True Spies Episode 49, New Russia, New Rules
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?
This is True Spies Episode 49: New Russia, New Rules.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: In the middle of the night, under cover of darkness, one of the Marines came over, pushed the button to let up this big metal grate in the back of the embassy’s underground garage. And I just bolted, just bolted out hard as fast as I could.
NARRATOR: Nearly 30 years ago, Russian tanks surrounded the White House. Alternate history? Not quite. Alternate White House.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: It was the old Supreme Soviet building. And then it became the Parliamentary building. And it's called the White House because it's white.
NARRATOR: The House of the Government of the Russian Federation, or ‘The Russian White House’ is the seat of Parliament in Moscow. It works in tandem with the president, based in the Kremlin, to decide national policy. In the autumn of 1993, it was the focal point of the worst street violence since the October Revolution, which had brought the Bolsheviks to power 76 years previously.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I think a total of 150 people or so died. Hundreds were wounded.
NARRATOR: But how did things get so bad? Well, two years after the fall of the Soviet Union the country was still reeling from seismic cultural, political, and economic changes.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: The establishment didn't know what was coming next. The people certainly didn't know what was coming next. There was this air of dark anticipation.
NARRATOR: Since the collapse of the USSR, President Boris Yeltsin’s economic remodeling had become deeply unpopular with certain factions within the Russian government. Events came to a head when longstanding tensions between Yeltsin and the Russian Parliament erupted into open hostilities.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Boris Yeltsin had certain powers he inherited from the old Soviet system, but he didn't have all the powers he wanted. And there were two leaders in particular at that time, the vice president of Russia, Alexander Rutskoy, and Ruslan Khasbulatov, who became the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, who amassed more and more power through the Parliament. They wanted to control Russia to a greater degree, at least vie for power as a separate lever of power or check and balance to the president.
NARRATOR: Eventually, President Yeltsin decided to simply remove the opposition. He dissolved Parliament. Vice President Alexander Rutskoy and Ruslan Khasbulatov, the Parliament’s leader, did not take this lying down. The Russian White House moved to impeach Yeltsin and declared that Rutskoy would be acting president until new elections could be called. This sparked a 13-day showdown between the two factions, culminating in city-wide clashes between pro-Parliament demonstrators, police, and - eventually - the Russian military. As chaos reigned in the streets, the coup plotters holed up in the Russian White House, waiting out the storm. They hoped that they would emerge victorious, into a pliable new Russia that could be molded in their own image - free of Yeltsin’s radical reforms. So, those are the basic whys-and-wherefores of an incredibly complex political situation. If you’d like to know more, you can apply for your own clearance, thanks very much. On True Spies, we deal in need-to-knows. And what you need to know is that for this week’s spy, it all started with a phone call.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Hi, my name is Rolf Mowatt-Larssen. I spent a career in the Central Intelligence Agency.
NARRATOR: During those turbulent days in 1993, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen was deputy chief of the CIA’s Moscow station.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: And now we're into early October. Beautiful day. And I get a call on my home phone.
NARRATOR: Now, the caller might come as a surprise to you.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: And I get a call and it's Valentin Klimenko, who is a colonel, general, three-star general.
NARRATOR: Yes, That’s a Russian general. At that time, Klimenko was also the main intelligence liaison between the CIA and the FSB, the Russian Federation’s internal security service. Perhaps understandably, given the situation in the capital, Klimenko was in no mood for small talk.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: But he called me and he said: “I need to see you right now.” And that it was very, very urgent.
NARRATOR: As he hurried out of his downtown apartment, Rolf had no time to reflect on his complex relationship with Russian intelligence. But this is a story about that very thing. Two sworn enemies, divided by culture, geography, and ideology - forced together by a pivotal moment in world history.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I used to call Moscow the ‘Broadway’ of espionage. There's nowhere in the world that reaches those same heights, where you're on that same stage. And a big part of that in large measure is due to our adversary. Now we're the Russians’ adversary, CIA, KGB. And when you're facing the best it brings out the best in you or you or you go down.
