How a Renegade ‘Middle Eastern Mafia’ Invented Modern Russian Espionage

·21 min read
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

It was a cold winter morning in Moscow in the late 2000s. At the southern end of the Slavyanskaya Square, in front of the giant windows of the six-story neoclassical edifice of the Presidential Administration, once home to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, stood a short stocky man in his early sixties, with a black mustache.

Konstantin Kapitonov was waiting for me at the steps of the monument to Cyril and Methodius, inventors of the Cyrillic script. A very Russian combination of operative, subject matter specialist and journalist, Kapitonov became notorious for being kicked out of the Middle East, twice—the second time from Israel. We’d gotten to know each other over several years: he’d send me his stories for publication on Agentura.Ru, the website I edited whose focus was the Russian security services. But we’d never met in person. Kapitonov appeared energetic and talkative, and immediately took me to a nearby restaurant. Vodka was soon on the table, even if it was too early for lunch.

He did most of the talking—about himself. Kapitonov had several projects ongoing. The most ambitious was a biography of Vadim Kirpichenko, the first deputy head of Russian intelligence, with an introduction by Evgeny Primakov, whose career included being President Mikhail Gorbachev’s point man in the Middle East, chief of Foreign Intelligence, prime minister, and adviser to President Vladimir Putin. A publisher in Moscow, known to be very close to the services, published Kapitonov’s book about the Israeli Mossad and the Egyptian Mukhabarat. Kapitonov was part of the crowd known in the Russian intelligence as “the Middle Eastern mafia,” a cabal of Arabist or Perisianist KGB officers who ended up in the late 1980s taking over the KGB foreign intelligence service and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, reinvented it in their own image. Their skill set, to sow disinformation and propaganda in a part of the world where conspiracy theories and lies are rife to begin with, has now become highly relevant again, affecting the psychological underpinnings of democracies and dictatorships alike.

The Soviet Atomic Spy Who Asked for a U.S. Pension

Kapitonov’s wings had been clipped and he’d been “grounded” in Russia for several years. He couldn’t get another posting as a correspondent in the Middle East, but thanks to the internet, he kept busy. “I’m doing a lot of writing of black stories on Timoshenko,” he said, referring to Yulia, one of the architects of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. These stories,” he said cheerfully after a few shots of vodka, were all being published “on some shitty Ukrainian websites—under a pseudonym, of course.” His publisher had also tasked Kapitonov with finding other writers to contribute, with an enticing payment plan. “Andrei, it’s a lot of money, and I can secure it for you just like that.”

It was a classic tactic. I was being wined and dined in a nice restaurant to show that Kapitonov took serious interest in me; a casual mention of his attacks on Timoshenko also told me he didn’t take me for a fool who’d pretend he was not what he really was. He wanted my trust and was offering to put his reputation in my care. But he was also cultivating me.

A book with Primakov’s name on it was proof Kapitonov still had contacts at the highest levels of foreign intelligence. And his pitch was relatively subtle, redolent of a generation of Russian spies who’d been stationed abroad during the last days of the Cold War and then kept the SVR, the successor of their former service, the First Chief Directorate of the KGB, mostly intact throughout the stormy 1990s.

Before they became masters of Russian spycraft, they would be banished from the Middle East.

On Sept. 16, 1981, the Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat announced the expulsion of the Soviet ambassador along with six members of his staff, and two Soviet journalists. One of them was Konstantin Kapitonov, then a 35-year-old correspondent for the Soviet newspaper Trud (“Labor”). Sadat also ordered more than a thousand Soviet technical specialists to leave the country. He accused them of conspiring to foment sectarian strife.

The crackdown on the Soviet presence followed a failed military coup in June. Sadat clearly believed that the Soviets were plotting against him by promoting a rift between Christians and Muslims in Egypt.

For the Soviet embassy it came as a very unpleasant but hardly surprising development. Moscow had 41 diplomats and other staff stationed in Egypt. Over 30 of them were spies, working around the clock. It was clearly not enough—with every year, Sadat was getting more and more hostile towards the Soviets. The resources at the KGB station were so thinly spread between Cairo and Alexandria that in 1977 Moscow Center directed the station in Cairo to start recruiting Soviet Arabists “to collect political intelligence and conduct active measures.” Kapitonov had spent six years reporting in the country, and his fluent Egyptian Arabic made him perfect for the job.

But Sadat’s orders meant everything came to an abrupt end.

