Analysis: Is Putin planning to restore the Soviet-era KGB?

SVR hqLast week, following the results of Russia’s parliamentary election, Russian media run a story suggesting that the Kremlin is planning to implement far-reaching changes to the country’s intelligence apparatus. According to the Moscow-based daily Kommersant, the administration of President Vladimir Putin is considering merging Russia’s two major intelligence and counterterrorism agencies into one. Specifically, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, will merge with the FSB, the Federal Security Service, according to Kommersant. The merger will create a new amalgamated intelligence agency that will be named “Ministry of State Security”, or MGB, in Russian. The last time this title was used was from 1946 to 1953, during the last years of the reign of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. It was one of several agencies that were eventually combined to form the Soviet KGB in 1954.

If the Kommersant article is accurate, Russia’s two main intelligence agencies will merge after an institutional separation that has lasted a quarter of a century. They were separated shortly after the official end of the Soviet Union, in 1991, when it was recognized that the KGB was not under the complete control of the state. That became plainly obvious in August of that year, when the spy agency’s Director, Vladimir Kryuchkov, helped lead a military coup aimed at deposing Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. The two new agencies were given separate mandates: the SVR inherited the mission of the KGB’s foreign intelligence directorates and focused on collecting intelligence abroad; the FSB, on the other hand, assumed the KGB’s counterintelligence and counterterrorist missions. A host of smaller agencies, including the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information (FAPSI), the Federal Protective Service (FSO) and others, took on tasks such as communications interception, border control, political protection, etc.

Could these agencies merge again after 25 years of separation? Possibly, but it will take time. An entire generation of Russian intelligence officers has matured under separate institutional roofs in the post-Soviet era. Distinct bureaucratic systems and structures have developed and much duplication has ensued during that time. If a merger was to occur, entire directorates and units would have to be restructured or even eliminated. Leadership roles would have to be purged or redefined with considerable delicacy, so as to avoid inflaming bureaucratic turf battles. Russian bureaucracies are not known for their organizational skills, and it would be interesting to see how they deal with the inevitable confusion of a possible merger. It could be argued that, if Putin’s goal is to augment the power of the intelligence services —which is doubtful, given their long history of challenging the power of the Kremlin— he would be better off leaving them as they are today.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 October 2016 | Permalink

Soviet memoirs suggest KGB abducted and murdered Swedish diplomat

Raoul WallenbergThe recently discovered memoirs of a former director of the Soviet KGB suggest that a senior Swedish diplomat, who disappeared mysteriously in the closing stages of World War II, was killed on the orders of Joseph Stalin. The fate of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg is one of the 20th century’s unsolved espionage mysteries. In 1944 and 1945, the 33-year-old Wallenberg was Sweden’s ambassador to Budapest, the capital of German-allied Hungary. During his time there, Wallenberg is said to have saved over 20,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazi concentration camps, by supplying them with Swedish travel documents, or smuggling them out of the country through a network of safe houses. He also reportedly dissuaded German military commanders from launching an all-out armed attack on Budapest’s Jewish ghetto.

But Wallenberg was also an American intelligence asset, having been recruited by a US spy operating out of the War Refugee Board, an American government outfit with offices throughout Eastern Europe. In January of 1945, as the Soviet Red Army descended on Hungary, Moscow gave orders for Wallenberg’s arrest on charges of spying for Washington. The Swedish diplomat disappeared, never to be seen in public again. Some historians speculate that Joseph Stalin initially intended to exchange Wallenberg for a number of Soviet diplomats and intelligence officers who had defected to Sweden. According to official Soviet government reports, Wallenberg died of a heart attack on July 17, 1947, while being interrogated at the Lubyanka, a KGB-affiliated prison complex in downtown Moscow. Despite the claims of the official Soviet record, historians have cited periodic reports that Wallenberg may have managed to survive in the Soviet concentration camp system until as late as the 1980s.

But the recently discovered memoirs of Ivan Serov, who directed the KGB from 1954 to 1958, appear to support the prevalent theory about Wallenberg’s demise in 1947. Serov led the feared Soviet intelligence agency under the reformer Nikita Khrushchev, who succeeded Joseph Stalin in the premiership of the USSR. Khrushchev appointed Serov to conduct an official probe into Wallenberg’s fate. Serov’s memoirs were found in 2012 by one of his granddaughters, Vera Serova, inside several suitcases that had been secretly encased inside a wall in the family’s summer home. According to British newspaper The Times, the documents indicate that Wallenberg was indeed held for two years in the Lubyanka, where he was regularly interrogated by the KGB. The latter were certain that the Swedish diplomat was an American spy who had also been close to Nazi Germany’s diplomatic delegation in Hungary. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin considered exchanging him for Soviet assets in the West. But eventually Wallenberg “lost his value [and] Stalin didn’t see any point in sending him home”, according to Serov’s memoirs. The KGB strongman adds that “undoubtedly, Wallenberg was liquidated in 1947”. Further on, he notes that, according to Viktor Abakumov, who headed the MGB —a KGB predecessor agency— in the mid-1940s, the order to kill Wallenberg came from Stalin himself.