NARRATOR: But the fall of the USSR changed that relationship.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: So there was a period right after the fall where nothing had changed in terms of the antagonism we felt toward one another professionally. How can you not, after all, the spy versus spy thing. But there was also this incredible excitement. That we were getting acquainted, that we were finally meeting one another, which seemed impossible just a couple of years ago,
NARRATOR: Rolf had spent years in the US military before joining the CIA in 1983. A tall, athletic figure, he’d been the quintessential American GI, and rose to the rank of captain. But whatever he’d thought of their government, he’d never harbored any particular dislike for the Russian people. In fact, he suspected that wars could be fought in ways that minimized so-called ‘collateral damage’.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I even questioned the sanity of war at a very young age. And when I was at West Point, they drilled into me, actually, the necessity to question war and what we were trying to accomplish. So the CIA sounded more cerebral, frankly. It sounded like it was a war in the shadows, a more dignified way to do some of the same things I was doing in the military.
NARRATOR: Rolf rose quickly through the CIA’s hierarchy. By 1993, he was already a highly accomplished operative.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I was trained for about a year, at what we call our ‘farm’, where we get the basic training. And then I was overseas and I spent all of my time overseas between then and the 10-year mark, with the exception of training, went back for a couple of specialized courses, mainly on how to spy on the Russians in Russia, for example, and things like that.
NARRATOR: Yes, it’s worth noting that this wasn’t Rolf’s first tango with the Russians. He’d also been operational in the country at an undisclosed point in the 1980s. Now, he was back - but there was one key difference.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: The difference was I had been there previously in what we call an undeclared black status, which is handling spies and doing spy work. The Russians figured out who I was or I wouldn't be talking about it even now. The second time when I came back in 1992, I was there to do liaison with the Russians. So I was declared to Russian intelligence, both the internal service, the Federal Security Service or FSB, and the Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR.
NARRATOR: Declared or undeclared - which would you prefer? Sure, the life of an operative with black status might be catnip to an adrenaline junkie. But when you’re settled down with a family, it’s better to be out in the open. For a start, you’re much less likely to end up in a Russian prison if a mission goes south.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: And I was declared to them and I also had a management role for all the CIA activities in Russia.
NARRATOR: So, it was not unusual for Rolf to field meetings with and calls from high-ranking members of the Russian intelligence community.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: We met probably once a week or so, sometimes several times a week at different places around town. In safe houses and in Lubyanka - actually in the headquarters - which was very eerie for a CIA officer to go inside KGB headquarters and go to the conference room where you’d see Yuri Andropov’s statue, the former chairman and head of the KGB staring down on you.
NARRATOR: But when General Klimenko demanded a meeting in the fateful October of 1993, Rolf knew something was different.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: But he called me and he said, I need to see you right now. And then it was very, very urgent. He said: “However, do not take your car.” Now my car had embassy license plates and was easily identifiable as diplomatic plates. That was in part so we could move around the city without being stopped by police, etc. And he said: “So don't take your car, take the Metro.” I thought this was unusual. “Don't meet me at the headquarters. You can't be seen going in and out of the headquarters. God knows what people will think. I need to meet you on X and Y Street,” which was maybe a few blocks away from the headquarters. He said: “Be there in an hour.”
NARRATOR: Rolf knew that the situation in Moscow was dicey, at best. If Klimenko seemed a little brusque, he could well imagine why. But the unrest in the city was a result of Russian infighting - not an American operation. What did the coup have to do with him? He had to find out for himself. But he wouldn’t be making the journey alone.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I had 24/7 surveillance following me everywhere - didn't matter that I was declared and supposedly cooperating with them. So they're following me or they were clearly clueless and very nervous. And so they're there hanging on me more than usual. And I'm you know, we're doing the usual polite: I'm ignoring them. They're ignoring me. But it's obvious they're there. And we got to go to this spot and then they kind of drop off.
