The List

8 Geographical Pivot Points

From Angola to Yemen, eight countries whose futures are tied up in the land they occupy.

In FP's July/August issue, Robert D. Kaplan writes that the present and future of Pakistan -- perpetually among the top countries on the Failed States Index -- "are still best understood through its geography." But the troubled Southeast Asian country, precariously situated between India and Central Asia, is not the only region whose prospects for growth and security are affected by natural resources and cartographic positioning. In an interview, Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor and author of the forthcoming book The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, pinpointed eight countries where vital challenges hinge on questions of geography.

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MYANMAR

The key question: Will it connect India to East Asia through invigorated trade routes?

Rich in timber, hydropower, natural gas, diamonds, and even uranium, Myanmar has suffered from decades of economic stasis under repressive military rule. But if the country can continue to open up politically, as it has done over the past year, it could in turn fashion itself into a crucial throughway connecting China with the Bay of Bengal. At the moment, China relies heavily on the Strait of Malacca, a roundabout route farther south, to ship exports out from the South China Sea, while oil and natural gas from the Middle East reach China only after traveling across the Indian Ocean and through the strait. China and India are both developing offshore natural gas fields and building ports in the region; if these two economic superpowers are permitted to build pipelines across Myanmar, the newly resurgent country could unite the subcontinent with East Asia, allowing, Kaplan says, "a real Indo-Pacific region to take hold."

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POLAND

Will it become the next pivot state in Eastern Europe?

Squeezed between major European powers Germany and Russia, Poland has long been the "plaything of geography," as Kaplan puts it. The Baltic Sea and Carpathian Mountains make for natural borders in the north and south, but the country's eastern and western edges are relatively undifferentiated flatlands. As a result, Poland's borders have shifted back and forth and even disappeared altogether at various points throughout history. Now, Poland stands to assume the role of a major pivot state between Western and Eastern Europe, especially if Ukraine slips into the Russian orbit. Not only has Poland strengthened ties with Germany since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but if it can capitalize on possibly significant shale-gas deposits, it could become an energy producer in its own right -- potentially giving it more political leverage than ever, particularly in dealing with gas giant Russia.

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VENEZUELA

Can it improve relations with the United States and develop its Orinoco oil fields?

Harnessing vast crude reserves primarily in the northwestern Maracaibo region, Venezuela is among the world's top oil producers, with about half of its oil exports going to the United States as of 2010, despite tension between the two countries. Although we tend to think of Venezuela as a South American country, "in reality, it's a Caribbean country," Kaplan explains, considering that most of its 29 million people are concentrated along the northern coast. As a result, Venezuela has few options but to ship its crude across the Caribbean Sea, up toward the Gulf of Mexico, and ultimately to the United States. Kaplan predicts U.S.-Venezuela relations will gradually improve once cancer-ridden President Hugo Chávez expires. In turn, Venezuela might be able to increase exports to the United States, and also might get U.S. help to tap into heavy crude deposits in the Orinoco oil sands, which require more advanced and expensive drilling techniques.

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GREECE

Will the "cradle of Western civilization" see its loyalties drift east?

Despite unending discussion of Greece's status in the European Union, Kaplan notes that the country's geography and identity are also tied closely with the East. Not only does Greece straddle Europe and the Middle East geographically, but because the largest religious group in the country is made up of East Orthodox Christians, it is also culturally close to Russia. Not to mention the fact that Athens is nearly as close to Moscow as it is to Brussels, the de facto capital of the EU. Although Greece is considered the birthplace of Western civilization, its legacy as a backwater of the Ottoman Empire means it has suffered for centuries from severe underdevelopment, while political parties until recently have been poorly organized and large numbers of Greek businesses are still family-owned. All this is to say that, heading forward, Western Europe "cannot take Greece for granted," Kaplan says. China, for instance, is upgrading the port of Pireaus near Athens, and if a regime change in Syria forces Russia to abandon its naval base there, the Russian navy could end up turning to Greece in the future.

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YEMEN

Can it overcome the perfect storm of geographic pressures?

For the most part, Yemen's geography is working against it. Although it is about a third as large as Saudi Arabia, the country has only about 2 million fewer people, contributing to overpopulation and severe poverty. With a rapidly diminishing water table, Yemen is also internally divided by mountains, such that it has been near impossible to establish a point of central authority since ancient times. Poor governance in turn leaves Yemen vulnerable to the spillover of piracy in Somalia, which sits just across the Gulf of Aden. If political development in Yemen continues to falter, Kaplan warns, the country could end up more like Somalia -- an unquestionably failed state with a virtually nonfunctional government. "Since antiquity Yemen has often been defined by a multiplicity of political power centers within it," Kaplan says.

