Intelligence: The Great KGB Archive Heist


July 13, 2014: On July 1st Britain gave the public access to most of the secret KGB files Britain obtained in 1992 when they smuggled Vasili Mitrokhin, a senior KGB official in charge of the KGB archives, out of Russia along with thousands of KGB documents Mitrokhin had copied and hidden for over a decade. Mitrokhin had offered the files to the U.S. first, but was turned away. Then he tried the British, who immediately recognized the opportunity and not only got Mitrokhin out of Russia along with his files, but set him up in comfortable, and anonymous, retirement in Britain until he passed away in 2004 at age 81.

The Mitrokhin files were a goldmine of information and a disaster for Russian intelligence. This apparently contributed to the current extreme anti-Western hostility shown by senior Russian officials who used to be KGB officers. This includes Vladimir Putin, who has run Russia for more than a decade and brought a lot of his former KGB cronies into the government. The Mitrokhin files and the presence of Mitrokhin in Britain was kept secret for over a decade so that the data in those files could be exploited. In addition to lists of most KGB Cold War operations (including many Western intel agencies were not even aware of) there were also the names of over a thousand active and “sleepers” (agents that often spend most of their time doing nothing, until activated from time-to-time for some simple, but essential, mission) agents operating in the West and the East European nations that were once referred to (until 1989) as Russian “satellites.”

Before the 1990s were over the Russians figured out what had happened and they were not happy about it. Mitrokhin had spent his career in the KGB archives and eventually became the guy in charge. For an espionage agency, having a leak in the archives is the worst possible nightmare. Mitrokhin had become disenchanted with the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and risked his life for over a decade sneaking out archive documents, copying them by hand and then returning the originals. But he never dared offer them to a foreign government because a man in his position was well guarded and constantly watched. No one ever caught on to the document duplication and to Mitrokhin that in itself was a major achievement. Then the Soviet Union suddenly ceased to exist in 1991. People like Mitrokhin, with access to secret opinion surveys and more accurate data on economic performance and how inept the national leadership had become, saw this coming, eventually. Mitrokhin also noticed how morale and performance collapsed after the Soviet Union was gone and that gave him the opportunity, and confidence, to make a break for it.

His disappearance was not unusual because a lot of KGB officers had been disenchanted with their communist government but did nothing about it until the Soviet Union collapsed. Many left Russia to find their fortune elsewhere. Some were selling KGB secrets and many of these were later hunted down and killed. Others stayed and were running the new Russia by the late 1990s. The KGB had always recruited the “best and the brightest” and rewarded them well for performance and loyalty. Traitors were executed but these were few because those who applied to join the KGB knew what they were getting into and were content to have interesting work and lots of fringe benefits. This included immunity from arrest except by other KGB officers.

In addition to the names of agents and descriptions of operations the Mitrokhin files also contained lists of secret weapons, explosives and equipment caches hidden in the West. These were to be used by sleepers in emergencies or in the event of war with the Soviet Union. Many of these caches were quietly visited and cleaned out. In some cases the stuff was already gone, indicating that some sleepers saw the end of the Cold War as an emergency and saw the caches they knew about as a form of severance pay. The Mitrokhin files also contained interesting details on the personalities and effectiveness of the foreign agents. This will require some existing histories of known Russian spies to be revised.

In the West the roundup of former Soviet spies and sleeper agents quietly began in the early 1990s. Initially this was done using a convincing “legend” (reasonable explanations of how the spies were identified without help from the KGB archives) for each arrest. If the Russians had figured out the extent of the Mitrokhin files, or that they even existed, the world would have reached all this Soviet era spies and most would have fled back to Russia or gone dark (cut off communication with the new Russian spy agencies) assumed new identities and backgrounds and tied to disappear in the West (where life was better). 

The Mitrokhin files were not complete and there were some sleeper agents that Mitrokhin did not have time to copy files for. Thus back in 2012 Germany prosecuted two Russians (a married couple) who were arrested in 2011 on suspicion of espionage. Russia insisted that the two Russians were not active Russian agents but rather retired Cold War era spies. Germany charged the couple with recruiting and using a local spy three times between 2008 and 2011. When police came to arrest the couple the woman was found listening to coded messages. There was apparently much more evidence as well. The two 51 year olds were Russians sent to Germany (via Austria and false Austrian IDs) in 1988, to serve as "sleepers". While Germany let a lot of its own Soviet era spies off easy, there is still a lot of animosity towards Russian spies. That's because Russia is still very much involved with espionage. In Germany that means stealing economic secrets, which hurts the German economy. The Germans are not in a forgiving mood because of this Russian aggression. Germany believed that this couple was but two of many other Cold War sleeper agents that Russia, or someone, is reactivating.

Apparently, many, if not all, of the Soviet sleepers were cut lose in the 1990s, as the KGB back home was reorganized and saw its budget cut sharply. But since 2000 the FSB (the rebranded and reorganized domestic operations of the KGB) and SVR (the foreign operations of the KGB) have revived. In large part that's because KGB men hold many senior jobs in the government. The president of Russia for most of the last decade, Vladimir Putin, was a career KGB man and proud of it.

