Sudden and sweeping reforms to Russia’s security ministries don’t signal a return to the Soviet Union, but a new balance of power. (c) Ivan Sekretarev / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Under Vladimir Putin, Moscow has assiduously sought to retain its authority over the states of former-Soviet Eurasia (with the grudging exception of the Baltics), through a combination of political connection, military threat, security guarantees and economic cooperation.
Quite how successful it has been has tended to vary over time and in relation to the complexion of the country in question. Very broadly, Moscow has found it much easier to maintain positive relations with authoritarian rather than democratising regimes, and this has been especially true of a relatively unremarked form of “soft power” it has developed, that of intelligence cooperation directed towards the mutual suppression of activists and opposition forces.
This “axis of repression” extends through Central Asia to Belarus, via Azerbaijan. It also used to include Ukraine, under semi-democratic clients such as Viktor Yanukovych, but clearly that is no longer the case. None of these regimes could be considered client states of Moscow’s.
These states have their own interests, and often advance them precisely by playing off Russia against other actors, whether the west in the case of Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko, or China with Kazakhstan. However, these regimes generally share with the Kremlin a keen interest in their own political longevity, and also a disinclination to allow western notions of free elections, transparent government and human rights to take root.
The Russian security apparatus
At the time of writing, Russia’s domestic security apparatus is in a state of flux, with suggestions that almost all the agencies will be united in one super-agency, in effect recreating the Soviet-era KGB. However, striking a statement of the increasing authoritarianism of the Putin regime, in practical terms this will simply be a “repackaging” of existing services and will not have a substantive impact on the capacities and specialisms of the Russian security community.
The dominant element of this community is the Federal Security Service (FSB), which is the main domestic security and counter-intelligence agency, yet which has in recent years also increasingly operated abroad. The lead espionage agencies are the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the General Staff, military intelligence. Beyond that, though, is an array of other, more specialised agencies such as the Federal Guard Service (FSO), responsible for the security of government officials and facilities, and the infamous “Center E” of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) tasked with combating “extremism,” which in practice tends to mean political dissent.
The Millenium Hotel, London, where Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in 2006. (c) Matt Dunham AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Even before the ascendancy of Putin — a former KGB officer whose career was largely spent monitoring Soviet citizens in East Germany — these agencies had demonstrated little enthusiasm for reform, transparency and democratisation. Under Putin, though, they have been empowered with both steadily-growing budgets and wider remits. The accepted wisdom among western counter-intelligence services is that their networks are now as active and extensive as during the height of the Cold War, and they have demonstrated both inventiveness and ruthlessness in their activities.
In particular, they have maintained a characteristic that pre-dates even Soviet practice, actively working against perceived challenges to domestic security abroad. This has ranged from monitoring the activities of disaffected émigrés and NGOs whose activities are deemed hostile to the interests of the state — which can include human rights agencies and those committed to fighting corruption — all the way to murdering individuals, typically current or former Russian citizens, considered traitors and security risks.
The presumed assassination of FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 attracted particular attention, but since then there has, for example, been a steady stream of murders of Chechens associated with the rebellion in the North Caucasus which have been attributed to Russian agents.
The strength and spread of Russia’s intelligence apparatus, combined with various regimes’ desires to secure themselves by observing, harassing or in some cases even eliminating political rivals abroad has given Moscow a specific opportunity to gain leverage in its neighbourhood.
It has demonstrated a strong commitment to developing mutually-supportive intelligence-sharing understandings that also extend to direct “active measures” intended to maintain friendly authoritarian regimes in its so-called “near abroad”. Although this is envisaged in terms of bi- and multi-lateral support, given Moscow’s evident and overwhelming superiority in the intelligence field, this inevitably becomes one more instrument in its campaign to dominate post-Soviet Eurasia through a mix of coercion and assistance.
Regimes whose paranoia or hunger to visit vengeance on their enemies abroad outmatch their capabilities find particular value in their relationship with the Russians
This is more than just a matter of statecraft. Even though in the 1990s, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan purged their security services of many ethnic Russians, the intelligence and security agencies of Belarus and Central Asia, in particular, are still dominated by veterans of the KGB, as was Ukraine’s until the 2014 Euromaidan rising.
They are thus also linked by a complex, invisible network of friendships and contacts that unites these agencies. Kazakh security chief Vladimir Zhumakanov was a former KGB officer, for example, as was Belarus’s Valery Vakul’chik, while their Uzbek counterpart Rustam Inoyatov goes one better, being also the son of a KGB colonel.
What could be called a “RepressIntern” (pace the Bolsheviks’ ComIntern) extends beyond the informal connections that often mean information is shared not through official channels but over a drink or a telephone call. One Russian FSB officer, for example, told me that before 2014, he kept in touch with a counterpart in the SBU, Kiev’s security service, and they would often share intelligence when the Ukrainian accompanied his wife on “shopping and theatre” visits to Moscow.
There is formal intelligence sharing through bilateral arrangements, and also the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation structures. Beyond that, there has been active training support and the exchange of technological and methodological assistance. For example, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and — a legacy of pre-Euromaidan days — Ukraine all use telephone monitoring systems based on Russia’s SORM (System for Operative Investigative Activities).