The engineers had a week to get their belongings together and depart for Moscow. The diplomats and journalists were given only 48 hours. Still, they considered themselves lucky. Sadat had also announced that some of 1,500 Egyptians who had been arrested recently would be charged with “conniving” with the Russians.

Kapitonov flew back to Moscow.

How Secret Russian Spy Kim Philby Helped Set Up Israel

Three weeks later, Sadat was dead, machine-gunned at a parade in Cairo by jihadist assassins armed with AK-47s and port-Said submachine guns, a copy of the Swedish M45/b Carl Gustav. In the Soviet bureaucracy, expulsion from the West was never considered an auspicious start of one’s career, either for a journalist or a spy. But the Middle East was a different story, particularly if you’d played your cards right—and Kapitonov had.

There were several powerful people kicked out of Egypt along with him.

Colonel Yuri Kotov, chief of the KGB station in Cairo, a balding, stocky man with distinctive eyebrows, also left the country. Kotov was a rising star in the First Chief Directorate, the foreign intelligence arm of the service. In the mid-1960s he worked under diplomatic cover as cultural attache at the Soviet embassy in Tel-Aviv. He did well, recruiting several important officials, including an Israeli general and the Knesset member who later earned a seat on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the 1980s.

Kotov was also a shrewd political operator. After the Soviet Union closed its embassy in Israel due to a break in bilateral relations owing to the Six-Day War, Kotov was transferred to Beirut. There he became close to Evgeny Primakov, who was foreign correspondent for Pravda. Primakov would later be assigned as a secret Soviet envoy to Israel and he’d make Kotov his traveling companion, a years-long mission which didn’t bear much diplomatic fruit but advanced Kotov’s professional career. He was promoted to colonel with the full endorsement of Yury Andropov, the chairman of the KGB (thanks to Primakov’s lobbying), then assigned as rezident, or station chief, in Cairo.

Sadat’s mass expulsion of Soviet spies and agents therefore didn’t affect Krotov’s stature, or Kapitonov’s. In fact, it strengthened the relationships of a tight-knit network of KGB Arabists who, years on, would be nicknamed “the Middle Eastern mafia” of Russian Foreign Intelligence.

In June of 1982, just nine months after Kapitonov’s expulsion from Egypt, he found himself again in the Middle East—this time in Beirut.

The KGB had a special interest in Lebanon: not because of the country in itself but because it was considered a good spot for targeting and recruiting Americans. That’s why so many heavyweights in the KGB spent time there, including Rem Krasylnikov, who later run operations against the CIA in Moscow and Victor Cherkashin, a handler for both Aldrich Ames, a CIA defector who betrayed hundreds of American agents to Moscow, and Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent who spied for the Soviets and then for the Russians for decades. Another bigwig in Beirut was Kotov.

In 1982, Kapitonov was dispatched to Beirut as a correspondent of Literaturnaya Gazeta weekly, an ostensible literary review which was actually the KGB’s “prime conduit in the Soviet press for propaganda and disinformation,” according to former KGB General Oleg Kalugin. The year Kapitonov left Moscow for Beirut, Literaturnaya Gazeta published a long story titled, “Incubator of Death,” about a CIA factory for weaponized mosquitoes. The story was a response to the American accusations that the Soviet army had used chemical weapons in Afghanistan, and was designed to deflect blame.

The network of Literaturnaya Gazeta’s foreign bureaus around the world was essentially a joint enterprise sponsored by the KGB. The weekly got bureaus, and KGB spies were given journalistic cover.

Kapitonov arrived at a turbulent time. Lebanon was going through a horrible civil war. Numerous militant factions were busy killing one another on the streets of Beirut and the Israeli army had invaded from the south. “When the Israelis began shelling the city,” Kapitonov told me, “I went down to the bomb shelter in my underpants. I was sitting there, writing. The shelling destroyed my room, along with my typewriter and a wardrobe with my clothes burned down. I was left in my underpants.”

Soon the civil war added a nasty new element: the kidnappings of foreigners. By the mid-1980s, they were being snatched from the streets in droves, by assailants of various ideological loyalties. On Sept. 30, 1985, four employees of the Soviet embassy were taken, two of them KGB officers. One of the four, Arkady Katkov was soon found shot and dumped on waste ground. It was Kapitonov, Katkov’s closest friend, who was sent to identify the body in the morgue. The kidnapping had been carried out on the command of Imad Mughniyeh, a senior Hezbollah operative.