In 2011, Lt. Gen. Vasily Khristoforov, Chief Archivist for the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), one of two successor agencies to the old Soviet KGB, gave an interview about Wallenberg, in which he said that most of the Soviet documentation on the Swedish diplomat had been systematically destroyed in the 1950s. But he said that historical reports of Wallenberg’s survival into the 1980s were “a product of […] people’s imagination”, and insisted that he was “one hundred percent certain […] that Wallenberg never was in any prison” other than the Lubyanka. An investigation by the Swedish government into the diplomat’s disappearance and eventual fate is ongoing.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 September 2016 | Permalink

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was KGB agent, researchers claim

Mahmoud Abbas

Mahmoud Abbas

Two Israeli researchers claim that a document from the archives of the Cold-War-era KGB identifies the current president of the Palestine Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, as a Soviet agent. The document was found in the United Kingdom, and was smuggled out of Russia by a former senior archivist of the Soviet KGB. Abbas is the leader of the largely secular Palestinian group Fatah, which controls the West Bank. Unlike Hamas, which is designated a terrorist group by Israel and its allies, Fatah is seen by Tel Aviv as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. That is disputed by Hamas, a religiously inspired group, which controls the Gaza Strip and maintains a tense relationship with Fatah and Abbas himself.

The allegation about Abbas’ past emerged on Wednesday in the Israeli media, after two local academic researchers disclosed the contents of a KGB document discovered at Cambridge University’s Churchill Archives Centre in Britain. The researchers, Gideon Remez and Isabella Ginor, of the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the document dates from 1983. It was found among thousands of similar documents that were secretly smuggled out of Russia in the early 1990s by British intelligence, following the defection of Vasili Mitrokhin, an archivist in the First Chief Directorate of the KGB during the Cold War. Some of the documents later formed the basis of a two-volume edition on the activities of Soviet intelligence, which was edited by Cambridge University Professor Christopher Andrew.

According to Remez and Ginor, the document identifies Mahmoud Abbas as a “KGB agent” based in Damascus, Syria, codenamed krotov, which in Russian means ‘mole’. Abbas was born in Palestine in 1935, but his family fled to Syria in 1948, following the establishment of the state of Israel and the outbreak of the first Arab-Israeli war. The young Abbas grew up in Damascus, where he went to university and joined the local branch of the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, of which Fatah is a member. If true, the allegation that Abbas worked for the KGB will not come as a surprise to observers of Palestinian politics. For most of the Cold War, the PLO was known to be close to Moscow, while Abbas was intimately involved with the Palestinian-Soviet Friendship Association, a pro-Moscow group that was widely seen as an agent of communist influence in the Palestinian territories. But the document from the Mitrokhin archives may be the first concrete evidence that Abbas was handled by the KGB.

Palestinian officials quickly dismissed the document on Wednesday as a fabrication and a deliberate slander. Mohammed al-Madani, a member of the central committee of Fatah, and a close associate of Abbas, said the allegation was part of a “clear effort to damage [Abbas] by various actors, including the government of Israel”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 August 2016 | Permalink

Interview with children of Russian deep-cover spies caught in the US

First Post HThe two sons of a Russian couple, who were among 10 deep-cover spies arrested in the United States, have given an interview about their experience for the first time. Tim and Alex Foley (now Vavilov) are the sons of Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, a married couple arrested in 2010 under Operation GHOST STORIES, a counterintelligence program run by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. Following their arrest, their sons, who had grown up thinking their parents were Canadian, were told that they were in fact Russian citizens and that their real names were Andrei Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova. Their English-sounding names and Canadian passports had been forged in the late 1980s by the KGB, the Soviet Union’s primary external intelligence agency.

