Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 8

Russia’s SVR: the leaner, if not meaner, successor to the KGB’s First Directorate

By Michael Kozakavich

The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) is successor to the former First Directorate of the Soviet KGB, responsible for the gathering of foreign intelligence through open and covert means. The First Directorate had an impressive record of achievement, demonstrating consistently its ability from the end of the Second World War onward to recruit agents in the highest echelons of government in states allied with, and opposed to, the Soviet Union. The SVR, for its part, has developed as a security organ in a fashion that is somewhat unique for contemporary Russia; that is, it appears to exhibit stability, professionalism, relative independence, and effectiveness. It has also stayed completely aloof from political struggles, while seeming to carve out for itself an influential niche in Russia’s foreign policy apparatus.

SVR Structure

The internal structure of the SVR is believed by most to emulate that of the First Directorate, comprised of "lines" within geographical "directions" and separate task-specific directorates. I would suggest that the downsizing of the SVR since KGB days and the narrowing of its global perspectives have probably produced internal structural changes and a greater emphasis on technical means than the KGB possessed.(1)

The SVR is considerably smaller than the KGB’s First Chief Directorate. The service has acknowledged that, in a process ending in early 1994, the SVR gave up approximately half of its foreign intelligence "apparatus," a change that entailed the closing of at least thirty field stations and reductions of about 40 percent in its central "apparatus".(2) In contrast to the armed forces and other security services, SVR officials have been rather upbeat about this need to restructure, referring to a "leaner and more efficient" agency and arguing that "less personnel means a greater percentage of the truly exceptional." It has also been suggested by several SVR officers that the majority of the service’s "losses" have occurred in areas that were of primarily political and ideological concern unique to the USSR.

The SVR possesses a separate directorate dedicated to economic espionage and possibly counterespionage, established sometime before 1993. There is at the very least one separate directorate dedicated to a specific country (the U.S.) and there are enough offhand comments to indicate that China may warrant a separate directorate. Ranking SVR officials have referred on several occasions to internal units within the SVR devoted to media relations, internal counterintelligence, collaboration with foreign services such as the CIA, and to monitoring the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.(3)

At the executive level, the SVR has a civilian "group of advisers to the Director of the SVR," which was headed by former First Chief Directorate deputy director Vadim Kirpichenko in late 1993. (4) I have not discovered any subsequent references to this group, however, nor any information regarding its legal status or composition. But Kirpichenko plays a major role in the SVR’s press relations.

SVR Directors

The SVR is remarkable among the Russian security services — and Russian official organs in general — in that it does not appear to have been subjected to constant changes of high-level staff. In research that I believe is fairly comprehensive, I have not been able to discover a single instance of a known SVR official being publicly fired, replaced, or even moved outside of the SVR. There was one mid-1993 reference to "five of the seven leaders" of the intelligence service being removed, (5) but there was no indication as to who these "leaders" were, what positions they held, or where they have gone since. One would presume that at least some of them were removed for their participation in the 1991 coup. It is also quite possible that some ended up serving in the advisers’ group headed by Kirpichenko.


Currently Russia’s foreign minister, was born in 1930. While the term "enigmatic" would perhaps be a misnomer, Primakov had kept a low enough profile until the end of the Gorbachev era that he was not the subject of much western scrutiny. It is known that he attended Moscow’s Institute for Oriental Studies in the 1950s, graduating with a degree in Arabic Studies. He speaks fluent Arabic. In the 1960s Primakov was a Middle East correspondent for Pravda. It is likely that his ties to the KGB were cemented at this time — few Soviet journalists of note, and especially those dealing in sensitive regions and with Primakov’s background in area studies — were not at least KGB "auxiliaries" if not full-fledged KGB officers.

