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Putin Was a Mediocre KGB Agent, According to Former Boss

07/07/2017 - 10h36

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IGOR GIELOW
SPECIAL ENVOY TO MOSCOW

The all-powerful Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is a former KGB official who came to be during the perils and deceit of the Cold War.

That's what the western media always points out whenever it gets the chance - whether it's in a horrified manner, or a derogatory one - and Mr. Putin does little to cast himself in a different light.

"Let's be honest: it's a misleading depiction. Putin was always a mediocre agent", said one of his superiors, the retired general Nikolai Leonov, 88.

The general is experienced in the matter: he worked for the KGB between 1956 and 1991, and was second in command of the fearful agency while Putin served as an agent in East Germany, from 1985 to 1990.

"When we had a cadet who was fluent in German, which was Putin's case, if he was good he would go to West Germany or to Austria, to the front line", said Leonov.

"But he was sent to the Eastern side, which was communist. Well, if he was any good, he would have gone to Berlin, which was the bridge between the East and West, and he would have coordinated with the Stasi - the secret police in socialist East Germany.

Putin was stationed in the countryside of East Germany in Dresden. "There was nothing going on there, only second class agents went there. However, when they got back, if they were any good they would go to Moscow and prepare for their next post", he said.

The current Russian president returned to Leningrad, which is now St. Petersburg. "That's when it comes full circle. He was stationed in a local university to spy on foreign students, most of whom were actually loyal communists", the general said.

According to Leonov, who was head of the First Main Directorate of the KGB between 1983 and 1991, Putin can't claim he "was shaped" by the agency.

"There are even simple indicators of this. He's always late to his commitments. That's a quirk that's scandalous for an intelligence official. We made a point of being on time because those we commanded depended on it."

Leonov is cited as Putin's "friend and mentor" on certain sites on the internet, but he denies ever personally meeting the agent who was also his subordinate, and even calls his involvement in the institution insignificant - at one point the president became a Lieutenant Colonel.

To his advantage, it's important to note that Putin never flaunted that he was an important KGB member. In "First Person", the president's autobiography, which was published right after he took over the Kremlin in 2000, Putin had little to say about his recruitment after law school, in 1975, and his most significant memory from the Dresden era was putting on weight because of how good the local beer was.

He admits that he held "a minor position". Even so, the Western media insists on highlighting his past as evidence of how sinister Putin can be: just look at how he's portrayed in the liberal media in the USA, and especially in the United Kingdom.

Not that it doesn't work to his advantage. "The mystery strengthens the notion of an elusive, strong man who knows a lot of secrets. The West also deeply longs for the Cold War era", said Moscow-based political Scientist Konstantin Frolov.

Even the body language of the president, who typically walks with his right arm attached to his body, as if he were about to pull a gun, is seen as something he picked up from his KGB training.

OPPORTUNISM

Leonov highlights what he refers to as Putin's opportunism. "When he returned to Leningrad, he noticed that everything around him was crumbling and quickly befriended his adversaries", he said, referring to Anatoli Sobtchak, the liberal mayor who offered Putin a position in his cabinet in 1990, managing foreign investments, which got his political career underway.

Nikolai Leonov, who was a former congressman in a nationalist party, claims that Putin is not as powerful as he seems. "Russia's economic system, which is not even remotely capitalist, is dominated by private and state oligarchies. That's why they want everything to remain as is", he said.

In Leonov's view, the president is controlled by the oligarchies. "All the laws serve the interests of the grand bourgeoisie, gas is expensive even though international oil prices are low, but I think the people are starting to become aware of this", he said, citing recent anti-Putin demonstrations.

He is pessimistic about Russia's future. "We're a stationed ship. Many countries are passing us, like Brazil or Mexico, and we don't have a sense of direction. Where will we be in 5, 10, 15 years?", he said, rejecting a return to a communist regime nowadays, despite being clearly sympathetic toward the regime.

FRIENDSHIP WITH RAÚL AND FIDEL CASTRO

The debate surrounding Cuba's new constitution revolves around proposals that were put forward by dictator Raúl Castro in 2011: a five-year presidential term, the right to a second term, imposing an age limit of 60 for Central Committee positions, maintaining Cuba's single-party system as well as indirect elections - which will determine whether the regime's second in command shall become president.

That's the summary offered by Nikolai Leonov after spending six months in Havana. The message was relayed by Castro himself, who has been Leonov's friend since 1953, when the two met on board a ship en route to a communist youth convention in Romania.

Leonov was on the communist island in the Caribbean, working on the final adjustments to his friend's biography - and he fiercely defends the Cuban dictator.

"The transition is complete. The second in command is ready, it's Miguel Díaz-Canel, a person who had nothing to do with the revolution in its early days. But the Communist Party will remain in power", said the retired general.

Díaz-Canel, 57, was promoted to first vice-president of Cuba's state council, and will have to overcome the army's skepticism if he wants to take Raúl's place after the 86-year-old dictator's self-proclaimed mandate comes to an end next year.

Despite having recently suffered a stroke, which compromised his vision, Leonov explained in clean and lucid Spanish that the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US at the end of 2014, which began with US president Barack Obama, "represents a big win for the revolution".

He considered that the threats made by current US leader Donald Trump to cut ties with Cuba "are inane. You can't interrupt the process at this stage", pointing out that even though Trump spoke in a crass manner, he did not cut diplomatic ties with the island.

The russian general's career is intertwined with the history of the Cuban revolution, which took place in 1959.

Two years after meeting Raúl, he managed to track down Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, presenting the three of them to the Kremlin - which subjected the revolution to Moscow, despite American pressure and the fact that the revolution was not of communist origin.

Leonov served as translator of dictator Fidel Castro during his famous visit to Moscow in 1963 - one year after the Soviet Union's actions caused the Cuban Missile Crisis, which almost led the world to a nuclear war.

From 1956 until his retirement, in 1991, Leonov was the KGB's specialist in Latin American affairs and he made his way up to second in command of the agency - his trajectory was the subject of a Folha article almost 10 years ago.

Translated by THOMAS MATHEWSON

Read the article in the original language

Mikhail Klimentyev/Associated Press
Russian President Vladimir Putin heads an anticorruption council in the Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin heads an anticorruption council in the Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia

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