Russia's official Itar-Tass news agency lent a certain support to this view, saying in a commentary on Wednesday: 'There seems no point in blowing up a political scandal out of this episode. After all, even in a changing world, intelligence remains intelligence.'
However, Russia's security and intelligence services have experienced considerable upheaval since the collapse of Communism. Russian officials say that, over the last two years alone, there have been cuts of 30 to 40 per cent in foreign intelligence sections in Moscow and abroad. Thirty spy cells in former Soviet embassies have been closed down, they say.
It is unclear where the cuts have been deepest, but it is possible that in countries such as Angola, Ethiopia and Mozambique, with which Moscow no longer has strong ideological ties, intelligence activity has been scaled down. On the other hand, Russia has good reasons for expanding its networks in former Soviet republics where Russian minorities live and border conflicts are a constant risk. One obvious target is Ukraine, on account of its size, large ethnic Russian community, nuclear status and quarrel with Moscow over who owns the Black Sea fleet.
Russia's agents abroad are thought to concentrate more these days on industrial espionage than on political activity. However, if they no longer sponsor coups d'etats or have shadowy links with terrorist groups, the days of military spying are still far from over.
The KGB was Boris Yeltsin's bete noire in the late 1980s, hatching all sorts of dirty plots to discredit him and stop him taking power. KGB bosses masterminded the August 1991 coup that was intended to restore traditional Communism but actually caused the Soviet Union's demise and Mr Yeltsin's emergence as leader of a new Russia.
Mr Yeltsin quickly split the KGB into two sections: the Foreign Intelligence Agency (FSA), responsible for espionage abroad and information- gathering and analysis of foreign affairs, and the Security Ministry, for domestic matters. The FSA's chief, Yevgeny Primakov, has kept his job partly because of his personal loyalty to Mr Yeltsin.
By February 1992, Mr Yeltsin had slashed KGB staff from 500,000 to a figure between 80,000 and 140,000. He achieved this partly by detaching from the Russian KGB's supervision 240,000 border guards and 70,000 officers in other Soviet republics.
Some domestic KGB operatives lost their jobs but were not out of work for long. Their inside knowledge and access to influential people landed them important positions in the new financial institutions and private companies in Russia.
Until last October's revolt at the Russian parliament building, there was little Western- style supervision, by government, legislature or judiciary, of the security agencies. Both Mr Yeltsin and his opponents, led by Ruslan Khasbulatov, saw the intelligence organs as institutions so mighty that whoever controlled them would win the contest for power.
Two months after shelling his enemies into submission, Mr Yeltsin dissolved the Security Ministry, replacing it with a body called the Federal Counter-intelligence Service (FSC). On 6 January he appointed Yuri Baturin, a loyal aide, to supervise both the FSC and foreign espionage.
The effect was to place Russia's labyrinthine intelligence services under Mr Yeltsin's personal command. His allies now occupy all important security posts. Vitaly Tretyakov, the editor of the liberal newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, calls Mr Yeltsin's system 'a mixture of the authority of the party apparatus and a monarch's court'.
Conor Cruise O'Brien, page 19
Leading article, page 17Reuse content