Most Western sources seem to lose track of Primakov through the late 1960s and 1970s, when he apparently continued as a journalist and was awarded the title of "academician," specifically with a doctorate in economics. It appears he acted as a part-time diplomat, primarily between Moscow and Baghdad, possibly also coordinating KGB activities in the Middle East. Primakov himself referred to "carrying out the mission of an adviser for many years".(6) His first high-profile engagement to Western eyes was his role as Moscow’s special envoy to Baghdad during the Gulf War. Primakov was the bearer of the Soviet-sponsored peace plan that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein actually accepted, but which Washington rejected. After the 1991 coup and the subsequent disbanding of the KGB, the First Chief Directorate, responsible for foreign intelligence, was separated from the KGB and reconstituted as the Foreign Intelligence Service. Primakov was somewhat unexpectedly appointed its head by then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

It is alleged by some sources that Primakov fed information to Russian president Boris Yeltsin during these last few months of the Soviet Union’s existence. It is difficult to believe, given the realities of power in the Soviet state following the 1991 coup, that Yeltsin had no role in Primakov’s selection from the very beginning, or that he could not have simply requested access to SVR information under his own growing authority vis-a-vis Gorbachev. Thus, it is likely that Primakov has been inclined towards Yeltsin "since the beginning," so to speak.

During Primakov’s four and a half years at the helm, the SVR redirected itself away from its Cold War tasks and toward what were considered to be more pressing matters in Russia’s near abroad. Unlike the other security services, no Russian political figure, even those of very liberal bent, seemed to question the necessity for the SVR or its role. Primakov presided over the withdrawal of KGB rezidentsi in Africa and Latin America, but also maintained the former First Directorate’s network of illegals in North America and Europe without any apparent disruption, indicating that either he was already familiar with such procedures or picked them up very quickly. In general, the depth and expertise with which he discussed intelligence operations from the beginning of his term as SVR head seems to indicate a long familiarity.

The head of the SVR obviously viewed his agency as a necessary tool for maintaining Russia’s international status. While avoiding comment on specific SVR involvement in high-profile spy cases (in keeping with tradition), Primakov in interviews hinted at Russian successes in technical intelligence, especially regarding defense technology.(7)


Is the current director of the SVR. He is a career SVR/KGB officer from the First Directorate who apparently specialized in South Asia. Trubnikov was deputy director during Primakov’s tenure, and moved directly into his seat when Primakov was unexpectedly named foreign minister in January of 1996. Trubnikov has not presided over any great sea change in SVR policy, and if anything has become even less of a public figure than was Primakov.

Operations, Priorities, and Goals

Russia has made quite clear that it intends to continue active intelligence gathering despite whatever realignments and alliances may take place in global politics, simply because it believes any other approach to be unrealistic. SVR sources also intimate that there is a close coordination of intelligence activities directed against Russia by the U.S., Britain, and Germany, as well as by the Baltic states.(8) All personnel connected with the SVR use the SVR’s apolitical, nonideological role as their departure point in describing the difference between their service and the KGB’s First Chief Directorate .This is stressed in the strongest possible terms, and SVR personnel are even forbidden from belonging to political parties.(9) It is also emphasized that the SVR, although it is involved in intelligence activity regarding organized criminal activities, has no law-enforcement role whatsoever and does not possess legal powers of arrest, prosecution, or detention. SVR officials generally describe the agency’s priorities in terms of some combination of the following:

-forecasting and monitoring regional conflicts

-gathering scientific and technical intelligence

-protecting the Russian economy

-combating international organized crime

-preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction

In a speech to chief officers and staffers of the SVR in April 1994, Boris Yeltsin tied the work of the SVR very closely to Russian foreign policy and its efforts to protect Russia’s interests against "attempts to dominate us and to impose on us actions that run counter to Russia’s interests."(10) He also referred specifically to the role of the SVR in advancing CIS integration by means of discouraging "dubious proposals" and "schemes" by Western states that, according to Yeltsin, are trying to "artificially exacerbate relations between the CIS and Baltic countries and Russia."

