In the space of three months, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has rocketed from less than 2 percent of public support in the upcoming presidential race to an estimated 29 percent. Suddenly the obscure KGB agent who was supposed to be another face through the spinning door of President Boris Yeltsin's government is in good standing for the presidency. Though Russian polls are notoriously questionable, Putin has clearly stormed on to the Russian political scene from relative obscurity - challenging the West's common conclusion that he is nothing but another Kremlin pawn, devoid of either agenda or political future. The Western portrayal of Putin looks increasingly inaccurate. He is neither Yeltsin's pawn nor the man who can secure the upcoming Duma and presidential elections for the enfeebled president.
Instead, Putin's real history is very different than has been portrayed to date. In place of an unremarkable career in the KGB, he in fact participated in the most important intelligence operations at the end of the Cold War. Throughout his career, Putin was an economic spy: tasked with helping to steal the West's technology and manage the flow of Western investment after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And now he arrives at the Kremlin - possibly the presidency - at a pivotal moment in the collapse of both Russian economics and politics.
If Putin is oriented toward any Russian politician, it is Yevgeny Primakov, many of whose foreign and domestic policies Putin has carried forward. Putin has a clear cut agenda and allegiance that predates his arrival in the Kremlin and shapes his current foreign and domestic policies. Whether or not he prevails in next year's election, Putin is the man of the hour. In his background and agenda, are the outlines of post-Yeltsin Russia in the years to come.
The KGB Years
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born in Leningrad on October 7, 1952. He graduated from the Law Department of Leningrad State University (LGU) in 1975, embarking immediately on a career with the First Chief Directorate (foreign intelligence) of the KGB. Officially, Putin spent almost his entire career based in Dresden, monitoring East German political attitudes.
Reserve Lt. Col. Putin then returned home to Leningrad, where he proceeded to build a respectable career in reformist politics. In short, Putin has reportedly been just enough of a KGB man to maintain a patina of toughness and incorruptibility, without being tainted by having harassed dissidents or spied on the West. End of official story.
But there is much more to Putin than a 17-year career rut watching the Soviet Union's erstwhile allies slip away. Though scanty, the available evidence suggests that Putin was deeply involved in several of the KGB's highest priority operations through the 1980s and into the 1990s. He was an economic spy in and around the operations that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and that formed the chaotic nation that Russia is today.
Indeed, it is not even clear that Putin spent all of his time in East Germany as his official biography claims. Germany's Schweriner Volkszeitung and De Zeit both report he did not arrive until 1984. The Moscow Times initially reported Putin spent about 15 years in Dresden; the newspaper has since noted that, after graduating KGB college, Putin worked for a time in personnel. The KGB's central office in Moscow handled "personnel," in the human resources management sense. If Putin spent his entire career in the First Chief Directorate, his "personnel" work referred to the recruitment of agents - perhaps in Leningrad, perhaps undercover in East Germany.
Whenever he truly arrived in East Germany, Putin found himself on the front lines of the Cold War. East Germany was a prestigious post for a rising KBG officer. It was home to the KGB's largest residency in Eastern Europe. There, too, East German spy-master Marcus Wolf directed something of a finishing school for young intelligence officers. Some of the KGB's highest priority projects focused on East Germany in the 1980s - involving both confrontation with the West and a rear guard action of the communist ruling elite in the face of crumbling regimes.
The one officially acknowledged feature of Putin's KGB career was monitoring East German attitudes and contacts with West Germans. Even this was no career backwater. The operation (code named LUCH) was of such importance that the section in the KGB base at Karlshorst responsible for the operation was elevated to a directorate, according to a recent account by KGB defector Vasili Mitrokhin.
Though based in Dresden, Putin was responsible for "German-Soviet Friendship" in Leipzig during the 1980s, according to the German newspaper Der Spiegel. Schweriner Volkszeitung also reported Putin operated out of the consulate general in Leipzig, a city not only host to numerous international fairs and exhibitions but also a key jumping off point for operations into central and southern West Germany. Insight Magazine reported that Putin served as KGB commissioner in Dresden in the 1980s, overseeing the activities of the East German "Stasi" secret police.
