Nov 5, 2022
Russian President Vladimir Putin has the world on edge. He’s waging the first major war in Europe since 1945 that’s sparked a global energy crisis and fears of a nuclear conflict. As Western intelligence agencies vie to stay two steps ahead of the Russian leader and get inside his head, peering into Putin’s KGB past can offer clues on what he may do next.
Long before he was a world leader, Putin was a mid-level KGB officer stationed in Dresden, East Germany towards the end of the Cold War. The official narrative on this period of Putin’s life suggests it was an uneventful stint in a backwater, a long way from the action in Berlin. But ex-spies and Russia experts told Insider that Putin’s time in the KGB — the Soviet Union’s primary and much-feared security agency — played an instrumental role in shaping his mindset. “Putin’s KGB background tells us a lot about how he thinks and how he sees the war. He is a creation of the KGB, and the KGB was a terrorist organization,” John Sipher, a former CIA officer who served in Russia, told Insider. “It was all about keeping the leadership in power at all costs. It killed any domestic opposition to the [Communist] Party and used subversion abroad.”
Under Putin’s leadership, the Russian military has routinely targeted civilian areas in Ukraine and been widely accused of committing numerous war crimes — including torture, rape, and mass killings. Russian forces have engaged in sabotage and damaged crucial infrastructure as part of an effort make life miserable for Ukrainians, break their resolve, and squeeze Kyiv into capitulating to Putin’s demands.
From Chechnya to Syria and now Ukraine, the Russian leader has shown a willingness to devastate cities and kill scores of civilians with indiscriminate strikes.
Sipher, who worked for the CIA’s clandestine service for nearly three decades, said Russia’s indiscriminate warfare against Ukraine is part of a “KGB/terrorist mindset.” “The Russian services have long spent far more of their time on things like disinformation, sabotage, deception, agitation, and assassination,” Sipher said, adding, “What we have seen from Putin over the past 20 years are these same asymmetric attacks. Like a terrorist group that can’t take on enemies directly, he looks for weaknesses to exploit, and soft targets to attack.”
The KGB’s recruits were imbued with a deep sense of patriotism. Jack Barsky, an ex-KGB spy who was a sleeper agent in the US during the Cold War, told Insider that being a KGB agent meant being a servant. “You were not in charge. You executed based on what people told you. I did too. [Putin] rose above that,” Barsky said. “The mindset when you become a member of the KGB — it wasn’t just a career thing, it was also a patriotic thing. Vladimir Putin thinks of himself as a super patriot of Russia,” said Barsky, who remained in the US after the collapse of the Soviet Union and eventually consulted the FBI and NSA after being exposed in the 1990s as a former undercover agent, operating without diplomatic cover. “I was driven by high motives. I thought I would be able to use my skills to the best for society,” Putin once said of his decision to join the KGB.
Few concrete details are known about Putin’s work in Dresden, where he was stationed from 1985 to 1990, but the Russian leader and those close to him have often presented it as inconsequential. “East Germany wasn’t where you do a lot of espionage,” Barsky said, underscoring that Putin was operating in a country friendly to the Soviet Union at the time. Work in East Germany largely involved collaborating with the Stasi, the ruthless secret police for the German Democratic Republic, and recruiting assets, he said.
What Putin did in the KGB was “very similar” to the work of “the fellow who recruited me while I was a student at university,” Barsky said. Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s book, “Mr. Putin,” suggests that he was most likely
involved in an array of recruitment operations while in Dresden, and may have even traveled to West Germany undercover at times.
Putin was a “really good networker,” Barsky said, adding, “When the Soviet Union fell apart, he had a great network amongst ex-KGB agents.” “Those were the ones that rose to power — mostly economically, but also politically — because they knew how the capitalist-type world functions,” Barsky went on to say, “And so that’s how [Putin] rose to power.”
To be in the KGB meant to live a life of deception on some level. Toward the end of his service in Dresden, which coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin famously confronted a crowd of angry protestors outside of his office building. The crowd was seemingly looking for members of the Stasi, and Putin’s German made him a potential target. “When they aggressively asked who he really was, Putin responded that he was ‘a translator,'” Hill and Gaddy wrote. “Putin lied his way out of trouble.”
Barsky’s mission involved far more extreme acts of deception — living under false identity and attempting to blend into American society to make contact with high-level decisionmakers in the US. Born Albert Dittrich in East Germany in 1949, Barsky spied in the US for a decade and built an entirely new life in the process. “I was a well-kept state secret as an illegal undercover agent,” Barsky said, “They picked me because they had reason to believe I’m very adaptable and I can make good decisions on my own — and I’m not afraid to make decisions. There’s a list of character traits that they were looking for in candidates for this kind of a job.”
