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The Soviet-Chinese Spy Wars in the 1970s: What KGB Counterintelligence Knew, Part III

Filip Kovacevic

Filip Kovacevic continues his series of articles on Soviet counterintelligence against China, drawing on recently published Soviet KGB journals.

Third Main Directorate officer Major A.A. Karyaev published an article titled “Some Questions Regarding the Subversive Activities of Chinese Intelligence Services Directed Against the Military Forces of the USSR” in a Soviet KGB journal in 1978.

Editor’s Note: The following article and analysis is adapted from an earlier posting on The Chekist Monitor, a blog by Dr. Filip Kovacevic providing analyses and translations of Russian-language sources concerning the history of Soviet/Russian state security and intelligence organizations. – Charles Kraus

In the structure of the KGB, Soviet military counterintelligence constituted the Third Main Directorate. It controlled the so-called “special departments,” which were included in every unit of the Soviet military.

The Osobists, as the military counterintelligence officers were called, were tasked to protect against penetration agents in the Soviet military ranks, while enforcing the dogmas of the Communist party ideology. Their embeddedness in the military distinguished them from the regular counterintelligence (the Second Main Directorate) which monitored all other spheres of Soviet social life for any signs of “subversive” activities.

In 1978, the Third Main Directorate officer, Major A.A. Karyaev published an article titled “Some Questions Regarding the Subversive Activities of Chinese Intelligence Services Directed Against the Military Forces of the USSRin the KGB Papers.[1]

This article came out two years before the articles by Captain Kuznetsov and Major General Kovalenko & Colonel Ponomaryov which I analyzed in Part I and Part II of this series and which were based on the files of the Second Main Directorate of the KGB (regular counterintelligence).

Although Karyaev operated in a different domain and drew on different sources than the KGB counterintelligence authors that I discussed earlier, his conclusions are not much different. Karyaev emphasizes that the Chinese intelligence services are perceived as a formidable adversary whose methods and sources are a persistent source of concern for the KGB.

Karyaev begins by referring to the conclusions of the 25th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party (held in 1976) which stated that the Chinese Communist leadership had shifted ideologically to the right and became openly hostile to the Soviet Union. According to Karyaev, China now perceives the Soviet Union (rather than the capitalist countries of the West) as its “main adversary.” Consequently, China is using the “whole arsenal” of intelligence methods and tools to undermine Soviet internal political stability and the Soviet reputation in the international community, especially among the socialist countries of the world.

The significant targets in this covert intelligence war are the military forces of the Soviet Union. Karyaev claims that the situation is particularly acute in the regions bordering China and he mentions the Soviet Far East, the Baikal region, Siberia, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian republics.

According to Karyaev, the Chinese intelligence services are collecting all types of information regarding Soviet military forces (the number of units, equipment, location, personnel, and morale). They also focus on the military transportation and communication networks, training, and civil defense organization. Karyaev specifically refers to a purported April 1976 Chinese intelligence requirement which stressed the importance of obtaining the information regarding the location of Soviet military units and their movements and supply lines in the border regions. According to him, the espionage effort against the Soviet military forces is directed by the Military Council of the Chinese Communist Party and the Second Directorate of its Department of Investigation, but he also notes the involvement of the PLA’s Directorate for Intelligence, the Ministry of State Security, and the border guard intelligence units.

Karyaev emphasizes that in its spying activities directed against the Soviet military forces, the Chinese intelligence services are using both legal and illegal human platforms. He notes that the Chinese intelligence officers under diplomatic cover often travel to the Soviet border regions attempting to engage in visual reconnaissance and photographing of Soviet military infrastructure and transport and communication lines.

This for instance was found to be the case during the visit of Chinese diplomats to Khabarovsk in the mid-1970s. Likewise, during the Chinese diplomats’ visit to the Turkmenistan Military Region, they extensively questioned a Soviet officer codenamed “Narymov” about the military units based in the region, including military hospitals, the age, salaries, and ethnic composition of the personnel, and even about the visits of the Minister of Defense. Conveniently for the KGB, “Narymov” was actually an officer of the Third Main Directorate. Karyaev does not say so, but it is likely that “Narymov” was used to feed disinformation to the Chinese.

