This is an excerpt from ‘Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin’ by Brookings experts Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy.
The accepted story about Putin’s KGB service is that Dresden — which was the third-largest city in the GDR with a population of about 500,000 — was an unimportant backwater.
Putin’s work there has also routinely been described as unimportant and even unsuccessful.
There is no official version of what Putin was doing in Dresden, and he has not offered much personal detail.
Nor is there any concrete information about which directorate of the KGB Putin worked for.
One suggestion is that he was in an operation, “Operation Luch” (“beam” or “ray”), to steal technological secrets. Another says that while he was indeed part of Operation Luch, the mission was not to steal secrets at all. It was an undercover operation to recruit top officials in the East German Communist Party and secret police (Stasi).
The goal was to secure their support for the reformist, perestroika, line of the Soviet leadership in Moscow against opposition from Honecker and his hardline East German leadership.
A third says simply that the goal of the KGB in Dresden was to contact, entrap, compromise, and generally recruit Westerners who happened to be in Dresden studying and doing business.
Other versions suggest that the KGB was focused on recruiting East Germans who had relatives in the West. Some versions of the story have said Putin himself travelled undercover to West Germany on occasion.
The most likely answer to which of these was Putin’s actual mission in Dresden is: “all of the above.” Not only is it likely that Putin engaged in some or all of these activities, it is virtually inconceivable that he did not.
The KGB was stealing technological secrets everywhere it could. If there were some to be stolen in Dresden, rest assured Putin and his colleagues would be on the case.
As for entrapping, compromising, and recruiting Westerners, or people with connections to the West, that, too, was a permanent assignment for anyone in the KGB.
Regardless of what exactly Putin did in Dresden, which we will revisit in subsequent chapters, one thing is certain — Dresden was not a political backwater in East Germany.
While Putin was far outside political events in the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1980s, he was not outside politics or world events in Dresden.
The GDR was imploding. Dresden was one of the centres of opposition within the German Communist Party to the retrograde Honecker regime — an intra-party opposition in which Hans Modrow, the party’s Dresden leader, was an active participant.
Given the ferment at home, Putin’s KGB counterparts back in the USSR were unlikely to be paying a great deal of attention to what was happening in East Germany.
But if Putin had even the slightest interest in political developments in the GDR, there could hardly have been a much better place to be than Dresden in those years of 1985 — 89.
In Dresden, Putin was close enough to the ground that he could observe the activities of the East German opposition at first hand, just as Andropov observed the Hungarian opposition in the mid-1950s — albeit from a loftier vantage point in the Soviet Embassy — during his posting to Budapest.
Putin was also low enough on the KGB totem pole in Dresden that part of his job could have been to monitor and to try to understand the opposition, its motivations, its strengths, and weaknesses.
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