A CURTAIN IS dropping on the last act of the Cold War. The moles.
Beset by financial woes, penetrated by the CIA, strait-jacketed by U.S. financial aid to Boris N. Yeltsin, and struggling with dire challenges on its own border, the Russian spy service - now known as the SRV - has virtually given up trying to recruit spies deep in the U.S. government, often referred to as moles.
These days Russian agents in Moscow's embassy in Washington spend their time hustling for future jobs with American companies in Russia.
"The morale is extremely low," says Yuri Shvets, a former major in the Soviet KGB who now lives near Washington. "The people who can leave and find a better job in business are doing it. They don't give a damn. The mid-level people are just waiting for their retirement. The people who are left behind are just the people who can't find a job outside."
"They're not recruiting here," Shvets insisted, a view backed up by knowledgeable CIA and FBI experts. "They're collecting open information from newspapers and corporate reports and congressional hearings and American officials and so on. But they're not out there recruiting secret agents."
The number of Russian spies in the United States has been cut by two-thirds or even more, said Oleg Kalugin, a craggy-faced former KGB general now working in Washington as a business consultant and newsletter editor.
One reason: It would be "bad manners" to recruit moles here while Washington is helping to finance Russian economic development.
"You can't bite the hand that's outstretched to feed you," chuckles Kalugin. "They are still on the lookout, but they have definitely reduced the intensity and eagerness to recruit. They have lost a lot of zeal."
But the spy war isn't entirely over, Kalugin and Shvets said in separate interviews. If another Aldrich Ames suddenly showed up at the embassy today, he'd be invited to make contact with the SRV outside the United States. The new rules are: No recruiting in America.
"They might welcome him in Delhi, in Latin America, in Japan or Singapore, but not in the United States," said Shvets, a dark-haired descendant of Cossacks.
CIA and FBI experts, for the most part, agree.
"Almost certainly they're being more cautious," agreed Richard Kerr, the recently retired chief of intelligence for the Central Intelligence Agency. "There are things at risk, after all, that are important to the Russians. Relations with the U.S. are more important than information they might find.
"However, at least through my period there, and in talking to FBI people and elsewhere," Kerr added, "I found that while there may have been some change in the numbers, it's probably in part because of financial strains - they can't afford an overseas system. They don't have the money to maintain the overseas system that they once had."
Harry "Skip" Brandon, who quarterbacked FBI operations against Russian spies here in the 1990s, cautiously agreed.
"I think that there may well be some truth in the idea that at this time there is a lull in Russian activities vis-a-vis the U.S.," Brandon said, attributing it to the SRV's financial woes. But he also suggested that the Russians' new freedom to travel in America - during the Cold War they were restricted to 25 miles from their embassy - has opened new opportunities for spies.
"Now there are Russian nationals all over the place," Brandon said. "Wouldn't it make a lot more sense I to I put collectors in with business groups, academic groups and just plain travelers? In addition there are very strong indications that economic espionage has already been recognized by them, and so the targets are more in the world of business and technical areas."
Shvets scoffed at that, saying that Russia has yet to digest the technical secrets it stole during the Cold War. And today, he said, Russia has forsaken competing technologically with the West in favor of developing its vast resources in oil, gas and timber.
The chief of Moscow's spies in Washington "doesn't even speak English," Shvets said. "He's not an expert on the United States, he never worked on the United States. His domain was Asia. His deputy is a guy who worked in China for many years, although he was here before. I worked with him. He's a guy who hasn't recruited even a fly in his life. It was a kind of joke."
Whatever resources the Russian spy services have remaining are being poured into manipulating events in their lost republics, according to Victor Marchetti, a former senior CIA official and co-author of the 1973 expose "The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence."
"If they are ever going to be a player again, they have to rebuild their former empire," Marchetti said.
Like two battered heavyweights, the Russian and American spy services staggered to their corners at the end of their 50-year bout, both bruised by defections and scandals. The Soviet KGB, though, got the worst of it: It was thoroughly penetrated by the CIA.
"With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the collapse of the KGB, American intelligence got a gift," said Shvets. "They got lots of information about prior KGB operations, and about the operations that were ongoing in the foreign intelligence service when the KGB collapsed."
The names of Moscow's moles in America were "delivered [to the CIA] by top-ranking people," he charged. "I think it was a political decision in Moscow. I know that this exposure of Americans, American intelligence officers like [Aldrich] Ames, who were working for the KGB, was the result of this political decision, which was made shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the fall of 1991."
Kalugin agreed, adding, "I would not be surprised if some Russians, even top officials, were willing to cooperate with the West," he said. "In fact, if you follow the Russian media, there are lots of accusations against top people in the government who are allegedly CIA spies. This may all be propaganda, stuff put out by the communists and others, but I would not exclude that they do have one."
Meanwhile, the old adversaries are actually working together in some areas, such as Middle East terrorism and tracking stolen nuclear materials.
Under all these conditions, it's "suicidal" for an American official to offer to sell secrets to the Russians, Shvets said.
"How can he be sure now that Russian intelligence services, like the whole country, doesn't care? It's a place where some people don't get paid for months, where there's all this heavy drinking, where people are worked to death. How can you rely on such a place? You can't.
"You're in the hands of a top official who may one day go to the International Monetary Fund for money," Shvets said, "and they tell him, 'Fine, turn over the names of the American agents and you can have the money.'"
And there go the moles.
Jeff Stein, former deputy foreign news editor for United Press International, writes frequently on espionage.. He is the author of "A Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story that Changed the Course of the Vietnam War."
Pub Date: 2/23/97