The KGB vs. CIA: World-Class Spies?

The KGB and the CIA are emblematic symbols of the Cold War. Did they consist of world-class spies? What were each agency’s successes and what were their failures?

Jun 25, 2022By Stephanie Jelks, MPhil History, MA History, BA Political Science
kgb emblem cia seal
KGB emblem and CIA seal, via


The Soviet Union’s KGB and the United States’ CIA are intelligence agencies synonymous with the Cold War. Often viewed as being pitted against one another, each agency sought to protect its status as a world superpower and maintain its dominance in its own sphere of influence. Their biggest success was presumably the prevention of nuclear war, but how successful were they really in achieving their aims? Were technological advances as important as espionage?


Origins & Purposes of the KGB and the CIA

Ivan Serov, first head of the KGB 1954-1958, via


The KGB, Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, or Committee for State Security, existed from March 13, 1954, to December 3, 1991. Before 1954, it was preceded by several Russian/Soviet intelligence agencies including the Cheka, which was active during Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution (1917-1922), and the reorganized NKVD (for most of 1934-1946) under Josef Stalin. Russia’s history of secret intelligence services stretches back to before the 20th century, on a continent where wars were frequent, military alliances were temporary, and countries and empires were established, absorbed by others, and/or dissolved. Russia also used intelligence services for domestic purposes centuries ago. “Spying on one’s neighbors, colleagues and even family was as ingrained in the Russian soul as privacy rights and free speech are in America.”


The KGB was a military service and it operated under army laws and regulations. It had several main functions: foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, the exposure and investigation of political and economic crimes committed by Soviet citizens, guarding the leaders of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and Soviet Government, organization and security of government communications, protecting Soviet borders, and thwarting nationalist, dissident, religious, and anti-Soviet activities.


Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, the first head of the CIA 1947-1950, via


The CIA, Central Intelligence Agency, was formed on September 18, 1947, and had been preceded by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS came into being on June 13, 1942, as a result of the US’s entry into the Second World War and it was dissolved in September 1945. Unlike many European countries, the US didn’t have any institutions or expertise in intelligence collection or counterintelligence throughout most of its history, except during wartime.

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Before 1942, the State Department, Treasury, Navy, and War Departments of the United States carried out American foreign intelligence activities on an ad hoc basis. There had been no overall direction, coordination, or control. The US Army and US Navy each had their own code-breaking departments. American foreign intelligence was handled by different agencies between 1945 and 1947 when the National Security Act came into effect. The National Security Act established both the US’s National Security Council (NSC) and the CIA.


When it was created, the CIA’s purpose was to act as a center for foreign policy intelligence and analysis. It was given the power to carry out foreign intelligence operations, advise the NSC on intelligence matters, correlate and evaluate the intelligence activities of other government agencies, and perform any other intelligence duties that the NSC might require. The CIA has no law enforcement function and officially focuses on overseas intelligence gathering; its domestic intelligence collection is limited. In 2013, the CIA defined four of its five priorities as counterterrorism, nonproliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, informing American leaders of important overseas events, and counterintelligence.


Nuclear Secrets & the Arms Race

Cartoon of Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy arm wrestling, via


The United States had detonated nuclear weapons in 1945 before the existence of either the KGB or the CIA. While the US and Britain had collaborated on developing atomic weapons, neither country informed Stalin of their progress despite the Soviet Union being an ally during the Second World War.


Unknown to the United States and Britain, the KGB’s predecessor, the NKVD, had spies who had infiltrated The Manhattan Project. When Stalin was informed of the progress of the Manhattan Project at the Potsdam Conference of July 1945, Stalin showed no surprise. Both American and British delegates believed that Stalin didn’t understand the import of what he had been told. However, Stalin was all too aware and the Soviet Union detonated their first nuclear bomb in 1949, closely modeled on the US’s “Fat Man” nuclear bomb which was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945.


Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States competed against each other in the development of hydrogen “superbombs,” the space race, and ballistic missiles (and later intercontinental ballistic missiles). The KGB and the CIA used espionage against each other to keep an eye on the other country’s progress. Analysts used human intelligence, technical intelligence, and overt intelligence to determine each country’s requirements to meet any potential threat. Historians have stated that the intelligence provided by both the KGB and CIA helped to avert nuclear war because both sides then had some idea of what was going on and, therefore would not be surprised by the other side.


