DRESDEN, Germany — When Vladimir Putin first arrived in Dresden as a mid-level KGB officer in 1985, East Germany was already living on borrowed time. On the verge of bankruptcy, the country was surviving with the help of a billion-Deutsche Mark loan from West Germany, while voices of dissent were on the rise. All around the eastern bloc, the mood of protest was increasing amid the misery and shortages of the planned economy and the brutality of state law-enforcement agencies.
Most of what Putin did during the Dresden years remains shrouded in mystery, in part because the KGB was so effective at destroying and transferring documents before the collapse of East Germany. “With the Russians, we have problems,” said Sven Scharl, a researcher at the Dresden archives of the Stasi, the East German secret police, which worked with the KGB on intelligence operations. “They destroyed almost everything.” Only fragments remain in the files retrieved from the Stasi of Putin’s activities there. His file is thin, and well-thumbed. The only trace of any operative activity connected to Putin is a letter from him to Horst Bohm, the Dresden Stasi chief, asking for his assistance in restoring the phone connection for an informant in the German police who “supports us.” The letter is short on any detail, but the fact of Putin’s direct appeal to Bohm appears to indicate the prominence of his role.
Many years later, when Putin became president of Russia, the legendary chief of the Stasi’s foreign intelligence arm Markus Wolf and Putin’s former KGB colleagues took care to stress that he had been a nobody when he served in Dresden. Putin was “pretty marginal,” Wolf once told a German magazine, and even “cleaning ladies” had received the Bronze Medal awarded to him. The KGB colleague Putin shared an office with on his arrival in Dresden, Vladimir Usoltsev, who was somehow permitted to write a book on those times, took care to emphasize the mundanity of their work, while revealing zero detail about their operations. He acknowledged their role in recruiting undercover agents, but said they’d spent 70 percent of their time writing “senseless reports.” Russian state television later proclaimed that Putin was never involved in anything illegal. Most of these official accounts also emphasize that Dresden itself was a provincial backwater, far from the action of East Berlin.
But conversations with Stasi and KGB colleagues at the time belie the officially sanctioned claims Putin played only a marginal role. These accounts suggest that Putin’s years in Dresden might have been invaluable training in his work sowing chaos in Western politics today. And one firsthand account also suggests the downplaying of Putin’s activities in Dresden was also cover for another mission — one beyond the edge of the law.
This account suggests that Putin was stationed there precisely because it was a backwater, far from the spying eyes in East Berlin, where the French, the Americans and the West Germans all kept close watch. According to a former member of the Red Army Faction, the far-left terrorist group in West Germany, who claimed to have met him in Dresden, Putin had worked in support of members of the group, which sowed terror across West Germany in the seventies and eighties: “There was nothing in Dresden, nothing at all, except the radical left. Nobody was watching Dresden, not the Americans, not the West Germans. There was nothing there. Except the one thing: these meetings with those comrades.”
Locked in the Cold War but realizing it was too far behind technologically to win any military war, ever since the sixties the Soviet Union had found its strength lay in disinformation.
In the battle for empire between East and West, the Soviet security services had long been deploying what they called their own “active measures” to disrupt and destabilize their opponent. Locked in the Cold War but realizing it was too far behind technologically to win any military war, ever since the sixties the Soviet Union had found its strength lay in disinformation, in planting fake rumors in the media to discredit Western leaders, in assassinating political opponents, and in supporting front organizations that would foment wars in developing countries such as the Middle East and Africa and undermine and sow discord in the West.
Among these measures was support for terrorist organizations. Across the Middle East, the KGB had forged ties with numerous Marxist-leaning terror groups, most notably with the PFLP, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a splinter group of the Palestine Liberation Organization that carried out a string of plane hijackings and bomb attacks in the late sixties and seventies. Top-secret documents retrieved by a researcher in the early 1990s from the archives of the Soviet Politburo illustrate the depth of some of these connections. They show the then-KGB chief Yury Andropov signing off three requests for Soviet weapons from PFLP leader Wadi Haddad, and describing him as a “trusted agent” of the KGB.
In East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the KGB actively encouraged the Stasi to assist in its “political activities” in developing countries. In fact, support for international terrorism became one of the most important services the Stasi rendered to the KGB, according to a paper written by Dr. Marian K. Leighton, a former Soviet analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. The East German security services had always been subservient to the KGB and closely followed orders handed down by their Soviet masters. By 1969 the Stasi had opened a clandestine training camp outside East Berlin for members of Yassar Arafat’s PLO. Markus Wolf’s Stasi foreign-intelligence unit became deeply involved in working with terrorist groups across the Arab world, including with the PFLP’s notorious Carlos Ramirez Sanchez, otherwise known as Carlos the Jackal. Stasi military instructors set up a network of terrorist training camps across the Middle East.
