Foreign Intelligence Service (Russia)

Foreign Intelligence Service (Russian: Служба Внешней Разведки (or SVR) is Russia's primary external intelligence agency. The SVR is the successor of First Chief Directorate (FCD) of the KGB since December 1991. The headquarters of SVR are still in Yasenevo, Moscow, just beyond the Moscow Automobile Ring Road.

Unlike the FSB, the SVR is responsible for intelligence abroad. It works in cooperation with the Russian military intelligence organization GRU that reportedly deployed six times as many spies in foreign countries as the SVR in 1997. However SVR is more influential behind the scenes than GRU of FCD, especially with regard to defining Russian foreign policy. The SVR also enters into anti-terrorist cooperation and intelligence-sharing arrangements with foreign intelligence agencies. The service also provides analysis and dissemination of intelligence to the Russian president.


SVR is official successor of Soviet foreign intelligence agencies, from the foreign department of Cheka to the First Chief Directorate of the KGB. SVR issued a CD-ROM in 1996 entitled Russian Foreign Intelligence: VChK-KGB-SVR, which claims to provide "a professional view on the history and development of one of the most powerful secret services in the world" where all these services are presented as a single evolving organization.

Former SVR chief Sergei Lebedev said that “there has not been any place on the planet where a KGB officer has not been.” The SVR counts its history from the foreign department of the OGPU, which was founded in 1920. During their 80th anniversary celebration, Vladimir Putin went to SVR headquarters to meet with other former KGB/SVR chiefs Kryuchkov, Shebarshin, Primakov, and Trubnikov, as well as other famous agents, including British defector George Blake.

SVR Legal Authority

The "Law on Foreign Intelligence" was written by SVR leadership itself and adopted in August 1992. This Law provided conditions for "penetration by chekists of all levels of the government and economy", since it stipulated that "career personnel may occupy positions in ministries, departments, establishments, enterprises and organizations in accordance with the requirements of this law without compromising their association with foreign intelligence agencies."

A new "Law on Foreign Intelligence Organs" was passed by the State Duma and the Federation Council in late 1995 and signed into effect by then-President Boris Yeltsin on 10 January 1996. The law authorizes the SVR to carry out the following:

  • (1) Conduct intelligence;
  • (2) Implement active measures to ensure Russia's security;
  • (3) Conduct military, strategic, economic, scientific and technological espionage;
  • (4) Protect employees of Russian institutions overseas and their families;
  • (5) Provide personnel security for Russian government officials and their families;
  • (6) Conduct joint operations with foreign security services;
  • (7) Conduct electronic surveillance in foreign countries.

The Russian Federation President (currently Dmitry Medvedev) can personally issue any secret orders for the SVR, without asking the houses of the Federal Assembly: State Duma and Federation Council.

SVR Command Structure

Mikhail Fradkov is current SVR Director. The SVR Director is appointed by and reports directly to the President of Russia (currently Dmitry Medvedev). The Director provides briefings to the President every Monday and on other occasions as necessary. The Director is also a member of the Security Council of Russia and the Defense Council (

According to published sources, the SVR included the following directorates in 1990s:

  • Directorate PR- Political Intelligence. It included 17 Departments, each responsible for different countries of the world (espionage in USA, Canada, Latin America, etc.)
  • Directorate S - Illegal Intelligence. It includes 13 Departments responsible for preparing and planting "illegal agents" abroad, conducting terror operations and sabotage in foreign countries, "biological espionage", recruitment of foreign citizens on the Russian territory and other duties.
  • Directorate X - Scientific and Technical Intelligence
  • Directorate KR - External Counter-Intelligence. This Directorate "carries out infiltration of foreign intelligence and security services and exercises surveillance over Russian citizens abroad."
  • Directorate OT - Operational and Technical Support
  • Directorate R - Operational Planning and Analysis. It evaluates SVR operations abroad.
  • Directorate I - Computer Service (Information and dissemination). This directorate analyzes and distributes intelligence data and publishes a daily current events summaries for the President
  • Directorate of Economic Intelligence

According to SVR web site , this organization currently consists of a Director, a First Deputy Director (who oversees the directions for Foreign Counterintelligence and Economic Intelligence) and the following departments:

  • Personnel;
  • Operations;
  • Analysis & Information (formerly Intelligence Institute);
  • Science;
  • Operational Logistics & Support.