NARRATOR: When Rolf’s FSB surveillance detail caught sight of who their target was going to meet - namely, their boss - they made themselves scarce. But the very fact that he’d been followed indicated that this meeting had been called in a hurry - nobody had briefed the lower-ranking officers. Rolf was about to find out why.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Klimenko did not seem happy. And I go to this corner and he's standing with another colleague I knew and they're wearing trench coats, which was funny because I think I was wearing a sweatshirt and it was, like, 60 degrees Fahrenheit and a beautiful Moscow October day. And I went up and shook their hands.
NARRATOR: A handshake was about as far as the pleasantries would go. Klimenko cut to the chase.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: [He said: ] “I was in a meeting with the president this morning and the president asked me a question I couldn't answer. And I need to get your answer and I need to have it right now.”
NARRATOR: Fair enough. Rolf would return to his office at the US Embassy and get Klimenko his answer, post haste.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: He goes: “No, when I mean right now, you can't go back and discuss it. I just need to know now because you'll know in a minute why this is so urgent. I just need your answer here and now. Definitive answer.” I said: “Okay, fine.”
NARRATOR: Rolf wracked his brain. What could have so agitated the Russian?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: So I was anticipating something very unpleasant. He said: “Well,” he said, “The president asked me what the CIA officers are doing meeting with the opposition in the Russian White House?”
NARRATOR: Ah. Now that would look bad. The US couldn’t be seen to be backing the coup plotters - especially when you consider the fragility of their recent detente with Yeltsin’s government.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: And I thought: “Oh, yeah, that could definitely send the wrong message, couldn't it?” And frankly, it hadn't even occurred to me.
NARRATOR: Erm… what hadn’t occurred to you, Rolf?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: So as we were building up toward this confrontation. Washington, of course, was screaming at us every day to tell them what was going to happen and how it was going to be resolved. And so we were scrambling on the street, doing everything from getting up in the middle of the night, looking to see if the lights were on at the Russian military headquarters. Driving by Lubyanka to see what activity you could see, see when the troops were doing all the visual things. And then we did something fairly drastic.
NARRATOR: And here’s where we might begin to understand Klimenko’s concern.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: We sent officers into the Russian White House to interview, meet - as diplomats - with the different parties so we could see what kind of information we could acquire to see what was happening. And was it going to be resolved? Were there efforts at mediation with Yeltsin?
NARRATOR: Oops. CIA operatives, some of whom must have been known to the Russians, had indeed been inside the Russian White House during the constitutional crisis. And for all the FSB knew, they were there to offer support to the rebels. General Klimenko had come to Rolf for reassurance.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: We were just scrambling, doing what we could - canvas our contacts, find out what was going on - we’d send these things back to Washington: “This guy says that it was nothing.” You know, nothing particularly interesting or sexy or even worth doing, probably, when I look back on it. I thought: “Well, yeah. Valentin.” I said: “I see where you're coming from. But I can assure you Washington is fully behind the president 100 percent, I'm not speaking as a diplomat, I'm just telling you, I know exactly what our policy is. So you please go back and tell the president that we're in his corner all the way.”
NARRATOR: Klimenko looked relieved. He agreed to pass on the CIA’s olive branch to the Russian President but the meeting wasn’t over. Shifting slightly in his trench coat, the general revealed that he had his own message to relay.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: He says the Russian military's going in, in no more than two hours from now. So go back and prepare whatever you think you need to do to protect your people and get the embassy prepared because, as it turned out, the Russian military was coming in.
NARRATOR: Until now, the Russian military had been conspicuously quiet throughout the coup.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: So when Yeltsin decided to disband the Parliament, the military could have decided to support the other side. That was just an option that the military had.
