It’s not every day that the man who ran Russia’s foreign espionage service offers to buy you a drink.
I’d been chasing Vyacheslav Trubnikov for an interview, when a message landed in my inbox: Hotel Metropol, 5 o’clock.
The Metropol is one of Moscow’s grande dame hotels, just steps from Red Square, with polished dark wood, sparkling crystal decanters, velvet armchairs. Trubnikov settled in and ordered a double espresso.
He was born in Siberia and joined the Soviet KGB in 1967. He was immediately sent to Calcutta, India, under cover as a reporter. I asked him, did the other journalists know he was a spy?
“To be frank, everyone who was in Calcutta was considered to be a spy. Everyone. Every journalist,” he said.
Getting The Top Job
Twenty-nine years after he became a spy, Trubnikov ascended to the top job. He ran Russia’s answer to the CIA, the SVR, or Foreign Intelligence Service, from 1996 to 2000. The SVR succeeded the KGB after the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991.
For a man who has lived his life in the shadows, Trubnikov is surprisingly candid when asked, for example, about some of the U.S. officials he has worked with.
“Amazing personality. Marvelous personality. At 5 in the morning, he is already [working] with weights, you know? Very manly,” he said. Trubnikov was speaking about Richard Armitage, former No. 2 at the State Department. Trubnikov likes him. He is less enamored with former CIA director George Tenet.
“I do remember Iraq. And he, unfortunately, he was instrumental in trying to prove the existence of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] in the hands of [Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein,” Trubnikov said. “It was absolutely incorrect. I tried to persuade him that this is nonsense. He did not believe me. Unfortunately.”
Trubnikov is also unimpressed by America’s National Security Agency.
“A huge machine. But, its usefulness from my point of view is not only limited but it’s meager,” he said. “A lot of info which is absolutely unnecessary and impossible to digest. A lot of money spent just for nothing.”
At the height of the Cold War, the FBI and the National Security Agency built a secret tunnel beneath the Russian Embassy (shown here in 2013), so that American spies could eavesdrop on what was happening inside.
Decades After Cold War’s End, U.S.-Russia Espionage Rivalry Evolves
So what should intelligence money be spent on? Trubnikov pauses and takes a nibble of a chocolate cookie.
“Today, to get any kind of secret paper, with the top-secret info — that’s nothing,” he said. “It is essential to penetrate into the brains of those who are leading the countries.”
And to penetrate the brains of foreign leaders — to predict your adversary’s next move — Trubnikov says only human intelligence works. Meaning, traditional espionage.
“An intelligence officer must grow up to the level of Michelangelo,” he said.
What does Michelangelo have to do with a modern Russian spy? Trubnikov’s answer: The best spy is a Renaissance man.
“He has to have in his brain an encyclopedia. He cannot today be a very narrow specialist. To get information, very, very delicate information. This is the task of an intelligence officer.”
Trubnikov and I spoke for more than an hour, touching on matters from Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked government secrets and fled to Russia, to the wonders of 3-D printing. It was only afterward, that the true strangeness of our conversation struck me.
Who would have imagined it, a generation ago: A Soviet spymaster talking tradecraft, with an American reporter not even born when he began stealing secrets for the KGB. And then the two of us shaking hands and going our separate ways, into the Moscow evening.
Interview with Vyacheslav Trubnikov, member of the directorate of the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Army General Vyacheslav Trubnikov is a member of the Governing Board of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and an Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary. Graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Joined the KGB in 1967, and served in the First Main Directorate (foreign intelligence). Head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) in 1996-2000. Appointed as first deputy foreign minister in 2000. Awarded the rank of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary in 2001. Russian ambassador to India in 2004-2009.
In 2014, 25 years after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the US have practically withdrawn theirs. To what extent is the current political situation in the country similar to that of 1989? Was the Afghan regime of that time more sustainable than the existing one?
