Analysis & Opinions - The Sunday Times

Why Putin is Not the Spymaster He Claims to Be

| Aug. 19, 2023

President Putin is not the spymaster he claims. Last week's news of five Bulgarians arrested in Britain, alleged to be Russian intelligence operatives, fits into a broader trend: since becoming Russian leader more than two decades ago, Putin has presided over a succession of intelligence failures against the West. His spy networks have been rounded up in Europe, North America, and now apparently Britain.

Little is known about the Bulgarians, who were detained in February and whose story has only now come to light. Three have been charged, but have not yet entered their pleas. But this much is clear: if they do turn out to be Russian operatives, Putin would regard their arrest as a humiliation— and yet another success on the part of western security and intelligence services, who have pushed hard to gain the upper hand since the invasion of Ukraine.

Putin makes much of his KGB past. Indeed, his KGB career shaped his world view. Certainly Putin's campaign to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election was a remarkable operation. It followed an old Soviet tradition of covertly meddling in US elections, stretching back to at least 1948, but now using new social media tools. It injected all manner of toxic uncertainty into the American political system.

But scratch the surface, and we find Putin's intelligence credentials are not what he claims. In the last days of the Soviet empire, he was stationed in Dresden, in East Germany, a KGB sideshow compared with East Berlin, where the real action was. Yevgeny Primakov, the first director of Russia's post-Soviet foreign intelligence service, the SVR, claimed that while heading the service in the 1990s, he had never heard of Putin.

Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has cultivated the image of Russia's intelligence services as highly professional. In reality, they are criminals. Russia's security service, the FSB, which Putin ran in 1998, facilitates massive, systemic, state-run money laundering schemes for his personal enrichment and for Russian oligarchs....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walton, Calder.“Why Putin is Not the Spymaster He Claims to Be.” The Sunday Times, August 19, 2023.