Previous issues
Contact Us

Summer 2005 cover

National Observer Home > No. 68 -Autumn 2006 > Articles

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow— Russian Espionage Continues

by John Miller

National Observer
(Council for the National Interest, Melbourne),
No. 68, Autumn 2006,
pages 40–47.


It is now approaching 16 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and 14 years since Boris Yeltsin effectively dissolved the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and brought an end to totalitarian rule and domestic terror in republics and countries ruled either directly or indirectly from Moscow. Since that time, there have been high hopes that Western-style democracy would take hold in Russia. This writer believes that to be most unlikely. It is extremely difficult — as the Americans are finding in Iraq — to graft Western democracy onto a country that has never experienced fundamental freedoms. The position is further complicated by the fact that expansion of democracy is a shadowy term for globalisation and the euphemistically-named free market system, both of which appear to make the rich richer and further immiserate the poor.

This writer’s view is that near-anarchy in Russia was bound to produce an autocratic regime of one description or another. Indeed, at one stage, it was suggested that Russia needed a government similar to that of General Pinochet in Chile — open to free market principles (at least in theory), with a strong hand to control internal dissent. It was once stated that trying to explain democracy to a Russian was like explaining the colour blue to a blind man. Granted that St Petersburg and Moscow appear to resemble many Western cities, complete with a mafia, outside of these two large population centres, the culture of the old Soviet Union remains basically untouched. Incredible though it may seem, it has been reported that many people yearn for the days of Josef Stalin. It can be argued that what they are looking for is leadership by a vozhd — a strong man.

Former KGB Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Putin is that man. He has appointed many of his KGB cronies to senior administrative positions across Russia and argues that strong government is needed to fight the War against Terror in Chechnya. 1 Given the situations obtaining in that area and the fact that Chechnya must have been involved with international terrorism, obviously some latitude has been given to Putin by otherwise concerned nations in Europe and the United States. However, the regime is becoming more autocratic by the day and Putin must be pleased by the electoral outcome in Belarus which is staunchly pro-Russian and the dead Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which has been replaced by an elected government sympathetic to Moscow.

Putin also shows signs of shoring up international relations with China and, according to reliable press and intelligence reports, his Government’s agencies are assisting Iran in the development of nuclear weapons and may well have assisted Saddam Hussein’s forces in Iraq, prior to the U.S.-led military intervention in 2003. The Russians are naturally enough denying the latter proposition but it would appear that the weight of evidence is against them. How the United States Administration will respond is, at this stage, a matter of conjecture.

This writer’s contention is that Russia’s current foreign policy is a continuation of the expansionist Tsarist regimes, interrupted only by the interregnum of 70 years of so-called communism. Russia is one of the major arms-traders in the world today. 2 Ever since communism was officially declared dead, espionage operations against the West have continued virtually unchanged under the aegis of the KGB’s successor organisation, the SVR, 3 while military intelligence continues with the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian High Command, the GRU. Domestic counter-intelligence, formerly the province of the Second Chief Directorate of the KGB (which was also notorious for persecuting Soviet dissidents), is now carried out by the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Not too many reports appear in newspapers about the new espionage effort, but it is known that the primary objective is to obtain scientific and technical information in order to keep modern Russia abreast of, and possibly to overtake, the West in the production of weapons systems. It is interesting that the United States has expelled a number of Russian intelligence officers over the past few years on the grounds of espionage, and it is believed that the UK and some Western European powers have done likewise. The problem is that such actions do not make newspaper stories. It is also understood that Australia has played its part in refusing visas to enter this country to known Russian intelligence officers, who are merely re-badged KGB personnel. It could be said: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Australia’s intelligence organisations were severely depleted following the end of the Cold War by cutbacks in personnel and resources. The move of ASIO’s headquarters to Canberra was an unmitigated disaster, as the brightest and best left, while many who went to the national capital were little more than economic conscripts. Internally, ASIO’s culture became that of a public service department by deliberate design, and the writer has argued frequently that this has been detrimental to national security. At the risk of repetition, intelligence is a discipline of its own which requires a high degree of specialisation and analytical skills. The move to Canberra effectively destroyed the organisational memory, a vital component of any intelligence service. Since the move, ASIO has been run by a number of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials who bring with them a bland style of management and a propensity for group-think, which adapts to the political needs of the day as perceived by management.