In 1988, the KGB ordered Barsky to come home. But he defied the Soviet spy agency and risked a potentially deadly retaliation to stay in the US. Barsky exploited Soviet fears of AIDS, falsely telling his handlers that he’d contracted it. The lie worked and Barsky was able to remain in the US, living a relatively normal American live until his cover was blown in the 1990s and the FBI approached him. The “biggest thing” that Putin learned during his time in the KGB is “how to lie,” Barsky said, “Well, I did too.”
The Ukraine war has seen Putin and his propagandists make a series of assertions — ranging from plausible to preposterous — to justify Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. This includes baselessly claiming that Ukraine is ruled by neo-Nazis, despite the fact Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and lost family during the Holocaust.
The Russian government has pushed conspiracy theories since the war began, making groundless claims about staged atrocities and dirty bombs, among other bogus assertions. In many cases, these outlandish claims have been parroted by far-right US politicians and media figures like Tucker Carlson of Fox News.
Indeed, Putin’s career has been typified by spreading disinformation aimed at sowing discord and confusion among Moscow’s enemies. When Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, it initially sent in masked troops in unmarked uniforms. Putin at first denied that the mysterious soldiers — dubbed the “little green men” — were Russian military, claiming they were “local self-defense forces.” The Russian leader later admitted that the masked men were Russian troops.
While most intelligence services focus on collecting information and sharing their findings with policymakers, for the KGB “intelligence collection was always a distant second to active covert measures designed to weaken an opponent from within (think the 2016 elections),” Sipher said.
In the early days of the Ukraine invasion, Russia sought to topple Ukraine’s elected leaders with a combination of covert operations and a massive show of force. Nearly nine months later, with the war in Ukraine going poorly for Russia, its approach to the conflict continues to follow this track.
Putin’s KGB past plays into his preference for hybrid warfare — blending conventional and unconventional tactics, said Angela Stent, a top Russia expert who served in the Office of Policy Planning at the State Department and later as a national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council. “[Putin] was a case officer in Dresden, so he wasn’t involved directly in military operations,” but “deception” — taking actions that you can never quite pin on one single actor — is part of his and Russia’s playbook, Stent told Insider in an interview.
Russia is suspected of being behind attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines in late September, as Moscow vies to weaponize energy supplies and drive up costs for its Western adversaries. Putin has simultaneously leveled nuclear threats, reminding the world he controls thousands of warheads — the largest arsenal on the planet. Though these threats are largely believed to be part of an effort to dissuade the West from continued support for Kyiv, Western officials — including CIA Director William Burns — have expressed concern that Putin could use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine if he feels pushed into a corner.
Russian forces have suffered staggering losses in Ukraine, with casualties estimated to be as high as 90,000, and Putin has taken a series of escalatory steps in a desperate effort to turn the tide. He declared a partial military mobilization to address Russia’s manpower problems, sending poorly trained conscripts to the frontline. The Russian leader also illegally annexed four Ukrainian regions, even though Russian forces do not fully occupy these territories. Ukraine’s forces have pushed back the Russians in key areas in the east and south as part of a counteroffensive, which includes parts of the territories Putin now claims as part of Russia.
But Putin is seemingly determined to continue the war no matter the costs.
Hill, who also served as the top Russia expert on the National Security Council under the Trump administration, recently told Politico that Putin’s KGB experience is central to his refusal to back down in Ukraine despite major losses. “Whenever he has a setback, Putin figures he can get out of it, that he can turn things around. That’s partly because of his training as a KGB operative,” Hill said, adding, “He says there are always problems in an operation, there are always setbacks. Sometimes they’re absolute disasters. The key is adaptation.” “Putin still thinks he’s got more game to play,” Hill said.
Facing an increasingly grim situation and with winter around the corner, the Russian military in recent weeks has taken to raining down missiles on crucial infrastructure across Ukraine. Kyiv in recent days has faced blackouts and much of the city temporarily lost access to water. “[Putin] knows he can’t win on the battlefield and he is in a weak position,” Sipher said, “He has a number of escalatory actions he can take short of using a nuclear weapon. We can expect more cyber attacks, threats, support for violent groups in the West, and actions like bombing the underwater pipeline. He is seeking to send a signal to Western leaders to remind them he can cause economic and political pain.” “Rather than having a sensible military and diplomatic strategy, [Putin] is killing civilians and threatening nuclear war as an effort to scare and manipulate Western leaders,” Sipher said.