After President Trump’s meeting in Helsinki with Russian president Vladimir Putin, many analysts pointed to Putin’s background in Russian intelligence as a reason why he was able to gain the upper hand on Trump. Was Putin, in fact, once a spy for Russia? Was Putin in the KGB?
Was Putin in the KGB?
So, was Putin in the KGB? Yes, Vladimir Putin was a member of the Soviet Union’s intelligence service, the KGB. He even referred to his time as a spy during his press conference with Trump on Monday afternoon. Asked by a journalist about the veracity of the Steele dossier — which outlines Russia’s longtime efforts to groom Trump as an asset — Putin said, “I was an intelligence officer myself, and I know how dossiers are made up.”
Putin joined the KGB in 1975, at the age of 23, after studying law at Saint Petersburg State University. According to the book “The New Tsar,” Putin was recruited by KGB chief Yuri Andropov, who wanted to bring young outsiders into the organization. He trained at School No. 401 in Saint Petersburg, where aspiring agents were taught intelligence tactics and interrogation techniques.
Originally assigned to counter-intelligence, he was assigned to Dresden, East Germany, where he posed as a translator. According to the book “Mr. Putin,” his mission might have included recruiting East German Communist Party officials, stealing technological secrets and compromising visiting Westerners. But it was mainly dedicated to collecting press clippings, reporter Masha Gessen wrote.
Putin returned to Russia when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, burning KGB files on his way out. He resigned from the KGB altogether in 1991 after a coup attempt against Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev.
He then went into business, but Putin’s time out of the spy trade was brief. The next president, Boris Yeltsin, assigned him to run Russia’s successor to the KGB, the FSB, in 1998. From there, he was elected president for the first time in 2000.
Despite Putin’s heady ascent, few of his biographers would say he had an illustrious spying career. In 2015, the “Washington Post” talked to intelligence operatives who had studied Putin’s 17-year KGB career. “They … traced a portrait of Putin as a failed spy who was being squeezed out of the KGB when the Soviet system collapsed and political connections suddenly offered him a route to power,” the Post reported. “He was seen in the system as a risk-taker who had little understanding of the consequences of failure. The KGB of that era was not keen on risk.”