Now there are two foreign intelligence services: SVR and GRU. The first one is the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. It is the former First Chief Directorate of the Soviet era KGB, which has managed most foreign intelligence operations for decades. Its activities are well known throughout the world.

The second one is the GRU, Russian military intelligence. It is a part of the Defense Ministry. Its full name is much longer (The Chief Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Army). GRU has retained its Soviet era name and just about everything else. GRU is seen as a living relic of the Soviet times. That is why GRU is so much more secretive than the "Westernized" SVR. GRU officers are considered more patriotic (and old school) than those of the SVR. During the Cold War there were fewer GRU defectors, still a point of pride in the GRU which prefers to stay in the shadows. Western writers have not written many books about GRU, compared to the KGB. This is largely because GRU keeps its secrets better and, in the West, is considered an obscure part of Russian intelligence. The GRU had its own, much smaller, network of sleepers and foreign spies which were not all known to the KGB. Once the extent of the Mitrokhin files became known in Russia the old GRU network suddenly became a lot more valuable.

Both GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) and SVR (Russian Foreign Intelligence Service) perform the same functions: Political Intelligence, Scientific and Technical Intelligence (industrial espionage), and Illegal Intelligence. Because of this the two agencies have a very real rivalry going.

But there was, and remains, one area where only the SVR (and its predecessor, the KGB) participates, running counter-intelligence abroad. This was long a KGB monopoly because it was the KGB's job to make sure the armed forces remained loyal, and GRU was, and is, very much a part of the armed forces.

Thus when the GRU officers are working abroad they are monitored by Directorate “K” (counter-intelligence) of the SVR. Those who serve inside Russia are watched by the Directorate of Military Counter-Intelligence (The Third Directorate) of the FSB (Federal Security Service, inheritor to the KGB). Interestingly, in the Soviet period it was also called the Third Directorate. It is not a coincidence but a continuation of the Soviet tradition. The Third Directorate of the FSB is still assigned to monitor the Defense Ministry, of which the GRU is a part. The head of GRU does not even report directly to the Russian President. GRU reports have to go through the Head of the General Staff and the Defense Minister before reaching the top man. Thus GRU is very much number two in the Russian foreign intelligence business. As Number 2 they tend to try harder and consider themselves more elite than those wimps over at SVR.

On the other hand, there also is one function monopolized by the GRU: battlefield intelligence. The battlefield intelligence is run in peacetime as well. For example, in preparation for future wars, the GRU sets up illegal weapon and ammunition dumps in the territory of many foreign countries. This is a risky operation. It usually involves groups of junior Russian diplomats secretly going into rural areas to bury rifles, machine-guns, and other weapons. They have to do this discreetly and in a hurry, to avoid detection by the local counterintelligence service. It is considered a hard job. It’s unclear of many, or any, of the GRU secret cashes were revealed in the Mitrokhin files.    

Western analysts regard the GRU as the most closed Russian intelligence service partly because it does not even manage its own press relations. That's because GRU is one of many components of the Defense Ministry and is not eligible to have its own press relations staff. The FSB and SVR are higher up in the government pecking order and entitled to their own press relations operations. Formally, GRU is nothing but one of the numerous Chief Directorates of the General Staff of the Defense Ministry. It does not even report directly to the Minister of Defense. That is why those foreign journalists who have questions about GRU must address them to the Press Service of Russian Defense Ministry. The questions are often handled by some press aide who knows little about intelligence work, while FSB and SVR press people are very well informed. So foreign journalists tend to seek out the SVR press department when seeking information on Russian intel operations.

During the Second World War GRU worked in close contact with the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB. For example, in March 1941, both intelligence services jointly carried out a successful operation aimed at overthrowing the pro-German government of Yugoslavia. During the entire war GRU and NKVD were managing a joint network of foreign agents in Europe. The current system of two separate intelligence services, competing with each other, only came about in the 1950s, after Stalin’s death. It was done by the Central Committee of the Communist Party in order to protect itself from a coup inspired by either intelligence service. Thus the GRU not only competes with the SVR, it is supposed to keep an eye on the SVR for signs of disloyalty.

In Soviet times although the GRU was monitored by the KGB, both organizations reported to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In case of emergency the Central Committee could control the KGB using the GRU. The communists believed it best that someone guards the guards. Nowadays, GRU does not monitor the SVR anymore. GRU, the military, and the rest of Russia are all subordinate to the FSB/SVR.

The SVR has more money and resources. It's long been like that, and the GRU has developed a tradition of getting by on very little. GRU methods are considered more aggressive and crude than those of the SVR. GRU operatives tend to think they are at war even during peacetime. Thus the SVR assigns its officers to do some job in the form of tasks, not orders. The task is not supposed to be necessarily accomplished, while the order is to be carried out by all means. The GRU prefers ordering and expects results no matter what.

In the GRU nobody cares how their officers obtain secret information (like parts of missiles and other weapons). They may even buy it legally or semi-legally or even steal. The SVR officers are not allowed to do so. They are supposed to use foreign collaborators for it. In the GRU you just go get it. Now the GRU can do this secure in the knowledge that they have more secrets than their more numerous rivals in the SVR. In the espionage business secrets are the most valuable possession and because of Mitrokhin the GRU is now the wealthiest spy agency in Russia.





Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close