Karyaev states that the surveillance of the Soviet military forces by the Chinese diplomats extends beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. He points to the increased Chinese diplomatic activities around the Soviet military infrastructure in all areas of the world in which the Soviet military maintains its presence, from Eastern Europe (Poland, Czechoslovakia) to Africa. For instance, he brings up the example of the Soviet navy ships anchored in the Somaliland port of Berbera being photographed from a car with the Chinese diplomatic license plates.

Another setting favored by the Chinese intelligence services is the Moscow-Beijing railroad. According to Karyaev, the Chinese intelligence officers often work under the cover of train conductors. In addition to the visual reconnaissance of the places that the railroad passes through, they also try to strike up conversations and make friends with other travelers, especially Soviet military officers and their families, including children. After establishing contact, they tend to invite their new acquaintances to their official compartment and offer them fruits, cigarettes, and other gifts. Karyaev mentions the case of a Soviet officer who accepted the invitation and was questioned about his personal affairs as well as about political and military matters.

In addition to having officers operating under a legal cover, the Chinese intelligence services run the long-term (future-oriented) illegals programs where they try to infiltrate their officers into the Soviet Union using illicit means. Referring to the testimonies of those he calls bona fide Chinese intelligence defectors, Karyaev claims that the Chinese intelligence leadership used mass border migration into the Soviet Union as a convenient cover for its illegal intelligence officers. According to the exposed Chinese officer codenamed “Khuan,” the Ministry of State Security began a systematic training of its illegal officers for operating in the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s. The training lasted from one to three years and included both general and special subjects. The officers came from both the Han Chinese ethnic group as well as from the ethnic minority groups. Karyaev tells a story of another exposed Chinese officer referred to as “D.” who entered the Soviet Union illegally and then travelled through Kazakhstan collecting military-type information until he was arrested.

According to Karyaev, in recent times, the Chinese military has begun training special forces units called “the Tigers” and preparing them for the anti-Soviet sabotage activities. Karyaev claims that these actions represent a real threat to the Soviet border military infrastructure and warns that they need to be taken seriously. In addition, Karyaev notes that the Chinese military has dramatically increased its capabilities regarding technical and SIGINT intelligence collection by purchasing the optical and radio equipment from West Germany and other Western countries. This makes it quite capable of eavesdropping on Soviet border military exercises as well as on missile and satellite launches.

In conclusion, Karyaev advises a high degree of vigilance and offers some hope that the KGB counterintelligence will be able to act quickly to limit any damage that the Chinese intelligence services might cause. However, there is also a sense that the Chinese espionage pressure will intensify over time and will put a very heavy strain on the KGB resources, perhaps even comparable to the strain of Western intelligence services.

The most unsettling idea for Karyaev and the KGB seems to be the realization that China and the West are now on the same geopolitical side and that their intelligence activities have the similar anti-Soviet core orientation. They know well that to fight on two fronts in the global spy war is daunting and could easily lead to defeat.

The next post analyzes an article from the KGB Papers with a more regional focus: the Chinese espionage in the Kazakh Soviet Republic in the 1970s and the early 1980s.


[1] Майор А. А. Каряев, “Некоторые вопросы подрывной деятельности китайских спецслужб против вооруженных сил СССР,“ Труды Высшей Школы 15 [Papers of the Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB, Volume 15], Moscow, 1978, pages 130-145. Classified as Top Secret.

About the Author

Filip Kovacevic

Filip Kovacevic

Filip Kovacevic is a researcher of Russian and East European state security and intelligence organizations. He teaches at the University of San Francisco, and runs "The Chekist Monitor," a blog on the operations and personalities of the Soviet and Russian state security and intelligence organizations.

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