There is no doubt that 9/11 and its aftermath resulted in fresh emphasis on recruitment of intelligence officers and the need for greatly increased funding. This is an established fact that needs no further comment, except to say that one hopes that the recruitment program produces the best possible operatives in the field of human intelligence (HUMINT), where ASIO is dangerously deficient. The raids of late 2005 and statements of the Australian Federal Police Commissioner prove beyond all doubt that there are terrorist cells in this country which find support among various community groups. However, there is a worry that, in putting all the eggs in one basket — the counter-terrorism area — counter-espionage will suffer.

It is axiomatic that, in many fields, the best predictor of future action is an examination of the past. In that context, this article examines three recently-published books which have made apparently no impact in this country, having received very little publicity. The first is the much-awaited second volume of the Mitrokhin archives. 4 By way of explanation, Vasili Mitrokhin was a KGB First Chief Directorate archivist who was disillusioned with his communist masters and made detailed notes of all cases that were archived. He subsequently found his way to the United Kingdom and the treasure trove of his copied documents was exfiltrated by the UK Secret Intelligence Service (more usually known as MI6) in a risky and brave operation. It would be a normal operational procedure for Mitrokhin to have been extensively debriefed by all major Western intelligence powers. As a result of his information, a number of KGB agents were flushed out into the public arena in the UK and America. There were no prosecutions in the UK, but in the United States there is no statute of limitations on espionage and the hunt for KGB spies continues.

The use-by date for intelligence defectors commences on the day that they leave for a life in exile. That is why Western intelligence services always attempted to recruit and run Soviet intelligence officers in place, in order to provide ongoing and valuable intelligence. This naturally enough was a high-risk policy, especially when the KGB was known to have recruited widely in Western intelligence services and, as a consequence, a number of very brave men were tried and executed for working for the Western cause. 5 Treachery and betrayal were the hallmarks of operations conducted by both sides during the Cold War. Once a defector had been extensively debriefed, it was usual to attempt to resettle them, sometimes with false identities, and there was an expectation that they would be available for further consultation while earning a living in their own right. That has been accomplished with a number of defectors from the Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, from the East European allies.

Mitrokhin then worked with Professor Christopher Andrew of Cambridge University to produce the first volume of the Mitrokhin archives in 1999. Professor Andrew is known to have links with British intelligence, having previously co-written works with Oleg Gordievsky, a former KGB acting head-of-station in London, who has been credited with, or has claimed credit for, helping to avert a superpower conflict in 1983. A full account of Operation RYAN can be found in the Gordievsky and Andrew book, KGB: The Inside Story of its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev. 6 This book made headlines on its appearance in 1990. It revealed for the first time the identity of Britain’s so-called Fifth Man of the infamous Cambridge spy ring which included Soviet traitors Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt. The Fifth Man was John Cairncross.

The Mitrokhin Archive, Volume I, deals mainly with KGB operations against the “main adversary” — the U.S. and its allies, especially the UK. Conspicuously absent from this work is any mention of Australia. It beggars belief, but is nonetheless true, that among officialdom and Directors-General of ASIO from the days of Sir Charles Spry through to the mid-1980s, there prevailed a mindset that held that Soviet penetration of the Organisation could not, and therefore did not, occur. However, many within the Organisation suspected penetration for the best part of 25 to 30 years, and Justice R.M. Hope, who conducted the first Royal Commission into Australia’s Intelligence and Security Services, made note of these suspicions held by veteran officers. 7 The secret part of Justice Hope’s report was presented to the Prime Minister of the day, Malcolm Fraser, but has never seen the light of day.

