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  • Writer's pictureAntonio Graceffo

From the Cold War to the Present Day: CIA vs. KGB, USA vs. Russia

Following World War II, the United States policy of containment was meant to curb the

expansion of the USSR and the spread of communism. Both sides were aware that a third world war would result in mutual destruction, and so the struggle between the two sides was played out though covert and clandestine actions of the CIA and KGB, with Washington and Moscow claiming plausible deniability.

Movies, books, and TV shows latched onto CIA operations against the KGB in Eastern Europe, but in actuality, CIA confrontations with the USSR spanned the globe, with operations taking place on every continent. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the intelligence, training, expertise, and, in many cases, the personnel and mindset of the KGB, were transferred to the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB). The battle continues until today, and once again, the battleground is the entire world.

Cold War Conflicts: CIA vs. USSR on Three Continents

The conflict between the United States and Russia, or the CIA and KGB, has always been

complicated by the fact that the two countries were on the same side in World War II. Kremlin-backed communist groups fought against Japanese and Nazi occupation in Asia and Europe, often with U.S. funding and training. After the war, the U.S. and the USSR found themselves on opposite sides of a new conflict, the Cold War, where the presence of Moscow-linked communist groups in democratic countries was seen as a threat by the Americans. Accordingly, former allies became foes.


In Italy, during World War Two, left-wing cells fought against the Nazis. After the war,

Marxist–Leninist groups, particularly the Red Brigades, were responsible for hundreds of deaths, including the abduction and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro. From the 1940s through the early 1960s, the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and later the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) provided Italy with an average of $5 million per year, to fund covert operations. The missions focused on weakening the Italian Communist Party and the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), which had coopted the labor unions. The PSI was supported by the Red Brigades, and had links to the Soviet Union directly, as well as indirectly, through training and support received in Czechoslovakia.

The CIA established or funded right-wing or anti-communist groups, organized through NATO, who often used violence and extrajudicial means to suppress the advance of communism in Italy. Many of the local operatives were former fascists from Mussolini’s government or the armed forces. Those involved in Operation Gladio, as the operation was called, were thought to have been involved in drug deals, torture, and murder.

As communists are left-wing, the U.S. found itself supporting right-wing extremists and dictators who opposed communism. Many of these operations were covert, because the people who the U.S. supported were often terrible criminals themselves. Once such missions become declassified, the public and the international community were generally shocked to discover who the U.S. had supported. The justification for these actions is similar to the justification for siding with the USSR against Nazi Germany during World War II. Effectively, the U.S. was countering a very bad guy by supporting a somewhat less bad guy.

Latin America

In 1944, a popular uprising brought down the military dictatorship of Jorge Ubico in Guatemala. Afterwards, Juan José Arévalo served as the first democratically elected president in the country’s history. In 1951, the socialist Jacobo Árbenz was elected. He enacted socialist, wealth- redistribution programs, as well as land reforms, including expropriating land which belonged to the United Fruit Company. Árbenz also legalized the communist Guatemalan Party of Labor (Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo, PGT). Not wanting a communist-ruled country in its backyard, in 1953 President Eisenhower authorized the CIA’s Operation PBSuccess. The U.S. stopped selling weapons to Guatemala and isolated the country internationally. Next, the CIA armed, funded, and trained a small army, led by Carlos Castillo Armas, a former Guatemalan military officer in exile. Árbenz appealed to the Soviet Union for help and received a shipment of weapons. In 1954, Castillo Armas and his army invaded Guatemala.

Psychological warfare was employed, including anti-government propaganda, a naval blockade, and aerial bombardments of Guatemala City. Although Castillo Armas and his army took heavy casualties and were losing the battle, the psychological warfare paid off. Fearing having to face the Americans, the Guatemalan Army refused to fight. In the end, the CIA, with John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles, overthrew the government of Arbenz. In 1954, Carlos Castillo Armas assumed the presidency. He reversed the socialist policies of his predecessor, and restored land previously owned by the United Fruit Company. He disbanded the communist workers’ union, rounded up communists, and ordered hundreds of executions. In 1957, he was assassinated.

After he was deposed, Jacobo Árbenz was invited to Cuba where he appeared at public events, supporting the Castro regime. In 1965, he attended the Communist Congress in Helsinki. The coup against Árbenz was exploited by the Kremlin as proof of American imperialism and as a tool used to expand their influence in the Americas. In addition to anti-U.S. propaganda, the USSR increased trade with Latin American countries, which they presented as a means of decreasing economic dependence on the United States.


The events leading up to the 1965 coup which toppled Indonesia’s Sukarno were a series of

covert operations by the U.S. government in its competition with the USSR. In the 1950s, the

U.S. had conducted two successful missions to overthrow a Soviet-friendly government and

replace it with a pro-U.S. regime. The first was Operation Ajax in Iran in 1953. The second was Operation PBSuccess in Guatemala in 1954. Riding these successes, the U.S. government

believed they could alter the political direction of Indonesia. From the 1950s to the 1970s,

Indonesia was a significant focus of U.S. foreign policy because it was a country where the

USSR was active. Accordingly, it became crucial to U.S. containment of communism.