The situation that occurred a quarter of a century ago when the Soviet Union was withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan and the one that is happening now are similar only in one respect – they both are characterized by a high level of instability in the country. In terms of stability nothing has changed. But one should bear in mind that the withdrawal of the USSR was well organized and Afghanistan was left under a rather sustainable regime of Mohammad Najibullah. However, at that time Afghanistan and its central government were left alone, and it didn’t take long to see the results. But now the situation is different and the government in Kabul – first that of Hamid Karzai, then that of Ashraf Ghani – are not alone in their fight against the Taliban. Besides, the US still remain there, and China is getting more involved in the Afghan affairs – economic as well as political. China has even initiated Afghanistan’s participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Today we are talking about the beginning of negotiations with the Taliban; China, the United States and Pakistan act as facilitators, that is countries that facilitate the negotiation process, together with the government in Kabul. Today’s situation is favourable for diplomatic steps (I would put India aside for now, even though it is interested in a normal development of the country no less than the neighbouring countries).
China is interested in maintaining steady relations with all members of the Afghan conflict, and it is doing it successfully. The PRC’s unwillingness to exacerbate relations with the Taliban is quite understandable, taking into account the existence of the Islamic factor in China as well, notably the Uighurs and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Pekin has been successful in maintaining normal relations with the Taliban. However, the possibility of reaching a tangible compromise appears unlikely since the Taliban are committed to an intra-Afghan settlement without external interference; and what is more, without foreign troops present in the territory of the country. This is a serious stumbling block and it is difficult for me to imagine how it will be overcome.
But in my opinion, part of the Taliban will nevertheless be engaged in a dialogue with the Americans, discussing an Afghan settlement on their own terms, of course. And these terms will be hard. If the US reduce their presence in the country even further, the Taliban will definitely test the limits of the regime in Kabul even more vigorously, resorting to the use of force. We can see that the Taliban both in Pakistan and Afghanistan are fairly tough.
Earlier I used to call into question the term “AfPak” invented by the Americans to refer to the problems of this region. But now I have come to the conclusion that this term is fair enough, for it is extremely difficult to solve the Afghan problem without settling the Pakistan one.
Returning to your question, I would like to note that today outside forces are much more interested in searching for a compromise. Why? At the moment of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan did not possess nuclear weapons. Now it is a nuclear-weapon state whose role in Afghan settlement has considerably increased. Any developments in Afghanistan, any escalation of instability there will influence Pakistan, which is extremely dangerous due to the fact that Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons and a significant number of radical Islamic forces.
But on no account would I like to put the Taliban on the same level with, for example, Al-Qaeda or the so-called Islamic State, they do differ indeed. Yet, this does not make the region safer. Overall, it will be really hard to find a tangible compromise without joint efforts of the neighbouring countries and the US that are physically present there and cannot withdraw (apparently, taking into account the Iraqi experience). As for Russia, ensuring security in the ‘soft underbelly’ of Central Asia is of the utmost importance to it.
Certainly, the primary aspect of any settlement is the restoration of the country’s economy. Despite claims that Afghanistan is rich in natural resources worth trillion of dollars, this information remains to be confirmed. Nevertheless, considering the prospects, China is actively penetrating into the country’s iron and steel industry, especially in the sectors related to copper mining and processing. For example, China has won a contract worth USD 4.4 bn to exploit a copper mine situated just about 50 km away from Kabul where it enjoys a certain degree of protection. But China also succeeds in finding possibilities for work even in remote areas of the country, the same as the Americans. After all, the infrastructure created by the Americans could not have been developed without tacit participation of or payments to Afghan warlords and even the Taliban. In other words, the experience of establishing economic cooperation exists, even despite certain side effects such as flagrant corruption.
At the same time, if we look back in history we can see that after the rule of Najibullah when the Taliban was fought against by the Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, India and Russia worked rather closely together. Back then Russian weapons were supplied to the Alliance at India’s expense. That is, such cooperation existed and it can take place now as well. But if Russia intends to render assistance, needless to say that it may only cooperate with the legitimate government. I wouldn’t like to praise the level of democracy instilled by the Americans in the Afghan reality, but we hardly have the right to deny that this was the first time that power was handed over peacefully via elections. But the merit is not only theirs, but also that of India, for example, as it also actively works in Afghanistan. Regrettably, Afghanistan remains an area of rivalry between Pakistan and India. If it were not the case and if the degree of mutual understanding were higher (especially taking into account Iran), this would bring us to the path of compromise.