The two boys were at the family’s home in suburban Cambridge, MA, on Sunday, June 27, 2010, when FBI agents conducted coordinated raids across New England, arresting their parents and eight more Russian ‘illegals’. That term is used to signify Russian non-official-cover operatives, namely intelligence officers who operate abroad without diplomatic cover and typically without connection to the country they spy for. It is now believed that Bezrukov and Vavilova were recruited as a couple in the 1980s by the KGB’s Department S, which operated the agency’s ‘illegals’ program. They were trained for several years before being sent to Canada, where their mission was to blend into the society and establish a ‘legend’, a background story of their lives that could be supported by forged documentation supplied by the KGB. In 1995, the family moved to Paris, France, where Bezrukov, using the name Donald Heathfield, earned Master in Business Administration from the École des Ponts. Both their children had been born by 1999, when the family moved to Massachusetts so that Bezrukov could study at Harvard University. He then joined a consultancy firm, which he apparently planned to use as a vehicle in order to get close to influential American lawmakers.

Their two sons, who are now living in unspecified countries in Europe and Singapore, told British newspaper The Guardian that their childhood was “absolutely normal” and that they never suspected their parents of being spies. They told The Guardian’s Shaun Walker that their parents never discussed Russia or the Soviet Union, never ate Russian food, and never met Russian people while in Massachusetts. The sons, whose Russian names are Alexander and Timofei Vavilov, said they remember meeting their grandparents “somewhere in Europe” when they were very young, but that they later disappeared from their lives. Their parents told them that they lived in rural Alberta, Canada, and that they found it difficult to travel.

The two brothers said that, shortly after their parents were arrested by the FBI, they were put on a plane to Moscow. When they arrived there, a group of people appeared on the plane door and introduced themselves to them as “colleagues of their parents”. They were then placed in a van and taken to a Moscow apartment, where they were given information about their parents’ true backgrounds, including photographs of them from their teenage lives and military service in the USSR. It was then, they told The Guardian, that they finally believed that their parents were indeed Russian spies.

The family reunited a few days later in Moscow, after Bezrukov, Vavilova, and the other Russian ‘illegals’ were exchanged with four men held in Russian jails for spying for the West. The two brothers now want to regain their Canadian citizenship, which was taken from them by the government of Canada after their parents were found to have been using forged Canadian citizenship papers. They argue that they feel Canadian, not Russian, and that they are not responsible for their parents’ actions, which were hidden from them until their arrest in 2010.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 May 2016 | Permalink

Ex-KGB spy accused of Litvinenko murder says MI6 tried to recruit him

Andrei Lugovoi A Russian former intelligence officer, who is accused by the British government of having killed another Russian former spy in London, said the British intelligence services tried to recruit him in 2006. British government prosecutors have charged Andrei Lugovoi with the killing of Alexander Litvinenko, a former employee of the Soviet KGB and one of its successor agencies, the FSB. In 2006, Litvinenko died in London, where he had defected with his family in 2000, following exposure to the highly radioactive substance Polonium-210. In July of 2007, the British government charged Lugovoi and another Russian, Dmitri Kovtun, with the murder of Litvinenko, and expelled four Russian diplomats from London. Last week, following the conclusion of an official inquest into the former KGB spy’s death, the British government took the unusual step of summoning the Russian ambassador to London, to file an official complaint about Moscow’s refusal to extradite Lugovoi and Kovtun to the United Kingdom.

But Lugovoi, who is now a member of the Russian Duma, denies any involvement in Litvinenko’s murder and has dismissed as “completely absurd” the inquest’s conclusion that he was behind the killing. Speaking last week on Russian television, Lugovoi reiterated his criticism of the report and claimed British intelligence had tried to recruit him shortly before Litvinenko’s murder. The Duma member was a guest on This Evening, a high-profile talk show on Russia’s Channel 1 television, hosted by Vladimir Sovolyev, a popular television personality and talk show host. Lugovoi told Sovolyev that he found it interesting that the British government “was always happy to grant me visas” to travel to the UK, even though London knew he was a former KGB spy. “Then, in May of 2006”, approximately six months before Litvinenko was killed, “MI6 tried to recruit me”, he added. He was referring to the Secret Intelligence Service, Britain’s primary external intelligence organization.

