"US and Russian Intelligence Cooperation during the Yeltsin Years"
February 11, 2011
Author: Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Senior Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
"I would like to give a toast. I believe you are all well aware of my background and views as a so-called cold warrior. It is not my wish to go down in history as the first director of central intelligence to come to Moscow to establish a liaison relationship between US and Russian intelligence. I am frankly uncomfortable with any suggestion that my visit might serve to legitimize or recognize the role of the KGB in a democratic Russia. No, I am here today because the relationship between our two countries demands that our intelligence agencies work together in areas of mutual interest. It is time to turn a page in our history, without forgetting our past and present differences, in order to eliminate the threats we face in this new era. I propose a toast for the security and the future of our two peoples."
With these words, as best I can recall them, Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates ushered in a new chapter in the adversarial, turbulent story of US and Russian intelligence. The September, 1992 DCI visit co-hosted by SVR Director Yevgeniy Primakov and FSB (then FSK) Director Sergey Stepashin was not political theater, nor was it a naive event that ignored the bitter reality of confrontation.
The CIA director was greeted by a receptive audience, at least at high levels of the services and Russian government. It was clear that the political leadership of both countries demanded at least a modicum of cooperation between intelligence services. For his part, DCI Gates brought a handful of high level proposals that were designed to test whether the US and Russian spies were prepared to roll up their sleeves do real work. Addressing intelligence gaps on North Korea's nuclear weapons program topped his list. He proposed an unprecedented joint operation to leverage US technology and Russian access to gather intelligence on the ground on the status of North Korea’s nuclear program. Gates also requested information concerning the extent of the technical penetration of the new, still unoccupied US Embassy compound, as a test of sorts as to whether the US was viewed as a budding ally, or was still regarded as the “glavniy protivnik” (main adversary) after the dissolution of the Soviet Union – and the breakup of the KGB.
In laying out his proposals, Gates reasoned that if the two parties could take concrete steps to address a few high visibility intelligence problems, it might help justify establishing a formal relationship. For their part, intelligence czars Primakov and Stepashin were quick to recognize the potential benefits of cooperation. They had a clear vision and sense of purpose that were necessary to take calculated risks to advance the relationship. They joined the negotiations and offered some suggestions of their own. As a result, even today, this historic meeting in Moscow stands as one of the most significant achievements of enigmatic intelligence cooperation between the US and Russia over the next two decades.
The Gates visit was reinforced by a follow-up trip to Moscow by newly appointed CIA Director James Woolsey in October, 1993. Along with the results of director Primakov's consultations in Washington in July of that year, these groundbreaking high level exchanges stimulated sufficient leadership involvement to initiate a series of productive intelligence exchanges in a growing number of areas. Transnational threats were among the highest priority subjects that were raised; experts gathered on a regular basis in both capitals to exchange information and analysis on terrorism, proliferation, narcotics and organized crime. There were even exchanges on global warming under the umbrella of the Gore-Chernomyrdin initiative, although it must be acknowledged that the spectacle of the old KGB and CIA officers discussing environmental intelligence amused the wily intelligence veterans.
During these "good times" of relatively productive, constructive engagement, there was never an illusion that either party had lost the appetite to spy on one another when the opportunity presented itself. After all, espionage was of greater value and consequence than the limited benefits of collaboration. It is also true that positions sharply diverged on most matters. We tended to disagree fundamentally on the role of intelligence in serving our respective policymakers. We were products of opposite cultures in how we approached the tradecraft of analysis, operational modus operandi, and principles for conducting liaison work.
Nonetheless, to the credit of both sides, we never tried to paper over our differences. While we were loathe to admit it, exchanging sharply differing perspectives sometimes produced a better understanding of a problem than our separate views. Yevgeniy Primakov recognized the unfulfilled potential in advancing novel ways of joining forces to tackle a concrete problem. One day, he pondered creative ways to encourage SVR and CIA officers to work more closely together. “My officers do not want to work with CIA officers on joint operations,” he acknowledged, “…because it will taint them and negatively impact on their careers.” Thinking aloud, the SVR spy chief proposed that “SVR and CIA officers work in parallel tracks towards a common objective….we will deploy our sources and methods, and you develop your means of access; then we can compare the results of our efforts and determine how best to proceed.” I asked Primakov if he had a specific target or objective in mind. He paused, pensively. “Well, this is not a formal proposal, but perhaps we can try to keep (Palestinian leader Yassir) Arafat and (Israeli leader Yitzhak) Rabin alive.”