It seems to me that the accession of Pakistan and India to the SCO is a positive development in terms of the interests of Afghanistan which is also on the verge of joining the Organization. I am not inclinded to believe that having such antipodes among its memebers will be detrimental to the SCO. Rather, on the contrary, the SCO will be able to influence the antagonists in order to smooth sharp contradictions between them and encourage them to look for compromises.
Is it possible to assess the role of Pakistan in Afghan affairs in the 2000s as compared to its participation in providing support to Afghan resistance during the stay of the limited contingent of Soviet troops there?
In the 2000s Pakistan was already a nuclear-weapon state, which fundamentally changed its role not only in Afghan affairs, but throughout South Asia. If Afghanistan is significantly destabilized, this will certainly lead to the lack of security in Central Asia. Primarily, in Tajikistan and, to a lesser extent, in Uzbekistan.
What international structures, in your point of view, will play a central role in case of further destabilization in Afghanistan? Who will take over security in Central Asia? CSTO, SCO?
I believe that first of all the CSTO, and then the SCO – both of them will seek to ensure security in the region. For this is a common interest of all Central Asian countries. But ultimately much depends on the position of China. However, even despite a joint Russian-Chinese military exercise, I am not inclined to consider the possibility of a military intervention even if the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates. It is not for Russia or China to decide for Central Asian states. Indeed, even the CSTO members behave differently. Yet, no one has the right to impose their protection on them. There exist definite agreements and treaties, whithin the framework of which both Russia and China will act. I generally do not see any marked desire on the part of China to intervene in any armed conflict in the region. China is rather interested in performing as a mediator and peacemaker. It seeks to look like a country which is striving for peace in the region and which does not pursue any hegemonic or selfish purposes.
China’s interests are mostly focused on Southeast Asia, the South China Sea and, to a lesser extent, on Central Asia. I do not see any evidence proving that China is interested in military build-up in this particular region. China is enhancing its naval power, reflecting its economic might and political weight in the APR. Moreover, the term ‘Indo-Pacific Region’ is being used more often now. Probably, this is correct, as many of Chinese and Indian interests are linked to the regions beyond the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Let’s consider a simple example. India has significant amounts of oil produced on Sakhalin. Its transportation routes go through Southeast Asia, through straits, areas where pirates are active, disputed territories (between China and other countries of the region).
Of course, China plays an important role in Central Asian economic affairs. I mean the idea to create the SCO bank and the Eurasian bank – these are the issues of great concern for China, as economic levers are highly important for Central Asian countries. Naturally, economic interests are followed by political ones. But today they are not that noticeable, as well as the military component which will be sidelined even further.
In your point of view, are there any opportunities for a serious partnership with India as part of the attempt to influence the Afghan situation? Can India get back to supporting anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan as it used to do in the late 1990s?
Such partnership should go beyond the purely bilateral Indo-Russian cooperation. Surely, at the time of the Northern Alliance this was a two-way partnership. But now it has to be much broader. Sanctions on Iran have been lifted, and the US intend to engage it in finding solutions to the problems of the region. What is more, the US are even willing to put the interests of Saudi Arabia aside in order to put Iran forward. Why? Iran has its own niche in the region. And the US are interested in having influence in both communities – Saudi (Sunni) and Iranian (Shiite).
As for economy, Indo-Russian cooperation in Afghanistan is not only possible, but also mutually beneficial. And, apparently, there will be attempts to initiate such cooperation. This regards the restoration of Afghanistan’s economic capacity, especially the foundation laid at the time of the Soviet Union. Such interaction between the two countries is quite feasible. As for the cooperation aimed at achieving settlement in Afghanistan, all neighboring states as well as the US should play their respective roles. And this should be done within the framework of international law, with the key role played by the UN and the Security Council.
