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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reports Probe Putin's KGB Past




A spate of reports in the German press suggested this weekend that acting President Vladimir Putin was decorated for his work as a KGB agent in East Germany during the 1980s, and was even expelled from West Germany at one point after being identified as a Soviet spy.


But beyond vague statements from German intelligence spokesmen, there was little to confirm the accounts. American intelligence officials, speaking privately, have said that to their knowledge, Putin's 15-year career as a KGB agent was not exceptional.


Putin, who became acting president when Boris Yeltsin resigned Dec. 31, entered the KGB's foreign intelligence arm after graduating from Leningrad State University in 1975.


He is said to have left the service in 1990 after spending much of his career in Dresden, then an East German city frequented by Western businessmen.


Precisely what he did there was of little interest until Putin's sudden promotion from head of the FSB, the main KGB successor, to prime minister last August - and then to the presidency last month.


Since then, reports in the Western press have covered the spectrum of possibilities, from the chance he was a drudge who filed reports about East German political leanings to the prospect he ran a vast economic espionage campaign against the West.


The most spectacular of this weekend's German reports, in the newspaper Saechsische Zeitung, the main daily of the Saxony region where Putin was active as a KGB agent, quoted German intelligence sources as saying Putin was expelled from West Germany near the end of the 1970s on suspicion of espionage in Bonn.


The report states Putin worked under the cover of a correspondent for TASS, then the official Soviet news agency. It quoted Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB official who has made a name as a critic of the agency, as saying Putin's work there was not particularly successful.


On the other hand, reports this weekend claimed Putin was a frequent visitor to West Germany in the 1980s, sometimes moving through Checkpoint Charlie, the Cold War gateway between East and West Berlin, and sometimes using the name Adamov.


The newspaper Berliner Zeitung reported that allied intelligence agents photographed Putin in the mid-1980s outside the posh West Berlindepartment store KaDeWe, perhaps - they suspected - waiting for a rendezvous with a Soviet agent.


Several publications reported that Putin received an award from East Germany late in his career for his work there, but differed over the nature of the recognition.


Former East German Security Minister Erich Mielke, once one of the most feared men in East Germany, told the magazine Focus that Putin was honored "in recognition of considerable services to the ministry.'' But the weekly Der Spiegel called the award a routine commendation. And a spokesman for the Gauck Commission, a German office poring over records of the old East German spy apparatus, the Stasi, said the award was "not entirely routine,'' but not all that important, either.


Missing in all this, unfortunately, was what Putin did to earn the honor. A spokeswoman for Germany's Federal Intelligence Service said Putin had held an "important post'' for the KGB in Dresden from 1984 to 1990, but added: "It's difficult to say exactly what he did.''


One of the few firsthand reports on Putin's work, in Sunday's edition of the newspaper Welt am Sonntag, suggests that Putin was a mid-level KGB agent performing fairly routine duties.


The newspaper quoted a former Stasi officer who worked with Putin, Gunther Kohler, as saying Putin and his family lived in a two-and-a-half room apartment in Dresden and that he frequently made secret visits to West Germany.


Kohler said Putin, who called himself Adamov, spoke excellent German - so well, in fact, that he could imitate German dialects. Unlike many Russian agents posted there, he appeared to like Germans and especially admired German discipline.


Some reports have suggested Putin not only tried to recruit Western businessmen and East Germans traveling to the West, but also kept track of East Germans who supported economic reform.