The KGB launched a massive hostage rescue operation, and some of the employees were evacuated to Damascus for security reasons, including Kapitonov. At that point, there were very few foreign journalists, real or otherwise, remaining in Beirut.

Robert Fisk, a veteran British foreign correspondent, was also out of the country and desperate to get back. The airport in Beirut was still in operation. But there was an obvious problem: how to drive from it through the checkpoints manned by different militant factions all over the city and make it safely to one’s hotel or apartment?

Fisk suddenly remembered his clubbable tennis partner Konstanin Kapitonov. When the Soviet diplomats were kidnapped Fisk had hastened to the Soviet embassy compound to console Kapitonov, who was devastated by what was left of his friend Katkov in the morgue. Fisk also assumed Kapitonov was a KGB agent. It was a long shot, but it might work: the three Russian hostages had been eventually released, unharmed, and rumors swirled that the KGB had applied brutal methods to retrieve them—a relative of an attacker was said to be tortured and killed. If anyone could get the British journalist safely to his apartment in Beirut in those chaotic days, it was probably the KGB.

But Fisk wasn’t sure Kapitonov would help him. “This was before glasnost,” Fisk later recalled, “before Gorbachev. The Soviets had no reason to help me.”

Mikhail Gorbachev Compares Putin’s Policies to Stalin’s

Indeed, the Cold War was in full swing, and Kapitonov’s Literaturnaya Gazeta was at the forefront of it: it was the major Soviet publication selected by the KGB to promote one of the most notorious “active measures” of the period, a conspiracy theory that AIDS was a side effect of the Pentagon’s experiments with biological weapons.

Fisk called Kapitonov.

“Don’t worry, Bob, I’ll meet you at the airport.”

“Please, Konstantin, I have to rely on you totally.”

“Trust me.”

So Fisk flew to Beirut. Upon landing, he found dozens of gunmen lounging in the arrivals terminal at the airport. But no Konstantin. “Why are you here?” a bearded man in a long brown coat asked the reporter. Fisk searched desperately for his Russian liaison amid a crowd of bearded Arabs.

Eventually, he heard: “Robert, comrade, welcome home.” Kapitonov was there and not alone; he’d brought with him the Soviet embassy press attaché and the Beirut correspondent of TASS, both fellow officers of the KGB. They had two-way radios.

Halfway down the airport road, this unlikely retinue encountered a Hezbollah checkpoint. The embassy attaché wound down the window. “Safara Sovietiya.” Soviet embassy. The gunman waved the car through. The attaché turned to Fisk, “Saved by the KGB, eh, Robert? Where shall we take you? Home or to the restaurant?”

Fisk got the point. They lunched at the Spaghetteria, a popular Italian joint down the road from the American University of Beirut (and from Fisk’s apartment), with several bottles of French champagne. Kapitonov watched Fisk carefully.

“You think I’m still KGB?”

“Yes, probably.”

“No. I am a journalist. I have done this because you are a friend.”

Two decades later, in Norway, I asked Fisk about Kapitonov. We were sitting in a lobby of a Radisson in the woods on the outskirts of Lillehammer in September. The hotel was filled with hundreds of reporters who’d come for an investigative journalism conference, and the shabby white two-storey edifice could hardly contain all the foreign guests. Fisk, red-faced, with a respectable shock of white hair, confirmed the story he had put in his book Pity the Nation. Fisk laughed off the joke he used to share with Kapitonov. “‘Andrei,’ I’d say, ‘just write down my name in Cyrillic.’ Ah, there you are—of course, it looked like Fuck.”

Fisk said nothing was ever asked by his KGB confrere in return. But why? Was it Kapitonov’s way of honoring a war-time camaraderie? Did he count on his powerful friends in Moscow Center to give him a bit more freedom in his actions abroad? And how he had explained it to his masters in the Soviet embassy in Beirut who had helped get a foreign journalist—one from a NATO country, no less—from point A to point B in a war-torn city?

Under ordinary circumstances, such a breach of protocol would result in immediate recall to Moscow, or worse—but Kapitonov wasn’t an ordinary spy. He felt sufficiently privileged and important, thanks to his connections with the “Middle Eastern mafia” to use the embassy’s resources to give a hand to a foreign national, one who could have easily compromised a host of Soviet intelligence officers in the Beirut station if he so chose. Not that the reliably left-wing Robert Fisk ever did.