NARRATOR: Now, after declaring neutrality in the early days of the crisis, they had come down firmly on the side of the Yeltsin government. With tanks behind him, the president would be able to crush the armed militias that had swarmed through Moscow in the wake of the coup attempt. This was good news for the CIA. Yeltsin’s government was, at least, a known quantity. The factions who supported the coup? Less so. They included some figures who were still true believers in the communist cause, along with others who would find co-operating with the Americans equally distasteful. But before they could enjoy the resumption of normal service in Moscow, Rolf and his colleagues had to survive the crossfire. The Russian White House would not be going down without a fight.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: If you look at the way Moscow's organized, the Kremlin is on the east side of the small center of Moscow. If the Kremlin's at three o'clock, the embassy’s at nine o'clock. And then the Russian White House is a little bit beyond that still to the west, so the Russian military would have to go through the embassy to get to the Russian White House. And at that moment, we couldn't really visualize what that would even look like?
NARRATOR: Now you’ve got to think fast. You thought the demonstrations had been bad? In two hours, the streets of Moscow are going to erupt. As the Army advances on the Russian White House, the US Embassy could easily become caught up in the rebel counterattack. And remember, these Parliamentary militias know that the Americans are backing the Kremlin - you might even attract a few pot-shots of your own. So, what are your options? Would you evacuate? Or take advantage of the protection offered by the high-walled compound of the embassy?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: So we took the entire embassy, everyone that was living on the compound who had shown up to work, etc, down to the basement of this compound.
NARRATOR: Okay, so the civilian employees of the embassy are safe - what’s next?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: When I got back and told Ambassador [Thomas R.] Pickering and all our folks that they're coming. We told Washington, and then we began to make preparations for an all-out assault. We had a Marine detachment at the embassy. They were wearing flak jackets and carrying shotguns and other arms and helmets, and they would erect a barrier. For example, we had a big glass open area that led to the cafeteria from the outside and in an effort to fortify the defenses, they'd stacked as much furniture as they could up against the glass to create a little bit more of a barrier if the different coup plotters decided to crash through and take hostages or go kill everybody at the embassy.
NARRATOR: You’re running out of time. Have you really thought of everything?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: So we had issued walkie-talkies and things like chemical weapons masks, and everyone had these things with them. And we were communicating mainly on those. We put a Marine on top of the building as an observer.
NARRATOR: And what about those employees who weren’t lucky enough to be secured inside the compound?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Everyone who was off the compound, let’s say they had gotten trapped before the embassy battened down the hatches. They were told to go home and stay in their apartments, not to go anywhere, not to be out around the town. So we were getting the word out. There were emergency contact instructions. Every embassy in the world has [gone] into full effect.
NARRATOR: By the time the tanks rolled in, just hours after Rolf’s meeting with General Klimenko, the CIA was satisfied that it had done all it could for its people. All they could do for now was sit tight.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: You could hear the tanks rolling in, which was when you're underground and you're... in the whole, the whole ground shaking - everyone in the pool, in the gym, and the basketball court. And they had issued mats to families, and to put the kids down and make sure they're sitting and give them some toys to play with and try to get their mind off this.
NARRATOR: So far, so terrifying. But the worst was yet to come.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Over the subsequent couple of days, the shooting broke out. In fact, one of the first casualties was the Marine we had put on to observe on top of the embassy. He’d got shot in the neck and the embassy doctor actually crawled out to save him and pulled him to safety and applied a bandage to stop the bleeding. Fortunately, it was more of a graze, but it was a lot of blood. And then we realized: “Okay, this is real.”
NARRATOR: The shooting continued throughout the day, peppering central Moscow - including the embassy - with bullets. Clearly, the coup plotters inside the Russian White House were putting up a half-decent fight. It had been hours since the embassy had made contact with Washington. In fact, communications were severely limited all-around - one of the downsides to an underground hiding place. This couldn’t be allowed to continue. Somebody had to brave the chaos outside. Fortunately, the ambassador had someone in mind.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: The ambassador asked me to lead a break-out of a small team to establish some kind of alternative base for two purposes: one would be to have above-ground communications with Washington, which we didn't have as an embassy at that point; and two would be to coordinate whatever kind of Russian assistance we might need as an embassy if we were attacked or if we needed Russian troops to come save us, for example.
NARRATOR: As night fell, Rolf prepared to strike out into the war-torn streets of Moscow’s city center. But he wouldn’t be going alone. That would be madness. He’d need a small team - one that combined brains and brawn for maximum tactical efficacy.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: They didn't have a choice. One was a young communicator on his first tour overseas.