There was a degree of anticipation that when Volume II of The Mitrokhin Archive appeared in late 2005, there would be some information on KGB activities in Australasia. However, the book deals mainly with KGB operations in the Third World, especially active measures, and contains nothing particularly new. 8 Over 90 per cent of the material was already in the public domain for those who wish to examine it, and it must be said that writing on espionage in Australia is dominated by the academic and journalistic left, which is implacably and historically opposed to ASIO.

Last year also saw the release of a book by Victor Ivanovich Cherkashin, 9 a senior KGB counter-intelligence officer who had the distinction — or the notoriety depending on one’s outlook — of handling two of the KGB’s most important assets in the United States, Aldrich Ames of the CIA and Robert B. Hannsen of the FBI. Their information condemned to death a considerable number of recruited CIA and Allied agents working against the Soviet Union. Ames’ justification — if it can be called that — was, “I knew quite well, when I gave the names of our agents in the Soviet Union, that I was exposing them to the full machinery of counterespionage and the law, and then prosecution and capital punishment.” 10

Cherkashin’s book, Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB officer, co-written with an American academic, is basically a self-serving book by a convinced communist and KGB hardliner, who has fallen on hard times and obviously not made the list of President Putin’s favourites. From his account, it is true that he never killed anyone himself, nor was he particularly acquainted with any assassinations, but he handled two agents in Ames and Hannsen who did immeasurable harm to U.S. intelligence. 11

The Australian angle on the Cherkashin story is that he served briefly in this country during 1963-4, when he was withdrawn suddenly on the grounds of the defection of Yuri Nosenko, a KGB officer who was shabbily treated by the CIA for three years or more, before being regarded as a bona fide defector and source of important information, which had degraded during the time of his virtual imprisonment. 12 It is intriguing that Cherkashin was withdrawn from Australia at such short notice, given that in all probability the KGB would have known that Nosenko was not being taken as the genuine article.

During his time in this country (about which he was very coy in his book), he was treated as an agent-running KGB (Line KR counter-intelligence) officer by ASIO (on the basis of information received from overseas sources) and the subject of considerable surveillance. While the latter activity did not lead to the identification of any KGB agents, it certainly served to prove that he was a KGB officer of considerable skill and acumen, which was later displayed when he served in the United States. His swift departure from Australia led to an opinion among counter-espionage officers within ASIO that he had recruited a high-ranking agent somewhere within the Australian Government and that that official had been posted to Washington: a conclusion that could not be substantiated. Cherkashin’s re-emergence in Washington in 1979, after tours of duty in Lebanon and India, was later than expected but not unanticipated. Without doubt, his calibre as a top KGB officer was justified by his successful handling of Ames and Hanssen.

The third publication worthy of note is by a Russian scientist, Alexander Kouzminov, who was recruited by the KGB as an expert on biological and bacterial warfare. 13 Espionage in Australia is mentioned a number of times in the book and it appears that Kouzminov was consulted about plans, in the event of war, to sabotage an Australian naval base used by the United States Navy.

Koudinov also supplied information which strongly implies the existence of an “illegal” KGB spy ring operating in Australia. An illegal spy ring has no connections with Soviet diplomatic consular or trade premises, or their officials, except in the case of direst emergency. Personnel involved in illegal work typically presented as being from a nationality group other than that of the Soviet bloc. German and Scandinavian documentation was frequently used for cover purposes and to avoid detection. There would be no reason for security authorities to be alert to the presence of an illegal spy-ring, unless they had a particularly lucky break in the form of defector information or interception of communications leading to the identification of a spy — a fairly unlikely event. It is probable that KGB agents, well-placed within the Australian intelligence community and government departments, would be run by this method rather than directly from agent-running officers based at the Soviet embassy or other premises.

