Soviet Leaders And Intelligence

Title:                      Soviet Leaders And Intelligence

Author:                 Raymond L. Garthoff

Garthoff, Raymond L. (2015). Soviet Leaders And Intelligence: Assessing The American Adversary During The Cold War. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press

LCCN:    2014043611

E183.8.S65 G385 2015


  • The United States was seen by Soviet political leaders as the “Main Adversary” throughout the Cold War, and Soviet intelligence services were renowned and feared throughout the world for their ability to conduct espionage and dirty tricks. This work by Raymond Garthoff examines the Soviet foreign intelligence system broadly to evaluate how Soviet leaders and their intelligence chiefs understood, or misunderstood, the United States. This extended case study shows a paradox in the Soviet foreign intelligence system, that as good and feared as Soviet intelligence was at operations, their analysis of intelligence was mediocre and under-resourced. Furthermore, Soviet leaders were more frequently guided by their personal views and Party ideology than by intelligence. This work synthesizes new and old sources on Soviet intelligence and Soviet political leaders to give the most authoritative assessment to date of the Soviet’s understanding of the United States. This work is an important case study for the history of intelligence analysis, and it is also an important corrective for those who see Soviet intelligence as an all-powerful and all-knowing force during the Cold War.


  • Chronology of key events affecting US-Soviet relations, 1945-1991 — Preface — Introduction — Stalin : emergence of the cold war, 1945-1953 — Khrushchev : thaw and crisis, 1954-1964 — Brezhnev : engagement and detente, 1965-1979 — Brezhnev, Andropov : tensions revived, 1979-1984 — Gorbachev : back to detente; and beyond, 1985-1991 — Conclusions — Appendix 1. Soviet leaders, 1945-1991 — Appendix 2. Heads of the Soviet state security organization, 1945-1991 — Appendix 3. Heads of the Soviet foreign intelligence service, 1945-1991 — Appendix 4. US-Soviet summit meetings, 1945-1991.


Date Updated:  March 29, 2017

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[2]

As any observer of the old Soviet Union realized, espionage and related activities occupied a prominent role in the Communist nation from its very founding. Several generations of writers–both fiction and non-fiction–have prospered with accounts of spy rings, ranging from the Philby cabal to the Red Orchestra.

But what use did Soviet leaders make of the massive amounts of material that flowed into Moscow? Several prominent examples exist of ignored intelligence, notably the multiple reports that reached Joseph Stalin about the imminent Nazi invasion in 1940. Rather than heed the warnings, Stalin scrawled obscenities on the reports and cast them aside.

Now comes Raymond Garthoff with a scathing indictment not only of the Soviet intelligence services, but the use made by the leadership of the information they gathered. The KGB (and its siblings) violated a basic tenet of the intelligence profession: beginning in the Stalin era, and continuing to the end of the Cold War, the spies told their bosses what they wanted to hear, rather than the truth.

Garthoff is uniquely qualified for such a study. He became a “Soviet-watcher” during his academic years and worked for CIA and the Rand Corporation before becoming a foreign service officer. In retirement, he served at the Brookings Institution. Much of his book is based on personal conversations with Soviet officials–including intelligence officers who spoke candidly about their own service–and declassified Soviet documents.

As Garthoff relates, much of the Soviet problem stemmed from a lack of skilled analysts to make informed sense of the intelligence gathered by field operatives. Historically, the CIA had roughly a 1:1 ratio of analysts to operations officers. The KGB, in the 1970s and 1980s, had a comparable ratio of about 1:10. (In later years, according to defected KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievsky, the number of analysts increased five-fold, to more than 500.)

Despite their limited number, headquarters analysts “felt free to caution against or disregard KGB political reporting from the field, which was often quite poor.” The New York residency, for instance, even garbled the names and positions of UN diplomats. It showed a “lack of understanding of American and

world political issues,” to the point where it quoted Communist Party USA sources “as authoritative commentators on the American scene.”

Early on, the KGB declared that the United States was the “main enemy,” and much of its reporting falsely—harped on Pentagon war planning against the USSR. As an example, he cites a series of reports by the GRU—Red Army intelligence—that grossly overestimated US tank production—75,000 per year versus an actual 500. But the bloated figure was “the one that justified maintaining and modernizing the huge Soviet tank inventory.”

The disdain with which Soviet leaders viewed intelligence was dangerous at times. As Garthoff writes, “When year after year in the 1980s Soviet intelligence could find no real signs of Western preparation to attack, their chiefs, rather than congratulating their staff for reassuring Moscow, urged them to redouble efforts to find evidence that was not there. The adversarial image trumped reality.” [p. 97]

When the Moscow leadership began taking a more realistic view of US intentions, paranoids in the KGB attempted a “soft coup” to strip powers from Mikhail Gorbachev. KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov dragged out a decade-old report contending that the US “was embarking on a program to infiltrate and recruit Soviet citizens who could be trained and aided to become influential Soviet officials and eventually manipulate Soviet policies to serve American interests.”