Will the new post-sanctions Iran be more actively involved in these processes? Or does it now have more urgent problems to deal with at the other side of the border?
Iran cannot but get involved in dealing with Afghan problems, at least because of drug trafficking. Iran, like Russia, is a transit country for drug trafficking. And clashes with drug traffickers on Afghan-Iranian border occur rather regularly. Besides, Iran takes into consideration the so-called AfPak possessing nuclear capabilities. And as Iran pays much attention to the development of nuclear energy (its peaceful use as well as military), it will consider Afghanistan as a possible source of danger and threat.
And it seems to me that in this regard Iran will find a common language with the US and it will not impede the Americans to strive for stability there. But at the same time Iran will seek to reinforce its role in Afghanistan. Now Iran is free to act as a regional power – its oil will soon enter the market, the country is set to carry out major modernization, being able to pay for it even despite decreasing oil prices. Indeed, the demand for hydrocarbons will not fall; the question is in what way the routes of oil delivery to the market will change. Even now Saudi Arabia which is much weaker in terms of military strength compared to Iran faces serious economic problems, with rising debts and problems related to the war in Yemen and the fulfilment of its obligations as part of the Saudi-led military coalition.
Iran will continue to increase its authority not only in Syria and the Middle East, but also in Asia and Southern Asia. I am convinced that this is a promising country.
What is your opinion about China’s influence on the current situation in Afghanistan?
As I have already noted, with the Islamic factor in mind, China cannot turn a blind eye on the developments in Afghanistan. Beijing will seek to rely on Kabul as its natural ally in fight against its domestic radicals as well as the Taliban. The Chinese will also try to attract the latter by offering economic projects; if these prove advantageous, they might be promising.
What is your assessment of the current rapprochement between Pakistan and China on what can be described as the “strategic encirclement” of India? How serious is that threat for India?
There is nothing new to it; these countries are old friends. Let us look back at the historical events of 1971 and the war for independence of East Pakistan (Bangladesh). Refugees began to flow into India in February 1971, refugee camps were built all through the summer. The Indians remained tolerant, avoiding hostilities. This can be explained by the fact that roughly in mid-November Himalayan mountain passes are usually closed for winter, thus the possibility of China’s intervention was ruled out. This means that at the time, the Indians already could shrewdly anticipate the steps China might make in order to assist Pakistan; and their guess was right. The 1961 conflict taught India a good lesson; Deli realized that the Himalayas would not stop the Chinese. But in winter, passes and passages were sealed with snow, thus allowing for bolder actions on the Pakistani direction.
China will surely further expand its partnership with Pakistan, with infrastructure being developed, roads being built to connect China to Pakistan, and new opportunities opening in the port of Gwadar. But it would be an exaggeration to speak of any strategic encirclement of India, while military assistance is rendered to Pakistan on the part of China, there also exists a certain deterrent factor. China also supports Pakistan as a nuclear-weapon state. But I do not think that either China or Pakistan aim to “encircle” India. India has a serious counter-balance here. I mean China’s own “encirclement,” into which the Indians are being steadily driven, volens nolens, by the USA, Australia, Japan, and Vietnam.
It is this sort of “hedging” against and about China that India is being maneuvered into with pinpoint accuracy by the US. So China can see that India gravitates to powers that can hardly be counted among China’s best friends. This is particularly true of Japan that, in view of China’s growing military might, has initiated the revision of its military doctrine as well as its stance on the use of its troops abroad.
Summing it up, the Indians should tackle this issue with utmost care; they should not allow their Western partners to exploit India as a tool against China. This is a very intricate game; I cannot say for sure what the chances are for Narendra Modi and his government. Foreign policy still does not seem exactly his cup of tea. The position of Indian bureaucrats, who represent today’s political elite in the country, will be as much important.