Unfortunately, the idea was deemed too bold –perhaps it was too original – for Langley’s taste. On other occasions, the Russian side was skeptical of US proposals that would guide the relationship into uncharted waters. But in spite of the reluctance of both sides to embrace the relationship, there were times when it was obvious that for certain select problems of mutual self-interest, we could be stronger working together than we could be working alone. One such set of unusual circumstances arose in spring, 1993. An intelligence volunteer, or “walk in” to a US Embassy (located outside the former Soviet Union) informed the CIA of an alleged plot to assassinate President Yeltsin. The sourced claimed to be a member of a Chechen hit team that planned to attack the President during an upcoming speech at the Kremlin grounds.
The reporting was briefed to President Clinton, who ordered that the information be passed immediately to President Yeltsin. After this was done, CIA and FSB officers met in FSB Headquarters in Lubyanka, under the watchful gaze of Yuriy Andropov, to coordinate a joint operation to resolve the threat. Based on the agreements that were reached during this meeting, a combined team of CIA and FSB officers traveled under cover from Moscow to a third country to collect and assess intelligence concerning the threat. In course of an intense flurry of activity, they determined that the source had fabricated the plot.
The team’s determination that the threat was not real was a relief. However, the results of the joint operation did not diminish the significance of the team’s achievement. CIA and FSB had demonstrated that they could work together in a fast breaking and murky situation; officers displayed a high degree of professionalism in working together to neutralize what they regarded to be a possible threat to the life of the President.
In the months that followed, “shag s’ shagom” (step by step) became the motto for liaison officers who worked hard to promote a joint agenda to define areas of mutual interest. Professional respect between individuals - not trust - was the vital ingredient in the modest successes of these efforts to produce concrete liaison results. This mixed record was put to the ultimate test during the tense hours leading to the coup attempt by a hardliner faction led by Ruslan Khasbulatov and Aleksandr Rutskoi against President Yeltsin in October 4, 1993.
My phone rang at home on a beautiful fall day in Moscow. It was Valentin Klimenko, an FSB Colonel General, and one of the CIA station’s principal liaison contacts. His mood was grim. I strained to hear him, as he calmly said: “ Rolf, I must see you right away. Come alone. Do not come to Lubyanka. Take the metro. Meet me on the corner of the metro stop at Dzerzhinsky Square.” He took a breath. “And please hurry.” I took the unusual precaution of telling Ambassador Thomas Pickering about my rendezvous with the FSB - in case I did not return. Whose side was the KGB on, I wondered?
I emerged from the metro at Dzerzhinsky Square with my surveillants in hot pursuit. They seemed more anxious and clueless than me – what a twist of fortunes, I chuckled. Valentin and a colleague caught me on the way to the meeting site. He firmly pressed his hand into mine. “We have a problem,” he explained. “When the President received his morning briefing, he asked us (FSB) why CIA officers were meeting with coup plotters in the (Russian) White House.” Klimenko looked me in the eye: “We replied that we do not know.” The President asked: “Whose side is CIA on? Is the United States for me, or against me?” The veteran counterintelligence officer paused for effect, before adding. “What should we tell him? He needs your answer now.”
I exhaled a sigh of relief. The answer was easy. There was no need to seek guidance from the Embassy or from Washington. “Please assure President Yeltsin that the United States is in his corner. The US firmly supports the Russian Government.” I informed Klimenko that meetings between US Embassy officers and hardliners were part of CIA’s efforts to keep Washington informed about events that were unfolding rapidly in Moscow. “Good!” Valentin exclaimed, with evident satisfaction. “Now tell Washington this: the Russian military will imminently undertake the necessary measures to resolve the crisis. Get your officers out of the White House in the next two hours, or they will be caught in the crossfire, or be taken hostage by the hardliners.”