The KGB also was obsessed with circulating black propaganda—altering US documents with forged passages designed to inflame third countries. The irony was that Soviet officers “reported back to Moscow information about the United States they had collected from contacts to whom KGB officers had fed Soviet disinformation.”

Garthoff credits Mikhail Gorbachev for breaking the hard-liners’ insistence that war with the US was inevitable. He quotes a statement Gorbachev made to intelligence chiefs in a confrontational meeting in 1987: “….we, the leadership, need to know the truth in order to make correct decisions.” But even Gorbachev came to ignore intelligence when it was different from what he wished to hear.

In the end, KGB General Vadim Kirpichenko admitted that the USSR destroyed itself. “The bitter truth is not that the CIA, and not its agents of influence in the USSR, but we ourselves destroyed our great state, and all our highest party and state figures continued to pursue chimeras, not wishing to distinguish myths from reality.”

The moral: national leaders ignore—or misuse intelligence at their own peril.

Complied and Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[3]

Throughout the Cold War, few Americans thought it likely there would be a hot war with the Soviet Union because of stated US national security policy and roughly offsetting military capabilities. Nevertheless, the United States and her allies remained concerned about Soviet expansionism and the intense propagation of its ideology. At the same time, however, “the United States was seen by Soviet political leaders and by their intelligence services as the ‘Main Adversary’” because the Soviets saw the “American-led Western bloc waging political warfare against it.” (p. ix) How then did intelligence and ideology influence the Soviet leadership’s views and how did their perceptions of their adversaries evolve during the Cold War?

Raymond Garthoff; a former State Department officer and CIA analyst, and now a diplomatic historian at the Brookings Institution, is uniquely qualified to answer this question from the Soviet point of view, and he does so in Soviet Leaders and Intelligence. His approach is chronological. He examines “the interaction between the political recipients of intelligence assessments”—from Stalin to Gorbachev—and “the intelligence chiefs who provided them.” (p. x)

Initially, writes Garthoff, Stalin, the political realist, “did seek to continue the wartime Big Three partnership after the war, albeit in his own way,” (p. 1) and he reviews a number of actions that support this observation. At the same time, the Soviet ambassador to the United States reported to the 1946 Foreign Ministers meeting in Paris that “the foreign policy of the United States, which reflects the imperialistic tendencies of American monopolist capital, is characterized in the postwar period by striving for world supremacy.” (p .9) By the fall of 1947, this assessment was regarded as “too soft” and when the COMINFORM was created later the same year, the official Soviet view was that the world was comprised of “two counterposed ‘camps’, with the capitalist/imperialist camp headed by the United States.” (p. 11). Thus did the United States become “firmly established as the USSR’s main adversary” (p. 15) and the Soviet intelligence services were reorganized to improve intelligence assessments that reflected the leadership’s views. Garthoff discusses the changes in detail, adding that “none… had a discernible impact on Stalin’s headstrong personal role in interpreting events and deciding policies.” (p. 16)

Despite the growing Soviet enmity, Garthoff sees hints of eventual coexistence in Stalin’s policies that were continued by Khrushchev and each of his successors. As he discusses each regime in turn, Garthoff highlights the diminished impact of ideology on Soviet national policies as it continued its gradual decline until the arrival of Gorbachev’s “new thinking.” Here Garthoff stresses that “intelligence played no role in promoting the new thinking that fundamentally recast Soviet foreign policy,” (p. 82) though the KGB may not have realized it as they continued attempts to be influential. “Gorbachev’s early interest in intelligence reports quickly declined,” Garthoff notes, and he explains how that happened. As one KGB chief wrote later, “when the information confirmed Gorbachev’s views, it was welcome. But when policy and reality started to diverge, with the situation in the country going from bad to worse, he did not want to know.” (p. 87) In the end, Gorbachev relied on his own political judgment, but that was not enough to save the Soviet Union. As KGB Vadim Kirpichenko wrote, “The bitter truth is that not the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and not its agents of influence in the USSR, but we ourselves destroyed the state.” (p. 94)

Soviet Leaders and Intelligence concludes that, as the role of ideology and intelligence declined as primary factors in Soviet decision-making, the adversarial relationship with the West diminished and policy decisions were based on the judgment of Soviet leaders and their Western contacts. They no longer viewed the United States as a “permanent adversary… predestined to conflict.” (p. 101)

Garthoff’s assessments, based largely on Soviet sources, are a valuable contribution to the explanation of why the Cold War ended as it did.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (21, 3, Fall/Winter 2015, pp. 109-110). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editons of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

[3] Hayden Peake in The Intelligencer (22, 2, Fall 2016, pp.  125-126).  Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. Other reviews and articles may be found online at


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