Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan
The Rise of the Security Services in Putin's Kremlin
Over the last decade in
When Putin was elected president, in 2000, the Russian secret services were in an extremely difficult position. They had been left behind in the mad rush to market reforms and democracy of the 1990s, and their ranks had thinned due to the lure of big money in
Yet as the FSB appeared to be foundering, Putin gave the organization a new and riskier role. As a former KGB officer, Putin viewed the FSB as the only state agency he could trust. He gave the FSB the responsibility to protect the stability of the Kremlin's rule -- and, by extension, the stability of the country. Over the past decade, the FSB has become the main resource of human capital for filling positions in the state apparatus and state-controlled corporations.
As its power has increased, the FSB has reduced the space available for open discussion of politics and public life. It has intimidated the country's scientific community with a series of harsh verdicts against scientists accused of espionage, restricted the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) by charging them with working for foreign states, and spied on Russian journalists.
Although many Russian dissidents, Russian journalists, and even some members of the security services have suggested that these changes represent a wholesale revival of the Soviet-era KGB, the reality is more complicated. The KGB of the
In fact, the FSB has become something very different from either the Soviet secret service or the intelligence communities in Western countries. In some ways, it most closely resembles the ruthless mukhabarat, the secret police found in many countries of the Arab world: devoted to protecting the regime; answering only to those in power; and impenetrable, corrupt, and brutal in dealing with individuals and groups suspected of terrorism or dissent. FSB officers now regard themselves as the only force capable of saving the country from internal and external enemies -- the saviors of a nation damaged by the upheaval and chaos of the 1990s. In their view, they are the heirs not only to the KGB but also to the secret police that the tsars deployed to battle political terrorism.
The KGB, known formally as the Committee for State Security, was established in 1954 as an outgrowth of several Soviet security organizations. It combined dozens of different functions: gathering foreign intelligence, guarding national borders, protecting Soviet leaders, obtaining counterintelligence, silencing dissent, and closely monitoring all aspects of Soviet life, from the
Despite its sprawling and intrusive structure, the KGB was restrained in one very significant way: the
Since it was thoroughly embedded in Soviet life, the KGB suffered from the same inefficiencies that defined the Soviet bureaucracy as a whole. For example, many KGB officers in the Soviet army, whose job it was to ferret out corruption among military officials, were often themselves corrupt. The KGB worked according to a thinly veiled system of nepotism, which meant that the children of the Soviet elite -- realizing the advantages of being stationed in the West -- supplanted trained agents in the field. These intelligence officers working abroad often simply compiled reports from Western newspapers and passed them off as sensitive information.
But the KGB was able to use the secretive atmosphere of the Soviet system to hide its weaknesses and internecine rivalries. When the failures of the Soviet system became clear during the reign of Leonid Brezhnev, in the 1970s, the KGB chair, Yuri Andropov, deliberately promulgated a myth that the KGB was the only uncorrupt body capable of saving the state. Andropov, the longest-serving chair of the KGB, was infamous for his brutal repression of both the Hungarian revolt in 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968. In
Meanwhile, party control over the security services dissipated -- yet even a weakened security apparatus was too feared by the Kremlin to be left alone. Yeltsin's response was to encourage rivalry in the splintered intelligence community, providing a precarious system of checks and balances. Under Yeltsin, the foreign intelligence agency remained in direct competition with military intelligence. The FSB struggled with the communications agency, known as FAPSI, which was responsible for electronic eavesdropping and cryptography and, like the FSB, was charged with keeping a close eye on the social and political situation in
In the early 1990s, the FSK was hardly considered effective or competent. Among other missteps, it was responsible for orchestrating the ill-fated attack on Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, in 1994. It dispatched three columns of tanks carrying forces disguised as opposition militants to serve as a demonstration of force to the separatist Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev. But the disguised forces were ambushed by Chechens and their tanks burned in the streets of Grozny. The incident left the Kremlin with grave doubts about the abilities of the FSK.