In your view, how did Russia’s positions in the Middle East and Asia change following its direct intervention in the Syrian conflict and assistance to Bashar al Assad’s regime?
Positions have changed dramatically. For the first time in history, Russia is directly using military force in this region. Besides, the target of the Russian Military Space Forces is a terrorist organization; one can hardly substantially disprove this fact. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s act was a dirty trick, but we should not have expected otherwise. I personally have never regarded him as a man of the world; he has always tended towards Islam, and to orthodox and radical Islam at that. It was difficult to expect that he would sincerely grasp the necessity to fight the so-called Islamic State. Since the very beginning of the conflict in Syria, Turkey has stuck to a clearly provocative strategy: it is from the Turkish territory that armed opposition to Assad’s regime started to flow; it is Turkey who has supplied weapons and provided continuous support for the opposition forces. No matter how hard the Turkish string-pullers tried to put a good face on the matter, they failed. Their masks went off when the Russian aircraft was shot down.
I believe that Russia will somehow overcome the challenge of strained relations with Turkey. I think we should not overreact to provocations, carefully assessing the extent to which we can use leverage, such as, say, sanctions. Sanctions are a double-edged sword, for Europe, the US (though to a lesser extent) and for our country alike. One should not first depict Erdogan as a friend, as we used to do, and then paint black all achievements in the Russian-Turkish relations, especially in economy.
Is there a possibility of China’s intervention in the conflict?
I think this is absolutely impossible. In this conflict, China is following its mediation and conciliatory tactic. The PRC will cooperate with all players showing that its interests do not run counter to the interests of any other participants in the conflict. This attitude is typical of China when events develop far from its borders. As for their neighbours, that is where the Chinese demonstrate their growing strength, building artificial islands and deploying on them facilities that look like military posts, lighthouses and airstrips.
What is your vision of prospects for Russian-Iranian cooperation in light of the lifting of sanctions against Iran in 2015 and the escalating instability in the Middle East? What effect did the compromise reached on Iran’s nuclear programme have on the non-proliferation regime?
The compromise reached on the Iranian nuclear programme is a major achievement of the “Permanent Five.” I think this is a reasonable demonstration of flexibility on the part of Hassan Rouhani’s regime. One should not forget that Iranian clergy are divided on his position supporting development of the atom for peaceful purposes. There is nothing wrong with this situation, though. I used to tell my American colleagues that it was counterproductive to turn Iran into a bugaboo. Such policy only further cornered Iran and played into the hands of its obscurantists. But this tension will ease by itself, because with every new election, Iran will become closer to the international community, first of all to the West. The majority of voters are young people who embrace cutting-edge advancements and study in the West. I mean that Iran may undergo a transformation on its own, without any external pressure.
Iran and Russia will enjoy normal relations, but we should not look at the situation through rose-tinted glasses. Iran is a pragmatic state with a worldview shaped over the thousands of years and it sees itself as an independent civilization. The Iranians steadily follow the path towards tangible progress. They build capacities, and as soon as their oil is admitted to the market, they will make money. So we would be wrong if we regarded Iran as a pro-Russian nation and a bastion of our hope in the region. And here again, we should get rid of emotions. We, too, should adopt a pragmatic attitude towards cooperation and cease to consider Iran an ideal partner. It remains an Islamic state still centered on certain religious values.
In your view, how can the nuclear programme of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea affect security in the Asia-Pacific? What are scenarios for the future?
As for the non-proliferation regime, the interests of both Russia and the USA coincide here. Those forces and groups which can undermine this regime are, unlike the nuclear-weapon states, unaware of the serious responsibility and all the consequences of possessing nuclear weapons. We should continue to work with the DPRK, searching ways and means to convince Pyongyang of the inadvisability of continuing along that path. The aim of the North Koreans is clear: they want to bring the US down to negotiate the renunciation of their nuclear programme on a one-to-one basis and get a good price for it.