NARRATOR: A communicator - as you’ve probably guessed - that’s a signals specialist. Brains - check.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: So he was a CIA communicator and the other one was a CIA bodyguard that we had there, big guy, he was a bodybuilder.
NARRATOR: And there’s your muscle. What about firepower?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I think we had one shotgun between us or something and we didn't have any flak jackets or anything.
NARRATOR: Well, why slow yourself down? Guns are heavy. You need to move fast. And if you’re bristling with weapons, you’re more likely to become a target. His team was assembled. It was time to leave the relative safety of the embassy.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: And so, we were in the middle of the night, undercover darkness, one of the Marines came over, pushed the button to let up this big metal grate in the back of the garage of the embassy underground garage. And I just bolted, just bolted out hard as fast as I could… That scene was just out of, like, the old Mel Gibson Road Warrior movies.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I'm glad I had these two guys as witnesses because no one would believe it.
NARRATOR: Now, Rolf and his team were moving at speed through the streets of Moscow, on their way to establishing a clean link back to Washington - as well as to explore the possibility of an extraction by Russian government forces.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: My communicator in the back seat’s holding a satellite transmitter, it's called. And so we could actually have an encrypted way to talk to Washington or it was pointless to do all this and risk our lives.
NARRATOR: Ah yes, the communicator. His name was Tom. Unlike Rolf, he was not a born road warrior.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: And my communicator, the whole time we were bolting out with a gate coming up and then driving out was saying: “S***, s***, s***, s***… “ And at one point, I said: “Shut up, Tom! I can't listen to that.” And he kept saying it as we drove off.
NARRATOR: Poor Tom. Meanwhile, Rolf had his own car troubles.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: It was really risky in terms of not being able to drive out of there without being fully blocked because coming out of the back of the embassy, it's a very small road, a very narrow dead end. You could run into it and then not be able to turn around and get out. There were lots of dead ends back there. The roads were of very poor quality. And I'm trying to maneuver through this.
NARRATOR: Driving in the city is stressful at the best of times - never mind during an armed insurrection - and Rolf wasn’t alone on the roads.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: We hit somebody, kind of like not enough to really badly injure them, but enough to take off the side, mirror the car. And then I thought: “Oh, my God, what if the crowd stops us and pulls [us] out of the car and we have a Mogadishu situation or something?” I didn't know what we were facing. Everybody was milling around with that vacant look in their eyes.
NARRATOR: They couldn’t just keep barreling through Moscow. The repair bills would start mounting up, for a start. Rolf’s team had to find a place to set up their communications equipment, and fast. Luckily, he knew just the place.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: We decided to go to the ambassador's residence, which was about a couple miles away, and set up there because it was vacant, and use that as a base of operation.
NARRATOR: Moving quickly, Rolf’s team entered the ambassador’s residence. Now Tom the communicator was in his element. He set to work assembling the satellite equipment that could re-establish contact with Washington.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: You just have a black box with a bunch of wires, and you'd be able to carry it. It was very man-portable. It was, maybe, kind of a little bigger than a breadbox and then a little dish. The dish was the thing that you had to set up and it fanned out. So you had a dish, a black box, and a bunch of wires.
NARRATOR: It’s probably a bit more technical than that. But that’s what Tom was for.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I was not trained in any way to be able to process our messages and then send them to Washington. So we have to have a specialist who knows how to put the - what you want to say - into the box and the equipment and then push the button and send it over the airwaves in encrypted form.
NARRATOR: Now that comms had been established, Rolf set about recruiting more bodies to their new base of operations.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: So we ultimately reinforced our three with about six or seven embassy officers who came to this alternative command site. And I thought: “Okay, everything's going fine.” But I also realized when I got there just how bad everything was on the street. I realized that this was all-out. There were people laying in the street. It was… I can't even… you can't even exaggerate the bizarreness.
