Intelligence is traditionally the most powerful and sensitive sector of Russian government. It took a president as firm in the saddle as Vladimir Putin, 47, to dare tame the tiger and moreover provide it with a new master.
Just before leaving for Camp David for his September 26-27 visit with President George W. Bush, Putin named Army General Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of staff of Russia’s armed forces, as overall head of Russian intelligence services – according to an exclusive report from Moscow by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources.
With this move, Putin has placed vast power in the hands of one man, making Russia’s top soldier the second strongest man in the country for the first time since the tsars sat on the Kremlin throne.
Kvashnin at 57 will alone hold the reins of the SVR-Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (the Russian equivalent of the US CIA), the FSB-Federal Security Service (the Russian FBI) and the FAPSI -The Federal Agency for Government, Communication and Information. FAPSI is the Russian version of the US National Security Agency, but unlike the NSA, which collects intelligence only outside the United States, FAPSI handles electronic surveillance and monitoring and the gathering of trade and financial information both at home and overseas.
As chief of staff of the military, Kvashnin is also boss of the GRU, or Russian military intelligence.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, the appointment is not surprisingly the hottest item of conversation on the Russian social circuit, where military, political and economic movers and shakers meet daily to gossip about what is going on in the Kremlin.
One rumor making the rounds quotes Kvashnin as declaring triumphantly to his friends after he left Putin’s office with his new appointment: “I have now attained the dream of my life. Russia is now going to have a new Yuri Andropov.”
While most of Russia’s top echelon was shaken by Kvashnin’s comment, Putin merely nodded.
Andropov grew into a legend as the supremely talented chief of the KGB from 1967 to 1982, at the peak of the Cold War. His adept crafting of Soviet counterintelligence and disinformation made them prime tools for promoting the Soviet Union’s strategic interests throughout the world. He had the foresight denied most of his contemporaries in the Kremlin to recognize the communist empire’s innate social and economic weaknesses and flaws. Without reform, later known as perestroika, he realized the empire was doomed to collapse.
Andropov served under Leonid Brezhnev until the ruler’s death in 1982 when he succeeded him, although not for long. He developed a serious kidney disease that prevented him from carrying out the reforms he judged crucial and kept him bed-ridden and connected to a dialysis machine for most of his short term in office.
The most important legacy Andropov left was the First Chief Directorate, the KGB’s foreign intelligence division which he remade as Moscow’s key political-operational Cold War instrument. This body attained the mythical stature of the finest intelligence and counterintelligence service of modern times. With the help of the two British turncoats, Kim Philby and George Blake, Andropov’s spies and moles penetrated almost every Western intelligence agency including the CIA and Britain’s MI6.
Aware that the Soviet Union was on its last legs, Andropov would still smile secretly when he entertained Western guests at his Finnish-style offices at Yasenevo, the Directorate’s headquarters compound 35 miles south of Moscow, saying words to the effect of: “You will defeat the Soviet Union in the Cold War, but Yasenevo will beat you from within.”
Part of his legacy to the West were master spies of the caliber of Aldrich Ames, the KGB-run CIA counterintelligence officer caught in 1994, and Peter Hanssen, the FBI counterintelligence agent nabbed in 2000. The major part remained hidden. It is a little known fact in the West that during Andropov’s watch, the first clandestine steps were taken to turn the Islamic tables on the United States. The CIA-backed Islamic jihad against the Red Army in Afghanistan was secretly subverted by the First Chief Directorate and metamorphosed into the global anti-American struggle spearheaded by Osama bin Laden.
On June 12, 1999, General Kvashnin staged a typical Andropovian ploy.
US and British forces were slowly advancing on Kosovo’s capital of Pristina to capture the city for NATO, whose supreme commander then was General Wesley Clark – the current Democratic presidential hopeful. Suddenly, Russian armored units with ‘RUSSIA’ painted on the sides of their vehicles burst out of nowhere and raced past the NATO convoys to reach Pristina before the Americans and the British, hoist the Russian flag and declare “We’re here!”
Those vehicles had been diverted from Bosnia on orders from Kvashnin.
The Russian move caught the White House, Pentagon, the US intelligence community and NATO headquarters by surprise. No one imagined that Moscow, which had opposed the NATO invasion and the war against Serbia and its leader, Slobodan Milosevic, would dare dispatch forces to carve out a military enclave in the heart of Kosovo.
Kvashnin, it transpired, had decided to make a statement.
Deploying small refueling and maintenance units – some airlifted in — along the way, he sent Russian special forces contingents speeding to the strategic Pristina airport to confront the NATO force with the fait accompli of Russian armored vehicles parked at the entrances and on the runways.