It is hard to tell what this price could be. It could be considerable economic assistance, or the US rejection to extend its “nuclear umbrella” to South Korea. Whatever the case, we should resume the six-party talks and convince both the Americans and the Chinese that the DPRK should be dealt with jointly. The responsibility rests primarily with the US. The attempt to shift it over to China clearly failed, which was expressly confirmed by an unusually tough statement on the part of Beijing following a recent pseudo-hydrogen blast carried out by the DPRK. China is hardly capable of doing it on its own, since it is not attractive for North Korea in this capacity.
Are there any risks of shrinking Russian-Indian cooperation in strategic areas, such as security, energy, military and technical cooperation, in view of the growing activity of Russia’s rivals in India, primarily the USA and France?
I would not call it risky. India has a clear and quite distinct trend towards transformation into a regional power at the very least, and into a global one, in prospect. If this is so, we can ask the question: what nation with such ambitions would rely on a sole provider, say, of military equipment, particularly from abroad? Hence Modi’s motto, “Make in India”, as well as his government’s policy aimed at creating more jobs in the country. This is a natural process. For the time being, Russia holds very strong positions in India. I can bear witness that 70 per cent of all ships and submarines at the presidential naval parade which I attended myself were constructed either in the USSR and Russia or in India based on our drawings. When the presidential yacht carrying an old diesel-powered submarine built in the USSR passed the spectators, Indian sailors and their spouses rose from their seats and saluted the vehicle. But this cannot last forever: the Indians want to construct and create on their own.
I will give you the following example to illustrate the situation. At the beginning of 2005, a high-ranking official of the Russian Defense Ministry visited India. In his conversation with Admiral of the Indian Navy Arun Prakash our representative asked him: “Why do you order new MiG-29K/KUB deck-based fighters for the aircraft-carrier you expect from Russia? You could have bought the Su-33 fighters available in service with our navy.” His Indian interlocutor answered that they needed those aircraft not for the Admiral Gorshkov carrier which was being upgraded, but for their projected aircraft-carriers with a certainly lesser deadweight, whose aircraft hangars would not accommodate the “long-legged” Su-33. At that meeting, Arun Prakash’s vision seemed a distant dream, but the first Indian aircraft-carrier has been recently floated out of docks.
In the area of military and technical cooperation, we should be more competitive. If our aircraft is the best, the Indians will not seek to buy a cheaper one of inferior quality, particularly since they have money. Quality comes first with them, as well as the technology transfer issue. Why is the bargain on the French Rafale fighter such a long story? It turned twice as expensive, and the French refused to transfer to India the full package of technologies related to its production. But Russia has no problems with India. We proved it by participating in the construction of the first Indian nuclear-powered submarine, Arihant. This is the best proof of the existing strategic partnership in the proper sense of the word, as well as of Russia’s reliability, unlike the already mentioned French. I would add to it that the Indians were seriously alerted by the failure to deliver Mistralamphibious assault ships to Russia.
But we cannot afford to be complacent. How is it possible that it takes a year to repair Indian military aircraft? How is it possible to ignore complaints of faults for six months running? How can we speak of competition after that? But there are also opposite examples. For instance, Arkadiy Shipunov, the already deceased Chief Designer of the Instrument Design Bureau, used to come to India immediately after receiving reports of faults in the development schemes of his company, in spite of his age and the horrible heat that awaited him. So the Indians trusted him completely, and therefore they bought what he offered.
The same is true of the area of nuclear energy. Russia has gained practical experience of constructing a nuclear power plant in India, namely, the Kudankulam NPP. Our French competitors have offered India an EPR-type reactor which technically has better characteristics as compared to the Russian offer and, theoretically, generates cheaper kWh. But the Indians have before their eyes the example of constructing a similar plant in Finland, which is repeatedly delayed. So their interest in the French option has considerably diminished. Or, say, the Americans who have been actively offering their reactors to India. In fact, they have not constructed a single one in over a quarter of a century. So far, there is nothing but drawings and huge prices.
I believe that, on the whole, the risks of reducing cooperation with India can be minimized if Russia works towards improving its competitiveness.