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MONGOLIA

Can it keep from becoming a de facto colony of China?

For most of the 20th century, Mongolia was a satellite of the Soviet Union, but today it fears China, which has more than a billion people to Mongolia's 3 million. Despite its sparse population -- the country's landscape is "kind of like Mars with oxygen," Kaplan says -- Mongolia has abundant resources, including oil, coal, and grasslands. The crucial question is whether the country, which was ruled by the Chinese during the Qing dynasty, can now prevent China from exploiting its rich natural resources. To do so, Mongolia has encouraged investment from other countries, including Australia, South Korea, and the United States, but its neighbor to the south still looms large.

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ANGOLA

Can its oil wealth spread to the interior?

In many ways, Angola's geography makes sense, unlike that of many of its African neighbors. Thick forests in the north serve as a logical border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while the Kalahari Desert offers a natural frontier with Namibia and Botswana to the south. To the east, a gradually rising plateau abuts Zambia, and the South Atlantic Ocean is off to the west. Although the country has both the geographical makeup and the resources -- chiefly oil -- to be prosperous and self-contained, Angolan society is plagued by inequality. The capital, Luanda, which is perched on the oil-rich northwestern coast, is ranked the second-most expensive city in the world, but some 40 percent of the country's population is estimated to live below the poverty line. The pivotal question for Angola is whether the wealth from offshore oil deposits can trickle down into the country's inland Planalto region, which is well-watered and agriculturally rich but lacks sufficient infrastructure.

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BANGLADESH

Can it host trade routes connecting China and India?

More than 160 million people -- greater than the population of Russia -- populate Bangladesh's sea-level, semi-aquatic landscape. While the northern part of the country is prone to drought due to China and India's damming of the Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, the flatlands of southern Bangladesh are threatened by rising sea levels, which deplete soil with the addition of salt. In other words, as Kaplan puts it, the country is "squeezed by water problems from both directions." What's more, the country's rough terrain has hindered both internal economic development and trade. That could change if China, India, and Myanmar open trade routes through Bangladesh. "Geography has been a curse to Bangladesh, threatened as it is by both drought and rising sea levels," Kaplan says. "But geography could become a blessing in an era that might see routes and pipelines operating in many directions, organically connecting the Indian subcontinent with Tibet and China."

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The List

Famous KGB Spies: Where Are They Now?

The strange-but-true life stories of seven Soviet spooks.

Ever since the 1950s, when the world got wind of the three letters that stood for the Soviet Union's intelligence agency, KGB spies -- with their (real or imagined) bug-planting lifestyles and sexy accomplices -- have provided endless material for thrilling novels, movies, and comic books. The fascination continues even now: In 2011, the U.S. television network FX announced the pilot of a new series about KGB spies living in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s.

In the latest issue of Foreign Policy, retired CIA officer Milton Bearden remembers his Soviet counterpart Leonid Shebarshin, who died in an apparent suicide in March 2012. The former head of the KGB's foreign intelligence division, who served as KGB chairman for all of one day after his boss attempted a coup in 1991, remained loyal to the agency his entire life and spent his post-KGB days in Moscow.

That can't be said for all KGB spies, however. Over the years, the lives of several Soviet spooks have come to light as they defected from the agency and turned up in Britain or the United States, in some cases with armloads of notes to share.

Here's a look at some of the KGB's best-known former spies and what life was like for them during and after their stints in one of the world's most formidable intelligence services.

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VLADIMIR PUTIN

Russian President Vladimir Putin was a KGB agent for 15 years before entering politics and assuming the country's highest office.

After studying law at Leningrad State University, Putin joined the KGB and spied on expatriates in St. Petersburg. In the early 1980s, he move to the KGB's foreign intelligence division in East Germany, where his job was to identify East Germans -- professors, journalists, skilled professionals -- who had plausible reasons for traveling to Western Europe and the United States and send them to steal intelligence and technology from Western countries.

Biographies of Putin suggest that his KGB career was relatively mediocre: Even after 15 years of service, Putin rose only to the rank of lieutenant colonel and never stood out. In a rare comment to a journalist about this period in his life, Putin said he hadn't wanted higher-level positions in the KGB because he did not want to relocate his elderly parents and two young children to Moscow.

Putin returned to Russia at the end of the 1980s and worked as a university assistant for a year, which was really a cover for clandestine work with the KGB. His days as an official KGB agent came to an end when he became an advisor to St. Petersburg's mayor -- another career stint considered lackluster.

In 1998, Putin rather suddenly and inexplicably became the director of the FSB, the domestic successor to the KGB, and then the head of the Russian Security Council. The next year, Boris Yeltsin chose Putin to become the next Russian prime minister. You know the story from here: The former KGB wallflower is now the most powerful man in Russia.