After the FSK was renamed the FSB, it met with another failure -- this time in the war against Russian organized crime. In 1996, the FSB opened a secret internal branch to prosecute Mafia groups. The unit quickly gained infamy as the most ruthless, brutal, and corrupt section of the intelligence services. In 1998, a number of officers from the group claimed that they had been ordered to kill the prominent Russian oligarch
This volatile and imperfect system hobbled along through the last of Yeltsin's years in power. In the year before he resigned, Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin, who had served as a KGB agent in
With Putin's rise, rumors began to circulate that the Kremlin was preparing to recombine all the parts of the former KGB into one agency. Such talk seemed to be coming true, at least at first, as the heads of the various Russian secret services under Yeltsin lost their posts one after the other. In
A round of major bureaucratic reorganization followed. In
Putin made his mark on the FSB in other ways, too. In 2006, he changed the color of the uniforms worn by members of the Russian security services from green to black. Putin's decision was driven by historical symbolism -- a nod to a moment during the Russian Civil War when the White Army, losing its fight against the Bolsheviks, found inspiration by creating units comprised of officers dressed in black uniforms. They were strictly religious and wore black tunics as a symbol of their scorn for earthly goods.
Indeed, the FSB and the
SOMEBODY'S WATCHING ME
In Soviet times, political investigations were carried out by the infamous
The FSB resurrected the unit in 1998, creating the Directorate for Protection of the Constitution. In an interview that year, its chief,
In 2008, it was discovered that the
The 2008 election was, of course, won by Putin's handpicked successor,
Whereas the Soviet police state tried to control every citizen in the country, the new and more sophisticated Russian system is far more selective -- it targets only those individuals who have political ambitions or strong antigovernment views. Nonetheless,
ALL IN THE FAMILY
In the days of the KGB, the rank and file received bonuses and free apartments, sidestepping long waiting lists. High-ranking officers were chauffeured in official black Volgas and qualified for country homes on the elite
In the years after the Soviet collapse, the country's security officers once again developed a taste for luxury. They were awarded titles to the spacious country homes once managed by the KGB and drove around
When Putin came to power, he offered current and former officers from
The perks afforded FSB employees offered significant means of personal advancement.
But once they had tasted the benefits, the agents began to struggle among themselves for the spoils. They failed to create a new elite capable of ruling the country -- they are not, it should be said, a junta united by common perspectives on
In an open letter published in
Agents of the Russian security services tend to favor state-controlled capitalism with a high degree of regulation. It is no accident that as the
This hierarchy remains in place today: although many high-ranking FSB officers have benefited personally from the rise in commodity prices, the state has not attempted a large-scale renationalization program, and the main beneficiaries remain
Trutnev's statement marked the change in
The FSB can hardly be content with such a dramatic change of policy: those who killed Polish officers are still praised as war heroes at headquarters. In 2008, the FSB's regional department in Tver published a history of the department that depicted the major in charge of Tver's World War II-era NKVD -- an early predecessor to the KGB -- as an effective German spy catcher. But his department was also responsible for the execution of 6,000 Polish officers in the Ostashkov camp in the spring of 1940. The reports on the executions were signed personally by the NKVD major, yet no mention of this appeared in the book. But in the end, it was the interests of Gazprom and not the FSB that played the decisive role for the Kremlin.
THE PARANOID STYLE IN RUSSIAN POLITICS
The officers who stayed with the FSB (and its predecessors) throughout the turbulent 1990s believed that the West had supported radical democrats who had split up the KGB and weakened the security services and the country. These officers have a provincial and inward-looking perspective, rooted in the FSB's organizational structure. The FSB comprises two unequal parts: its headquarters in
The FSB's skeptical and xenophobic outlook has helped shape
At the same time, the FSB has desperately tried to win the support of Central Asian governments.
Beginning in the mid-1990s,
Then, in 2004, under the auspices of the
The largest security challenge of all -- for both the FSB and
When Putin was elected president, in 2000, the security services, and chiefly the FSB, rose to prominence with him. They were hoping for a resurrection from the long decade of the 1990s, when they had felt left out of the tumultuous new capitalist economy and post-Soviet Russia's uncertain politics. Putin, who had been an officer in the KGB for 16 years, effectively invited the security services to take their place at the head table of power and prestige in
But this invitation to join the country's post-Soviet nobility failed to bring the expected results. The FSB hunted down foreign spies, but the unseemly methods it used raised questions about whether the threat was real or trumped up. Likewise, the FSB targeted NGOs out of fear that such groups might inspire a popular revolution against the Kremlin. This was a clear miscalculation; the organizations in question were too small to be significant threats and did not command widespread support.
The FSB was supposed to be a cog in the machinery of a state governed by the rule of law. But the rule of law remains a distant goal in today's
Although Putin awarded high-ranking security officers more privileges and benefits, they retreated from risk and responsibility and thus proved less than effective in their duties, leading to lasting questions about their role in
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(C) 2010 Foreign Affairs, September/October 2010