Russia's security services: back in charge, out of control

Russia’s security apparatus is back in charge — as powerful, and with less holding it back than ever before. Susan Richards reflects on Wikileaks and reviews a fascinating account of Russia's unofficial second state

Susan Richards
27 December 2010

Sadly, there is little that is contentious in the view of the US ambassador in Moscow, exposed in the recent crop of Wikileaks, that Russia is a ‘virtual mafia state’.  More interesting is the question as to how and why Russia’s post-communist government has developed in this way. These are not issues on which those leaks throw light. However, a fascinating book entitled “The New Nobility” does just that. 

The book does not purport to be an investigation of corruption in Russia’s security services. Even if the authors Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan were in a position to assemble such material, had they made this the focus of their book, such an exposition would surely have meant they would no longer be able to continue living in Russia. What the book does do, however, is something arguably more important. It provides the context within which to assess the validity of that Wikileaks judgment.


The new nobility: the restoration of Russia's security state and the enduring legacy of the KGB

Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan

Public Affairs, 2010



Ever since the late 1990s, when Soldatov and Borogan started a website called Agentura.ru, these two young journalists have been following developments in Russia’s security services. It was already clear to them that the shape of Russia’s future was going to be closely bound up with the security services. For after all the trauma of losing power at the fall of communism, the secret services were steadily and decisively manoeuvring back into their previous position of strength.

At first, the authors supported their work for Agentura.ru by writing for the boldest of the newly liberated press, papers like Vladimir Gusinsky’s Segodnya, Dmitry Muratov’s Novaya Gazeta and the Moscow Times. After Putin’s rise to power, the government reasserted control of the mass media, and commissions began to drop off. Novaya Gazeta, four of whose journalists have paid with their lives for their outspokenness, was the only one still prepared to commission them. In 2008 Novaya Gazeta also dropped them. It was then that, in order to keep going, they accepted a commission from a New York publisher to write this book.

The catastrophic shock experienced by the security services when they lost power after the fall of communism is the starting point of their analysis.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin split up the vast empire of the KGB. His aim was to try and provide a system of checks and balances by encouraging rivalry between the different branches of the intelligence community. Those officers who stayed in the security services during those early years blamed their disempowerment, and the corruption of their own generals on the radical democrats then in power, whom they deemed to be puppets of Western intelligence services.

The struggle to regain power thereafter took place in a context in which three crucial factors had changed since the old regime. First, and most importantly, there was no longer an institutional framework to hold the power of the security services in check. Under communism, the KGB’s power was counterbalanced by that of the Communist Party: every department had its party cell, through which the state monitored its agents.

Secondly, during the Stalinist purges, the security services suffered as much as other sectors of society. In the authors view, the ghost of that fear also served to keep the security services loyal to the end. That constraint too has gone. 

Thirdly, although the KGB rewarded its employees well, they did so in a context where the rewards on offer now seem very modest. While they lived in comparative luxury, the country houses and luxury cars they enjoyed belonged not to them as individuals, but to the state.  With the coming of capitalism, all the stakeholders in the old regime regarded themselves as entitled to grab as much wealth as they could get their hands on. Since Putin’s rise to power, they have been using their privileged position to indulge an apparently insatiable taste for luxury.

In theory, once the Soviet system had gone, the rule of the law should thereafter have been in a position to hold the security services in check. And indeed, when Putin came to power, his stated aim was to succeed where the chaotic 90s had failed, in imposing the rule of law. In his inaugural speech he declared ‘We insist on the only possible dictatorship – a dictatorship of law.’ Eight years later, when Medvedev succeeded Putin, his message was much the same: ‘We must gain full respect of the law and overcome legal nihilism.’

President Putin’s first actions were to return the security services to the top table. He set about reversing the institutional fragmentation that Yeltsin had put in place. The most powerful rival of the FSB, the communications agency, was split up, with the FSB absorbing the most important part of it – overseas electronic intelligence.  The FSB also gained the upper hand over the powerful Interior Ministry. Although the FSB failed to subsume the rival foreign intelligence service, it created a department of its own for gathering foreign intelligence on a regional basis.


The Russian security services have been decidedly unimpressive in the battle against terrorism, yet heads have not rolled as they should have done. Following the calamities of the 2002 Dubrovka theatre siege, FSB superiors were actually rewarded with promotion.  Photo: Demotix/Dmitry Fomichev. All rights reserved 

Perhaps Putin was hoping that the FSB would be his chief allies in imposing the rule of law. However, today the rule of law is as distant a dream as the withering away of the state was under communism. So what went wrong? With allies like the security services, Soldatov and Borogan argue, the outcome was inevitable. By the time Putin had been in power for a few years, the FSB had evolved into an agency whose scope actually extended beyond the bounds of the old KGB.  Not only did they have excessive power, they had regained it without having overhauled the way they thought or operated since Soviet times.