The former KGB officer then reiterated his longstanding argument that he and Kovtun were also poisoned by the same Polonium given to Litvinenko by the person or persons who killed him. He told Sovolyev that, after meeting Litvinenko in London a few days before his death, he fell violently ill and had to spend several months in a Russian hospital recovering from radiation poisoning. Lugovoi also hinted that the British government may have killed Litvinenko for reasons of its own. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not comment on Lugovoi’s statement, but said in a press release that London’s accusations against the two former spies were “politically motivated” and “non-transparent”. The UK maintains that Lugovoi and Kovtun fell ill because they did not handle the Polonium given to them by their handlers with the appropriate amount of care.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 January 2016 | Permalink

Britain summons Russian envoy to protest killing of ex-KGB spy in London

Sir Robert OwenThe British government has taken the unusual step of summoning the Russian ambassador to London, following the conclusion of an official inquest into the death of a former KGB officer who is believed to have been killed on the orders of Moscow. Alexander Litvinenko, an employee of the Soviet KGB and one of its successor organizations, the FSB, defected with his family to the United Kingdom in 2000. But in 2006, he died of radioactive poisoning after meeting two former KGB/FSB colleagues, Dmitri Kovtun and Andrey Lugovoy, in London. A public inquiry into the death of Litvinenko, ordered by the British state, concluded this week after six months of deliberations involving sworn testimony by over 60 witnesses, including British intelligence officers who worked closely with Litvinenko.

In releasing the inquiry report, the presiding judge, Sir Robert Owen, said it was clear that Kovtun and Lugovoi “were acting on behalf of someone else” when they killed their former colleague in London. He added that members of the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, including the Russian president himself, had “motives for taking action” against Litvinenko, “including killing him”. Moreover, President Putin’s systematic protection of Lugovoi, the primary suspect in the case, whom Russia currently refuses to extradite to the UK, “suggest a level of approval for the killing” at the highest levels of the Russian government, said Sir Robert.

Speaking during a session in the British House of Commons on Thursday, the UK’s Home Secretary Theresa May described Litvinenko’s killing as “a blatant and unacceptable breach of the most fundamental tenets of international law and civilized behavior”. On the same day, David Lidington, a Minister of state at the British Foreign Office, who currently serves as the country’s Minister for Europe, summoned the Russian Ambassador to London, Alexander Yakovenko, to file an official protest against Litvinenko’s murder. Meanwhile, the British state has moved to freeze the assets of the two main suspects in the case, while British Prime Minister David Cameron said further punitive measures against Russia were possible. Speaking to reporters in Davos, Switzerland, where he is participating in the World Economic Forum, Cameron said Britain wanted to have “some sort of relationship” with the Kremlin in light of the situation in Syria. But Whitehall would “look very carefully at the report and all the detail” and would proceed “with clear eyes and a very cold heart”, he said.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 January 2016 | Permalink

Long-awaited British report to blame Kremlin for ex-KGB spy’s death

Alexander LitvinenkoThe long-awaited concluding report of a public inquiry into the death of a former Soviet spy in London in 2006, is expected to finger the Russian state as the perpetrator of the murder. Alexander Litvinenko was an employee of the Soviet KGB and one of its successor organizations, the FSB, until 2000, when he defected with his family to the United Kingdom. He soon became known as a vocal critic of the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2006, Litvinenko came down with radioactive poisoning after meeting two former KGB/FSB colleagues, Dmitri Kovtun and Andrey Lugovoy, at a London restaurant. In July of 2007, after establishing the cause of Litvinenko’s death, which is attributed to the highly radioactive substance Polonium-210, the British government officially charged the two Russians with murder and issued international warrants for their arrest. Whitehall also announced the expulsion of four Russian diplomats from London. The episode, which was the first public expulsion of Russian envoys from Britain since end of the Cold War, is often cited as marking the beginning of the worsening of relations between the West and post-Soviet Russia.

A public inquiry into the death of Litvinenko, ordered by the British state, has taken over six months to conclude. In the process, the judge in charge, Sir Robert Owen, has heard from 62 witnesses. The latter include members of the Secret Intelligence Service, known commonly as MI6, for which the late Russian former spy worked after his arrival in Britain. The release of the inquiry’s report is expected this week. But British media have quoted unnamed “government sources” as saying that the long-awaited document will point to the Russian state as the instigator, planner and execution of Litvinenko’s death. One source was quoted as saying that the report will identify “a clear line of command” and that “it will be very clear that the orders came from the Kremlin”.

It is not believed, however, that the report will point to Russian President Vladimir Putin as having had a role in the former spy’s murder. Nevertheless, there is speculation in London and Moscow about the British government’s possible response to the inquiry’s report. One unnamed source told the British press that the report’s findings would place Whitehall “in a difficult position”, given London’s current cooperation with Russia in Syria. However, the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to face renewed pressure from the public and from opposition parties to take action against Russia, should it be confirmed this week that the Kremlin was indeed behind Litvinenko’s killing.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 January 2016 | Permalink