Soviet vs. American Spies

CIA officer Aldrich Ames leaving US federal court in 1994 after pleading guilty to espionage, via


At the start of the Cold War, they did not have the technology to gather intelligence that we have developed today. Both the Soviet Union and the US used a lot of resources to recruit, train, and deploy spies and agents. In the 1930s and ‘40s, Soviet spies had been able to penetrate top levels of the US government. When the CIA was first founded, the US attempts to collect intelligence on the Soviet Union stuttered. The CIA continually suffered from counterintelligence failures from its spies throughout the Cold War. Additionally, the close cooperation between the US and the UK meant that Soviet spies in the UK were able to betray the secrets of both countries early in the Cold War.


As the Cold War went on, Soviet spies in the US could no longer gather intelligence from those in high US government positions, but they were still able to obtain information. John Walker, a US naval communications officer, was able to tell the Soviets about every move of the US’s nuclear ballistic missile submarine fleet. A US Army spy, Sergeant Clyde Conrad, gave NATO’s complete defense plans for the continent to the Soviets by going through the Hungarian intelligence service. Aldrich Ames was an officer in the CIA’s Soviet Division, and he betrayed over twenty American spies as well as handing over information about how the agency operated.


1960 U-2 Incident

Gary Powers on trial in Moscow, August 17, 1960, via The Guardian


The U-2 aircraft was first flown in 1955 by the CIA (although control was later transferred to the US Air Force). It was a high-altitude aircraft that could fly to altitudes of 70,000 feet (21,330 meters) and was equipped with a camera that had a resolution of 2.5 feet at an altitude of 60,000 feet. The U-2 was the first US-developed aircraft that could penetrate deep into Soviet territory with a much lower risk of being shot down than previous American aerial reconnaissance flights. These flights were used to intercept Soviet military communications and photograph Soviet military facilities.


In September 1959, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev met with US President Eisenhower at Camp David, and after this meeting, Eisenhower banned U-2 flights for fear that the Soviets would believe that the US was using the flights to prepare for first-strike attacks. The following year, Eisenhower gave in to CIA pressure to allow the flights to recommence for a few weeks.


On May 1, 1960, the USSR shot down a U-2 flying over its airspace. Pilot Francis Gary Powers was captured and paraded before the world media. This proved to be a huge diplomatic embarrassment for Eisenhower and shattered the thawing of US-USSR Cold War relations which had lasted for eight months. Powers was convicted of espionage and sentenced to three years of imprisonment and seven years of hard labor in the Soviet Union, although he was released two years later in a prisoner exchange.


Bay of Pigs Invasion & the Cuban Missile Crisis

Cuban leader Fidel Castro, via


Between 1959 and 1961, the CIA recruited and trained 1,500 Cuban exiles. In April 1961, these Cubans landed in Cuba with the intention of overthrowing Communist Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Castro became Cuba’s prime minister on January 1, 1959, and once in power he nationalized American businesses – including banks, oil refineries, and sugar and coffee plantations – and then severed Cuba’s previously close relationship with the US and reached out to the Soviet Union.


In March 1960, US President Eisenhower allocated $13.1 million to the CIA to use against Castro’s regime. A CIA-sponsored paramilitary group set out for Cuba on April 13, 1961. Two days later, eight CIA-supplied bombers attacked Cuban airfields. On April 17, the invaders landed in Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, but the invasion failed so badly that the Cuban paramilitary exiles surrendered on April 20. A major embarrassment for US foreign policy, the failed invasion only served to strengthen Castro’s power and his ties to the USSR.


Following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the installation of American ballistic missiles in Italy and Turkey, the USSR’s Khrushchev, in a secret agreement with Castro, agreed to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, which was only 90 miles (145 kilometers) from the United States. The missiles were placed there to deter the United States from another attempt to overthrow Castro.


John F. Kennedy on the cover of The New York Times, via


In the summer of 1962, several missile launch facilities were constructed in Cuba. A U-2 spy plane produced clear photographic evidence of the ballistic missile facilities. US President John F. Kennedy avoided declaring war on Cuba but ordered a naval blockade. The US stated that it would not allow offensive weapons to be delivered to Cuba and demanded that the weapons that were already there be dismantled and sent back to the USSR. Both countries were prepared to use nuclear weapons and the Soviets shot down a U-2 plane that had accidentally flown over Cuban air space on October 27, 1962. Both Khrushchev and Kennedy were aware of what a nuclear war would entail.


After several days of intense negotiations, the Soviet premier and the American president were able to reach an agreement. The Soviets agreed to dismantle their weapons in Cuba and send them back to the USSR while the Americans declared that they would not invade Cuba again. The US blockade of Cuba ended on November 20, after all Soviet offensive missiles and light bombers had been withdrawn from Cuba.


