the Stasi, the German secret police, and possibly recruit Westerners who visited the city. But Belton contends that Dresden was Putin’s baptism of fire, which gave him the experience to continue advancing the KGB’s foreign intelligence mission after he became president.
She suggests that Putin was involved in so-called Operation Luch, the KGB’s longtime program of recruiting spies to report on the political mood of the East German party leadership and the Stasi. As evidence, Belton says that Horst Jehmlich, assistant Stasi chief in Dresden, suspected Putin of betrayal, but Jehmlich never mentioned Putin as being part of Operation Luch, and Putin and others have denied his involvement.
Belton also speculates that Putin played a part in directing the terrorist operations of the notorious German Red Army Faction (RAF), some of whom were trained by the Stasi in Dresden. She says that Putin and his colleagues may have “run agents deep in German neo-Nazi groups and in the far-left Red Army Faction, which murdered American military officers and titans of West German industry to sow chaos and instability.” But her only source is an anonymous former RAF member.
Masha Gessen, author of a 2012 biography of Putin, also interviewed a former RAF member, perhaps the same one, who told her that, when he met Putin at the occasional training session, all Putin was interested in was getting his hands on goods from the West, including a Blaupunkt stereo for his car. Gessen observes: “Handing out assignments to RAF radicals, who were responsible for more than two dozen assassinations and terrorist attacks between 1970 and 1998, is exactly the sort of work Putin had once dreamed of, but there is no evidence he was directly connected it. Instead, he spent most of his days sitting at his desk.”
Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services, who examined a recently declassified KGB assessment of Putin, concluded: “He [Putin] was not recruiting and running agents so much as collating reports, liaising with the East German Stasi (who gave him his own access pass) and responding to queries from Moscow. He even seems to have lost his fire, settling back into his relatively privileged life in a country apparently more Soviet than the Soviet Union—until the wall came down in 1989.”
After returning to his native St. Petersburg, Putin became a deputy to the new mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, and used his position to reap the rewards of the new Russian capitalism by dispensing lucrative contracts for foreign joint ventures and engaging in secret deals with the Russian mafia. His 1996 move to the Kremlin’s Department of Property Abroad offered him opportunities to dispense patronage and form relationships with wealthy oligarchs.
One of these oligarchs was a colorful, self-promoting Russian named Sergei Pugachev, whose interviews with Belton are cited extensively throughout book and who enthusiastically promotes Belton’s theory that the former KGB foreign intelligence operatives have been the moving force in the Kremlin. In 2008, Pugachev’s Mezhprombank fell into difficulty, along with many other Russian banks and, despite a bailout from the Russian Central Bank, went into default.
Two years later a Russian court revoked the bank’s license and declared it to be insolvent. Contending that Pugachev, who fled Russia for London in 2011, misappropriated large sums of money from Mezhprombank, the Russian state filed a claim against him for over $1 billion in 2014. The ensuing legal battle has been fought out in the British High Court, which in 2015 froze Pugachev's assets and ordered him to surrender his passports.
Pugachev managed to escape to his luxurious villa in France, but if he should return to Britain he faces a two-year prison sentence for defying the court order.
Pugachev clearly embellishes his importance in Kremlin politics, maintaining to Belton that he played a key role in Yeltsin’s 1996 election campaign, although there is no evidence beyond a formal note of thanks for helping out from Yeltsin’s daughter Tatyana Dyachenko. He also takes credit for the choice of Putin as Yeltsin’s successor, and claims that he and Putin were “constant companions” after Putin became president. Pugachev even tells Belton that he used to hang out for hours in the kitchen of the presidential residence with Putin’s then wife Liudmilla (who drank too much), waiting for her husband to come home.
But Russian journalists have for years questioned the stories about Pugachev’s supposed influence in the Kremlin. Evgeniya Albats, editor of the New Times, told me in a recent email: “I spoke with Pugachev for many, many hours—I specially flew to Paris for that. Then I tried to check what he said: it turned out to be impossible—people laugh into your face. One can use some of his stuff, but one cannot trust him at all.”
In fact Pugachev was accused publicly in 2009 of falsifying his official biography when he became a Russian senator in 2001. Not only had he failed to disclose two criminal convictions in the 1980s; he had lied about his academic credentials. (Pugachev never responded to the accusations, which were backed up by documents.) And two judges at Britain’s High Court, who heard the Russian government’s case against Pugachev noted pointedly that they could not believe anything he said. (In the words of one judge, Pugachev is “a person quite willing to lie and put forward false statements deliberately if it would suit his purposes.”) Belton mentions none of this.
Belton portrays Pugachev as a victim of Putin’s revenge, as was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose case she discusses in detail. But the two exiled oligarchs are miles apart. After Putin was elected president in 2000, Khodorkovsky challenged Putin directly with a blueprint for reform of Russia’s economic and financial system and also let it be known that he was going into politics. In 2003, when his arrest was imminent, Khodorkovsky refused to leave Russia, and as a result spent 10 years in a labor camp.
Pugachev, by contrast, cozied up to Putin’s siloviki—there is a photo on his website of an intimate 2005 birthday dinner for his first wife (who looks miserable) and seated at the table are FSB chief Patrushev, Procurator-General Vladimir Ustinov and Rosneft’s Igor Sechin, Putin’s éminence grise, who orchestrated the attack on Khodorkovsky. Pugachev slavishly pandered to Putin right up until he got caught with his hands in the cookie jar and had to flee Russia to avoid arrest.
Although Harding also refers to the Kremlin as “a KGB-led regime,” he uses the term generically and is clear on the differences among Russia’s security agencies, the FSB, SVR (foreign intelligence) and GRU, which are known to compete with each other.
As Harding shows, the GRU, the only security agency to survive the Soviet collapse, has evolved considerably since the Soviet era, when its mandate was to gather military intelligence and carry out the occasional assassination abroad. Now it engages in all sorts of hybrid warfare against the West, including the sponsorship of private mercenary forces, like the Wagner Group, which has been active in places like Syria, central Africa and Ukraine. The group is funded by the St. Petersburg oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was indicted by Robert Mueller for his role in financing the Internet Research Agency’s successful effort to influence the 2016 U.S. elections.
Harding rightly points out that Russia’s active measures against the West are still a matter of grave concern, particularly with the U.S. elections coming up in November. But he is on thin ground when he suggests that Russia may have succeeded in “remaking the United States in its own image.” Despite Trump’s contempt for the media and the rule of law, his personal affinity for Putin and his adherence to Putin’s global agenda, the U.S. is a long way from becoming the lawless Russian kleptocracy that Harding describes.
The Kremlin’s aggressive policy toward the West, as in Soviet times, is really about the need to preserve the power of those within its walls. The difference now is that this power is used to finance extravagant lifestyles at the expense of the Russian people, not to further the ideological goals of the former KGB.
Russian oppositionist Aleksei Navalny, in an expose about Igor Sechin’s ill-gotten gains, expressed it well: “Everything, in general, everything that our today’s heroes have, they bought with the money that they got in one way or another from the state budget. Their biographies are painfully similar. Not a day in business, not a day in private enterprise, no skills and achievements. It’s just that they once sooo long ago met Putin, some in Dresden and some in the St. Petersburg City Hall, carried his briefcases for him, and now… well, you can see for yourself what’s now.”