But Putin may have been involved in far more sensitive operations, too. Die Zeit has that he worked as an observer with the Western Group of Soviet Forces in Dresden. Additionally, Die Welt reported that Putin worked with the Soviet Army's intelligence branch, the GRU, at various times. Putin's involvement with the Soviet Army could have been as a zampolit - a political officer - monitoring the loyalty of Soviet troops. But the GRU connection is interesting from another standpoint. According to Mitrokhin's book, the GRU and the KGB cooperated during the early to mid 1980s on operation RYAN. The project, a priority of First Chief Directorate head Vladimir Kryuchkov, was aimed at uncovering evidence of a suspected NATO plan for a surprise nuclear attack.
But Putin may have played roles in the West, too. Der Spiegel reported Putin spent time in Hamburg, fraternizing with West German politicians, and may have worked in Austria and Switzerland. Schwereiner Volkszeitung reported that Putin frequently traveled on a diplomatic passport to the Soviet Embassy in Bonn and to West Berlin. There, he displayed the behavior of a trusted agent, having reportedly been seen by Western intelligence officers shopping alone.
But Putin's most important role may have been a role in one of the most important missions of the KGB: the attempt to steal technology from the West and thus save the Soviet Union from losing the Cold War. Until 1990, Putin reportedly headed a secret department in Dresden which inserted spies among groups of highly specialized East German scientists who wanted to emigrate to the United States and West Germany, according to Focus magazine.
One of only five cities in the former Soviet bloc with a microelectronics industry, Dresden was home to the Robotron company, which provided mainframe and personal computers to the entire Soviet bloc, including the KGB. Working in concert with the Stasi's foreign section, the HVA led by Marcus Wolf, Putin's section exploited contacts between Robotron and companies that included Siemens and IBM to acquire high technology for Moscow.
It was one of the most important operations of the KGB and its First Chief Directorate during the 1980s. The intelligence gathered illuminated the rapidly growing high technology gap between the East and West, documented in a series of secret KGB reports in the early 1980s. The issue broke into the open in May 1984, when Chief of the Soviet General Staff Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov publicly warned that the West's military high technology was outpacing that of the Soviet Union.
Attempts by Putin's department and others to infiltrate and steal the technology quickly proved inadequate. The underlying technology was too complicated and rapidly evolving to be effectively reverse engineered. In turn, the KGB determined that the only effective way to acquire the technology and expertise was to attract Western investment and technology transfer to the Soviet Union.
This set the stage for the KGB - and Putin's - next operation. The Soviet economy could handle neither a huge infusion of technology nor investment. It had to be restructured. And so the agency helped launch perestroika. And an opening of relations with the West was needed: glasnost.
By 1986, KGB officers were actively involved in constructing the economic infrastructure that would attract Western investment. KGB operatives began to funnel state and party resources out of the Soviet Union through KGB residencies in foreign countries, with the initial intent of cycling this cash back through the new banks and joint ventures. Putin's position with the KGB placed him at the heart of these theft-for-hard-currency schemes.
The Next Mission: St. Petersburg
By 1989 Putin had been dispatched back to Leningrad on another mission - driving and monitoring perestroika from the inside.
Leningrad was ground zero, home to anti-communist activists and the reformist economists such as Anatoli Chubais, who later shaped the first years of the Yeltsin government. This was the ideal location for keeping a finger on the pulse of perestroika and Putin thrust himself into the middle of it.
Evidence strongly suggests that Reserve Lt. Col. Putin remained an active KGB officer, this time monitoring the Leningrad reformers. First, the reserve status was created with the express purpose of allowing KGB officers to become involved in the perestroika economy while still retaining KGB benefits. Additionally, Nezavisimaya Gazeta has reported that, prior to 1991, Putin was an officer in the counterintelligence department of the Leningrad KGB division. Segodnya reported that he served in the KGB until 1991. Komersant Daily reported that Putin and his protégé - current FSB head Nikolai Patrushev - have known each other from the time they worked together in the Leningrad office of the KGB.
