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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stepashin: Espionage Escalating From East

Like everything else in Russia, the spying game is changing.

Sergei Stepashin, head of the Federal Counterintelligence Service, said in a published interview Wednesday that arrests of foreign agents have increased sharply since the end of the Cold War but those caught are mainly coming from the East, not the West.

"This year our organs have captured more foreign intelligence agents than the KGB and the Security Ministry did in the past five years put together," Stepashin told the weekly Argumenty i Fakty.

Alexander Mikhailov, spokesman for the service, said seven agents had been detained this year. He said the increase in numbers was because Russia, once one of the world's most secretive societies, had opened up and because "our agents have begun to work better."

The pattern of captures suggests a new post-Cold War espionage game has begun in which the spies come from a range of countries, not just the old enemy states in the West.

Although he refused to mention the specific home countries of the captured agents, Stepashin said they included Far Eastern countries, "Islamic states" and Russia's former Soviet neighbors.

Several Asian countries are interested in Russian military technology, said Sergei Oznobishchev, a security expert at the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow, because "our technology and equipment are on a level they haven't yet attained."

Oznobishchev said that the Russian Far East, sparsely populated and thousands of miles from Moscow, was an Achilles' heel for Russia, which could not keep up the tight security it needed there.

However, a former high-ranking KGB officer said Stepashin's claims should not be taken at face value. He said the security boss was trying to bolster his position and that of his organization. "Stepashin wants to raise his prestige, his authority with the president. The figures are exaggerated, to put it mildly," said Pyotr Nikulin, former assistant director of the KGB's Problems of Security Institute.

Oznobishchev also noted that Stepashin, who was appointed by Yeltsin to head the main successor body to the KGB, has embarked on a policy of giving his agency a high profile.

"This can't be divorced from the political situation in the country," he said.

Spying between former Soviet countries is an ironic consequence of the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"They have all come, as they say, from one nest, from the same KGB schools and suddenly their employees are working on the territory of Russia," Stepashin commented.

Earlier this year the Russia authorities announced they had detained an Estonian "agent" near the Baltic republic's disputed border with Russia in the Pskov region.

Nikulin said that the spies who were caught may only have been engaged in low-level surveillance and industrial espionage. He said that Russia's most secret military information was well protected from prying intruders.

"We have less top-level secrets, so they are easier to guard," Nikulin said.