The second episode of the Spy Ops was about “Operation Just Cause,” which deposed Manuel Noreiga after American forces invaded Panama. The episode, in detail, spoke about the incidents that led the CIA and the American government to take such drastic steps to safeguard their power in the region. The next episode revolves around ‘Operation Pimlico,’ launched to safely extract a KGB spy working for MI6 from Moscow. The episode takes us through the incidents that led the British to bring back their biggest asset.
Who is Oleg Gordievsky?
Spy Ops Episode 3 takes one through the peak of the spy network, the Cold War era. The Soviet Union and the United States were hardly looking eye to eye, but there were plenty of spies on both sides who leaked information. Oleg Gordievsky was one of the many KGB officers who was considered one of the greatest spies that worked for British intelligence, MI6. A Russian spy working for British intelligence seems odd, but this is the true story of a man who risked his life to pass on intel to the enemy faction. As the story in this episode progresses, we will learn the extraction of Oleg was a high-risk operation. It implies that for MI6, Oleg was an important man, which is why they made an audacious attempt to save the Russian.
There is an extensive BBC interview available where the man himself spoke in detail about his decision to stop believing in communism and socialism. His mother asked him to not believe in the Soviet Union’s policies. His father’s stint with the KGB made Oleg’s mother resent the government running her homeland. Oleg was a witness to how the Soviet Union arm-twisted the new leader of Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubček, into following reforms that would benefit the communist bloc.
This was done during the peak Cold War Era when the Soviet Union was making allies to strengthen their stronghold in Europe. Alexander Dubček was a key figure in the Prague Spring, but unfortunately, Moscow pressured him to reverse his reforms and made a military plan. In 1978 Prague was invaded by Soviet troops in the hope of killing the reformist trend. It made Oleg resent the country that hired him, and he slowly moved away from his active work. His distaste does make sense because he had hoped for Soviet Russia to be better than this and allow a nation like Czechoslovakia to flourish. Communism and socialism needed a revamp, but Soviet leaders turned out to be short-sighted, which made it easy for him to decide his future.
How did the British Intelligence get involved?
It all began when Oleg Gordievsky was taking care of the Danish desk on behalf of Soviet intelligence and realized that his phone was bugged by Danish intelligence. This episode also introduces us to Mikhail Lyubimov, an KGB colonel, who was Oleg’s best friend. Oleg speaks in detail about how the KGB was constantly working against the Americans and NATO. The communist bloc was very clear about their agenda, which is why their hatred for the American/capitalist bloc lasted for years. Oleg was the deputy at the KGB station in Denmark.
Oleg, as described in the episode, was a charming man who was good at making contacts during his tenure in Denmark. He had close contacts with the clergymen and Danish police, which made him an ideal candidate for recruitment by the British Intelligence. Oleg, as mentioned above, was looking for an avenue to offer his skills to people who appreciate his work, which was when British Intelligence came into the picture. He knew who he was talking to and did his homework. MI6 established contact with Oleg, and he agreed to work with them because it was a challenge. We wonder how easy or hard it was in those decades to change allegiances and loyalty. We are sure Oleg was proud of being a Russian, but he was done being a Soviet stooge.
Oleg was close to Mikhail and his subordinates, which made gathering information for MI6 and the CIA a cakewalk. It was an era where nobody could be trusted, and information such as this was crucial to bring down any of the superpowers. He was called back to Moscow in the year 1978, and to his delight, he was offered the job of handling the British desk for the KGB. This was a surprise move that proved that the KGB had no idea Oleg was sharing their intel with the enemy. Being a part of the British desk made it easy for him to forward as much intel as he could discreetly.
What was Oleg’s role in British Intelligence?
Oleg rose to power in British intelligence and was referred to as ‘the source’ by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He soon became an asset the MI6 could not afford to lose. Oleg finally got the respect he was seeking. Ronald Reagan’s administration loathed the Soviet Union and the communist bloc, but with Oleg’s entry into British Intelligence, he helped the CIA and the MI6 to tone down the language used in Reagan’s speeches while it was misconstrued by people from his home country. This was to avoid a nuclear war. Signals and telegrams also indicated that the Soviet Union believed that a NATO exercise was a sign of a mobilization done by the Americans and their allies to launch the first nuclear strike against the Soviet Union.
