Post-KGB Cloak & Dagger: Hot Lines and Ties to FBI

Spy case that opened yesterday highlights a rejigged Russian agency

What exactly young Platon Obukhov was thinking when he allegedly passed Russian state secrets to British intelligence agents is unclear.

His parents say the junior diplomat was mad, playing out imaginary scenes from the lurid thrillers he liked to write in his spare time. The Federal Security Service (FSB) - part of the former KGB - says he was a bona-fide spy.

Either way, the Obukhov espionage case, which came to court in Moscow on Monday, offers fresh evidence that Russia's once-feared intelligence network is recovering from the traumatic breakup of the Soviet Union - and is back in the business of catching spies.

"There have been a lot of changes and not much money, but the FSB does try, and it is managing to keep up," says Mikhail Lyubimov, a former KGB general. "There seems to be a certain stabilization."

Nor is there any shortage of spies to catch, according to Col. Mikhail Kirillin, an FSB official. "In the last two years, we have uncovered 39 Russian citizens spying for foreign services and more than 400 foreigners who are agents," he says. "Our impression is that there are more of them now than during the cold war."

In the cloak-and-dagger league, Mr. Obukhov does not seem to have been a major player. As a lowly second secretary on the North American desk at the Russian Foreign Ministry, his main claims to fame were his prominent father - a former deputy foreign minister - and a string of steamy novels with titles such as "Vampire Woman" and "In the Spider's Embrace."

But the FSB says its agents detected 14 British Embassy employees contacting Obukhov at one time or another, and his arrest in April 1996 sparked the biggest East-West spy scandal since the end of the cold war. Moscow expelled four British diplomats, and London kicked out four Russians in a tit-for-tat exchange reminiscent of the old days.

Indeed, much is reminiscent of the old days in the espionage business, it seems. The Americans, the British, the Israelis, and the Chinese are still masters of the spy ring in Russia, says Colonel Kirillin, "and their main priorities are the same as ever: the state of our defense readiness, the state of our economy, and political developments."

But their emphasis has changed a little, he acknowledges. In a rapidly changing post-Soviet Russia, he says, "it is natural that Western leaders should ask their services to answer questions that used not to exist, like whose finger is on the nuclear button in Moscow, and how reliable it is."

Western officials say their spies also keep a lookout for possible leaks of nuclear-weapons material from Russia, as well as supplementing reports from bona-fide diplomats about Kremlin intrigues and regional politics.

One alarming development, Kirillin says, is the emergence of spies working for former Soviet allies, such as Poland and the Baltic nations. "They used to study with us and they know the ways we operate, so it is very difficult to catch them," he explains. "We would hate to see third parties using operatives from those countries to spy against us."

Life is harder than it used to be for your average Russian counterspy. When the KGB was broken up into five different agencies, it became a lot less efficient - many senior officials left the service for higher-paying jobs in the private sector, "and we had to get used to the completely new experience of working in an open society, where our citizens were free to meet foreigners and to travel abroad," says Kirillin.

They also had to get used to working with the enemy. The FSB has had an office at the FBI for several years, and cooperation between the two is increasingly common.

THE economic free fall that has lowered living standards almost across the board in Russia has also complicated the counterintelligence operative's work.

In the old days, recalls Kirillin, most Soviet citizens who were recruited to spy against their country were blackmailed into doing so. Nowadays, he says, "the motivation has changed. They do it simply for money, and for ridiculously small amounts." Scientists, officials, and others who have seen their lifestyles plummet since the fall of communism "are happy with a couple of thousand dollars. In more than 300 cases we have come across, the people did not intend to be used as agents" says Kirillin. "They wanted a one-off deal, to hand over a document and get their money."

With such offenders, the FSB, which still occupies the KGB's notorious granite palace in Lubyanka Square, is almost indulgent. Last month, FSB chief Gen. Nikolai Kovalyov made a public offer of lenience to any Rus-sian spying for a foreign power who called a special hot line to become a double agent. More than 200 people have called the number so far, "and about 80 of them are of serious professional interest to us," according to Kirillin.

For the ones who don't 'fess up, the five spy trials that the FSB has successfully prosecuted this year offer a warning. But nobody in the Lubyanka thinks they will have a permanent effect. "I am quite sure that foreign services will go on working in our country just the same as we will go on working in their countries," says Kirillin, grinning. "I can't see any chance that it will stop in the foreseeable future."

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