During his short tenure as SVR head, Trubnikov has dealt with several public exposures of Russian intelligence operations in Canada, Poland, the United Kingdom, and, above all, the U.S. These exposures seemed to reflect a broad spectrum of intelligence activities — in Poland and Britain, political intelligence and influence, in the U.S., military-technical intelligence and penetration of counterintelligence organs.(11) The KGB’s First Chief Directorate had been noted for its ability to place informers within foreign governments and structures of interest to it. Reportedly, the SVR has continued this tradition, albeit with restrictions imposed by the law "On Foreign Intelligence." The law apparently forbids specifically the recruitment of agents and informers through non-voluntary means (ostryye formi) such as blackmail or physical threat. Informers are now allegedly recruited (as former KGB staffers such as Lt. Gen. Leonid Shebarshin insist they almost always were during the Soviet era) through bribery or natural sympathy for Russian goals.(12)

Position of the SVR within the Government

Legally, the SVR is constituted under the 1992 "Law on Foreign Intelligence," and is jointly accountable to the parliament (specifically, the Defense and Security Committee) and the presidential administration. The only indication of real parliamentary involvement in SVR affairs thus far, however, has been a routine inquiry into SVR activities conducted by the Defense and Security Committee in 1993.(13) Both Trubnikov and Primakov before him emphasized the SVR’s direct access to the president — they reportedly present him personally with weekly reports on SVR activity and current affairs — while rarely mentioning the Duma except to say that the SVR has "constructive relations with all controlling agencies."

According to the law "On Foreign Intelligence", the president determines and shapes intelligence strategy and priorities. This presidential authority has been justified on the basis of avoiding political interference in the process of collecting and disseminating intelligence which might result in "attempts to ‘correct’ intelligence information".(14) It would also, if the system worked properly, help to ensure that decision-makers at the executive level receive only the intelligence data they want and need, rather than a vast unfiltered mass.

The director of the SVR holds a seat on the Security Council, the Foreign Policy Council, and the Defense Council, and as such is personally involved in any presidential decision on foreign policy. Both directors have emphasized the strong advisory role played by the SVR in this area, and under Primakov the SVR took rather preemptive actions in foreign policy formation through the release of "open reports" unapproved and apparently unexpected by any other organ of government. The first of these was a January 1993 report entitled "A New Post-Cold War Challenge: The Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction." The paper acknowledged the dangers of "brain-drain" and "leakage" of nuclear weapons and related technology and know-how from former Soviet states, but downplayed reports of the allegedly abject state of Russian nuclear research facilities and personnel.

In September, 1994, the SVR released "Russia and the CIS: Does the West’s Position Need Adjustment?"(15) It strongly criticized Western positions on Russia’s attempts to promote CIS integration, and outlined four major concerns which face Russia and which drive its thinking on CIS integration. The crowning glory of the SVR’s foray into foreign policy, however, was "Prospects for the Expansion of NATO and Russia’s Interests," presented in late November 1993.(16) According to Russian journalists, it had the approval of the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff. The paper was called an advisory opinion of the SVR, and was widely covered in Russian and foreign media. It took an extremely hard-line tone regarding NATO, one that was at some variance with official Russian policy at that time. This was in the midst of a series of rifts between government officials involved in Russian foreign policy, and the paper may have been an attempt on Primakov’s part to stake out his own turf in the higher echelons of power. Yeltsin refused to comment on the paper, and Primakov himself responded to questions about the reports’ reception in the Foreign Ministry by saying that "tactical readings vary from department to department" but that he "didn’t know a single organization that is in fundamental opposition to our report. And that includes the Foreign Ministry…"

These analytical pieces, interestingly, were produced entirely in-house — they had not been requested by any outside organ of the Russian government. At the time of their release, with the possible exception of the 1994 document on the CIS, none had actually been read beforehand by Yeltsin, nor was he even aware of them.