Indonesia emerged in 1949 after a bloody war of independence against the Netherlands.

Afterward, rebel leaders became warlords controlling their own fiefdoms, while the central

government attempted to form and normalize the country’s administration. The interests of the various warlords often came into conflict with each other and with the central government, because of differences in languages and ethnicity, and also wealth disparities across the massive archipelago. Outside forces, such as the USSR, were also attempting to influence the country’s internal affairs. In 1950, the country adopted a democratic constitution. At least 16 major factions existed, and Islamist rebels tried to assassinate the president.

Apart from a desire to counter the spread of communism, the U.S. was also interested in

Indonesia because it was in a pivotal location relative to international shipping lanes.

Additionally, the country has an abundance of natural resources, consequently, U.S. investment in oil and rubber was significant.

Initially, the U.S. supported Sukarno, because he repressed initiatives by the Indonesian

Communist Party (PKI) in the early 1950s. However, when he began adopting nationalist

policies, he fell out of favor with the Americans. The PKI became the largest party in Indonesia and the third largest communist party in the world, after those in China and the USSR. In the context of the country’s restive internal politics, Sukarno used the PKI to balance the power of the army. In addition to Washington being displeased with Indonesia’s political direction, Sukarno was making other enemies in the West, as he was involved in border disputes with both Australia and the UK. In 1963, Sukarno’s government entered into a border war with Malaysia, in Borneo. Eventually, the fighting brought in troops from the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. After repeated disagreements with the U.S., Sukarno threatened to break off diplomatic relations. In 1963, amid negotiations with U.S. oil companies, he threatened to nationalize oil.

U.S. attempts to end Sukarno’s rule wound up driving him closer to the USSR and empowering the communists in the country. In 1965, a military leader named Suharto, backed by the U.S. deposed Sukarno. Suharto then led an anti-communist purge, which resulted in between 500,000 and 1 million deaths.

After the Fall of the USSR

During the Cold War, the KGB, the main security agency of the USSR, penetrated every level of Russian government and all aspects of Russian life. The organization justified its existence by finding and neutralizing domestic and foreign enemies, real or imagined. The KGB was instrumental in influencing public opinion at home and abroad, which is how the KGB came in conflict with the CIA and how the interests of the USSR clashed with those of the U.S.

During the era of reform, the KGB publicly supported Moscow’s policies of perestroika and glasnost, but behind the scenes, the KGB was concerned that the transition would result in chaos. It also feared that openness would lead to Russia embracing Western capitalism, and joining a U.S.-led world order, which would make the KGB redundant. The new government began downgrading the role played by the KGB and many of the officers transitioned into the State Duma (parliament) and other departments of government. Even Yeltsin, however, found himself faced with the seemingly impossible task of democratizing and liberalizing, while also maintaining his personal power. To this end, he maintained the security council, along with the presidential administration, and himself as his triangle of power. In 1994-1995, the Federal Security Service (Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, FSB) was established as a successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB.

In 1998, Russian President Boris Yeltsin appointed a former KGB agent, Vladimir Putin, as head of the FSB, the largest intelligence agency in Europe. Once Putin became president, the influence of the KGB had reached the highest levels of government. He then began appointing former agents to government posts, until the FSB’s control over the government, parliament, police, and the courts was nearly complete. Putin also removed Yeltsin-era appointees and apparatus, replacing them with those loyal to himself.

The FSB has been active, both at home and abroad, in much the same way as the KGB was. The FSB has committed a number of high-profile assassinations, outside of Russia, targeting critics of the Putin regime. The FBI and the CIA have accused Russia of election interference and uncovered numerous instances of state-backed hacking and cyberattacks in the U.S. and the West. Russia has also supported the Assad regime in Syria with airstrikes. Moscow has also helped Iran circumvent U.S. sanctions and is supporting their military and possibly their nuclear program.

The EU and the U.S. have designated Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. The U.S. Department of State reported in January 2022, that the FSB had infiltrated the government of Ukraine and would potentially exploit these assets as a first step toward an invasion. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin has ordered the FSB to step up its surveillance of Russian citizens, in order to head off dissent. Both the CIA and the FSB have inserted spies into the opposing camps in the Ukraine conflict. Outside of its borders, Russia has conducted a disinformation campaign, painting the Ukrainians as the villains.

The Cold War had been predicated on a U.S. policy of containment of the USSR, to prevent the spread of communism and Soviet influence. The battles of the Cold War were played out

between the CIA and the KGB in numerous countries and across various conflicts around the world. Today, Putin’s Russian Federation engages in very similar behavior, expanding its

influence and supporting its interests in countries and conflicts around the world. The names of the players have changed to CIA vs. FSB, but the game remains the same, as do the stakes — a possible third world war, which would result in mutual destruction.

About The Author

Antonio Graceffo is an economist, who was educated in Europe and China. He works as a China economic analyst and also does national security analysis and has published numerous articles on the impact of the Ukraine war and the war in Burma. Graceffo is a U.S. military veteran, currently studying national security at the American Military University. His writing has appeared in The Diplomat, The South China Morning Post, The Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Lowy Institute China Brief, Modern Diplomacy, War on the Rocks, and many other media and thinktank publications.

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