Critics say that as both prime minister and president, Putin has relied on KGB tactics to keep a tight rein on opposition (just this month, Russian police have repeatedly detained, beaten, and interrogated activists). As one Russian writer told the Washington Post in 2000, Putin is a standard KGB type. "If the snow is falling, they will calmly tell you, the sun is shining," the writer explained.

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ALEXANDER LITVINENKO

Litvinenko made headlines for what some call the courageous whistleblowing -- and others, the reckless bravado -- that may have earned him an ugly, untimely death.

Litvinenko joined the KGB in 1988 and worked as a counter-intelligence spy until the Soviet Union dissolved. He then joined the most secret division of the FSB, fighting terrorism and organized crime in Chechnya. But things started to fall apart in 1998 after Litvinenko made a public statement accusing an FSB official of ordering him to assassinate Boris Berezovsky, one of Russia's most powerful oligarchs.

It wasn't long before Litvinenko found himself in an FSB prison for "exceeding his authority at work." After two rounds of charges and acquittals, he escaped to London to dodge a third criminal case, later receiving a sentence in absentia.

From London, Litvinenko published two books -- Blowing Up Russia: The Secret Plot to Bring Back KGB Terror and Lubyanka Criminal Group -- both of which blame the FSB for ongoing crimes against the Russian public and, in the case of the second book, for training al Qaeda militants and playing a role in the Sept. 11 attacks.

In November 2006, at the age of 43, Litvinenko died from "a mysterious illness." Investigations into his death revealed that he was poisoned by a radioactive isotope, which was ironic considering that Litvinenko had gone on the record with the New York Times in 2004 to allege that the FSB was behind the poisoning of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko.

The radioactive cadaver reminded the world that the KGB's tactics just might have survived the agency.

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BORIS KARPICHKOV

Karpichkov, another KGB spy who found himself at odds with the Kremlin, ended up as a double agent and still lives like one in London, where he keeps a low profile and is always looking over his shoulder even though he retired long ago.

The Latvian-born Karpichkov was approached by the KGB in 1984 while he was working as a mechanical engineer in an aerospace parts factory. The agency sent him to a KGB academy in Minsk, Belarus where he was trained in the art of killing, according to an interview he gave the Guardian in February 2012. Karpichkov became a major and worked in Latvia in the Second Directorate, an elite counter-intelligence division of the KGB.

When the Soviet Union fell, however, Karpichkov found himself in an independent Republic of Latvia that was antagonistic to the Kremlin. He quickly joined the country's intelligence agency -- while still working for Russia. As a double agent, Karpichkov ran disinformation operations against the CIA and, on one occasion, broke into the British Embassy in Riga to plant a listening device.

But by 1995, Karpichkov was growing disenchanted with the corrupt FSB, which he claims wasn't paying him. After the Latvian intelligence agency found out he was working for the FSB, he briefly returned to Russia before sneaking out of the country in the late 1990s. He entered Britain using a fake passport from his KGB days and never looked back.

These days, the Guardian's Luke Harding explains, Karpichkov "writes, stays in touch with events in Russia, and vanishes now and again on mysterious trips whose purpose he declines to explain." On occasion, Karpichov says he finds listening devices and cars with the same Russian diplomatic plates turning up outside his apartment, and even death threats. He worries about the safety of his wife and children, even though they're adults now.

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OLEG LYALIN

Lyalin is famous for a defection to Britain's Security Service, or MI5, which led to the discovery and deportation of 105 Soviet officials who were accused of spying in Britain.

Little is known about Lyalin's life before he appeared in Britain in the 1960s, posing as a Soviet trade delegation official. But MI5 agents began to recruit Lyalin in 1971 when they learned that he was having an affair with his secretary, Irina Teplyakova -- a revelation that could have landed him in hot water with Soviet authorities if disclosed. A few months later, Lyalin was arrested for drunk driving. The policeman at the scene that night recalled that when he put Lyalin in the back of the patrol car, the spymaster sprawled out with his feet on the officer's shoulder and yelled, "You cannot talk to me, you cannot beat me, I am a KGB officer."

Lyalin quickly offered to divulge information about the KGB in exchange for protection for him and Teplyakova. In doing so, he became the first KGB spy to defect since World War II (as far as we know). The mass expulsion of Soviet diplomats and trade officials that he helped trigger was, according to the Guardian, "the single biggest action taken against Moscow by any Western government."

Lyalin and Teplyakova married and changed their identities, but the relationship didn't last long. In 1995, Lyalin died at the age of 57 after battling a long illness. No one seems to know what the illness was or where Lyalin was living when he died. According to a New York Times obituary, he passed away at an "undisclosed location in northern England."