The metro ride back to the Embassy seemed like an eternity. My surveillance team had disappeared. I briefed the Ambassador and we apprised Washington of Yeltsin’s decision to take military action. Measures were initiated to protect the Embassy population in anticipation of the counter-coup.
True to Valentin’s word, tanks began rolling into position throughout Moscow within a couple of hours. The US Embassy was quickly engulfed in the cross fire between Russian military forces and hardliners who had taken up positions in the buildings that surrounded the American compound. As intense gun battles flared, American Embassy personnel and families sought sanctuary in the basement of the compound. A small detachment of young Marines, outfitted in full battle gear, positioned themselves behind a makeshift barricade of furniture that was all that stood between the outside world and helpless Embassy staff. I vividly recall these young men’s faces, grim and determined to fight to the last man if the rebels that were roaming the Embassy grounds launched an attack on the underground sanctuary.
Late that night, the CIA station was directed to dispatch officers to the Ambassador’s residence at Spaso House in order to establish an alternative command post with satellite communication with Washington. The Embassy was cut off from the outside world and unable to report on coup developments. I led a three man team of CIA officers who broke out of the compound’s garage in a single vehicle, under cover of darkness. It was chaos. Miraculously, we navigated a circuitous route through acrid smoke and bodies littering the streets to Spaso House, without incident. In short order, we sent our first cable reporting on the situation in Moscow.
As dawn approached, the security situation in central Moscow continued to deteriorate. Spaso House had become a gathering point for a number of Embassy reporting officers, as well as for Russian national employees who had shown up for work on this day, just as they did every day. But there was nothing normal on this day. Elite Russian forces battled snipers, building by building, in the high rises that overshadowed the residence. Sporadic gun fire rained down on the compound. Armed rebels entered the grounds of the residence and broke some windows. I sent all Russian nationals home, where they would be safe. I called the Ambassador to advise him to be prepared for the possibility that the Spaso command post would be overrun and officers taken hostage by hardliners. The unflappable Ambassador offered a surprising suggestion: call liaison, inform them of our plight, and ask for help. It seemed like a desperate gambit, but lacking any better ideas, we heeded his advice.
In short order, the phone rang. An FSB officer noted that his organization had received our request, and that he had a message to pass on behalf of General Stepashin. He said that a group of well-armed, plain clothed FSB officers were enroute to Spaso House to provide protective security for us. “However,” he continued, “they will perform their task. You perform yours. There is a line that separates you from them. Do not cross this line. They will not cross it. Make eye contact to exchange bona fides -- no more. Understood”?
“Understood,” I replied. “And thank you.” “You’re welcome.” Our FSB detail remained silent partners for the duration of the crisis.
We all became witnesses to how history is actually made. I learned that there is nothing pre-determined about the course of a nation’s destiny. I learned that history does not make people; people make history. Russian political, military, and intelligence officers, as well as ordinary citizens, determined Russia’s future through the decisions they made in a crisis. If the same people had made different decisions, it would have dramatically changed the future course of events. In this moment of truth, US and Russian interests converged.
Ah, it would make for a good Hollywood ending, if only the story ended here. But no story about US and Russian intelligence would be complete without a descent into intrigue, betrayal and deception that has characterized the world’s second oldest profession since gentlemen began reading each other’s mail centuries ago.
When word reached Moscow that CIA traitor Aldrich Ames had been arrested on February 23, 1994, I secretly hoped to be expelled and declared persona non grata so I’d never have to work with Russian intelligence again. The Ames affair was a sensation in Washington. The CIA was being attacked by all sides of the political spectrum. It seemed only logical when Langley decided to sever liaison ties in the aftermath of the arrest of a Russian mole in the CIA. As usual, the emotional entanglements of espionage held both sides in a vise-like grip. Within days of the arrest, a senior CIA delegation announced its intention to visit Moscow in a last ditch effort to negotiate a solution that might avert mass, tit for tat expulsions -- and worse, if the Ames affair was allowed to escalate into a global, spy versus spy war waged in the shadows.