In 1988, Kapitonov was back in Moscow, amid Gorbachev and glasnost. His editor at Literaturnaya Gazeta, the hardliner Chakovsky, was on his way out. But the Middle Eastern mafia was on the rise, both in politics and in the intelligence establishment. In the KGB, the mafia just took over the foreign intelligence branch: Leonid Shebarshin became chief of the First Chief Directorate. Shebarshin had spent most of his spy career in the East—India, Pakistan, and Iran, and run KGB operations in Afghanistan.

Kotov was in Turkey, running the station in Ankara. Primakov, now director of IMEMO, the country’s top foreign policy think tank, was just elected to the Soviet Supreme Council. He continued to rise in the government and in the Communist Party. By 1989, Primakov had become a candidate member of the Politburo, the policy-making body of the party.

But then everything started falling apart. The Eastern bloc collapsed; in January 1990, angry citizens had stormed the Stasi headquarters in Berlin, and Stasi leaders were jailed. The same year, one of the saved Russian hostages in Beirut, a KGB major Oleg Spirin, defected to the United States, along with his family, from the Soviet embassy in Kuwait.

Shebarshin hastily developed a contingency plan to save the First Chief Directorate by making it independent from the rest of the KGB and whitewashing its reputation as the most liberal, worldly part of the KGB. The failed KGB coup d’état in August 1991 activated that split, although Shebarshin was not there to supervise it: he left the KGB a month after the abortive coup. But his brainchild worked. Within two months, foreign intelligence was separated from the KGB, the successor organ to the original Cheka, meant to combat “counter-revolutionary” activity in Lenin’s regime.

In December 1991, the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist and foreign intelligence got a new name—Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki, or SVR—and a new chief, Evgeny Primakov.

Primakov immediately invited Shebarshin back to Yasenevo, the headquarters of the SVR, to serve as his deputy. Shebarshin politely declined—he was too ambitious to accept a subordinate role. Ever loyal to the Middle Eastern mafia, Primakov next turned to Kotov. Kotov was officially sacked by a new democratic leadership of the KGB, but Primakov phoned him and urged him to stay. “Yuri, please keep on just a few days until I come.”

Primakov made Kotov his personal adviser on intelligence—and with that the only chance to reform Russia’s foreign intelligence was missed, forever.

The 1990s were a difficult time for Kapitonov. The SVR was impoverished and had few resources or personnel to keep going as it had done in the 1980s. Journalism was also no longer the convenient cover for international spies: Russian newspapers eliminated a lot of foreign bureaus and those lucky enough to be stationed abroad during the heady days of “wild west” Russian capitalism took to all manner of faddish commercial schemes such as renting out or selling their offices.

Kapitonov was in Moscow and stuck or “grounded,” as he put it, rather like Russian intelligence itself.

Then along came Vladimir Putin, the former KGB case officer who would make one of his most foremost priorities the cause of restoring the glory of Soviet-era intelligence services—with their global scope, ruthlessness and world-wide spy operations stretching from Australia to the U.S. to the Middle East. It’d be the spies with long and deep experience in the latter region who’d thrive again.

It was 1999. In Moscow, Putin, a FSB director, was made Russia’s prime minister, and was already being talked about as Yeltsin’s successor as president. The security and intelligence agencies sensed they were back in the saddle again, after a decade of interregnum.

What’s Really Behind Putin’s Vendetta Against Americans?

Meanwhile, 1,600 miles south of Moscow, in Tel Aviv, a small, stocky man with a black mustache in a threadbare suit checked into a modest hotel on Hayarkon Street, where a lot of embassies are located. The man planned to stay there for months, perhaps years. It was, improbably, Kapitonov, just settling down in the new Middle Eastern country, his first foreign posting since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Only this time, there was no newspaper to give him an official status and no bureau to host him. He arrived as a freelancer, “kept a low profile and looked very insignificant,” as a former officer of Shabak, Israeli counterintelligence, told me.

“When our people arranged trips for Russian-speaking Israeli journalists to the Palestinian territories, he joined in but asked not to be introduced as a journalist from Russia. He also avoided speaking Arabic with Palestinians.”

In all likelihood, Kapitonov didn’t want to stand out in a crowd. But gradually, things changed. Under Putin, Russia was growing more assertive at the tail-end of the Yeltsin years, following liberalization, the rise of the oligarchs, and intermittent hiccups with the West, especially over the Balkan wars. Western leaders started to do what they hadn’t really, at least not in dramatic fashion, since the Cold War: complain about Russian spies and their activities.