When he arrived, Putin acquired a position either as advisor on international relations to the prorector of Leningrad State University (LGU) or as a prorector himself in the foreign affairs department. A number of sources, including Der Spiegel, claim that Putin continued to work undercover for the First Chief Directorate while at LGU, and later as an advisor to Anatoli Sobchak, chairman of the Leningrad Soviet of Peoples Deputies.
Putin's relationship with the influential Sobchak was particularly important, ultimately allowing Putin to burrow deeper into the reform movement. As an instructor at LGU in the 1970s, Sobchak taught Putin economic law. Shortly after teacher and student were reacquainted, Sobchak emerged as a major reformist leader — even as a possible successor to Mikhail Gorbachev.
Sobchak made Putin his advisor on international relations in 1989. When Sobchak was elected St. Petersburg mayor in June 1991,he appointed Putin chairman of the city government's Committee on Foreign Relations. Sobchak relied heavily on Putin, arguing that Putin was not a spy but his student.
But the student quickly became a key player in the St. Petersburg government. During the abortive coup of 1991, Putin met Sobchak at the airport with a beefed-up security detail, according to the Moscow News. Putin proceeded to mediate between the coup plotters in Moscow and St. Petersburg's reformist government, according to Der Spiegel, keeping the military out of St. Petersburg and averting unrest in the city.
Putin quickly became the man to see if one wanted to do business in St. Petersburg. More politician than administrator, Sobchak left many details of running the city to Putin. As early as 1992, Putin was referred to as Deputy Mayor. By 1993 he essentially exercised control of St. Petersburg during Sobchak's frequent absences, though he did not take the title of First Deputy Mayor until March 1994.
Dutifully facilitating perestroika, Putin set up a hard currency exchange, signed a contract between the city and the consulting firm KPMG, and attracted German banks to St. Petersburg, including the BNP-Dresdner Bank. Putin oversaw the power ministries and relations with the media and interest groups, and in 1993 was made head of the mayor's Commission on Current Problems. According to Kommersant Daily, Putin was instrumental in getting the city budget passed in 1995. When Sobchak was defeated in 1996, Putin went too, resigning.
But Sobchak's defeat set the stage for Putin's move to Moscow. In September 1996, Putin took a position as first deputy to Kremlin property manager Pavel Borodin.
Indeed, Putin's arrival appears now to be a continuation of the KGB operation to take state resources out of the country. Putin was responsible for determining the fate of External Economic Relations Ministry assets in countries where its missions had closed. In March 1997, Yeltsin promoted Putin to deputy head of the presidential administration and head of the Main Oversight Department — responsible for ensuring that Yeltsin's decrees were carried out.
Putin's KGB training served him well here, according to the Moscow Times and other Russian newspapers. More than an administrator, Putin collected the dossiers on regional leaders so they could be pressured into adhering to Yeltsin's policies. Die Welt adds that Putin also collected files on members of the administration.
He also began to bring allies into the administration, culminating with fellow KGB veteran and protégé Nikolai Patrushev, whom he selected to replace him as head of the Department when Putin was promoted to first deputy chief of staff in May 1998.
In July 1998, after just two months as First Deputy Chief of Staff, KGB Lt. Col. Putin's career came full circle when Yeltsin appointed him Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the chief successor agency to the KGB. He promptly began to move his allies into key positions and resumed the KGB's domestic espionage activities:
- Nikolai Patrushev from the Main Oversight Department became deputy director of the FSB's Department of Economic Security.
- Viktor Cherkesov, formerly head of the FSB's Leningrad District and veteran of the KGB's dissident persecuting 5th Directorate, became first deputy director.
- Cherkesov's deputy, Alexander Grigoriev, became director of the Department of Economic Security.
- KGB First Chief Directorate veteran Sergei Ivanov, who worked with Putin in Germany, became director of the Department of Analysis, Forecast and Strategic Planning.