One former KGB general who defected to the United States, Oleg Kalugin, later called these activities “the heart and soul of Soviet intelligence.” The former head of Romania’s foreign-intelligence service, Ion Mihai Pacepa, who became the highest-ranking eastern-bloc intelligence officer to defect to the United States, had been the first to speak openly about the KGB’s operations with terrorist groups. Pacepa wrote of how the former head of the KGB’s foreign intelligence, General Alexander Sakharovsky, had frequently told him: “In today’s world, when nuclear arms have made military force obsolete, terrorism should become our main weapon.” Pacepa also stated that KGB chief Andropov had launched an operation to stoke anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. sentiment in the Arab world. At the same time, he said, the KGB unleashed domestic terrorism in the West.
West Germany had been on edge ever since the far-left militant Red Army Faction—also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group after its early leaders Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof — launched a string of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and bank robberies in the late 1960s. In the name of toppling the country’s “imperialism and monopoly capitalism,” they’d killed prominent West German industrialists and bankers, including the head of Dresdner Bank in 1977, and had bombed U.S. military bases, killing and injuring dozens of servicemen.
By the end of the seventies, when the West German police stepped up a campaign of arrests, the Stasi began providing safe haven in the East to members of the group. “They harbored not just one but 10 of them. They lived in cookie-cutter buildings around Dresden, Leipzig and East Berlin,” said Franz Sedelmayer, a German security consultant who later worked with Putin in St. Petersburg. The Stasi had provided them with false identities, and also ran training camps.
Initially, after the fall of the Wall, the West German authorities believed the Stasi had provided only refuge and false identities to the Red Army Faction members. But as prosecutors continued to investigate the Stasi’s role, they found evidence of a much deeper collaboration. Their investigation led to the arrest and indictment of five former Stasi counterterrorism officers for conspiring with the group to bomb a major U.S. army base in Ramstein in southwest Germany in 1981 and attempting to kill a U.S. general. Stasi chief Erich Mielke was indicted on the same charges.
But amid the tumult of German reunification, there was no political will to root out the evils of GDR’s past and bring the Stasi men to trial. The five-year statute of limitations on those charged with collaboration with the Red Army Faction was deemed to have passed, and the charges dropped away. The memory of their crimes faded, while the KGB’s involvement with the Red Army Faction was never investigated at all.
But all the while, the Soviets had overseen the operations of the Stasi, with liaison officers at every command level. At the highest level, KGB control was so tight that, according to one former Red Army Faction member, “Mielke wouldn’t even fart without asking permission in Moscow first.” “The GDR could do nothing without coordination with the Soviets,” said a defector from the senior ranks of the Stasi.
This was the environment Putin was working in — and the story that the former Red Army Faction member had to tell about Dresden fitted closely with that.
According to him, in the years that Putin served in East Germany, Dresden became a meeting place for the Red Army Faction. Dresden was chosen as a meeting place precisely because “there was no one else there,” this former Red Army Faction member said. “In Berlin, there were the Americans, the French and the British, everyone. For what we needed to do we needed the provinces, not the capital.” Another reason the meetings were held there was because Markus Wolf and Erich Mielke wanted to distance themselves from such activities: “Wolf was very careful not to be involved. The very last thing a guy like Wolf or Mielke wanted was to be caught red-handed supporting a terrorist organisation … We met there [in Dresden] about half a dozen times.”
According to a source, in the years that Putin served in East Germany, Dresden became a meeting place for the Red Army Faction | Sean Gallup/Getty Images
This former Red Army Faction member and his colleagues would travel into East Germany by train and would be met by Stasi agents waiting in a large Soviet-made Zil car, then driven to Dresden, where they were joined in a safe house by Putin and another of his KGB colleagues. “They would never give us instructions directly. They would just say, ‘We heard you were planning this, how do you want to do it?’ and make suggestions. They would suggest other targets and ask us what we needed. We always needed weapons and cash.”
It was difficult for the Red Army Faction to purchase weapons in Western Germany, so they would hand Putin and his colleagues a list. Somehow, this list would later end up with an agent in the West, and the requested weapons would be dropped in a secret location for the Red Army Faction members to pick up.
