The Farewell Affair: The Theft of Technology and Caging the Russian Bear

By Robbin Laird

My last book review focused on the Gordievsky Affair.

With that case you had an interesting twist on the Special Relationship between the UK and the US in which the US generated the spy who took down the UK spy which was doing his best to save the West from the Soviet Union and among other things, the threat of nuclear war generated by the Soviet leadership’s interpretation of a NATO exercise.

I concluded: “The book provides key insights into a crucial historical period.  It provides as well insights into how important good working relationships between Western governments are in dealing with the Russian challenge.

“It also highlights how important it is to have competent and well-structured working relationships at the policy level.”

When we look at the other great spy story of this period, we see the same dynamic play out.  A key ally provided a crucial set of insights into the Soviet Union which provided a substantial boost to the efforts of the Reagan Administration to end the Soviet Union.

But his story is quite different.

When Reagan became President, in the days before George Schultz, joined the team, many of the initial Reagan foreign and security policy team were very ideological.  And not unpredictably, when a President of France was elected who was a socialist and who proceed to add three communists to his cabinet, this sent out alarm bells to the Administration.

Of course, virtually none of these folks had ever met Mitterrand; and my first meeting was in 1976 and eventually I had the opportunity to work between the two Administrations.

I had the opportunity during the Mitterrand Presidency to know many of his key policy team, and they were indeed very impressive.  It was clear that taking an ideological lens to a complex politician like Mitterrand was not going to take you very far in understanding what he would do in office. This is always difficult for the often ideologically driven policy process in Washington.

And what would become known as the Farewell Affair would certainly prove that.

At the heart of the story is a KGB operative, Vladimir Vetrov.  Vetrov had served in France and went back to Moscow and was not given a position appropriate to his skill levels.  What this spy story as well as the Gordievsky spy story both showed was that the Soviet system was becoming very corrupt; meritocracy was being undercut by nepotism.  Both spies suffered from this situation, but more generally so was the society.

Vetrov was given a unique position in which he as the clearing house for the information being sent back to Moscow with regard to Western technologies being stolen by the Soviet intelligence services.

“Vetrov had to handle and synthesize the scientific and technical intelligence reports from KGB residencies worldwide.”1

The Russians by this time were so busy stealing technology that they stopped focusing on their own process of indigenous innovation, something which clearly bothered Vetrov.

Technology intelligence was his field of expertise, and he could talk about it at length. Vetrov felt, in the long run, stealing scientific and technical secrets could only come back to haunt the instigator. He used the following metaphor: “It’s just like a bad student copying from his neighbor.

When he can no longer copy, whatever the reason, he has no alternative solution. When we need a fastener for one of our rockets, our research organizations don’t even ask themselves what would be the best type, but wonder which workshop in Cape Canaveral would have it.

It’s absurd.” Once again, he blamed the situation on his superiors’ stupidity and laziness, pointing out there was no shortage of good engineers in the Soviet Union. Vetrov2

Vetrov knew the KGB had infiltrated all of the Western security services, especially the CIA. As a result, he wanted to set up a working relationship outside of the foreign intelligence services. He reached back to the DST, the French internal security services and proceeded to set up a relationship with them. That working relationship is a key part of the narrative in the book and is worth a good film which by the way has been made.

The DST was no friend of Mitterrand’s. When the new President came to power, the head of the DST met with Mitterrand and introduced him to the project and provided him with initial materials, Mitterrand rather quickly grasped the importance of information which showed how much information had with regard to the military systems of the United States and how rapidly they were stealing technology with the help of KGB moles in US government agencies as well US industry.

Mitterrand requested a private meeting with President Reagan with virtually no aides present.  At that meeting, the President of Republic began to brief President Reagan on what was happening to the US and to the West.

Let us ponder this moment – a French President disliked by the Reagan Administration, met with the US President who was hardly sympathetic to Mitterrand’s domestic policies, but in spite of this these two leaders found a way to work together.

No social media; nor twitter need apply.

It was clear that the Americans did not quickly grasp the magnitude of what Mitterrand was revealing to them. And special channels had to be established to provide the information as the normal intelligence channels in the US were far too compromised by KGB penetrations.

