The Downfall of Agent Sphere

Lt. Col. Vladimir Nikolaevich Zaitsev, an officer of the KGB’s elite spetsnaz Group A (Alpha), commanded the operation to arrest CIA agent Adolph Tolkachev in 1985. Zaitsev recounts the affair and its strategic significance in the Cold War.


Group A’s very first snatch operation against a “werewolf” was the summer 1985 arrest of Adolph Tolkachev (agent code name [CK] SPHERE), an engineer at a USSR Ministry of Radio Industry scientific research institute – one of the leading specialists in aero-navigational systems. Back in February of 1977 – on his own wishes – Tolkachev took the initiative and proposed his services to US intelligence, passing the CIA secret information in the area of radar construction for military aviation over the length of several years. And so, for example, Tolkachev handed over to Langley documentation on the newest projects for the Soviet Air Force and Air Defense’s cockpit-based “friend-foe” identification system.

KGB Lt. Col. Vladimir Nikolaevich Zaitsev, lead officer in the capture of CIA spy Adolph Tolkachev.
KGB Lt. Col. Vladimir Nikolaevich Zaitsev, lead officer in the capture of CIA spy Adolph Tolkachev.

Before Sphere’s exposure the CIA was able to build up more than two million dollars in his accounts in American banks – a sum paltry compared to what could have been spent by the United States on corresponding research in the electronics sector. The spy thus saved American taxpayers tens of billions of dollars.

“…CIA officers like to joke that Tolkachev paid their way,” Aldrich Ames would later report to Moscow.

He was the one who compensated all the CIA’s budget expenditures, literally bringing Soviet aviation’s radar-electronics to the United States on a plate. If a new world war started, NATO would have held an incontestable advantage in the air.

The Americans immediately shared the secrets received from Sphere with their strategic ally in the Middle East, Israel, and soon the Arabs, whose air forces were to a significant degree were supplied with Soviet combat jets, discovered their vulnerabilities and that they were within reach of the IDF’s anti-air assets.

According to some evaluations, the benefit obtained through the “CIA-Sphere Joint Enterprise” amounted to around $20 billion. With a correction for inflation, we could boldly multiply that figure by five.

In the middle of the summer of 1985, during the full swing of vacations, I was called in by the chief of our group, Gennady Nikolaevich Zaitsev. However, despite the established protocol, I was to go even higher, to the chief of the Seventh Directorate [Surveillance], E.M. Rasshchepov, for concrete orders without delay.

We (in the given case and in the first phase – I) were ordered to carry out the clandestine detainment of one person, after the necessary technical preparation, of course. His name had not yet been given. But the general emphasized that not one hair should fall from the head of the target. And a situation in which he could commit suicide was completely impermissible.

Responsibility for the operation was entrusted to me personally. It was the first time I had received such a clearly accented assignment. Before that my “profile” was predominantly terrorists of various calibers. 1985 was underway, the beginning of Gorbachev’s Perestroika. I remember thinking at that moment, “I wonder whom we’re supposed to grab with such precautionary measures.” Because of the political situation at that time, this person could turn out to be anyone at all. Therefore, receiving the mission, I felt sufficiently uncomfortable.

Returning to my place, I began to prepare. My first order of business was to mark down which of my guys to take on the operation. I had to take a multitude of factors into account – in particular, aside from purely professional characteristics, also certain acting talents, an ability to blend into the landscape: we had to carry out our business not in the thick of the city, but in such a place where the “client” would probably notice and spot us from far away. And, meanwhile, nothing was supposed to evoke his suspicions.

On one of the days listed on the training schedule, a surveillance officer and I went to the place of the upcoming operation to seize the werewolf, on one of the highways on the outskirts of Moscow…

This was a comparatively little-traversed road that could be surveyed from one side to another. On the one hand, it was an ideal place: there was the chance that at the moment of detainment unnecessary witnesses wouldn’t be around. On the other hand, this circumstance bothered us just as much, since the snatch group would be visible from all sides, like a fly on a window panel. We began to search out something more suitable. We chose a forest opening that, although watery, gave me and my men some advantage: with a skilled approach, this grove facilitated our stealth.

Getting into my role as much as possible, I thought of what might be needed there. On our list were militia patrol cars and an ambulance, equipment matching the time of the operation’s execution and the nature of the assignment, and additional forces to secure the event. Then my officers went out to “take stock” of the place with their own eyes. Later we laid out our observations and exchanged opinions on who would do what.

I arrived to Rasshchepov with a preliminary outline ready. In his office I found out from a counterintelligence officer I didn’t know that we were to grab an American intelligence agent. Getting information on who was who, I cheered up – politics was excluded! Although the “client” was rather specific, he was nonetheless one of “my types.”

Static like any sort of document, any plan is sufficiently dry and conventional. A live case, especially in our line of work, had the habit of sometimes bringing truly destructive edits to beautifully composed plans. Yet at the same time, such a detailed plan allows one to designate, beyond the necessary forces and capabilities, a hard and clear list of upcoming actions, step by step. Its executioners should have known it by heart like the Our Father or the multiplication table.

