SVR: Ex-KGB spy agency that never went to sleep
The SVR, the Russian intelligence service at the centre of an alleged spy ring cracked by the United States, is the modern successor to the KGB that remains intensely active in the post Cold War era.
The United States Monday arrested 10 "deep cover" suspects allegedly sent by the SVR for a long term operation to search and develop ties in US policy-making circles and send intelligence back to Moscow Centre.
If the episode reads like a plot from a Cold War-era spy thriller it's hardly surprising -- for despite the collapse of Communism the SVR has far from renounced its wide-ranging intelligence activities.
It was for the SVR's Communist-era predecessor that Russia's strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin worked while stationed in the former East Germany and the organization remains key to Russia's modern strategy.
"The SVR is a modern special service staffed by talented, goal-orientated people, loyal to the motherland and the military duty," the SVR says in a mission statement on its website.
"The main aim of the service is the timely exposure of threats to the national security of Russia," it says.
According to a report by the German interior ministry last week that caused consternation in Moscow, the SVR has 13,000 employees and remains active in Germany with its agents acting under cover of diplomats and journalists.
The SVR (Sluzhba Vneshnei Razvedki -- Foreign Intelligence Service) is in charge of external intelligence gathering while its fellow KGB successor the FSB (Federal Security Service) focuses on counter-intelligence and domestic security.
The SVR proudly states that it celebrates its 90th birthday this year, as it traces its history back to the establishment of the "Foreign Department" of the early Soviet intelligence agency the NKVD in 1920.
The organization went through a bewildering succession of changing acronyms throughout the early years of Communism, World War II and then the Cold War.
But by 1954 it was known as the First Main Directorate of the State Security Committee (PGU KGB), a name it retained almost right up to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, after which it became known as the SVR.
Putin served as an agent in the German city of Dresden between 1985-1990, an experience for which he revealed last year he felt "nostalgia".
The SVR says that its task changed fundamentally after the collapse of the Soviet Union and it stopped its Cold War policy of "globalism" -- placing agents in every country where Western secret services had a presence.
Now it only works "in those regions where Russia has real, and not imaginary, interests."
The SVR is now led by former prime minister Mikhail Fradkov, who kept a low profile even when he was in charge of the government.
According to a German interior ministry report published on June 21, Russian intelligence is "strongly represented" in Germany and many agents enjoy immunity through their diplomatic status.
It said that while much Russian intelligence comes from public sources, "conspiratory methods" are still used to obtain particularly sensitive information.
Agents, who are based around the Russian embassy in Berlin, often meet contacts in restaurants, create a friendly atmosphere and give the contact person the impression "that they are especially important," it said.
Russia's foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko on Monday reacted furiously to the report, saying its unproven accusations harked back to the Cold War by implying Russian missions were "nests of spies".
© 2010 AFP