There was an old woman carrying a bag of groceries because she was determined to make her usual stops to the bread store and buy cabbage and bread, walking by and walking around. Someone had been shot. I don't think people knew quite how to handle the situation and that included, to a large degree, we professionals who were trying to deal with what's next? How much is this going to escalate? Is this going to spiral completely?
NARRATOR: There had been a number of indications that it might. For one thing, rumors had spread that President Yeltsin was holed up in his holiday home, rather than at the Kremlin. Other, more vicious rumors claimed that he might, in fact, be incapacitated by illness or vodka.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: So there was a real concern that he had no ability to assert control.
NARRATOR: And as morning broke, the violence on the streets showed no signs of slowing up.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I remember standing on the balcony with my communicator Tom. And it was just a beautiful day. And I'm looking out to see if I could see anything up on the road above us, which was that main road which runs between the embassy and the Kremlin with a bunch of high-rise apartment buildings on both sides of the road
NARRATOR: As the two men admired the view, a glint in the distance caught Rolf’s eye.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I'm looking up there and I thought I was seeing flashes and activity, maybe stun grenades. I wasn't sure what was going on. And so we're both looking up there to try to discern what was happening. And suddenly I heard, I just saw something like a chip, like something flying in the air. And I heard like a ping.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: And Tom says: “Those are bullets. They're shooting at us.”
NARRATOR: It had taken a moment to register, but there was no mistaking it. Rolf and Tom hit the floor and crawled back inside the Ambassador’s residence.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: And I said: “Oh, my God. What are we gonna do?” So I told the ambassador, Tom Pickering, I said: “We're under fire here. I don't know if they're… if they actually have figured out who we are. But this is your residence. And so I'm not optimistic that we're going to be safe here.”
NARRATOR: So, what now? It could have been a stray bullet, after all. And really, what was the likelihood of the coup plotters launching an attack on the American ambassador’s residence? Whatever it was, it was too high. Rolf couldn’t be sure that events wouldn’t escalate further. But there was nowhere else to go. Any attempt to leave their base would invite even greater risks.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: We can't go back to the embassy at this point. It is completely encircled with tanks and troops, and things are crazy.
NARRATOR: It looked like Rolf's best bet was to stay put and hope for the best. He tried to reassure the Ambassador.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I said: “We'll wait, we'll make do, you got bigger problems. Don't worry about us.”
NARRATOR: But the ambassador wouldn’t have it.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: He goes: “No, I'm worried about you.” He says: “Have you tried talking to your Russian friends?” Meaning the KGB. I said: “No, I haven't thought of that.”
NARRATOR: Now, sharing intelligence with the Russians was one thing - uncomfortable, but necessary. But asking them for help? For a bailout?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: They're not going to help us. When have they ever helped us? They've never helped us. If anything, they might want to throw us to the wolves.
NARRATOR: The ambassador took a more forgiving view of their hosts.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: He said: “Well, you won't know unless you ask.” I remember him saying that sagely. I said: “Okay, okay. I'll let you know what they say.” I was thinking it was kind of a joke, frankly. So I called Sergei Stepashin, the duty officer at Lubyanka, which is their headquarters. And I said: “I got to talk to your chief right away.” And they just said: “Who are you?” And fortunately, whoever the young... it must have been, it sounded like a young man manning the duty officer at the Lubyanka, the headquarters, had enough presence or wherewithal to think: “Okay, I'm going to pass this up.” So he did.
NARRATOR: And shortly afterward, the ambassador was vindicated.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: So the next thing I know, I get a call from Sergei Stepashin, who is the director of the FSB. He says: “What's the problem?”
NARRATOR: Once he’d recovered from the shock, Rolf began to explain his predicament to Stepashin.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I said: “I think we're being shot at by snipers here. I see people running through the neighborhood and there are paramilitary types prowling around here.” I said: “We're not really armed. I just want to make you aware if there's any way you can help us, I'd really appreciate it.” He said: “Let me call you back.” I said: “That's a good answer. I'll never hear that call.”