That was Kvashnin’s signal to Washington that the Russian presence in the Balkans could not be ignored or eradicated. And indeed, to this day, Russian forces still control Pristina airport.
But when it happened four years ago, all hell broke loose. In Moscow, President Boris Yeltsin fielded a telephone call from an angry Bill Clinton and assured the US leader he knew nothing about the pre-emption of the airport. The Russian defense ministry also professed innocence.
But on the Russian street, national pride swelled along with Kvashnin’s popularity. The general commented contentedly: “The people are again sensing the ‘Andropov spirit’.”
Anatoly Kvashnin was born on August 15, 1946, in the town of Ufah in the southern Ural mountains. He completed engineering studies at Curgan University in 1969, specializing in car and industrial tools design, and immediately enlisted in the Red Army’s armored corps as an army engineer. In 1976, he graduated from the armored corps academy in Moscow and in 1989, with honors from the Red Army’s military leadership academy.
In 1992, a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was attached to general headquarters in Moscow and, three years later, appointed military commander of the northern Caucasus with responsibility for Russian forces in Chechnya.
Named chief of staff in 1997, the general is largely credited with the Russian military’s resurgence – no easy task after the demise of the communist empire. The general is not known for his military brilliance. But he is generally respected as a clever operator and a quick decision-maker, good at using his personal military and political connections effectively.
The general does not have much patience or tolerance for his opponents and is ruthless about swatting them aside. For years, he sparred bitterly with General Sergei Yakovlev, commander of Russia’s strategic missiles corps. Rather than confronting the powerful Yakovlev head-on, Kvashnin outflanked him by placing the missile corps under the command of the Russian air force.
Kvashnin’s relations with Putin are excellent; their two families spend time together.
For the Russian president, Kvashnin is a necessary building block after the sweeping reforms he instituted 18 months ago in the SVR and the First Chief Directorate at Yasenevo.
Putin came of age at Yasenevo, reaching the pinnacle of his intelligence career during the Cold War while serving in the First Chief Directorate in East Germany. There, he was closely associated with the country’s HVA counterintelligence service headed by Mischa Wolf.
The East German service became the First Chief Directorate’s operational arm in the Muslim world, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. But Putin was not involved in those spheres, handling instead Russian spy networks operating in central and eastern Europe from 1975 to 1988 – mostly for industrial and financial espionage.
When he took office in the Kremlin in August 1999, Putin was careful not to rattle the First Chief Directorate which had smoothed his rise to the top. But he never got on with the Middle East hands running the spy rings that were long treated as the jewels in the Russian intelligence crown.
However in the last two years, Putin noticed that the “star” players of the Middle East division were getting on in years. The generation taking their place was far less competent and decisive than the old guard installed by Andropov and his loyal successor Vladimir Kryuchkov.
The Russian president bided his time. His first real opportunity for building his own intelligence base – that stood free of the powerful First Chief Directorate – came out of the 9/11 suicide attacks on the United States and the American war launched in Afghanistan the following month.
Putin’s offer to the US president to help dislodge the Taliban and fight al Qaeda was strongly opposed by the top men at Yasenevo. For his part, the Russian president suspected the First Chief Directorate of holding back information on its clandestine connections with Al Qaeda networks and the agents of other extremist Muslim organizations.
From that time on, he leaned increasingly on the Russian military, its intelligence arm and chief of staff Kvashnin.
The US invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was perhaps the worst reverse ever suffered by the First Chief Directorate’s old guard and networks, whose entire Middle East and Arabian Peninsula operation had been underpinned by cooperation with Saddam Hussein’s intelligence services.
Although Putin took a formal stand against the Iraq War in and outside the United Nations, he was glad of the stick it gave him for knocking the stuffing out of the First Chief Directorate.
In between the Afghan and Iraq Wars – and up until the summer of 2003 – the Russian president further clipped the wings of the Cold War veteran.
He found the Directorate’s new bosses more manageable than the old guard. They could be lured out of the service by offers of lucrative and powerful jobs such as regional governorships that played on their ambition and avarice. For a large number of leading lights, such posts often proved more appealing than dangerous undercover work in the state service.
By August 2002, Putin had completed his Yasenevo overhaul. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources note correspondingly the striking number of new faces among Russia’s 30 regional governors.
After dismantling the Yasanevo power base, Putin stood in need of a strong, trustworthy hand to rebuild Russian intelligence and counterintelligence services on a new footing, while also discouraging any survivors of the clean sweep at the Directorate from regrouping.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Moscow, when Putin told his inner circle that he had picked Kvashnin for the job, one commented sarcastically, “But didn’t he want to be the new Yuri Andropov?”
“So he did,” said another insider. “But it was Andropov’s support that kept Brezhnev safe in power for so many years.”
Putin just listened without a word.