What The Russians Really Want

;Back in 1985, Viktor Cherkashin was a senior KGB officer at the Soviet Embassy in Washington. In the shadowy world of espionage, he had a good professional reputation--a spy's spy. So when Robert Hanssen decided to switch sides, he sent a letter to Cherkashin offering to work for the Russians. "I would not have contacted you," Hanssen wrote, "if it were not reported that you were held in esteem within your organization." Today, Cherkashin, 69, is a prosperous Moscow businessman. He owns a big house in the suburbs and drives a light blue 1986 Chevrolet, a trophy car in the streets of Moscow. "I've been on my pension now for 10 years," he said when NEWSWEEK contacted him by phone last week. "I'm in the private-security business." Cherkashin didn't want to discuss the Hanssen case. "I don't like to talk about other people's affairs," said the former spymaster.

He wasn't alone; no one in the Kremlin wanted to talk publicly about the exposure of Hanssen either. But that doesn't mean the Russians are bashful about spying on America. President Vladimir Putin, himself a former colonel in the now defunct KGB, has revived the fortunes of Russian intelligence agencies. Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB officer who defected to Britain in 1985, estimates that the number of Russian spies now in the United States has reached "a record figure--more than 300."

In Putin-style espionage, ideology is out, and so are most acts of subversion aimed at the United States. What Russia needs now is information: military, technological and economic. Putin wants quick growth for Russia's defense industry, sensing lucrative markets overseas. But he has written that it would take as many as 15 years for Russia to catch up with even the poorest countries in the West. "Scientific institutes won't be able to do it; it costs a lot of money," says Jolanta Darczewska, a Polish expert on Russia's intelligence establishment. "It's better to steal--cheaper and faster."

Like many other Russian agents in the United States, Hanssen apparently was mothballed by the Kremlin after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. His masters feared he might be exposed by a security breach in Moscow, and they were getting information of more immediate value from their mole in the CIA, Aldrich Ames, anyway. The intelligence agencies began a comeback under Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, another former spymaster. Then, a few weeks after Putin became Boris Yeltsin's prime minister in 1999, Hanssen was "reactivated." With espionage picking up again, his counterintelligence know-how may have given Moscow a map of America's defenses against spies.

Putin purports not to care about Washington's reaction to Russian spying. "During the Yeltsin years, they had instructions to avoid any scandals that would spoil relations with the West," says Gordievsky. "What Putin told [his foreign-intelligence agency] was, 'Don't worry. I'm not afraid of scandals'."

What Putin may be worried about, however, is moles in his own security service. Some of the information revealed in the FBI affidavit last week has touched off a wave of concern in Moscow. The Russians fear it could only have been obtained from a source within Russian intelligence, and that has led officials to suspect U.S. infiltration into the SVR. "If you look at the affidavit, they have documents from the archive of the SVR," said Oleg Kalugin, the former KGB general who says he brought Cherkashin to Washington. "Some of the references are from 1999." There were no Russian defectors from that time who could have provided the Americans with the information, officials say.

So are Washington and Moscow back to a spy-vs.-spy standoff? Gordievsky, among others, thinks Russian intelligence may have misread the new Bush administration, predicting it would be more "pragmatic" and easier to work with than the Clinton White House. But so far, Washington has been no pushover. Bush advisers like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insist that the United States will go ahead with a national missile defense system, despite Russia's opposition. Last week Moscow had to back down a bit, stressing its willingness to talk about a missile shield. As Robert Hanssen has learned, intelligence is hardly a sure thing.