Each Directorate is headed by a Deputy Director who reports to the SVR Director. The Red Banner Intelligence Academy has been renamed the Academy of Foreign Intelligence (ABP are its Russian initials) and is housed in the Science Directorate.

Within the Operations Dept of Directorate S, there is the elite Special Operations (Spetsnaz) Group called Vympel.

Involvement in Russian foreign policy

During Yeltsin presidency, SVR fought with Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for directing Russian foreign policy. SVR director Yevgeni Primakov upstaged the foreign ministry by publishing warnings to the West not to interfere the unification of Russia with other former Soviet republics and attacking the NATO extension as a threat to Russian security, whereas foreign minister Andrey Kozyrev was telling different things. The rivalry ended in decisive victory for the SVR, when Primakov replaced Kozyrev in January 1996 and brought with him a number of SVR officers to the foreign ministry of Russia.

In September 1999, Yeltsin admitted that the SVR plays a greater role in the Russian foreign policy than the Foreign Ministry. It was reported that SVR defined Russian position on the transfer of nuclear technologies to Iran, NATO expansion, and modification of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. SVR also tried to justify annexation of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union in WWII using selectively declassified documents.

SVR sends to the Russian president daily digests of intelligence, similar to the President's Daily Brief produced by CIA in the US. However, unlike the CIA, the SVR recommends to the president which policy options are preferrable.

Front organizations

According to Yuri Shvets, a former KGB agent “In the days of the Soviet Union, the number of spies was limited because they had to be based at the foreign ministry, the trade mission or the news agencies like Tass. Right now, virtually every successful private company in Russia is being used as a cover for Russian intelligence operations.” For example, close connections of SVR with Russian gas company Gazprom and oil company LUKoil have been reported.

Although every Russian company abroad may be a front organization of SVR or GRU (and in fact some of them have been organized by SVR), the most famous of them is Russian aviation company Aeroflot. In the past, this company conducted forceful "evacuations" of Soviet citizens from foreign countries back to the USSR. People whose loyalty was questioned were drugged and delivered unconsciousness by Aeroflot planes, assisted by the company KGB personnel, according to former GRU officer Victor Suvorov. In 1980s and 1990s, specimens of deadly bacteria and viruses stolen from Western laboratories were delivered by Aeroflot to support Russian program of biological weapons. This meant "delivering the material via an international flight of the Aeroflot airline in the pilots' cabin, where one of the pilots was a KGB officer". At least two SVR agents died, presumably from the transported pathogens.

When businessman Nikolai Glushkov was appointed as a top manager of Aeroflot in 1996, he found that the airline company worked as a "cash cow to support international spying operations": 3,000 people out of the total workforce of 14,000 in Aeroflot were FSB, SVR, or GRU officers. All proceeds from ticket sales were distributed to 352 foreign bank accounts that could not be controlled by the Aeroflot administration. Glushkov closed all these accounts and channeled the money to an accounting center called Andava in Switzerland. He also sent a bill and wrote a letter to SVR director Yevgeni Primakov and FSB director Mikhail Barsukov asking them to pay salaries of their intelligence officers in Aeroflot in 1996. Glushkov has been imprisoned since 2000 on charges of illegally channeling money through Andava. Since 2004 the company is controlled by Viktor Ivanov, a high-ranking FSB official who is a close associate of Vladimir Putin.

Another front organization of SVR is alleged to be the Russian Orthodox Church headed by Patriarch Alexius II who is allegedly a former KGB agent DROZDOV. Many priests of Russian Orthodox Church successfully recruited spies in the US. According to former KGB officer Konstantin Preobrazhenskiy, "a grandiose operation is underway: the uniting of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia with the Moscow Patriarchate, or more precisely, with the Russian state. If this happens, the Orthodox Church here will become a bastion of Russian influence and a center of espionage."