In Israel, Kapitonov was writing for several Russian newspapers and contributing to Russia’s TV channels. He managed to elevate his status. By now he was an accredited journalist and resided with his family in a comfortable apartment in the prestigious neighborhood of Ramat Aviv in Tel Aviv.

When my two colleagues and I—we were all young journalists in our mid-twenties—launched our website Agentura.Ru about the intelligence and security services in the fall of 2000, Kapitonov almost immediately contacted me. He offered his services and promptly sent me articles from Israel, strangely never asking for payment. On the contrary, as he had done with Fisk years earlier, he generously offered to pick up me and any of my friends at the airport whenever we traveled to Israel and to drive us wherever we wanted to go.

Israel and Russia were getting closer politically. The Second Chechen War was talked about between the politicians of either country to prove that they were both fighting the common evil of international jihadism. The Russian embassy in Tel Aviv arranged screenings for Israeli journalists of state-produced documentaries depicting atrocities committed by Chechen separatists—documentaries manufactured, as we now know, by a secret section of the GRU known as Unit 54777. Kapitonov finally got an accreditation from the newspaper Trud, the very one he had worked for when he got kicked out of Egypt.

In early 2004, Shabak phoned Kapitonov. They wanted to have a few words with him, in private. Kapitonov, now 57, was invited to the luxurious Dan Accadia hotel in Herzliya Pituach, north of Tel Aviv. In the lobby, he was shown into Room 222 on the ground floor, facing the beach. Two Shabak operatives were waiting for him. They made it very clear to Kapitonov that they wanted him to stop engaging in secret operations in Israel, whether intelligence collection or the production of active measures, they didn’t specify.

In a heated argument that followed, Kapitonov kept his nerve and demanded to be either declared persona non grata or left alone. Shabak did neither.

Over the next six months, Israeli counterintelligence put the squeeze on Kapitonov. Agents kept coming to his colleagues and his retinue asking questions about him. Many of those interrogated duly reported it back to Kapitonov. Whatever Shabak wanted to achieve, it failed.

Kapitonov turned up the heat by publishing articles accusing the Israelis of mistreating ethnic Russians in the country. His stories were mixtures of real facts and wild accusations. “Ethnic Russians,” ran one, “are being severely discriminated against in Israeli society. They are fired from their jobs because of the cross, Russian soldiers are buried in separate areas, and Russian children are called goyim and pigs.”

It was the moment when the Kremlin was taking serious interest in the Russian diaspora all over the world, including a very sizable community in Israel. The topic was therefore incredibly sensitive: over a million repatriates from the former Soviet Union in the country, many of them believed they and their children had saved Israel from annihilation during the first and second intifadas and were unfairly underrepresented in the country’s establishment. Putin, then still in his first presidential term, didn’t like that Israel had taken in Russian oligarch Leonid Nevzlin, on the run from Moscow, now residing in the Dan Accadia hotel in Herzliya where Kapitonov had his meeting with Shabak agents.

In July, the Israeli newspaper Maariv published a big expose titled, “A spy in Ramat Aviv.” It accused Kapitonov of being “a representative of Russian intelligence who is in Israel under the cover of journalistic work, through which he establishes connections with Israeli citizens, and uses some of them [for] intelligence purposes,” it alleged, quoting from a letter from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office.

“It was completely unprecedented,” a former Shabak officer admitted to me. “Israel, as a rule, has been avoiding spy scandals with Russia by all means. The relationship with Moscow has always been too important.”

Nonetheless, Kapitonov was told to leave the country.

In the Moscow restaurant, Kapitonov kept entertaining me with his stories. He was talking mostly of hastily written books on hot topics and the “shitty” Ukrainian websites; in other words, of active measures and disinformation. As long as Russia’s Foreign intelligence was in need of operators good at those things, Kapitonov and his kind were in demand.

Sitting in that restaurant in Moscow in the late 2000s, a half-mile from the edifice of Putin’s Presidential Administration, I still couldn’t imagine just how valuable these graying manes of KGB disinformation and propaganda would be in the coming decade. “Black stories” on Timoshenko would give way to an expansive state apparatus dedicated to active measures, often accompanying covert or overt Russian military interventions in Ukraine, Syria, and sub-Saharan Africa, or cyberespionage and influence operations in the United States, U.K. and Europe. There would be more Kapitonovs, only now with greater latitude and resources, blending old forms of tradecraft with new forms of technology. They’d be adventurous, brazen and sloppy—unmasked, caught or expelled. They’d also get results.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!

Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting