These two incidents suggest that Lebedev was willing to reestablish the SVR as an effective if ruthless organization
The current head of the SVR, Mikhail Fradkov, is one of the most important figures in the shady world of international intelligence, and he served twice as Vladimir Putin’s prime minister.
His appointment to the SVR in October 2007 came as a surprise, to replace Sergei Lebedev, because unlike his predecessor he had enjoyed a career in economics, not intelligence.
Lebedev had been a KGB First Chief Directorate officer from 1975 until his promotion in May 2000, and had played a key role in the suppression of the rebellion in Chechnya.
Lebedev is known in the west because of the defection in 2000 of Sergei Tretyakov, the deputy rezident in New York who would later collaborate with the journalist Pete Earley to write Comrade J, an account of the corruption that paralysed the KGB and its successor during the Yeltsin years.
He would then become notorious following the assassination in February 2004 of the former Chechen president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Doha. He was killed with a car-bomb and the SVR rezident, Aleksandr Fetisov, was accused of the crime, along with two GRU subordinates who did not enjoy diplomatic immunity.
Both men, Anatoli Blashkov and Vasili Pokchov, were subsequently convicted after a ten-week trial and sentenced to twenty-five years’ imprisonment. That incident was followed by the murder in London of Aleksandr Litvinenko in November 2006, a crime for which his former KGB colleague Andrei Lugovoy will be arrested if he ever ventures out of Russia.
These two incidents suggest that Lebedev was willing, presumably with the Kremlin’s sanction, to reassert the SVR’s authority and reestablish the SVR as an effective if ruthless organization.
While Lebedev was chosen by Putin because they had known each other for years, and maybe had served together in East Germany, the selection of Fradkov gives some credence to the view expressed by some external observers that the SVR has a new role and respectability in the Russian Federation.
It clearly has strategic objectives in states such as Georgia where Russian interests are critical, but Fradkov’s economic background suggests an emphasis on economic issues rather than conventional espionage.
It is well-recognised that the SVR has rebuilt its rezidenturas overseas although there is little evidence to suggest that it is engaged in stealing secrets or engaged in the kind of subversion that was the KGB’s hallmark during the Cold War.
Certainly the Kremlin, perhaps bolstered by the high price of oil in early 2008, sought to extend its influence into the Atlantic by deploying ballistic missile submarine patrols, and towards Venezuela and Cuba with naval goodwill visits, but the SVR’s men in London reportedly have spent more time in the city studying the banking system than buying classified information about new weapons systems.
Is Fradkov the new, politically savvy face of the SVR? Is one of his tasks to cement the breach in relations with the west caused by the poisoning of Litvinenko? Analysts who interpreted the assassinations of Yandarbiyev and Litvinenko as proof that the SVR has slipped into some old KGB habits may yet be surprised.