When the project was terminated, and Soviet spies expelled, it was only then that President Reagan announced Star Wars, which was a new technology program to deal with the Soviet threat.  Only now the Soviets were not easily positioned to steal the technology.  And this meant, to be blunt about it, if there was no Farewell Affair, the impact of Star Wars on Soviet calculations would have been significantly mitigated.

The nature of the information flow highlighted in the book was as follows:

Requests for information targeted all advanced technologies, but primarily electronics, computing, traditional and modern weapon systems, communications, aerospace, nuclear technology, and so forth.

Like everything else in the Soviet economy, intelligence gathering had its place in the five-year plans. The tenth plan, covering the period 1975–1980, yielded 150,000 pieces of information, 85 percent of which were found useful. Areas of interest to the Soviet military-industrial complex included:

The development of multiple array anti-missile defense systems and other American projects in the field of anti-missile defense. Particle-beam weapons. Simulation software for weapon systems. Stealth aircraft. Millimeter-wave radio-frequency electronic hardware. Propfan engines for future use in cruise missiles. Weapon control system for fighter aircraft. Ultrapure materials for microelectronics.

Since 60 to 70 percent of the requested information was from the United States, Ferrant had asked Vetrov to concentrate on this type of intelligence. The VPK, however, was also interested in a multitude of high-tech projects and research topics pursued in France, including: Steel metallurgy: high temperature resistant alloys and steel vacuum treatment.

Weapon systems: strategic and theater missiles, including the M-4, their nuclear heads, cryogenic thermal insulation of Ariane’s fuel stage. Applied electronics: electron guns and inertial navigation systems. Miscellaneous: solar thermal devices and absorbing selective surfaces, mineral glass technologies.

Soviet secret services, with the help of auxiliary organizations, obtained the needed information information from most of those fields of interest.

Acquiring samples and technical documentation, Soviet engineers and researchers could either launch local production, perfect their own products, or abandon ongoing studies.

The technology theft practiced in the West gave the USSR the ability to improve its ongoing programs (66 percent), accelerate their development (27 percent), launch new projects (5 percent), or cancel research programs leading nowhere (2 percent).

The savings in time and money achieved by stealing scientific and technical secrets could largely finance the huge network of intelligence gathering. Caspar Weinberger, U.S. secretary of defense, had summarized the situation in unambiguous terms: “The United States and other Western nations are thus subsidizing the Soviet military buildup.”

The Farewell dossier laid bare the fragility of Western societies and the weaknesses in their defense and secrecy protection systems. Thus the Pentagon learned that it was not the only one who knew about the anti-missile defense system supposed to protect the U.S. territory; Congress learned that their budget documents were very informative on highly sensitive matters, and the White House that its electronic security system was no secret to the KGB.

The Americans now knew that it was possible to get information on their space shuttle in Bombay, or that their stolen satellite pictures were closely examined by the Soviets (who, for instance, could thus detect oil fields in Ethiopia).

The French were astonished to discover that it was in their country that Soviet intelligence collected the largest volume of information on chemical and biological weapons. The Germans realized the USSR knew everything about their 1980–1990 development plan for new space and missile technologies. The military forces in NATO countries could no longer ignore the Soviets’ ability to immobilize European tanks by injecting quick-polymerization polyurethane foam into their exhaust pipes. And so on and so forth.

Finally, the documents supplied by Vetrov were an eye-opener for the West regarding the implementation of vast military programs in the Soviet Union. Their analysis revealed that the USSR was preparing along the lines of the American SDI program.

Thus, the Energia super rocket, a booster with a payload that was supposed to allow the building of orbital space stations, turned out to be also a “Star Wars” component.

It was intended particularly for other space weapons, some of which would have been controlled from the Buran shuttle.

Many space projects were actually doubled with military programs. It is precisely on this last point that Vetrov’s role in the ending of the Cold War should be appreciated.3












  1. Kostin, Sergei. Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century (p. 92). AmazonEncore. Kindle Edition.
  2. Kostin, Sergei. Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century (p. 194). AmazonEncore. Kindle Edition.
  3. Kostin, Sergei. Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century (pp. 383-385). Amazon Encore. Kindle Edition.