Putin Botched Spy Ring Mission, Berlin Official Says

BERLIN -- President Vladimir Putin badly bungled his last assignment as a KGB agent in East Germany, causing the collapse of a spy ring, an official overseeing East German secret service records said Friday.

"He was not very good. His success rate, as far as we know it, was not good. He made a great mistake," said Johannes Legner, spokesman for the Berlin government agency that runs the archives of the East German secret police, the Stasi.

Putin worked from 1984 to 1990 as a KGB spy in Dresden, in East Germany, before working his way up in post-Soviet politics to take the Kremlin this year on the strength of a reputation as a clear-headed operator who gets things done.

Yet it appears he blundered during perhaps his most important KGB assignment after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

His mission, according to Legner, was to recruit a spy ring that would continue to spy on Moscow's behalf after East Germany's impending collapse.

"He organized a network that was acting out of Dresden, infiltrating toward Munich [in the West]," Legner said.

Putin turned to colleagues in the Stasi with whom he had collaborated closely in previous years but who were fast losing their once considerable influence as East Germany crumbled.

"He used former MfS [Stasi] people for it but one of these people, if you want, defected," said Legner, whose agency is known as the Gauck authority after the former dissident pastor who runs it. "This guy went later on to our [West German] counterintelligence and told them the whole story.

"This was one of his most important guys, he was an instructor for the group, so they located the whole group and found out whom he wanted to use."

Legner said that after the Putin-recruited spy's defection to the West, officials made several arrests related to the case.

"If you choose the wrong person, the central figure of a network you construct, and this person defects after two months, that's a real catastrophe," Legner added.

"Any case officer in London or Washington or wherever in the world would get a lot of problems for doing this."

"The funny thing is that soon after this [in 1990] Putin disappeared," Legner said. "You could speculate that he had to get out of Germany because this network was uncovered.

"The problem is that now our government does not want to deal with it," Legner said.

"As long as the guy is so important they don't want to deal with it and disturb the relationship with such old stories."

Putin returned to the Soviet Union and by 1992 had left the KGB.

After serving as deputy mayor in his home city of St. Petersburg until mid-1996, he moved to Moscow to work at the presidential property department, overseeing the Kremlin's foreign possessions under Kremlin property chief Pavel Borodin. Acting President Putin removed Borodin as property chief in January, appointing him as secretary of the Russia-Belarus union.

Putin moved on from the property department to become head of the KGB's successor, the Federal Security Service, before being hand-picked last year by President Boris Yeltsin as prime minister and eventual successor as president.

Putin has said little about his work as a KGB agent in Dresden, but former Stasi officers have said he was an efficient, loyal Communist who spoke excellent German.

The present German government has declined so far to release the Stasi files on Putin, who is to visit Germany next month.

Last week Putin named another former KGB spy who served in East Germany, Sergei Lebedev, to serve as his new foreign intelligence director.