The need for clear and direct communication between the US and USSR saw the establishment of the Moscow-Washington hotline, which was successful in reducing US-Soviet tensions for several years until both countries started expanding their nuclear arsenals again.


KGB Success at Thwarting Anti-communism in the Eastern Bloc

Hungarian communist workers’ militia marching through central Budapest in 1957 after Communist rule had been reestablished, via


While the KGB and the CIA were the foreign intelligence agencies of the world’s two most incredible superpowers, they did not exist solely to be in competition with each other. Two of the KGB’s significant successes occurred in the Communist Eastern Bloc: in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.


On October 23, 1956, university students in Budapest, Hungary, appealed to the general population to join them in protest against Hungarian domestic policies that had been imposed upon them by a government installed by Stalin. Hungarians organized revolutionary militias and captured local Hungarian Communist leaders and policemen. Many were killed or lynched. Anti-Communist political prisoners were released and armed. The new Hungarian government even declared its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact.


While the USSR had initially been willing to negotiate the withdrawal of the Soviet Army from Hungary, the Hungarian Revolution was repressed by the USSR on November 4. By November 10, intense fighting led to the deaths of 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet Army soldiers. Two hundred thousand Hungarians sought political refuge abroad. The KGB was involved in crushing the Hungarian Revolution by arresting the movement’s leaders before the scheduled negotiations. KGB chairman Ivan Serov then personally supervised the post-invasion “normalization” of the country.


While this operation was not an unqualified success for the KGB – documents declassified decades later revealed that the KGB had difficulty working with their Hungarian allies – the KGB was successful in reestablishing Soviet supremacy in Hungary. Hungary would have to wait another 33 years for independence.


Warsaw Pact troops entering Prague on August 20, 1968, via


Twelve years later, mass protest and political liberalization erupted in Czechoslovakia. The reformist Czechoslovakian First Secretary of the Communist Party tried to grant additional rights to the citizens of Czechoslovakia in January 1968, in addition to partially decentralizing the economy and democratizing the country.


In May, KGB agents infiltrated pro-democratic Czechoslovak pro-democratic organizations. Initially, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was willing to negotiate. As had happened in Hungary, when negotiations failed in Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union sent in half a million Warsaw Pact troops and tanks to occupy the country. The Soviet military thought it would take four days to subdue the country; it took eight months.


The Brezhnev Doctrine was announced on August 3, 1968, which stated that the Soviet Union would intervene in Eastern bloc countries where communist rule was under threat. KGB chief Yuri Andropov had a more hardline attitude than Brezhnev did and ordered a number of “active measures” against Czechoslovak reformers during the post-Prague Spring “normalization” period. Andropov would go on to succeed Brezhnev as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1982.


CIA Activities in Europe

Italian propaganda poster from the 1948 election, via Collezione Salce National Museum, Treviso


The CIA had also been active in Europe, influencing the Italian general election of 1948 and continuing to intervene in Italian politics until the early 1960s. The CIA has acknowledged giving $1 million to Italian centrist political parties, and overall, the US spent between $10 and $20 million in Italy to counter the influence of the Italian Communist Party.


Finland was also considered a buffer zone country between the Communist East and Western Europe. Starting at the end of the 1940s, US intelligence services were gathering information about Finnish airfields and their capacities. In 1950, Finnish military intelligence rated American troops’ mobility and action capability in Finland’s northern and cold conditions as “hopelessly behind” Russia (or Finland). Nevertheless, the CIA trained a small number of Finnish agents in conjunction with other countries including the UK, Norway, and Sweden, and gathered intelligence on Soviet troops, geography, infrastructure, technical equipment, border fortifications, and the organization of Soviet engineering forces. It had also been considered that Finnish targets were “probably” on the list of US bombing targets so that NATO could use nuclear weapons to take out Finnish airfields to deny their use to the Soviet Union.


KGB Failures: Afghanistan & Poland

Lech Wałęsa of Poland’s Solidarity movement, via NBC News


The KGB was active in the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Elite Soviet troops were air-dropped into Afghanistan’s main cities and deployed motorized divisions crossed the border shortly before the KGB poisoned the Afghan president and his ministers. This was a Moscow-backed coup to install a puppet leader. The Soviets had feared that a weak Afghanistan might turn to the US for help, so they convinced Brezhnev that Moscow would have to act before the US did. The invasion triggered a nine-year civil war in which an estimated one million civilians and 125,000 combatants died. Not only did the war wreak havoc in Afghanistan, but it also took its toll on the USSR’s economy and national prestige. Soviet failure in Afghanistan was a contributing factor to the USSR’s later collapse and breakup.


