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Russian ex-spies put skills to work

Poison case shines light on a shadowy world in which former agents cash in on old contacts.

January 02, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — With stylish offices featuring a portrait of the Soviet secret police founder and a prestigious location alongside Red Square, Vladimir Lutsenko is one of the top go-to guys for "security" advice in today's Russia.

The former military intelligence officer shrugs and laughs when asked about allegations, made by a former Russian agent before he died of radiation poisoning in November, that his men were hired out to do dirty work for the Russian special services.

"At first we gave a shudder, and we were very upset. And then we read it attentively. Well, it looks like advertising!" he said. "We looked at it and said, well, to shoot bandits is not the worst trade you can have in this life."

Russia is awash in companies like Lutsenko's, stocked with veterans of the Russian intelligence services. Usually they work behind the scenes, providing a discreet service for foreign business interests trying to operate in the often-hazardous world of Russian business -- and providing some discreet muscle, if need be.

But the very public death of Alexander Litvinenko in London has lifted the lid on this shadowy world of ex-agents, both in Russia and abroad, who trade on their contacts on the margins of Russia's powerful security apparatus for both political influence and economic gain.

Perhaps not by coincidence, many of the main characters in the drama that left a radioactive corpse in London moved in this network of agents and spies-for-hire, a John Le Carre-made-real illustration of the dominance of the security services in political and economic life here.

President Vladimir V. Putin, a former spy and onetime head of the FSB, as the main successor agency to the KGB is known, brought in a broad cadre of intelligence veterans to assume leading positions within the presidential administration and crucial federal agencies during his first term.

Over the last three years, they have gone on to quietly assume an enormous presence in virtually every major economic engine of the state.

The chairman of the board of Rosneft, the state-owned company that consumed the giant Yukos Oil Co. in 2004, is a veteran of the state security services. So is the deputy chief executive at state-controlled Gazprom, the world's largest gas producer, and the chairman of Aeroflot. A KGB veteran who served with Putin in Germany heads Russia's main weapons export company as well as the leading state-owned automobile manufacturer.

"The secret power which the KGB enjoyed in the Soviet Union has been legalized and cashed into money. What has been happening is so obvious, yet people just haven't seen it because it's right in front of their faces," said Alexei Mukhin, an analyst with the Center for Political Information who has written several books on the security services.

"The new KGB is now an amalgamation of businesses. Their power is based on the fact that their people are sitting in the presidential administration, in the legislature and in the regional administrations," said Yevgenia Albats, a professor at the Higher School of Economics who served on the commission that made recommendations on disbanding the KGB in 1991.

Litvinenko, a former organized-crime agent, had quit the FSB, fled Russia and devoted much of his new life in London to battling Putin's rule and exposing what he saw as unconscionable abuses of power in Russia. His poisoning, he believed, was the president's revenge.

But Litvinenko hadn't completely left his old life behind. In providing security research for investors looking to do business in Russia, he found himself working on the dangerous line between business, power and organized crime -- a line that in the last few years has blurred.

Litvinenko's last reported meeting before he fell ill Nov. 1 was with two fellow former agents, Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun, reportedly to discuss a business deal in which the three men would help steer foreign business clients through the rocky thoroughfares of Russian finance. The two men, whose radioactive trail through Russia and Germany in the days before the encounter has made them persons of interest in the case, run security business operations of their own in Russia.

Litvinenko offered a detour past official roadblocks, and contacts with his former FSB cronies to learn where the real hazards of doing business lay.

"You see, there's a market, a very shady field, where these former KGB agents, and also people coming from the FSB like Alexander Litvinenko, trade in information, and what I know about this environment is that they are extremely suspicious, each against the other one," said Paolo Guzzanti, the chairman of an Italian commission that concluded that Soviet military intelligence was involved in the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981. "They are continuously selling information, asking for money."

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