Kouzminov also imparted the information that his directorate of the KGB, Directorate S — which was, and probably still is, within the SVR (the re-badged KGB), which is responsible for recruiting and running illegal agents — had a group of officers known as the Special Reserve. The KGB political line (Line P) was known to have a number of Special Reservists, who were to be used in times when crises, politics or expulsions dictated that intelligence officers known to Western authorities were not to be used operationally. That is the hallmark of a Special Reservist — being unknown to Western intelligence and, moreover, to their colleagues. It is known that at least one KGB Special Reservist served in Australia, namely Valeriy Nikolayevich Zemskov, a Minister-Counsellor at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra during 1986-89. 14 He attracted a considerable amount of publicity, first, through his identification as a Special Reservist, and second, his relationship with Michael Costello, then Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

The sum total of information contained in the books mentioned in this article is disappointingly small. Very little is known, let alone publicised, about the penetration of ASIO and the Australian Government by the KGB and other hostile intelligence agencies. The fact that defector sources have passed information to the Australian Government about Soviet espionage is indisputable. However, what is not known, and should not be tolerated, is the lack of information in the public domain. This is one case where the public has an undeniable right to know, first, the full details of what went on during the Cold War, and, second, what measures are currently being taken by ASIO to counter the espionage being waged by an increasingly autocratic Russian regime. Lastly, a definitive account of Australia’s role in the Cold War remains to be written: it is too important a task to be the province of left-wing academics whose views of security and intelligence matters are at best partisan and hostile; at worst, treasonable.




1. Putin’s background as a Lieutenant-Colonel in the KGB and his service in the former East Germany are widely known. However, less publicity is given to the claim made by the GRU defector Stanislav Lunev that Putin headed the FSB, linear successor to the KGB Second Chief Directorate, at an unspecified time. See Col. Stanislav Lunev, “Russian Espionage, the Mercury Continues to Rise”, NewsMax.com, 28 December 1999.

2. Ari. E. Waldman, “New race: Russia’s arms trade”, Harvard International Review, Vol. 20, No. 1, Winter 1998. See also Jane’s Defence Weekly, subject line: arms transfers (Russia).

3. The foreign espionage operations, previously conducted by the First Chief Directorate of the KGB, are now the province of the SVR, which functions roughly like the CIA, UKSIS, ASIS and so on.

4. Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West (London: Allen Lane/Penguin Press, 1999).

5. Aldrich Ames, a relatively senior CIA officer who volunteered to work for the KGB, is considered to have betrayed 25 Soviet intelligence officers working for Western powers.

6. Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievskiy, KGB: The Inside Story of its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1990).

7. Justice R.M. Hope, Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, 21 August 1974 – 25 October 1977 (Canberra: Australian Government Printing Office).

8. Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive II:The KGB and the World (London: Allen Lane/Penguin Press, 2005).

9. Victor Cherkashin and Gregory Feifer, Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer (New York: Perseus Press, 2005).

10. The precise number of agents known to have been betrayed by Ames is difficult to assess. In one of many accounts, Tim Weiner, David Johnston and Neil A. Lewis, Betrayal: The Story of Aldrich Ames, an American Spy (New York: Random House, 1995), the authors claim that at least 13 KGB and GRU officers were betrayed by Ames, but they note that the number could have been much higher and that Ames’ memory was blunted by alcohol and self-interest (page 41). Assessments of the damage done by Ames and other KGB penetrations of U.S. intelligence bodies reveal CIA/FBI tensions and a high degree of political manoeuvering and apportioning of blame. The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 1 November 1994, Part One: An Assessment of the Aldrich H. Ames Espionage Case and Its Implications for U.S. Intelligence, is well worth reading.

11. Both Ames and Hanssen volunteered their services to the KGB for money. In true KGB style, Cherkashin is credited with recruiting them and running them in place, by clandestine means.

12. Nosenko was unfortunately caught up in an internal CIA war, involving the CIA’s head of counter-intelligence, James Jesus Angleton, and his principal source of information, Anatoli Golitsyn. For three years, Nosenko was treated as an agent provocateur, drugged, interrogated and finally declared genuine. He imparted information on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to his captors, denying KGB complicity.

13. Alexander Kouzminov, Biological Espionage: Special Operations of the Soviet and Russian Foreign Intelligence Services in the West (London: Greenhill Books, 2005).

14. See Ken Aldred, “Espionage: Did a Soviet spy penetrate ASIO?” News Weekly (Melbourne), 20 November 2004, page 5.




John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.





National Observer No. 68 -Autumn 2006