Former KGB agent Alexander Vassiliev says he understands better than most what motivates Russian President Vladimir Putin, including why he would seek to interfere in western elections, such as Canada’s upcoming federal election.
“You’ve got a liberal prime minister. Liberalism in Russia is a bad word, especially where immigration is concerned,” he said.
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Vassiliev was working as a journalist for the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda in the 1980s when he was recruited by the KGB.
“I got an offer from the KGB to become an officer, to join the KGB intelligence service. I said ‘yes,’ of course,” Vassiliev said. “They thought that it would be natural for me to use journalism as my cover in the future, as a KGB intelligence officer.”
Vassiliev received his Soviet spy training at the same school as Putin.
“Mentally, I’m closer to Putin than you may think,” Vassiliev said in an interview with the Global News podcast Russia Rising.
“We were students in the KGB spy school, the Yuri Andropov Red Banner Institute, almost at the same time. He graduated in 1985; I started in 1985 and graduated in 1987. So we had the same training, we had the same textbooks, we had the same teachers. I believe I more or less have an idea of how he’s thinking, as an ex-KGB officer.”
Vassiliev quit the KGB just prior to the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. He went back to working as a journalist and published a book about the history of the KGB. But his former colleagues weren’t happy about him exposing old Soviet secrets.
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“I decided to leave Russia because I got a threat from an officer of the Russian Intelligence Service,” he recalled.
Vassiliev and his wife fled to the United Kingdom in 1996, where he still resides, and began working as a journalist with the BBC Russian service. He remains a proud Russian and thinks the Russian president is often treated unfairly by much of the western press.
“There is a certain atmosphere of anti-Russian hysteria. Every time our computer is not working, we should blame Putin for it?” Vassiliev said.
“The Russians in Russia, they have a joke about Putin: Do you know the Dead Sea in the Middle East? Putin killed it.”
Vassiliev says Putin still thinks like a KGB agent and that they were taught to always consider the big picture.
“It may surprise you, but historically, the KGB Intelligence Service was actually very careful. They were always thinking about international consequences in case of failure,” he said.
For that reason, Vassiliev does not believe, for example, that Putin ordered the assassination of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England in 2018.
The Skripal poisoning happened just three months before Russia hosted the FIFA World Cup, and many Western leaders chose to boycott the tournament in response.
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“The World Cup was an enormous event for Russia. It wasn’t only about football — it was an advertisement event for the whole of Russia. Russia was showing its good face to the world,” Vassiliev said.
“They invested huge amounts of money, and according to international experts, that was one of the best World Cups ever. So you have to be really, really stupid to do something like the poisoning in Salisbury three months before the World Cup.”
But Vassiliev has no trouble believing that Putin would interfere in western elections in order to promote nationalist candidates, particularly those who want to do away with western alliances such as NATO and the European Union.
“I would understand if they launched a campaign, a trolling campaign on Facebook or Twitter, for instance, for Brexit, in order to destroy the European Union. I would understand that,” he said. “I think, at this moment, the Kremlin would be interested in this.”
The weaker these western alliances become, Vassiliev says, the easier it is for Putin to expand Russia’s sphere of influence and to reassert its power over former Soviet territories without having to worry about a unified western resistance, such as the sanctions that followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Skripal poisoning.
In an interview with Russia Rising, Putin biographer and veteran New York Times correspondent Steven Lee Myers says that Canada, as a NATO country, should expect that the Kremlin will seek to interfere in its next federal election.
“It’s a bit of a cliché to say the Cold War has begun again, but effectively, that’s what’s happened,” Myers said. “And president Putin is going see anyone on the other side of that — Canada, the United States, all the NATO nations — as part of the enemy.”