A Long, Dim Past as a Russian Spy

Washington is troubled by Russia’s potential next president’s background as a spy – starting in the Soviet-era KGB and continuing straight through from and after the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Unlike President Vladimir Putin, most of whose work as spymaster took place in Germany, most of Sergei Ivanov‘s service involved him directly in countering American and British spy rings and supporting Russian spies recruited in the United States or working under cover as penetration agents.

Born in 1953 in Leningrad (which reverted to St. Petersburg after the USSR collapsed), he began his training in counterespionage in 1970 at the age of 17. He was discovered and recruited as a student at Leningrad University’s philology department, where he took English and Swedish, two of the languages in which he is fluent. He also has a command of French and Norwegian.

In 1975, Ivanov graduated with a masters’ degree in English translation.

A year earlier, the KGB placed him at Thames Valley University in London, UK, after which, in 1976, he was accepted by School 101, run by the KGB in Minsk. He was then accepted by the KGB’s First Chief Directorate for Russian agents destined for overseas missions.

A large part of the curriculum was devoted to inculcating in trainees the craft of the double agent, as well as an in-depth study of American and British secret services and techniques of penetration.

Among the prominent teachers who taught Ivanov his trade as a spy was the notorious Kim Philby, the British Secret Service MI6 traitor who spied for the Soviet Union. He defected to Moscow from Beirut in the 1960s after planting and orchestrating an intricate web of Russian espionage cells in the CIA, the FBI and the British networks operating in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.


A mysterious, high-profile posting in London


Another of Ivanov’s lecturers was George Blake, defector from the British MI6 and cousin of Henri Curiel, who devised the double agent concept and who himself penetrated British intelligence with Philby’s help.

Upon graduating from the KGB’s School 101 Academy, the youthful Ivanov was sent to London, a key posting for which only an outstanding graduate would have been chosen. Two years later, in 1983, he was declared persona non grata by the British foreign office.

To this day, Ivanov and the British deny he ever served in London – least of all was thrown out.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources comment that the flat denials on both sides enforce the supposition that Ivanov must have filled a very senior and sensitive intelligence mission in London.

From the British capital, he was moved to the Soviet embassy in Helsinki, then a hotbed of Cold War intelligence battles among Russian, American and British double agents, all vying for rival service agents to turn round. Real and faked defections were the order of the day. In those days, the Finnish capital was the biggest spy trading bourse in the world.

In 1985, Ivanov landed the job of the KGB’s chief rezident in Kenya, another jump up his career ladder as Nairobi was then the most important station on the African continent.

In 1991, the year the USSR finally broke up and for the next 8 years, Ivanov was employed at home base in the First Chief Directorate headquarters – first as part of the KGB, later under the aegis of the SVR in Yasenevo.

Little is known of the work he did in those years except that he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and served for a time as head of the Europe desk, an experience that should serve him in maintaining good working relations with Putin when he steps down and joins former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, as the top men of a European energy empire based in Germany.

Still on his way up, Ivanov was appointed deputy director of the Russian Security Service-FSB, which was then headed by Vladimir Putin.

This was the second time their paths had crossed.


They crossed path twice


Early on in 1976, they met at the department in charge of Russian intelligence operations in Leningrad. Both times, Putin helped the younger man get ahead.

Ivanov never completely shed the attributes of a Cold War partisan – which is why his predicted leap to the presidency has Bush administration insiders worried. Rather than keeping Russian-US relations on an even keel, they fear he will exacerbate them.

Some point to a very recent incident which brought back memories of the bad old days.

In September, the Russian air force carried out a large-scale military exercise in Pacific Russia across a region stretching from the Volga to the Alaskan border. Its warplanes practiced dropping bombs and firing missiles at an unnamed fictional enemy in the northern hemisphere. Eight Tu-22 strategic bombers were ordered to destroy an “enemy” airfield, using huge 250-kg bombs as the Guryanovo training range in the Saratov Region, when, suddenly, US and Canadian fighter aircraft were scrambled and intercepted the Russian planes off the Alaska coast.

All sides were subsequently at pains to play down the incident; no one accused the Tupelevs of actually violating US or Canadian airspace, but the fighters were scrambled all the same when the Russians flew into a zone around North America, which the North American Aerospace Defense Command considers potentially threatening. The commander of the Russian exercise would have been well aware of this.

A NORAD spokesman commented later that, while the Russian war games were not considered hostile, it was important for the Russians to know that NORAD “is alive and well.”

By the same token, the Americans are beginning to digest the fact that Sergei Ivanov is not only alive and well as the top cheese of Russia’s armed forces, but he looks like being the next unpredictable quantity in the Kremlin.

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