During the 1980s, the KGB also tried to suppress the growing Solidarity movement in Poland. Headed by Lech Wałęsa, the Solidarity movement was the first independent trade union in a Warsaw Pact country. Its membership reached 10 million people in September 1981, a third of the working population. It aimed to use civil resistance to promote workers’ rights and social changes. The KGB had agents in Poland and also gathered information from KGB agents in Soviet Ukraine. The Communist Polish government instituted martial law in Poland between 1981 and 1983. While the Solidarity movement had sprung up spontaneously in August 1980, by 1983 the CIA was lending financial assistance to Poland. The Solidarity movement survived the communist government’s attempts to destroy the union. By 1989, the Polish government initiated talks with Solidarity and other groups in order to defuse growing social unrest. Free elections took place in Poland in mid-1989, and in December 1990, Wałęsa was elected as the President of Poland.


CIA Failures: Vietnam & Iran-Contra Affair

CIA and Special Forces testing counterinsurgency in Vietnam, 1961, via


In addition to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the CIA also faced failure in Vietnam, where it had started training South Vietnamese agents as early as 1954. This was due to an appeal from France, which had lost the French-Indochina War, where it lost possession of its former colonies in the region. In 1954, the geographical 17th parallel north became Vietnam’s “provisional military demarcation line.” North Vietnam was communist, while South Vietnam was pro-Western. The Vietnam War lasted until 1975, ending with US withdrawal in 1973 and the fall of Saigon in 1975.


The Iran-Contra Affair, or Iran-Contra Scandal, also caused huge embarrassment to the US. During President Jimmy Carter’s term in office, the CIA was covertly funding pro-American opposition to the Nicaraguan Sandinista government. Early into his presidency, Ronald Reagan told Congress that the CIA would protect El Salvador by preventing the shipment of Nicaraguan arms that might land into the hands of Communist rebels. In reality, the CIA was arming and training Nicaraguan Contras in Honduras with the hope of deposing the Sandinista government.


Lt. Col. Oliver North testifying before the US House Select Committee in 1987, via The Guardian


In December 1982, the US Congress passed a law restricting the CIA to only preventing the flow of arms from Nicaragua to El Salvador. Additionally, the CIA was prohibited from using funds to oust the Sandinistas. To circumvent this law, senior officials in the Reagan administration began secretly selling arms to the Khomeini government in Iran to use the proceeds of the sales to fund the Contras in Nicaragua. At this time, Iran itself was subject to a US arms embargo. Evidence of the sale of arms to Iran came to light in late 1986. A US Congress investigation showed that several dozen Reagan administration officials were indicted, and eleven were convicted. The Sandinistas continued to rule Nicaragua until 1990.


The KGB vs. the CIA: Who Was Better?

Cartoon of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, via


The question of who was better, the KGB or CIA, is difficult, if not impossible, to answer objectively. Indeed, when the CIA was formed, the Soviet Union’s foreign intelligence agency had far more experience, established policies and procedures, a history of strategic planning, and more highly defined functions. In its earlier years, the CIA experienced more espionage failures, in part due to the fact that it was easier for Soviet and Soviet-backed spies to infiltrate American and American ally organizations than it was for CIA agents to gain access to Communist-controlled institutions. External factors such as each country’s domestic political systems and economic strength also influenced the operations of the two countries’ foreign intelligence agencies. Overall, the CIA had the technological advantage.


One event that somewhat caught both the KGB and the CIA off guard was the disintegration of the Soviet Union. CIA officials have admitted that they were slow to realize the imminent collapse of the USSR, although they had been alerting US policymakers about the stagnating Soviet economy for several years in the 1980s.


From 1989, the CIA had been warning policymakers that a crisis was brewing because the Soviet economy was in severe decline. Domestic Soviet intelligence was also inferior to the analysis gained from their spies.


“While a certain amount of politicization enters assessments in Western intelligence services, it was endemic in the KGB, which tailored its analysis to endorse the regime’s policies. Gorbachev mandated more objective assessments once he came to power, but by then it was too late for the KGB’s ingrained culture of communist political correctness to overcome old habits. As in the past, KGB assessments, such as they were, blamed Soviet policy failures on the evil machinations of the West.”


When the Soviet Union ceased to exist, so did the KGB.

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By Stephanie JelksMPhil History, MA History, BA Political ScienceStephanie is currently a writer based in Montevideo. She earned her MPhil and MA in History from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, as well as a BA in Political Science (with a minor in International Studies) from Truman State University in the US. In her free time she enjoys reading, traveling, and spending time with friends.