Q&A: Putin’s nuke threat shouldn’t be ignored, ex-KGB boss says

Russia At War

WASHINGTON, D.C. (NewsNation) — A former KGB top boss says he watched Russian President Vladimir Putin rise the ranks from “a nothing” in the KGB who reported to him to the leader of the country and a “war criminal.”

For decades, General Oleg Kalugin, 88, was a top member of the Russian KGB, sending intel back to Moscow from the U.S. and the United Nations. During his 32-year career at the notorious Russian intelligence agency, he became the youngest general in the history of the department before moving to Russian politics and becoming a vocal critic of the KGB and Soviet government.

Putin accused him of spying for the U.S. and branded him a traitor, almost having him arrested and killed before Kalugin found asylum in the U.S.

In an exclusive interview with NewsNation’s Kellie Meyer, Kalugin talks of Putin’s mindset and motivations behind the war in Ukraine and why the United States and other allies should not take his threats of nuclear attacks lightly.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length:

Q: I want to ask you about your relationship with Vladimir Putin. What does that look like?

Kalugin: Putin was part of the hundreds of KGB officers who I was in charge of, in St. Petersburg. 

Later on, (former Russian President Boris Yeltsin) was looking for some people who were involved in the western world. Putin actually spent his time primarily in Germany and he knew German very well. (Yeltsin) selected Putin as KGB chief, and that was the beginning of my (downfall.) 

Putin called me publicly a traitor, I probably called him a war criminal. I said the war in Chechnya was part of Putin’s political life. And I said it publicly. 

At that time, I was in trouble, really. And I was offered to come to America and stay here for the rest of my life, which I did agree and do not regret.

Q: What was it that caused you to become a public critic? What was it that made you want to speak out?

Kalugin: In Leningrad, I learned… that the Soviet system needed radical reform. And I became a public critic of the Soviet system and I was charged with treason when they wanted to put me in jail. 

But then a miracle happened. Because of my public appearances and criticism of the Soviet system, I was invited to become a member of Soviet politics…I won the elections… and was elected a member of parliament, obtained immunity from prosecution and became a more fierce critic of the Soviet system. That was the beginning of my political career.

Q: How has Putin changed from that person you first met to the person you’re seeing today?

Kalugin: Well, when I met him, he was just nobody. I remember in Leningrad, St. Petersburg, I was the  No. 2 man and he would come to me and knock on the door and say ‘May I have documents signed?’ He would give me the documents and I would sign them. That’s all the experience I had with him. He was a nobody. 

In Moscow, under Yeltsin’s regime, he managed to obtain something extraordinary. Yeltsin was asked just a few months before he passed away — the interview was banned in Russia — ‘as you look back at your career, Mr. President, what major errors of judgments you made and mistakes, which you regret most?’ He said ‘the war in Chechnya was No. 1 — one of my greatest mistakes — and the choice of my successor, Mr. Putin.’ That’s it.

Q: What do you think about Putin’s current state of mind? 

Kalugin: Well, his main mission, as I understand, is to stay as long as he can in power. He will stay for the rest of his life unless something happens. And he will never give up. Because he has no choice. He knows he may be in trouble. 

I don’t envy him. He’s a lonely man. His wife left him many years ago, his two daughters —one lived in Germany, one in Russia — I don’t know where they are now but he has no family. 

Q: What’s the public opinion in Russia of Putin? 

Kalugin: Public opinion in Russia under Putin is just like under Joseph Stalin. It’s not a matter of how many people vote. It’s a matter of who counts. 

For some people, it sounds convincing enough but for the majority of Russians, as far as I know, Putin is on the way out. But he will try to do all he can to stay in power and, of course, get rid of all potential rivals.

Q: In the current conflict, do you think Putin will stop in the south? Does he want all of Ukraine? Will he stop with Ukraine? 

Kalugin: Well, he would love to get everything back because he said that the downfall of the USSR was the greatest catastrophe of international character. Putin’s desire is to keep Ukraine close to Moscow and remain a military ally — that’s understandable. 

But the way he does it, that’s a typical old-fashioned KGB way — to remove people, poison people, shoot people. 

