Sir, thank you for finding the time to talk to us. I spent quite a long time working in the United States and would like us to focus on the relations between Russia and the US. Was there any cooperation between our intelligence services at the time when you were at the top of the Russian Foreign Intelligence? And if so – who were our American partners?
Of course, there was. It all started with James Woolsey (CIA Director in 1993-1995). He came to visit us, on the invitation from Yevgeny Primakov. But Woolsey was not a professional intelligence operative. He was more of a scholar, an expert, just like Primakov himself.
And my counterpart was Admiral William Studeman, CIA First Deputy Director – formidable professional with military background, very clever, I’d say, a man of modern vision and broad perspective.
But then our cooperation took a downward trend, while the overall tendency in bilateral relations was quite the opposite. I know it from my experience as the First Deputy Foreign Minister. At the time we set up a Joint Russian-US working group on Afghanistan, and later – a working group on joint counter-terrorist effort. During my time as First Deputy Minister I was watching it operate most successfully for four years, expanding the scope of cooperation well up to bringing in people from the Ministry of Finance, experts in financial monitoring. This contributed to our better understanding of methods of tracing illegal operations in the banking system, money laundering, clandestine transactions and so on. And this is only part of what we were doing at the time.
But then, perhaps, you also met Gina Haspel, who has now risen to a position of the CIA Director, but at that period served in Baku?
No, I didn’t meet her then, but of course, I suppose, she was well-informed about what was going on in Russia. All CIA station chiefs operating in the Post-Soviet space were mostly focused on Russia.
And of course, it was only natural that at that stage they got all sorts of ideas of how to prevent Russia from implementing what they described as ‘neo-imperial’ policy in the former Soviet republics. They even tried to set up GUUAM - a regional group of five post-Soviet states Georgia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova.
However, due to certain geographical, economic and political reasons, the project failed, so they decided to develop bilateral ties with each of these states, instead.
Interesting! Do you see any connection between their activities in those countries and the so-called ‘Colour revolutions’?
Yes, of course. But to be more precise they started not in our territory, but in the Balkans. They then applied their Balkan experience to the post-Soviet space. They did it with some success in Georgia, and they’re proceeding in Ukraine, which is the most vivid example.
These are the countries where they achieved some results – negative for Russia and positive for the US. At least, that’s what they think.
Could it be a zero-sum game when the negative is counterbalanced by the positive?
Of course not! What kind of a zero-sum are you talking about? We’ve been dragged into a serious conflict with Ukraine. It could be the case if we had succeeded in, say, breaking up NATO.
But we were too preoccupied with ourselves and paid little attention to what was going on in our former republics…
Not so long ago a former Nixon Center in Washington, DC hosted a most interesting discussion between retired top CIA officers. They talked about Russia. And observed it’s become difficult to work against our country. And one of them even said the time of human intelligence is over.
Nothing can ever replace human intelligence.
Simply because nowadays any information, including top secret, becomes known within the next 24 hours.
You mean, someone leaks it?
Not necessarily. Interception of communications – it has been there for quite some time. But! This kind of approach, all the technology the NSA employs – a high-cost project, by the way – should not be overestimated. Intercepting huge numbers of phone calls costs a lot of money and - is rather useless. The use of top-notch technologies and hundreds of interpreters turns out to be in vain. And what is the purpose of all that? First, you identify an objective, you set a goal, than you decide how you achieve it. Suppose you need to obtain certain data. And you know where. So you start looking for ways to approach it. It is all very specific.
So, what kind of intelligence poses bigger threat – technological or human?
Human intelligence has always been a bigger threat. It has always been in the past, and will be even more so in the future, that the most important question would be “Why?”, not “What?”. Motivation is what matters most. Intentions. Something might look perfectly harmless, but only an agent could tell you the real purpose of it all – he looks at it from within, he knows the menatality, he is the one who can give you the real understanding of what you might have already obtained with the help of technologies….
Americans tend to overrate technological methods in intelligence gathering and underestimate human intelligence – which looks a bit primitive… CIA is relatively young. It started operating just after the end of WWII, and from the very start they had that fascination with technology. They really believe that data from intelligence satellite makes all the difference. Well, they are wrong. The satellite image shows you objects on the ground. It doesn’t tell you what’s the purpose of the object. Why is it there? Could it be a distraction? The image wouldn’t tell….
But they complain it’s become more difficult for them to understand what’s going on, to approach Russians….
Well that’s the way they see politics. It’s their own perception of politics. They used to decide for themselves who’s their friend and who’s their enemy. But, look, today every intelligence officer needs to realize that we live in a vague world, which changes rapidly and is difficult to understand. As old alliances fall apart, and USSR, the traditional enemy, is no more there – it’s difficult to see, who is the next adversary…
Russia has always been seen as adversary, so there’s nothing new in that. But Americans have started to fight against Russia much later than the French, the Turks, the English, the Germans, and so on… So, Americans don’t even quite understand what’s going on. If you ask me, I regard MI6 professional standards way higher than those at the CIA. Just look at how accurately the British use their resources…
We’ll talk about them later – there’s the Skripal case…
What has the Skripal case got to do with the British intelligence. The Brits themselves fail to have a clear understanding of what happened to Skripal.
And you? Do you have full understanding of it?
Well, in what I consider to be the most important – yes.
And as a professional, you have no more questions left as to what happened?
No questions. And not about what actually happened, but how unprofessionally the rather disgusting plot was carried out. Smells strongly of the alleged murder of a journalist in Ukraine.
Are you saying, it was provocation?
Yes, it was. With an objective to aggravate tensions between Russia, the UK and the West as a whole.
And how do you see Skripal’s role? Innocent victim?
Who’s innocent? Skripal’s innocent? He got into this situation himself. He made his own choice – working for them. Yes, we let him go. But before that he had served most of his sentence, was stripped of ranks and awards, though not of his citizenship, mind you.
Well, yes, he was exchanged. And western media wrote that the attempt to poison him also broke an unwritten rule that exchanged agents remain unharmed, is that so?
No, that is not so. There has never been such a rule, or agreement – after we exchanged agents, you don‘t harm ours, and we don’t harm yours. There’s never been this kind of agreement. At least to my knowledge. I know nothing of such ‘deals’ and I think they were impossible.
What’s your take on Edward Snowden?
Snowden is a classic type of western liberal idealist, who considers himself a fighter for human rights.
An American dissident?
Precisely. But he pulled the whole thing off like a top-class intelligence operative. Getting hold of such amount of intelligence – stands him huge credit. You need to be inventive and have special talent to make a large number of people supply you with the information. And still doing it.
Did he get it from other agents? I thought he was acting on his own?
No, how could he – he had no official access to the data...
Could you recall an episode in our relations with the US, which you’d describe as the most perilous?
Cuban missile crisis, without doubt.
And the current level of tensions – does it resemble those times?
Not even close. I can see nothing in common.
-Thank God. I am still waiting for Trump to start doing something to support what he said about normalizing relations with Russia.
He could have well started doing something, but the trouble is, they wouldn’t even let him build a team of his own. State Department officials who were working on Russia walked out on him – some out of fear, others – out of hate.
They are trying to impeach him. If he provides no grounds for that they shall try to drive him to a state when he resigns or decides not to run for the second term.