Senior CIA officer John MacGaffin headed the small delegation that descended on SVR headquarters at Yasenevo on the outskirts of Moscow. Traditional pleasantries were curtailed, as both sides got to the heart of the matter. “These things happen.” Primakov shrugged, trying to lighten the mood. “It’s the nature of the business.” MacGaffin flashed a disarming smile, before curtly countering, “Things will get ugly. That’s inevitable. The question is how can we contain the damage? How can we avoid an escalation that could harm the broader, bilateral relationship?”
It was clear that MacGaffin had not come to Moscow to sue for peace, but to underscore the need for cooler heads to prevail in order to ensure things did not spiral out of control. It was essential to re-open the liaison channel, if for no other reason than it served an even more vital purpose in keeping things in perspective in times of trouble. From this period, I learned much about the importance of not letting personal emotions cloud one’s judgment in dealing with the human factor of espionage. I also developed a deeper appreciation for the “wilderness of mirrors” that intelligence officers are sentenced to dwell in, as immortalized by American poet TS Eliot in this passage from “Gerontion.”
"After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
History has many cunning
passages, contrived corridors
and issues, deceives with
whispering ambitions, guides
us by vanities.”
In the weeks and months that followed the Ames arrest, American and Russian intelligence services were once again at war. Liaison cooperation proved to be an indispensable channel of communication. A page was taken from informal contacts between the KGB and CIA in the so-called “Gavrilov channel” in the mid 1980’s. Russian and American counterintelligence officers would meet to set limits on certain extremes of behavior by agreeing on unwritten “rules of the game.” Similarly, in the post-Ames period, issues were often clarified, and sometimes resolved before they became destructive. There was a shared sense that lest intelligence become art for art’s sake, it must be reigned in to serve a larger cause. As bad as things were between US and Russian intelligence, they could have been much worse.
Indeed, important initiatives offset continuing counterintelligence feuds, and helped elevate the stature and scope of the liaison relationship. Louis Freeh became the first FBI director to pay an official visit to Moscow when he established liaison relations between US and Russian law federal enforcement agencies on July 4th, 1994. The positive and purposeful atmosphere during director Freeh’s talks with his FSB host, Sergey Stepashin, was reminiscent of the successful Gates visit almost two years earlier. In addition, Director of Defense Intelligence James Clapper had quietly formalized a liaison relationship between DIA and its Russian counterpart, the GRU.
By the end of 1994, US and Russian special services were in direct contact and were exchanging views and information directly in a number of areas of vital interest to the national security of both countries. There was a leadership consensus that it was necessary to support a long term process of expanding intelligence cooperation. There was a joint recognition that the relationship should be built on the edifice of self-interest – doing things based on a calculation of the risks versus benefits to do so.
Yet, it has not been easy to avoid becoming victims of our own history. As a counterintelligence officer wistfully reminded me during the 1994 July 4th holiday celebration at Spaso House, “Maybe we were better off in the good old days, before we got to know one another on an intimate basis. The myths of the KGB and CIA are bigger than the realities, aren’t they?” I said nothing. There was nothing to say. After two tours of duty in Moscow, one in the USSR, and one in Russia, I was worn out. It was time to go home.
Today, as I reflect on these auspicious times, both sides have been slow to adapt to the realities of the post cold war. It is plain common sense to join forces to combat nuclear and biological terrorism. Both countries face daunting terrorism and proliferation threats as we head into an uncertain future. We live in a world of the super-enabled individual, consisting of people and groups who aspire to wield the power of states. Malicious actors seek nothing less than to challenge world order. In the 21st century, there is more that unites the US and Russia, than divides us. In this spirit, I believe it is the duty of US and Russian special services to apply the same skills and dedication that have been so creatively applied to work against one another, to working together to secure a better world for our children.
The shared experiences of the Yelstin years reveal that such cooperation is possible, desirable, and necessary, but only when our intelligence and law enforcement services have the vision and courage to stick to the harder path of constructive engagement. No matter how elusive and frustrating that building trust between old adversaries might be, our intelligence services must not allow the inevitable bumps in the road to be used as a convenient excuse to abandon the quest for a strategic partnership between our two countries.
- Yeltsin Legacy (28K DOCX)
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