In July 1984, General Vladimir Kryuchkov, head of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate, the division of the KGB responsible for overseas espionage, gave a lecture to a specially convened conference of KGB officers in Moscow. His subject was the failure of the service compared with their Western opponents. By this time, Russia was losing the Cold War and they knew it. The question that Kryuchkov posed – and then tried to answer – was: where were they going wrong?
An intelligence service lives or dies by the quality of the agents that its officers recruit. Kryuchkov had decided that the key problem was that his officers were not recruiting enough high level Western penetration agents. The glory days of the Cambridge spies were over. They had been recruited more than fifty years before when Bolshevism still seemed the best answer to the rise of Fascism. This “ideological edge” no longer existed. In fact, the excesses of the Stalinist era and the failure of Communism to match the material and spiritual advantages of the West now worked against the KGB.
Even the considerable damage caused by the British traitor George Blake, who had been caught by the British in 1961 (and had escaped from Pentonville Prison in 1966) was long since over. Blake had been an unstable maverick, a complete fluke in recruitment terms. They hadn’t really recruited him, he had practically thrown himself into the KGB’s lap. He had betrayed an entire generation of British and American intelligence officers and this had given the KGB an edge for about ten years. But the ranks of both enemy services were being steadily replenished with fresh officers. Where would the KGB get the next generation of agents?
The conclusion of the conference was that the KGB needed to change their recruitment approach. Previously they had relied on ideology: left wing politicians, trade unionists, students, etc. Now they must use “material incentives”. i.e. money. As one KGB officer remarked: “The West is built on capitalism and the achilles heel of capitalism is greed.” That was where they should strike. Using this as their prime target would have another benefit: in Western society, the men most driven by greed are, ironically, the men who have the most. They have it all, but they want more. They also tend to have all the political power. By recruiting targets from this background, rather than that of ideologues, the KGB was likely to get a major political bonus as well.
Now, of course, in terms of the history of espionage this was not a new idea. Greed has been one of the prime weaknesses sought out by intelligence officers since Biblical times and probably even before. Furthermore, targeting greed had long been a common KGB tactic. Until the end of the Cold War, KGB and GRU officers were known for almost comically offering caviar and Russian champagne to anyone who even vaguely looked like they might be a recruitment target. In the late 1970s, one US intelligence officer based in a European capital wrote to Langley saying that he thought the young Russian he was talking to might be a KGB officer. Langley half-jokingly replied: “Ask him for a boat!” The point being that if this really was a KGB officer then you were likely to get one.
Kryuchkov knew all this. But what he wanted was a change in emphasis. They were offering gifts and influence to the wrong people. They needed to look higher up the food chain. That was where they would find quality targets. Targets that would be tempted if the bait was big enough.
But there was another problem in the 1980s: the Soviet Union was broke. They knew what they wanted to do, but they didn’t have the funds to do it. Of course they did have some success in the remaining years of the Soviet Union. In 1985, the KGB began the recruitment of Aldrich Ames, the CIA traitor. Ames always said that he was in it for the money and in fact his very first demand from the KGB was for $50,000 cash. The KGB paid up. This was in line with their new recruitment philosophy – “feed the greed, get the recruit.” But the real truth is that there was a lot else wrong with Ames besides his avarice. He was, as one US officer remarked: “… a complete nutjob.” As for the bigger political targets that they had hoped for, well, the KGB simply couldn’t afford to play in that league.
Ten years later, everything changed.
On New Year’s Eve 1999, Vladimir Putin became President of the Russian Republic. It is well known that he was in the KGB. He sees world events through the eyes of a Cold War KGB officer. For him, the struggle isn’t over. When the Soviet Union collapsed he was stationed in the intelligence backwater of Dresden in East Germany. He wept with frustration as the KGB offices there were overrun by demonstrators who ransacked the building. It has always haunted him that when he radioed Moscow for help that night, there was no reply. Just as Adolf Hitler wept, raged and punched the pillow of his hospital bed as he learned that Germany was signing the Armistice, Valdimir Putin raged and began to develop a deep-seated desire for revenge on the West.
And once he was established in power, Putin found that he finally had the means to put Kryuchkov’s analysis into practice. The kleptocracy that had taken over all the major industries and mineral rights in the Russian Republic was answerable solely to him. The oligarchs were awash with money. Any of them that defied him, such as Boris Berezhovsky, were murdered or fled into exile. Putin himself salted away a private fortune worth billions in schemes such as the Ozero co-operative.
So now the Russian intelligence agencies had access to the two things that greedy and powerful individuals in the West were desperate for: money and raw materials. Like gangsters planning to take over a city, the senior ranks of the FSB and SVR began to work out which politicians they could buy…