September 1, 2015:
President Vladimir Putin likes maintain an image of a strong, intelligent and decisive leader. Part of this rests on his 17 years spent working as a KGB (the Soviet CIA). This is interpreted by many in the West as evidence that the Soviet era KGB has taken over the country, led by a brilliant KGB man (Putin). This is largely myth. Putin was in the KGB for 17 years, at the end of the Cold War. But a look at his record shows that he was not considered an ace operative. For example, when he was sent to East Germany, he was not assigned to Berlin, a hotbed of espionage throughout the Cold War, but to Dresden, where there was much less espionage activity. When he was sent back to Russia to work in counterintelligence (catching spies, a major chore for the KGB) he was not sent to Moscow, where most foreign spies operated, but to Leningrad (St Petersburg) where there was much less action. KGB agents who served with Putin, and are now in the West (where they can speak freely), agree that Putin was considered second rate and dangerous to work with. That’s because while Putin was a clever fellow and energetic, he was also prone to high-risk solutions to problems. The KGB traditionally avoided risky plans and that was because successful espionage goes to those who are careful and patient. Aggressive risk-takers can destroy years of patient work and that is why the KGB sent Putin to places where his bad habits could not cause major damage. But now Putin is running Russia and he is still aggressive, a risk taker and that makes thoughtful Russians nervous.
Another myth is that Putin has brought a lot of KGB personnel into the government. While Putin is a veteran of the Soviet era KGB, most senior government officials are not. Of the top hundred officials in the Russian government, no more than fifteen percent had worked for the KGB and that percentage has been declining because your average KGB veteran sees Putin as dangerous in the long run. Nevertheless the KGB influence in the Russian government is real, although far less than dominating. Most KGB officials have found better paying jobs in the booming civilian sector. The KGB was always known as where the "best and brightest" of Soviet society went. These guys are smart enough to avoid getting tied down in a government job, no matter how high up in the food chain.
Putin has tried to make the most of his KGB background. Thus in 2000, shortly after he was first elected president, he declared that every November 5th was henceforth "Spy Day," to celebrate a centuries of Russian espionage. This special day is not a leftover from the Soviet Union and was not an effort to regain some respect for Soviet era spies (many of whom were out of work after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991). Rather, Putin was bringing attention to peace time spying. Like China, Russia has been very active in stealing foreign technology, and needs skilled spies to do it.
After 2000 Putin made a major effort to revive the huge Soviet era espionage capability. This meant taking care of other Russian espionage agencies as well. This in 2006 a new, $300 million, headquarters for GRU (similar to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency) was opened. This was but one of many examples of Russia's increased interest in espionage. The 62,200 square meter (670,000 square foot) GRU complex contains the latest of everything for what used to be the smallest of Russia's intelligence services (the domestic, and foreign, intelligence services were always larger). After 2000 the increasing flood of oil revenue made it possible to rebuild the intelligence services. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there followed a decade of decline for the intelligence services. The feared overseas KGB spies became the threadbare SVB, with domestic intelligence taken over by the FSB. Many Soviet spies defected, and sold their secrets to Western intelligence agencies. The GRU, however, got more of this new money, and was expected to expand its efforts overseas.
This enthusiasm for espionage was not without its problems. During the 1990s, most of the experienced KGB and GRU espionage experts left or were fired. In the last decade, attempts to rebuild the spy agencies have relied on a lot of much less experienced supervisors and administrators. Even Putin noticed the drop in capabilities. There have been numerous botched overseas espionage operations, and lots of feuding within and between the SVR and GRU. This has led to the suggestion that another wave of firings take place in senior management, and the two spy agencies be merged into one organization that will handle everything. The military is strongly opposed to this. But the military does not have the clout it used to possess. If Putin gets behind this unification proposal, opposing generals will find themselves swiftly retired. There are plenty of younger generals who are enthusiastic about reforming GRU, which is seen as old-fashioned and run by dolts. The younger officers are willing to take their chances with a combined SVR/GRU spy agency.