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Kremlin official issues death threat in Russian spy scandal. Is the KGB coming back?

The Russian spy scandal has provoked an upheaval within the country's humiliated foreign intelligence agency. Some are pushing for a recreation of Soviet-era security machinery.

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The Kommersant story's accuracy was confirmed Friday by President Medvedev, who told reporters on the sidelines of the G-20 summit that "as far as I'm concerned, what was published in Kommersant was not news. I found out about it on the day in happened, with all its attributes."

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Medvedev may even be the one responsible for leaking the story to Kommersant, an independent but mainstream Moscow business daily, in the first place, some analysts suggest.

"Medvedev had the feeling that Putin was the big domestic winner from the spy scandal," says Andrei Soldatov, editor of, an online journal that reports on the secret services. Putin, who appears in increasingly open competition with Medvedev in advance of 2012 presidential elections, used his own background as a KGB spy to appear in charge. In comparison, Medvedev, who was blindsided by the spy revelations at the end of an official visit to the US, looked weak and out-of-the-loop.

"This story makes Medvedev look like he's the guy in charge of the secret services, not Putin," says Mr. Soldatov.

But even though the story's stratospheric sourcing may be taken as genuine, don't assume there's much truth in it, warn some Russian analysts.

"I think the Russian leadership was deeply unhappy about the spy scandal, which made our secret services look like clowns, and so they concocted this tale about how they were really excellent agents who would never have been caught if they hadn't been betrayed by a traitor," says Alexander Golts, a security expert and deputy editor of Yezhednevny Zhurnal, an independent online newspaper.

A push to reinvent the KGB?

Kommersant said that SVR officials had failed to notice several signs that Scherbakov might have turned double agent, including the fact that he had quietly brought his whole family to live in the US and the curious detail that he'd refused a promotion a year earlier. "In hindsight, it's clear that he didn't want another polygraph test that went with the new position," the paper noted. "That means he was probably already working for the Americans at that time."

One of the possible hidden agendas lurking behind the Kommersant story, experts say, is the suggestion made by its high-level sources that pressure may grow as a result of the scandal to merge the SVR with its domestic counterpart, the FSB security service. That would effectively reinvent the Soviet-era KGB, a vast security behemoth that encompassed domestic secret services, counter-intelligence, border guards, and external espionage all under one roof. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin broke the KGB into separate pieces in a bid to make them more manageable and more accountable to political authority.

"At the bottom of this story is the idea that we need to return to the good old days of the KGB, when things were done properly," says Mr. Golts. "This is serious, but who doesn't remember that we had our traitors in those days too?"

Why some see the death threat as bluster

Many experts say that the reported death threat is probably just bluster.

The SVR's former spokesperson, Yury Kobaladze, says the threat was probably just bluster by some Kremlin official hiding behind the cloak of anonymity.

"This talk of sending a 'Mercader' after someone is absolute foolishness," Mr. Kobaladze says. "The intelligence services stopped carrying out those kind of 'wet' operations long ago. The law today prevents that kind of activity. Someone said this to sound clever, but now it will spread around the world and do harm not only to the SVR but to Russia's image as well."


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