In the authors’ view, this failure to adapt underlies the complete failure of the security services to handle the new global challenge that has arisen since end of Cold War: terrorism. Hundreds of lives were lost in the series of bloody stunts pulled off by terrorists between 2002-4. When terrorists occupied a Moscow theatre in mid-performance, only 5 of the 130 hostages who died were killed at the hands of the terrorists. Yet the FSB, far from punishing those responsible, rewarded all involved. Two years later, Shamil Basayev’s militants killed 62 law-enforcement officials, including 9 FSB officers in Nazran and Karabulak, Ingushetia. This time, because FSB personnel had died, lessons were learned, organisational changes were made and heads rolled. The contrast with the theatre siege, where none of the victims were law-enforcement officials, was telling: the FSB regarded themselves as servants of the state, not of the law.  

A couple of months later, 89 people died in planes blown up by female suicide bombers. A woman blew herself up at a Moscow metro station only days later, killing 10 people. The following day, after terrorists captured 1,100 people at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, 334 hostages died, of which 186 were children.  Although Beslan brutally exposed the security services failure to react effectively to a crisis, nobody in those services was held to account.

Again and again the security services blamed these terrorist attacks by Chechens on outsiders – Al Qaeda, Arab extremists or foreign intelligence services. Yet, although there were Arabs present in Chechnya, the tactics and methods used were largely masterminded by a native, Shamil Basayev. The underlying reason for these failures was that the FSB was still in thrall to the past. Imprinted with the need to pursue spies and dissidents, and to see the Soviet Union as encircled by enemies, they were unable clearly to analyse the situations confronting them.  

The same inability to adapt to the times was partially responsible also for the security services’ failure to predict or prevent the series of popular uprisings, or ‘colour revolutions’, in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan between 2003-5. This may seem all the more surprising, in light of their a priori conviction (which does not turn out to have been entirely unjustified in this instance) that the West was pulling the strings.  But there were other reasons: after the break-up of the Soviet Union, few of Russia’s former colonies maintained effective intelligence operations, and Russia’s foreign intelligence agency (SVR) had signed an agreement not to spy within their territories.  The result of this failure to anticipate the colour revolutions was that the FSB, which had signed no agreement not to spy in the territory of its neighbours, proceeded to set up a new directorate to do just this. 

The old Soviet mindset does, however, explain the campaign launched by the FSB soon after Putin came to power to pursue cases against Russians who were working with foreigners or foreign NGOs, civil society organisations and research institutes. The familiar assumptions kicked in: espionage was the only possible motivation of all such foreign involvement. There followed a rash of prosecutions all over the country. Some of these cases involved charges as surreal as those which felled so many lives in the Stalinist purges. For instance, in 2002 the FSB ‘unmasked’ an English teacher in Penza for having asked a pupil to bring in photographs from home. Since his father happened to work for the Baikonur Space Center, the local ‘organs’ claimed that the teacher was planning to sell the photos to the US embassy. The entire campaign sounds mad unless, as the authors remind us, you bear in mind that it served the underlying purpose of re-establishing the pre-eminence of the FSB. By dint of ‘fulfilling and over-fulfilling their norm’, in the old Soviet phrase, the organisation was seeking to enhance its budget, prestige and visibility.

In a country where power is opaque and unaccountable, commentators are wont to end up reproducing judgements like that of a ‘virtual mafia state’, which are in any case hard to substantiate. But the US ambassador did have harder evidence, that of the Spanish prosecutor Jose Ginda Gonzalez who has spent 10 years investigating the Russian mafia’s activities as they spilled into Spain. Soldatov and Borogan, as journalists operating from Russia, cannot furnish further evidence of the bribery, money laundering and racketeering which lie behind those links between Russia’s criminal groups and the security services. We will learn more from Wikileaks about Putin’s own involvement too.

But what Soldatov and Borogan document in this book is the vital underpinning to those revelations. They lay bare the underlying mindset of those organisations - stuck in the past, monopolistic and insatiably greedy. They show, too, quite why we should be alarmed by the corrupted state of power in Russia. For the glue that holds that rotten ‘vertical of power’ together is the security services. And they have acquired so much power now that they can neither control themselves nor be controlled, even by the Kremlin.

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