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Central Asia/Russia

Whither Russian foreign intelligence?
By Victor Yasmann

Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent decision to name 52-year-old Sergei Lebedev as the chief of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), replacing Vyacheslav Trubnikov, is about more than just personalities and personal loyalties. It also offers some important clues to the future direction of Russian intelligence operations, both at home and abroad.

Moscow media have suggested that Lebedev's appointment is only the latest step in Putin's effort to consolidate power. According to this view, Putin wants an intelligence chief whom he knows well and has confidence in. Putin met Lebedev while serving in East Germany; he belongs to the same generation as Lebedev; and in contrast to most senior Russian intelligence officers, neither Putin nor Lebedev ever worked undercover in the field.

But if Lebedev is close to Putin, he is also very different both from the Russian president and his predecessor, Trubnikov. Lebedev joined the KGB in 1973 after graduating from the Chernigov branch of the Kyiv State University. Unlike Putin and most of the former KGB colleagues the Russian president has promoted, Lebedev did not join the KGB either voluntarily or through recruitment. Rather, he was sent to work there by the Komsomol.

Most KGB officers traditionally have disliked such colleagues because of the privileges they often enjoy. This may help to explain why Lebedev did not go on to the Andropov Institute, the usual path to becoming a foreign intelligence operative. Instead, he studied at the Diplomatic Academy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, after graduating from there in 1978, was transferred to the central apparatus of the KGB's First Chief Directorate.

After his posting in East Germany, Lebedev rose through the ranks, eventually becoming chief of an SVR directorate. There his ascent appears to have stopped. In 1998, according to Segodnya, Lebedev was sent into ''honorable exile'' in Washington as the official SVR representative to the US intelligence community.

Media speculation on Lebedev has also focused on his ''western'' experience. Lebedev has worked only in Europe and the US, and thus his appointment may represent the end of the dominance of the ''orientalists'' in Russian intelligence. The last three SVR chiefs - Leonid Shabarshin, Yevgenii Primakov, and Trubnikov - all worked in the Middle East and South Asia, and there is a tendency among both them and those they have promoted to view the ''westerners'' as having failed in their conduct of the Cold War. But this rise of the ''westerners'' does not necessarily mean that Russian intelligence will adopt a friendlier approach to the West.

Several other reasons, less widely publicized, suggest, however, that Lebedev's promotion is likely to lead to a change: the lack of compatibility between the SVR and the emerging Russian national security community, the SVR's split from the new political elite, and its growing irrelevance to Putin's foreign-policy goals.

First, unlike the KGB's domestic offspring, the SVR survived the tumultuous Yeltsin decade relatively unscathed. While in power, Yeltsin appointed almost as many chiefs of Russian domestic security agencies as did the Communists over 74 years. This high turnover, combined with constant reorganization, left those agencies in a state of confusion. The SVR, on the other hand, continued to function much as it had in the past, with few leadership changes and fewer reorganizations. Primakov served from 1991 to 1996, and when he was promoted to foreign minister four years ago, he secured the appointment of his close associate Trubnikov.

Moreover, the SVR's political role increased dramatically after 1998 as an initiator as well as a tool of foreign policy, bringing it into conflict with the interests of the new political and economic elites. Last September, for example, Yeltsin publicly stated that the SVR plays a greater role in the formulation of Russian foreign policy than the Foreign Ministry or any other institution. The SVR played a key role in defining Russian positions on issues such as the transfer of nuclear technologies to Iran, Nato expansion, any modification of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty.

The SVR also pushed the favorite notion of its ''orientalists'' - the doctrine of a multipolar world - into the forefront of Russian national security and military doctrines. And because it maintained its integrity, by the end of the Yeltsin presidency the SVR was one of the few reliable levers Yeltsin had for conducting foreign policy.

At the same time, the SVR was less sensitive to Yeltsin's personal problems than to the country's, which may prove to be the real reason for the change at the top now. It devoted a great deal of time toward neutralizing Western reaction to corruption and money-laundering reports, but it did much less to protect the Yeltsin family. That approach won the SVR support in the West but not in the Kremlin. Indeed, some in Yeltsin's entourage began to suspect that Primakov proteges in the SVR were using their contacts with Western intelligence services to undermine Yeltsin by leaking information to those foreign agencies.

In February 1999, Novye izvestiya and Moskovskaya pravda published the so-called ''Primakov list'' of 162 people involved in international corruption. That list included virtually the entire political and economic elite of the country - except for Primakov, Putin, and former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin. While the Chechen war has detracted Western attention from corruption, the latter remains a major issue of concern for many people in Moscow who might be charged with it. By naming a loyalist to head the SVR, Putin is thus sending a signal that the Russian intelligence services will do what he wants both to protect his friends and to go after his enemies.

( Copyright (c) 2000 RFE/RL, Inc. All rights reserved)



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