“RepressIntern” at home
Beyond that, though, regimes whose paranoia or hunger to visit vengeance on their enemies abroad outmatch their capabilities find particular value in their relationship with the Russians. The FSB in particular has demonstrated a willingness to watch, arrest and sometimes deport targets of friendly regimes, especially Central Asian ones. Given that these are often connected with Islamic organisations, this especially reflects a common concern about the potential spread of jihadism.
Moscow has proven willing to extradite opposition figures into the hands of its authoritarian allies, and shares information freely. Given the large number of Tajik migrant labourers in Russia and growing concerns about their possible radicalisation, this has in particular spurred cooperation with Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security.
While many other nations in the region may share the so-called “Moscow Consensus” of post-Cold War authoritarianism, this does not extend to a desire to become Russian clients
For example, FSB, MVD and Federal Migration Service officers detained a number of Tajiks regarded by Dushanbe as opposition activists, including Murodzhon Abdulkhakov Savriddin Juraev (both arrested in Moscow in 2011 and deported to Tajikistan) and Abdulvosi Latipov (arrested in 2012 and extradited despite a European Court of Human Rights request for a stay until it was able to consider the case in full).
The Russian state has also appeared willing to allow its authoritarian allies a degree of latitude operating within its own borders. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Turkmenistan’s Committee for National Security (made a Ministry in 2002) operated in Moscow and elsewhere surveilling and harassing émigré Turkoman opposition figures.
Streets of Dushanbe, Tajikistan, 2009. Photo: Veni / Flickr. Some rights reserved.More recently, it has tended to be Uzbekistan’s National Security Service that has been most active. In 2011, for example, Fuad Rustamkhozhaev, co-founder of the opposition Popular Movement of Uzbekistan, was shot dead in the western Russian town of Ivanovo. A wealthy businessman, he was especially dangerous to the regime precisely because of his money and contacts, and was living in self-imposed exile because he feared for his life in Uzbekistan.
Under normal circumstances a state-sanctioned killing within Russia would be grounds for the most strident of protests from the government, but instead it was hurriedly covered up.
Beyond that, though, the Russians are also willing to use their external intelligence capacities in support of allies’ repressive campaigns. According to the VSD, Lithuania’s State Security Department (foreign intelligence), for instance, while the KGB of Belarus is very active in watching Belarusian émigré opposition groups in Lithuania, it does so with the assistance and close cooperation of the Russian FSB and SVR, even to the point of mounting joint operations.
This even appears to extend to “wet work”, the Russian services’ euphemism for assassination. In 2014, for example, Uzbek émigré Abdullah Bukhari was murdered in Istanbul. A religious leader who fled Uzbekistan in 2006, Bukhari had received death threats from the Uzbek regime. However, the individual arrested for the killing is a Russian-born Chechen whom the Turkish authorities claim was engaged by the FSB.
In 2015, ethnic Russian Uzbekistani national Yuri Zhukovsky was arrested in Sweden and charged with the attempted murder in 2012 of another Uzbek cleric in exile, Obidkhon Qori Nazarov. However, his alleged associate, Tigran Kaplanov, was also named as a person of interest in connection with the Bukhari murder. While he may have simply been a killer for hire, senior Swedish counter-intelligence officers have suggested he was actually also an FSB asset, and it is the case that the two men got to know each other in Moscow.
Prospects for “RepressIntern”
It is clear that not even all regimes within post-Soviet Eurasia seek or need Russian intelligence assistance against opposition forces. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan all largely content themselves with shared intelligence from the FSB and SVR. To an extent, this sometimes correlates with the level of democratisation, but with Tajikistan and, especially, Azerbaijan it appears to be more a product of growing disenchantment with Moscow.
Azerbaijan once cooperated with the Russians quite significantly, but the partition in 2015 of the Ministry of National Security into the State Security Service and the Foreign Intelligence Service has been both cause and symptom of increasing scepticism about Moscow’s motives, only exacerbated when it later tried to brand Azerbaijan’s finance minister a “triple agent” in apparent retaliation for being excluded from a major gas pipeline deal. The head of the former was a career police officer, while Baku’s new spymaster, 38-year-old Orkhan Sultanov, has a western education and postdates the old KGB connections.
Russia’s intelligence ties in former Soviet Eurasia are under pressure. While many other nations in the region may share the so-called “Moscow Consensus” of post-Cold War authoritarianism, this does not extend to a desire to become Russian clients.
As Putin’s policies become more assertive and less collegiate, this creates tensions in the region, especially as other patrons may be available, from China to Iran. Ukraine’s refusal to bow to military pressure has also undermined Russian authority and countries such as Moldova, Armenia, Georgia and even Kyrgyzstan and Belarus have to a greater or (sometimes very much)lesser extent committed themselves to at least some deeper democratisation and diversification of their ties, even if only for the most pragmatic of reasons.
This does not mean the “RepressIntern” is dead. In some ways, quite the contrary, as Moscow will have to demonstrate even greater value as an ally to advance its cause. However, while this specific authoritarian alliance, rooted in collaborative repression, will be deeper, it is likely to be much more narrow, as only especially toxic regimes such as Uzbekistan find true value in this relationship.