Putin is unpredictable. And more so now that he’s running the country without opposition. He took care of all the opposition leaders. They were either poisoned or killed or exiled. And people who know him are afraid of him. They try to follow what he says but privately they will share the anger and the bad outlook for the future of Russia. 

Q: Putin has put his nuclear forces on special alert, what are your thoughts on him using this option? 

Kalugin: Well, that’s Putin’s way — to threaten. The Western world and the civilized world should not ignore these threats… He’ll go all the way just to stop the collapse of the system. 

Q: Do you think he would use nuclear weapons? 

Kalugin: Yeah. 

Q: What is it about the Russian forces that they’re unable to defeat the Ukrainians here? Were they ready for this war?

Kalugin: Well, the Ukrainian situation may lead to the accelerated downfall of Putin’s regime and himself. 

There are so many Ukrainians who live in Russia, and in general, Putin’s positions today are much weaker than they were years ago. In the West, he is not accepted as he was in the old days… Putin’s reputation today is far lower than it was a few years ago.

Q: You were a top Soviet official who worked against the West at the height of the Cold War. How does what’s happening now compare?

Kalugin: I believe the Russian intelligence is much weaker today than it was in the old days.  

Actually, for Putin, intelligence is not important for him. Counter-intelligence, domestic, internal affairs — that’s what worries him, because someday someone may push him out from his position as leader of the country,

Q: Would it be true to say Putin’s biggest fear is losing power? 

Kalugin: He will not attack the West. He is not a crazy guy. No, he wants to preserve not only his own identity and his position but his reputation as the man who made Russia great again.

Q: Do you think Putin still has spies in the US? 

Kalugin: Of course. Putin has spies everywhere. That’s part of the Russian system — intelligence is the second oldest profession as you know. It could not just be abandoned.

Q: At the end of this, do you think Russia will remain a great power?

Kalugin: Well, Russia remained a great power, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, because it has great history, culture and great contributions to the world. On the other hand, Russia has one of the worst reputations in the world — only Hitler’s Germany had that reputation.

Q: Should the President of Ukraine should be worried there have been threats, for the safety of his life? 

Kalugin: Sure. Russia will take care of all the presidents once it has sufficient power and influence inside the country. Or (it’s not unlikely that) Putin will (try) some kind of assassination attempt.

Q: Do you think sanctions by the US and other countries are working?

Kalugin: Well, sanctions do work, but it depends on the time. If the sanctions are lifted in a week or two, this will lead to nothing. They should be abandoned only if there is a mutual agreement of a solution to the problems through peaceful negotiations through some, you know — whatever ways to find a
peaceful solution.

Q: Is what Putin is doing now in Ukraine a war crime? 

Kalugin: Putin actually initiated that invasion of Ukraine. That’s obvious. And that’s stupid. I mean, totally. Ukraine is actually the foundation of the Russian Empire, and to treat Ukrainians as enemies — that’s absurd. I mean, it goes against all logic…history and everything.

Q: How long did you serve in the KGB? What were your positions your titles?

Kalugin: Well, I started to work with the KGB in 1958 when I graduated… in fact, I started earlier, because my training and my education was under the auspices of the KGB. So I graduated from the Institute of Foreign Languages in St. Petersburg, and later a special school of intelligence that was in Moscow. And after those six years of training, I came to the world as a specialist in English affairs and America; second: German, and third: Arabic…

My first assignment was supposed to be in Egypt. And so just a week before my departure for Egypt, I was called… to the personnel department and the guy said, ‘you don’t look like an Arab… You’ll go to the United States.’ I said ‘Really, in what capacity?’ And the guy said, ‘well, you’ll be a Fulbright Scholar, if you don’t mind. You’ll be part of the first Soviet American exchange in culture, education, and other humanitarian things. And I said, ‘Okay.’ 

And that’s how I came to the United States, to the Columbia University School of Journalism, where I spent almost a year. I was not supposed to be spying. My job was to learn as much as I could about the United States and improve my language. 

Later, I came as a Radio Moscow correspondent at the United Nations for nearly five years and I recruited several Americans with great access to information — some classified, some non-classified, some analytical jobs… So my career was pretty good.

© 1998 - 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. | All Rights Reserved.

Trending on NewsNation