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VASILY MITROKHIN

Mitrokhin was a career KGB agent whose secret project -- smuggling documents out of the KGB's archives -- became the subject of the 1999 book The Sword and the Shield, which he collaborated on with the British historian Christopher Andrew.

Mitrokhin joined the KGB in 1948 and described himself as a zealous agent until he was relocated to the KGB's archives in 1956 -- a period when he became increasingly critical of the intelligence outfit after hearing Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounce Joseph Stalin in a secret speech to the Communist Party congress.

For 12 years, Mitrokhin smuggled thousands of documents from the archives, stuffing them into his shoes before he left each night. At home, he copied each one by hand. He hid the documents in milk containers and buried them in his garden or under the floorboards of his house, not even telling his wife what he was doing.

In 1992, shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed and eight years after he left the KGB, the archivist approached CIA officials in Latvia with tales of the archive he had amassed and a request to defect. Flatly rejected, Mitrokhin turned to MI6 agents, who spirited him away to Britain and sent agents to Russia to dig up the KGB documents from Mitrokhin's house (they were transported to the United Kingdom in six suitcases). The British gave Mitrokhin and his wife police protection and a false name.

The FBI later described Mitrokhin's contribution as "the most complete and extensive intelligence ever received from any source." Asked why he decided to copy all the documents, Mitrokhin explained to the BBC, "I wanted to show the tremendous efforts of this machine of evil, and I wanted to demonstrate what happens when the foundations of conscience are trampled on and when moral principles are forgotten. I regarded this as my duty as a Russian patriot." In 2000, Mitrokhin died of pneumonia at age 81.

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ALDRICH AMES

 

For Americans, Ames is perhaps the most infamous KGB spy, having worked as a mole in the CIA for nine years until he was caught, tried, and convicted for treason.

Ames was the son of a CIA officer who had worked undercover in Burma in the 1950s. It was Ames's father who encouraged him to train for CIA work, and got him hired in 1962. But Ames bungled his spy-recruitment assignments so badly that he succumbed to bouts of binge drinking and depression, claiming that he was disillusioned by what he saw of U.S. foreign policy.

When Ames was promoted to counterintelligence branch chief in Soviet operations in 1983, he found files on CIA personnel working in Russia at his fingertips. Meanwhile, Ames's mistress was racking up insurmountable debt, and a divorce settlement with his wife left him deep in the red. Ames admitted later that he needed about $50,000 -- and remembered hearing that the KGB paid CIA operatives that exact amount for becoming a KGB spy.

In 1985, Ames offered the names of three double agents to a KGB contact, thinking that what he was doing was not that treasonous since they were technically KGB agents. He got the $50,000 in a brown paper bag, and weeks later informed the KGB about many other U.S. spies in the Soviet Union, including one of his best friends, Sergey Fedorenko. All told, Ames disclosed the identities of 25 CIA operatives, 10 of whom were sentenced to death. He became the world's highest-paid spy, earning roughly $4 million for turning on his colleagues.

Ames was finally arrested in 1994 by the FBI after eluding the bureau twice. He was sentenced to life in prison under the Espionage Act (the same statute that the Obama administration has used to prosecute government officials for leaking classified information) and is now locked up at a maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania.

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OLEG KALUGIN

A KGB general-turned-Putin-bashing American professor, Kalugin decided to join the KGB in 1951 after he graduated from Leningrad University. He was trained and sent to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship to earn a degree in journalism at Columbia University, and later posed as a journalist in New York while spying for the Soviets. He soon moved to the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., and became the KGB's youngest general in 1974.

Things took an unfortunate turn for the rising KGB star when Vladimir Kryuchkov, the KGB chief who would later instigate a coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, accused Kalugin of recruiting someone who turned out to be an American spy. By that point Kalugin had returned to Russia, where he was ordered to "ferret out" disloyal Soviet citizens, according to an interview he gave Foreign Policy in 2007. Growing more disgruntled by the minute, Kalugin began blowing the whistle on KGB corruption until he got fired from the agency in 1990.

The next year, Kalugin worked to counter Kryuchkov's coup before moving to the United States. He accepted a teaching position at the Catholic University of America, wrote a book based on his experience spying for the KGB, and helped develop a computer game in which the player is a CIA operative tasked with disrupting a plot to steal a nuclear warhead and assassinate the U.S. president.

Vladimir Putin -- who, Kalugin told FP, was "too small to report to me" -- denounced Kalugin as a traitor and tried him in absentia in 2002, which resulted in a 15-year prison term that he never served. Now Kalugin teaches at the Center for Counterintelligence and Security Studies and serves as a board member for the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.  

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