In March 1999, Putin was appointed Secretary of the Russian Security Council, coordinating policy between the power ministries of Defense, FSB, foreign intelligence (SVR), Interior and others. Putin headed the FSB through the Kosovo conflict and in the run-up to the Chechen commando incursion into Dagestan. Yeltsin also tasked Putin and the FSB with "safeguarding" the upcoming Duma and presidential elections, a mission interpreted by many in Russia as ensuring the election of Yeltsin allies. On August 9, 1999, Yeltsin sacked Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, appointed Putin to the post, and declared him heir apparent to the presidency.
The exact reason for Putin's ultimate promotion has never been made entirely clear. Yeltsin could have felt that Putin could best ensure the election from the helm. Or perhaps the power ministries, dissatisfied with the evident mismanagement of the escalating crisis in Dagestan, forced Putin on Yeltsin. No doubt it is a bit of both and more.
Putin's Role in Russia's Future
Far more can be derived about the course of events by examining the larger, inexorable forces now at work in Russia. However remarkable his ascendancy, Putin could be replaced tomorrow, felled by scandal or simply lost in the coming political shuffle. It would not alter the reality facing his successor.
Indeed, Putin is much more symptom than cause. Russia's die is cast. The great post-Communist economic and political experiment has failed. What remains to be seen is who will direct the backlash and how bad it will be.
Vladimir Putin represents one option - and by no means the worst. For now, he is the man of the hour. But most importantly, he is a child of the KGB. He eagerly accepted an invitation to join the organization and, contrary to the belief of the reformers who subsequently adopted him, he has not looked back.
The KGB of Putin's era was reform-minded. On the front lines of the Cold War and dispersed throughout the Soviet Empire, the KGB knew the depth of Soviet decay and the extent to which the West was surging ahead. The KGB was not a club of closet democracy activists. Rather, its leaders and key members understood the ultimate demise of the Soviet Union and Communist Party if they failed to close the technological gap with the West.
Putin, and thousands like him, was shaped by the single greatest mission in the history of the KGB — the systematic restructuring of the Soviet economy, Soviet society and Soviet relations with the West in the hope of preserving the state and regime.
The Soviet Union died but the operation never really ended. Putin and his fellow officers who attempted to save the Soviet Union through perestroika were scattered throughout a crippled, mutant economy. Some were caught up in the greed and corruption that have permeated the Russian economy for the last decade. Everyone got a piece of the action. But they remain patriots and some have not forgotten the mission.
With Russia now on the cusp of collapse, we can expect these men to step forward. Most Russian observers have lumped Putin with the Kremlin looters. Yeltsin may have appointed Putin in hopes of saving the Kremlin "Family" from answering for its excesses, but Putin's background suggests he is more than the tool of a dying regime.
Putin is the heir apparent to Yevgeny Primakov. They are both children of perestroika. Today, Primakov eclipses Putin in the presidential polls. But Russia has reached the point at which the man matters less than the mission. Whether Putin, Primakov or some pretender wins the next election is not the issue.
Russia's current political and economic situation is unsustainable, and the country faces a choice: return power to the perestroikists - open to Western investment but only under carefully controlled terms - or surrender to reactionaries, who oppose Russia's kleptocrats. The reformists have had their chance; they have no legitimacy in Russia.
In both the Duma elections and the presidential campaign, Russians appear prepared to give the perestroikists - Putin, Primakov and others — another chance. Ironically, that throws Russia's future to the West. It will be up to Western leaders to accept or reject the return of a strong central government to Russia. It will be up to the West to decide whether they can work with Primakov and Putin.
Washington, London and Bonn will face the dilemma between supporting the revival of a strong central government with a self-interested foreign policy, or isolating Russia, allowing it to collapse, and reaping a whirlwind of reactionary forces.
Putin is one option. He is the man of the hour. He is no Sergei Kirienko, but neither is he Josef Stalin. There are others in his camp, including the leading presidential contender, Primakov. Together they represent a choice as significant for the West as for Russian voters.
Next: Moscow reasserts its grip on the regions.