Spies key to functioning Russia, says Putin

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Russia's foreign intelligence service must work harder to protect the interests of Russian companies abroad, President Vladimir Putin said yesterday, introducing his former prime minister as head of the spy agency.

Putin also called the fight against international terrorism a priority, Russian media reported. He urged spies to uncover terrorist plans, financing channels and the locations of terrorist camps, Russian news agencies reported.

"In addition, intelligence efforts must be focused on supporting the country's industrial and defense potential," Putin told leaders of the Foreign Intelligence Service, according to ITAR-Tass.

The agency "must be able to swiftly and adequately evaluate changes in the international economic situation, understand their consequences for the domestic economy and, of course, it's necessary to more actively protect the economic interest of our companies abroad," Putin said.

Rising energy prices during Putin's presidency have lifted resource-rich Russia's economy and increased its global clout as a major exporter of oil and natural gas.

The consolidation of state control over the energy industry and expansion in foreign markets, particularly in natural gas delivery, have raised concerns in the West. Critics of Putin say he is using energy supplies as a political weapon.

A senior US counterintelligence official said earlier this year that Russia had fully restored its espionage capabilities against the United States after a period of decline and was "sending over an increasing and troubling number of intelligence agents."

Putin's remarks came as he officially introduced Mikhail Fradkov, whom he dismissed as prime minister last month but later named to head the Foreign Intelligence Service. The appointment sparked speculation that Fradkov, who had been prime minister since 2004, has a background in intelligence.

Putin, a longtime KGB officer and former head of the KGB's main domestic successor agency, has brought many former colleagues into Russia's leadership.

Fradkov replaced Sergei Lebedev, who was chosen earlier this month as executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose grouping of 12 former Soviet republics.

Putin called relations with other ex-Soviet republics Russia's top foreign policy priority. Moscow has been seeking to retain its influence as its neighbors expand ties with the West and Asia.