When questioned about whether the SVR would continue to release such reports, Trubnikov indicated that they are always under consideration and preparation, but that future subjects will be carefully considered. It seems plausible to argue, however, that the open reports were issued mainly on Primakov’s personal initiative, and that they were probably written by Primakov himself or under his direct supervision with an eye to staking out his and the SVR’s position in the foreign policy apparat. Indeed given the necessity of close cooperation between the Foreign Ministry and the SVR (SVR operatives generally work under and through diplomatic cover) and Primakov’s role in shaping the SVR, it also seems plausible to argue that even as foreign minister Primakov maintains fairly close contacts with the SVR and might still be considered its "real" head, at least in matters of political and geopolitical concerns.

The SVR’s relationship with the other security services is difficult to ascertain. Both the Federal Security Service (FSB, Russia’s domestic successor to the KGB) and the SVR operate in foreign counterintelligence, while all five of the main Russian security services maintain signals and electronic intelligence assets. The FSB and GRU (the General Staff’s Main Intelligence Directorate) appear also to employ "moles" and illegals. However, after a series of "turf wars" over various former KGB assets in 1992-1995, things seem to have settled down into a situation in which the SVR handles foreign intelligence in the broadest sense, the FSB oversees foreign intelligence relating to domestic Russian concerns, and the GRU works in the military-technical intelligence field when Russian military personnel are present. The SVR is actually forbidden by the law "On Foreign Intelligence" from operating within the borders of the Russian Federation. This means that the SVR likely played no internal role in the Chechnya crisis, although it probably followed the activities of Chechens abroad. (17)

The SVR has managed, seemingly, to stay aloof from involvement in any of Russia’s domestic political turmoil. Much of this is probably due to the abilities of Primakov, who, both as SVR head and as foreign minister, has fashioned a reputation for being resolutely apolitical. SVR officials have never joined in any of the factional infighting that has characterized Yeltsin’s governments, nor has the SVR been subjected to serious criticism from any quarter since mid-1992, when the legal basis of its operations was established.

Conclusions and Speculation

The way in which the SVR has been directed and established within the Russian government structure highlights several interesting tendencies in Russian thinking. The first is that the SVR and its activities are often described with a strong gloss of Russian nationalism, relating to the "multipolar world" foreign policy concept, the maintenance of Russia’s international status, and the need to defend Russia against plots and interference from the outside.

The non-involvement of the SVR and its officers in domestic politics, and the seemingly broad support that it receives from all sides of the Russian political spectrum, mirrors that of the Foreign Ministry since the removal of Primakov’s predecessor, former foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev. The barring of SVR staff from involvement with political movements, however, is another thing. While largely symbolic, it may symbolize a basic belief that state interests supersede democracy. The SVR has also apparently dispensed with everything except the pretense of parliamentary control, in favor of reporting directly to the executive. These two developments together might indicate that the SVR is seen to have a place as a "national interest" — as part of Russia’s mechanism for dealing with the "outside world" — on an essentially suspicious and defensive basis. As such an asset, it transcends, in the Russian view, the importance of democracy.


1. Segodnya, December 11, 1993

2. Ibid.

3. Rossiiskaya gazeta, June 16, 1994

4. Rossiiskiye vesti, November 23, 1993

5. Rossiiskiye vesti, August 4, 1993

6. Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 17, 1992

7. Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 22, 1995

8. Interfax, September 29, 1992

9. Moscow Radio, March 10, 1994

10. Quoted in Rossiiskaya gazeta, April 29, 1994

11. Transitions, November 1996 (Open Media Research Institute, Prague)

12. Komsomolskaya pravda, September 9, 1993

13. Rossiiskiye vesti, August 4, 1993

14. Krasnaya zvezda, December 21, 1993

15. Rossiiskaya gazeta, September 22, 1994

16. Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 26, 1993

17. Interfax, September 16, 1994

Michael Kozakavich is completing his MA thesis on the Russian internal security and intelligence apparatus at the University of Calgary.