According to former GRU Colonel Stanislav Lunev, "SVR and GRU (Russia's political and military intelligence agencies, respectively) are operating against the U.S. in a much more active manner than they were during even the hottest days of the Cold War.". From the end of 1980s, KGB and later SVR began to create "a second echelon" of "auxiliary agents in addition to our main weapons, Illegals and special agents", according to former SVR officer Kouzminov. These agents are legal immigrants , including scientists and other professionals. Another SVR officer who defected to Britain in 1996 described details about several thousand of Russian agents and intelligence officers, some of them "illegals" who live under deep cover abroad Recently caught Russian high-profile agents in US are Aldrich Hazen Ames, Harold James Nicholson, Earl Edwin Pitts, Robert Philip Hanssen and George Trofimoff.

Cooperation with foreign intelligence services

An agreement on intelligence cooperation between Russia and China was signed in 1992. This secret treaty covers cooperation of the GRU and the SVR with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Military Intelligence Directorate. It was reported that SVR trained Iraqi spies during collaboration of Russia with Saddam Hussein.. The SVR also has cooperation agreements with the secret police services of certain former Soviet republics, such as Azerbaijan and Belarus.

Assassinations abroad

"In the Soviet era, the SVR – then part of the KGB – handled covert political assassinations abroad". These activities are reportedly continue. Igor the Assassin who believed to have been the actual poisoner of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 was allegedly an SVR officer However SVR denied its involvement in assassination of Alexander Litvinenko SVR spokesperson said about Litvinenko: "May God give him health."

It was reported that in September 2003, an SVR agent in London was making preparations to assassinate Boris Berezovsky with a binary weapon, and that is why Berezovsky had been granted a speedy asylum in Britain. GRU officers who killed Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Qatar in 2004 reportedly claimed that supporting SVR agents let them down by not evacuating them in time, so they have been arrested by Qatar authorities.


SVR actively recruits Russian citizens who live in foreign countries. "Once the FSB or SVR officer targets a Russian émigré for recruitment, they approach them, usually at their place of residence and make an effort to reach an understanding," said former FSB officer Aleksander Litvinenko. "If he or she refuses, the intelligence officer then threatens the would-be recruit with legal prosecution in Russia, and if the person continues to refuse, the charges are fabricated". It was reported that SVR prey on successful Russian businessmen abroad.

Today, Russian intelligence can no longer recruit people on the basis of Communist ideals, which was the "first pillar" of KGB recruitment, said analyst Konstantin Preobrazhenskiy. "The second pillar of recruitment is a love for Russia. In the West, only Russian immigrants have feelings of filial obedience toward Russia. That’s precisely why [the SVR] works with them so often. A special division was created just for this purpose. It regularly holds Russian immigrant conferences, which Putin is fond of attending."

Public Perception in Russia

According to Russian media surveys (2004 and 2005), the Russian public realizes the need to have an active foreign intelligence capability in order to defend their homeland. The SVR appears to be positively perceived by most Russians as they view its mission as vital to their own security. This is a stark contrast to how citizens in Western countries tend to view their own nation's respective foreign intelligence services (Rossiskaya Gazeta, December 2005).

Notable Russian intelligence agents

  • February 1994 - Aldrich Hazen Ames was charged with providing highly classified information since 1985 to the Soviet Union and then Russia. The information he passed led to the execution of at least 9 United States agents in Russia. In April, he and his wife pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit espionage and to evading taxes. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
  • November 1996 - Harold James Nicholson was arrested while attempting to take Top Secret documents out of the country. He began spying for Russia in 1994. He was a senior-ranking Central Intelligence Agency officer. In 1997, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to more than 23 years in prison.
  • December 1996 - Earl Edwin Pitts was charged with providing Top Secret documents to the Soviet Union and then Russia from 1987 until 1992. In 1997, he pleaded guilty to two counts of espionage and was sentenced to 27 years in prison.
  • June 2000 - George Trofimoff, a naturalized citizen of Russian parents, was arrested for spying for the Soviet Union and Russia since about 1969. Having retired as a colonel in the United States Army Reserve, he was the highest ranking military officer ever accused of spying. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
  • October 2000 - Sergei Tretyakov, an SVR officer working undercover at the Russian UN mission defected to the United States with his family.
  • February 2001 - Robert Philip Hanssen was arrested for spying for the Soviet Union and Russia for more than 15 years of his 27 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He passed thousands of pages of classified documents on nuclear war defenses and Sensitive Compartmented Information and exposed three Russian agents of the United States, (two of whom were tried and executed). He pleaded guilty to espionage and was sentenced to life in prison.


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