As was already noted, the decision to detain the spy not in Moscow, but beyond the city, was dictated exclusively by operational necessity. Tolkachev’s masters overseas were to stay ignorant of their agent’s fate for as long as possible.

Our surveillance officers, because of the specifics of their work and having more wide-ranging impressions of Tolkachev, reported that he wasn’t just an auto enthusiast, but a serious and sometimes risky “racer.” Under certain circumstances a car in the hands of such a man could be turned into a serious weapon.

KGB Alpha operators spirit Tolkachev (CIA agent name CK SPHERE) into an waiting van.
KGB Alpha operators spirit Tolkachev (CIA agent name CK SPHERE) into an waiting van.

But it was here that the counterintelligence general announced that our client, among other things, also loved to “tie one off.” I said:

If the target doesn’t like limits, we can assume that he’ll allow himself to relax on the weekends at his dacha. And then most likely his wife, who also has a driver’s license, will be behind the wheel of his Zhiguli instead of him. That changes the case at its root.

Under such an option, our plan of action and the arrangement of assets came out to be different. There was also another circumstance, the main one: no one among us had any idea of Tolkachev’s potential fighting abilities.

A Double Game

The day of the operation had come. Externally everything looked “normal.” There was a patrol car and yet another one: the road cops were doing their usual thing. We were at top-level readiness at earlier designated points.

To our good fortune, and mine personally, Tolkachev was riding as a passenger. When you have experience and maintain your form day in and day out, when an understanding of the mission and a clear objective exist – both full coordination reached through psychological compatibility and developed through years of joint action – then to an observer it seems that everything happens by itself.

Tolkachev’s wife wasn’t able to collect herself, while we had already hauled her spouse into our car. Everything was done simultaneously and quickly: handcuffs, off with the clothes, as all sorts of things could turn up in his pockets. Tolkachev, it’s said, recounted that we had ripped his jacket off without removing the handcuffs and asked to explain how that could happen.

Of course we had taken his handcuffs off; it’s just that he was so shocked that he didn’t notice it. Overall, we acted quickly, toughly, and decisively. It was enough to fully demoralize the individuals we detained – quickness and the onslaught. In no case were we to drop our tempo or let the person overwhelmed by surprise come to his senses.

A couple minutes later, there was already no sign of us on the highway. It was as if we were never there… Tolkachev gave up rather quickly. And without enthusiasm, perhaps, he still precisely carried out everything required of him by the rules of a major operational game, which officers of KGB counterintelligence initiated with the American CIA station.

I would like to complete the story of Tolkachev with a quote from state security veteran Igor Atamanenko’s book:

Planning to use Sphere for their objectives, the KGB proceeded from the fact that Tolkachev, many years servicing his overseas masters, enjoyed their unconditional trust and had so accustomed them to the consumption of refined delicacies – top-secret information – that, without thinking, they would swallow other already-prepared treats made in the kitchens at Lubyanka. And why not? The addicts were swallowing placebos instead of narcotics. The main thing was that the patient trusted the physician!

In the course of investigating the subscriber cards of the radio-industrial research institute’s secret library, counterintelligence officers established that beginning in 1981, Tolkachev without fail demonstrated heightened interest to technologies for the creation of a stealth bomber by Soviet specialists. Namely at this time the Americans began to actively develop their variant of an aircraft that was impossible to fix on radar. The American Stealth Bomber was a complete analogue to our own. We were significantly ahead of the United States in this direction, and therefore the services of Sphere, a contract supplier of top-secret intelligence relating to our project, were fate’s gift to the opponent.

The B-2 Spirit
The B-2 Spirit “Stealth Bomber,” whose design was influenced by the materials Tolkachev provided the CIA.

In the course of the next ten months, Tolkachev meticulously supplied his overseas customers with information slapped together under the KGB’s recipe in special “kitchens” – secret laboratories in branches of the radio-industrial research institute. Suddenly a waterfall of intelligence crashed down on American scientists and technicians who were working on the Stealth project. As a result and with Sphere’s help, we were able to hinder the completion of the Stealth within the time frame the Americans had set, and force the US military-industrial complex to undertake unjustifiably high expenditures.

But the main point was that thanks to the efforts of Soviet counterintelligence officers, the American variant of our stealth project presented no greater threat to the USSR than a zeppelin. American generals were able to become sure of this during the Stealth’s first test flights. A head-spinning discovery awaited the Pentagon: their newest airplane was invisible only for US anti-aircraft systems! $30 billion, meanwhile, had been spent on its creation.

Such was the finale to the activity of CIA agent Adolph Tolkachev.


Work Translated: Зайцев, В.Н. “Охота на шпионов.” СПЕЦНАЗ РОССИИ, N 3 (174). МАРТ 2011 ГОДА.

Translated by Mark Hackard.

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