Far from taking the backseat role often ascribed to him during his Dresden years, Putin would be among the leaders in these meetings, the former Red Army member claimed, with one of the Stasi generals taking orders from him. As the Red Army Faction sowed chaos across West Germany in a series of vicious bomb attacks, their activities became a key part of KGB attempts to disrupt and destabilize the West, the former member of the terror group claimed. And, as the end loomed for Soviet power and the GDR, it’s possible that they became a weapon to protect the interests of the KGB. For instance, the terrorist group orchestrated the killings of the chairman of Deutsche Bank in 1989 and the chief of the Siemens technology company in 1986, both of whom supported political positions or were engaged in activities that posed challenges to the Soviet regime.
For the former Red Army Faction member those days now seem long ago and far away. But he can’t help but remember with regret that he was no more than a puppet in Soviet influence games. “We were no more than useful idiots for the Soviet Union,” he said with a wry grin. “This is where it all began. They were using us to disrupt, destabilize and sow chaos in the West.”
While working with the Red Army terrorists may have been Putin’s training ground in active measures against the imperialist West, what happened when the Berlin Wall came down was the experience he would carry with him for decades to come.
When asked about the Stasi and the KGB’s support for the Red Army Faction, a shadow falls across the still spry face of Horst Jehmlich, the former Dresden Stasi fixer-in-chief who’d worked closely with Putin. We are sitting around the dining table of the sunlit apartment he’s lived in ever since the GDR years, just around the corner from the former Stasi headquarters and the villa where the KGB was stationed. The fine china is out for coffee, the table is covered with lace.
The Red Army Faction members were only brought to the GDR “to turn them away from terrorism,” he insists. “The Stasi wanted to prevent terrorism and stop them from returning to terrorist measures. They wanted to give them a chance to re-educate themselves.” But when asked whether it was the KGB who were in fact calling the tune, whether it was Putin who the Red Army Faction members were meeting with in Dresden, and whether orders for attacks could have emanated from there, the shadow across his face becomes darker still. “I don’t know anything about this. When it was top-secret, I didn’t know. I don’t know whether this involved the Russian secret service. If it is so, then the KGB tried to prevent that anyone knows about this material. They will have said that this is a German problem. They managed to destroy many more documents than us.”
The former Red Army Faction member’s story is near-impossible to verify. Most of his former comrades are either in prison or dead. Others allegedly involved in the meetings back then have disappeared off the grid. But a close Putin ally from the KGB indicated that any such allegations were extremely sensitive, and insisted that no connection between the KGB and the Red Army Faction, or any other European terrorist group, had ever been proved: “And you should not try to do so!” he added sharply.
Many years later, Klaus Zuchold, one of Putin’s recruits in the Stasi, offered some partial details of Putin’s involvement in other active measures then. Zuchold, who’d defected to the West, told a German publication, Correctiv, that Putin had once sought to obtain a study on deadly poisons that leave few traces, and planned to compromise the author of this study by planting pornographic material on him. It’s not clear whether the operation ever got off the ground. Zuchold also claimed that Putin’s activities included a role as the handler of a notorious neo-Nazi, Rainer Sonntag, who was deported to West Germany in 1987, and who returned to Dresden after the Wall’s fall and stoked the rise of the far right.
While working with the Red Army terrorists may have been Putin’s training ground in active measures against the imperialist West, what happened when the Berlin Wall came down was the experience he would carry with him for decades to come. Though it had become ever clearer that the eastern bloc might not hold, that social unrest could tear it apart and that the reverberations could reach into the Soviet Union itself, still Putin and the other KGB officers in Dresden scrambled to salvage networks amid the sudden speed of East Germany’s collapse.
In a moment, it was over. There was suddenly no one in command. The decades of struggle and covert spy games seemed done. The border was gone, overwhelmed by the outpouring of protest built up over so many years. Though it took another month for the protests to reach Dresden, when they came, Putin and his colleagues were only partially prepared. While the crowds massed in the bitter cold for two days outside the Stasi headquarters, Putin and the other KGB men barricaded themselves inside the villa. “We burned papers night and day,” Putin said later. “We destroyed everything — all our communications, our lists of contacts and our agents’ networks. I personally burned a huge amount of material. We burned so much stuff that the furnace burst.”
Excerpted from PUTIN’S PEOPLE: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West by Catherine Belton. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux June 23, 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Catherine Belton. All rights reserved.