NARRATOR: Fortunately, the Russians were about to prove Rolf wrong again.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Five minutes later, he calls me back. He said: “I have a solution. I'm going to send you an armed cadre of our guards, FSB guards. And they'll try to defend you. They'll establish a perimeter around your location and they'll fend off as best they can - any armed insurrectionists that come after you.” He said: “But I only have two conditions.”
NARRATOR: And here comes the catch.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: I said: “What are those?”
NARRATOR: Stephashin’s conditions were simple. Firstly, the CIA was not to make any contact with their Russian defenders.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: “So you need to set up a visual signal that you could give him - an umbrella or a salute - so you can make contact in that sense from a distance. So he knows you're there and he's there, but you do not talk. You do not come over to him. You do not do anything like… so people could take a picture, in any way connect you with us.”
NARRATOR: That seemed fair. The last thing either side wanted was to appear too cozy with one another in the press. And the second condition?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: He goes: “If there is a shoot-out, if we have to defend you and you're trying to… We die separately. You die in your position and we die in ours.” I thought: “Wow, this is the new cooperative framework.” In fact, it's kind of a motto of mine. I think it doesn't get better than that. It's so honest.
NARRATOR: It was in neither party's interest to be caught together, dead together, literally in this case. The spirit of cooperation was alive and well in Moscow. Stepashin’s men set up shop outside the ambassador’s residence, ready to die for their American counterparts. Albeit separately. It didn’t come to that. The impasse between the embattled inhabitants of the Russian White House and the military establishment was about to break.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: We ended up getting some reports as an embassy that the coup plotters were now going to try to break out and go to the television tower to declare that they had taken over the country, which was called Ostankino Tower. Now, if you know Moscow, the problem with that plan was it was a very bad plan. Ostankino was a good hour, at least, drive away from the Russian White House, where they were holed up. Even if they could have broken out, they would never have gotten there that far to take it over.
NARRATOR: Looking back, Rolf remembers thinking that things could have gone very differently.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: If they had, however, decided to go right down the street for a mile and take over the Kremlin, that might have been possible. The movement there, perhaps, would have been more shooting, but it would at least have been a more viable plan.
NARRATOR: In the end, the plotters inside the Russian White House wouldn’t have the opportunity to do either. On October the 4th, the building was taken by the military in a dramatic assault, which involved shelling the top floors and taking the rest of the building, floor by floor, from the ground up. The surviving plotters, including acting president Rutskoy and Ruslan Khasbulatov, were arrested. They were pardoned by the newly elected Parliament sometime later, in the interest of ‘healing’ a divided nation. Sound familiar?
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: When I think of the sixth of January and what happened in this country, I think most Americans, the reaction was: “It can't happen here.” So even in this buildup, this inexorable kind of raising of intensity that occurred leading up to that day, I think it was still a fundamental shock to every American, including myself, that it could happen here. That's what Russians felt.
NARRATOR: In the aftermath of the 1993 coup attempt, Boris Yeltsin was able to grant himself sweeping powers to dissolve or form a Parliament as he saw fit. And that’s not all.
ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: Paramilitary groups were identified and disbanded. Communist and nationalist parties, extremist nationalist parties were disbanded. Propaganda that advocated racial hatred, fascism, chauvinism was banned and heavily sanctioned other types of hate speech media that advocated or incited violence. And it all led, paradoxically, to the rise of Vladimir Putin and the restoration of order, as Russians understand it because it didn't end. It didn't end on October 4th, 1993.
NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another top-secret liaison with True Spies. If you’d like to hear more from Rolf Mowatt-Larssen his book, A State Of Mind: Faith and the CIA, is available now. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this podcast are those of the subject. These stories are told from their perspective, and their authenticity should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen is the former director of intelligence and counterintelligence at the US Department of Energy. He also served for 23 years as a CIA intelligence officer in international posts including Moscow. Mowatt-Larssen graduated from the US Military Academy, West Point, NY. Among his many awards, he received the CIA Director's Award and the George W. Bush Award for Excellence in Counterterrorism.