As stated by the experts, he was pretty much James Bond to the British intelligence because he was able to deliver on the job he was assigned. The MI6 and the Prime Minister were impressed with his work and the knowledge he carried. The story of the man up until now was a smooth sailing one. Oleg was very lucky that the KGB’s team was too weak to catch him.
What led to the commencement of Operation Pimlico?
Just like Oleg switched his allegiance, Aldrich Ames, aka Rick Ames, offered himself and his services to the Soviet Union. The speaker in the episode conveniently made it seem as if Aldrich desperately wanted money for himself and his wife. This is rather a tasteless way for Rick Ames to have been portrayed in this episode. Oleg, who offered Soviet intel to the British and their allies, was considered a hero. Meanwhile, Rick Ames, who was sharing American intel with the Soviets, was considered a traitor. It shows the double standards of all the intelligence agencies mentioned in this episode. Rick Ames’ work involved tracking down the KGB officers who were working for the CIA or MI6. Ames was aware that a high-ranking Soviet official was helping MI6. Unfortunately, Rick Ames was arrested for spying by the Americans.
Soon after Rick’s arrest, Oleg was asked to return to Moscow for an important meeting. He had his doubts, but he headed to Moscow, knowing his life was under threat. He believes Rick Ames’ may have revealed Oleg’s betrayal and it probably ruffled some feathers in the KGB headquarters, but the Russian agency needed proof to prosecute him. If they had proof of his betrayal, Oleg would not have been alive by now. There were tell-all signals allotted to him to let MI6 know if he was safe or not, and most of the time, he was marked safe until he realized his home was bugged. It implies that the KGB still had no proof against him.
We get to see Oleg through the interview footage, as well as him speaking about being interrogated by the KGB after his drink was spiked. This freaked him out, and he sent out a distress signal requesting extraction from Moscow. He had no time to rescue his family because he did not inform his wife about his plans. Her knowing about his plan would make her accomplice, and she would be eventually charged with treachery. He had to make sure he left the Soviet Union alive so that his family could later be extradited. This is when ‘Operation Pimlico’ was activated. The mission was approved by Margaret Thatcher herself, and the MI6 hid the plan inside the sonnets of Shakespeare, which were written with hidden ink visible only through water. They had to stick to these tactics to avoid getting captured and executed. Oleg misled the KGB and his best friend Mikhail and quickly left Moscow.
Was ‘Operation Pimlico’ a success?
To avoid being trailed, Oleg left Moscow in a train and was shifted to the trunk of an MI6 officers’ car. Their wife and babies were used as a decoy to avoid any suspicion on the border, and the diplomatic immunity gave them the power to not get frisked. ‘Operation Pimlico’ was rather a difficult task to pull off because one mistake could lead to Oleg being detained. The plan was executed well, and Oleg was safely taken to Finland. The MI6 officers used their baby diapers to distract the dogs at the border so that they did not sniff out Oleg from the trunk. Call it dumb luck, but the infants and their tantrums came in handy and rescued Oleg from a lifetime of imprisonment or, worse, execution.
‘Operation Pimlico’ was indeed a success because it was MI6’s intent to help the man who provided them and the government with plenty of information, which benefited them in many ways. One cannot overlook the fact that he did betray his country just like Rick Ames did. The operation must be one of the most daring attempts to rescue a non-British national. We wonder if the CIA would have taken the risk to help their assets from a high-risk zone such as Moscow. There are plenty of stories such as this one from the Cold War era.
After being safely rescued from Soviet Russia, to avoid leaving any trail for the KGB, Oleg was flown to Norway by British and Danish intelligence and later shifted to the United Kingdom. It took a while for Oleg to reunite with his wife and kids. There was no detailed explanation as to how they were allowed to leave Soviet Russia after knowing of Oleg’s betrayal.
Oleg Gordievsky today is 83 years old and still lives in the UK with his family surrounded by security. It is appalling to believe his life is still under threat years after the end of the Cold War. His interview with the BBC allowed us to understand the plight from his perspective. He is content even though life in the UK has restricted his movements. The fact that he lives in a free country is what makes him happy, and he does not miss traveling at all.