How professional is the FSB: 10 burning questions

Over the past two months several agents of the Russian Federal Security Service, who tracked and possibly tried to murder Alexey Navalny, are identified because of some basic errors inside the FSB. Is the main intelligence agency really so amateurish? Andrei Soldatov answers some burning questions about the professionalism of the FSB?

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'Clean before tomorrow. The motherland doesn't wait.'  Dirty clothes (reference to underwear Navalny) in front of FSB-headquarters in Saint-Petersburg. Photo Twitter.

Sometimes it feels like it’s all amateurs working in Russia’s intelligence community. How far from the truth is that?

There’s no lack of professionals in Russia’s intelligence community, of course. We might instead ask how we define professionalism. For instance, the FSB’s primary function in the past six years has essentially been repressive — specifically, to intimidate the active part of society through selective repressions. Based on materials collected by the FSB, the authorities imprison governors, government ministers, bankers, businesspeople, journalists, and activists. It turns out that they’re quite professional when it comes to intimidation.

It’s a different situation with the Military Intelligence Directorate (GRU), which is supposed to demonstrate, to Vladimir Putin first and foremost, that Russia’s president always has at his disposal a security unit ready for action that will go to any lengths without hesitation to execute its orders, no matter the consequences, whether it means a public scandal, exposure, the expulsion of officers, and so on. From the Kremlin’s perspective, which holds loyalty and conviction above virtually any cost, the GRU is managing nicely, as well.

Are they nuts to use Russia’s main intelligence agency to poison the country’s most prominent oppositionist? And why use poison? Why use something as wildly dangerous as Novichok?

There are several reasons why poison is a substantially more effective means of eliminating political opponents than anything else, including gunshots and blows to the head. As Irina Borogan and I wrote in The Compatriots, Russia’s intelligence agencies have always loved this approach. Poisons — and not always the kind that takes effect immediately — are unique because the victims don’t die alone: their friends and relatives are there to bear witness. That’s precisely the purpose of this murder method: to terrify everyone in the victim’s orbit. Poisonings today have become even more effective thanks to news spreading fast on the airwaves and online.

In other words, poisoning someone is always meant to send a message.

Additionally, unlike a bullet, poison is also a way to discredit victims: you’re not just poisoning them but destroying their reputations. When they shot and killed journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya, it was hard to suggest that ‘she had only herself to blame’ (the authorities quickly abandoned efforts to pin it on a domestic dispute). The possibilities are far greater with poisons. Thus, oppositionist Vladimir Kara-Murza wasn’t poisoned — he ‘swallowed too many antidepressants, had too much booze, and used bad nasal drops.’ Artist Pyotr Verzilov? It was drugs, of course. And Navalny is a drinker and a diabetic.

With these goals, Novichok is the perfect thing; it sends an excellent message. We talk about how dumb the GRU agents were in Salisbury, but virtually everyone I interviewed for ‘The Compatriots’ mentioned Novichok. Every oppositionist oligarch in London and every oligarch in Moscow’s ritzy suburbs who’s fallen out of the Kremlin’s favor — even a senior priest with close ties to the Kremlin — they all talked about it. It was clear that they all took notice that the rules had changed again and they needed to adapt. And that was the point.

What happens now to the FSB agents who were unmasked so easily?

Probably, nothing. They’re not public people, they’re not diplomats, and they don’t own property or hold accounts abroad, so hitting them with sanctions would have little impact on their lives. Within the agency, an assessment of their mistakes is also unlikely.

I’ve been writing about the FSB for 20 years and, in all that time, I can remember just one case where heads at the top of the agency actually rolled: in 2004, an entire region’s stability was compromised when Shamil Basaev’s militants briefly seized control of Ingushetia. Putin immediately took tough measures, firing the FSB’s deputy director, the commander of Russia’s interior troops, and the commander of Russia’s interior forces in the North Caucasus.

Why punish the FSB agents in the Navalny operation if the current scandal has no effect on Russia’s political stability (according to the Kremlin, at least)? They tried, after all. Some people in this line of work even find impressive careers later on, like federal lawmaker Andrey Lugovoi, who is suspected of murdering the FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko.

Which branch of the FSB poses the greatest danger to oppositionists and disaffected Russians?

The FSB branch responsible for guarding Russia’s ‘political stability’ (in plain English: the battle against the anti-Kremlin opposition) is called the Constitutional-System Protection and Anti-Terrorism Service. In Russian, this department has a particularly unpronounceable abbreviation: SZKSiBT.

Today, however, as the agency’s repressive role takes precedence, other FSB departments have willingly pitched in to help, from the Counterintelligence Service (which provided the materials that keep journalist Ivan Safronov behind bars) and the Economic Security Service (so feared by businesses) to the countless regional offices across the country tasked with collecting compromising materials about the local elites and leadership.


What is the FSB’s role in Russia’s political system? Are these guys essentially Putin’s personal stormtroopers or do they, in fact, run the agency themselves?

The agency is a machine for carrying out selective repressions; other functions have receded into the background. Russia’s Federal Security Service doesn’t perform these repressions all on its own. Back in 2014, Putin became disappointed in the FSB’s ability to provide quality intelligence. Multiple sources confirm that a team of FSB officers in Kyiv failed to predict the events of the Maidan Revolution. Even President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing Ukraine apparently surprised the FSB. As a result, Putin constantly reminds the agency that its job now is simply to execute orders. And the agents understand this.

At the same time, the FSB hasn’t escaped all purges. Some former agents are now in prison, like Information Security Center Colonel Sergey Mikhailov, financial sector ‘Department K’ officers Dmitry Frolov, Andrey Vasilev, and Kirill Cherkalin, and even former special forces commander Vladimir Podolsky spent some time under house arrest. Agents haven’t been allowed to travel abroad since 2012, and last year they started prohibiting former FSB officers from exiting the country for five years after leaving the service.

For complete control over the agency, however, Putin would need independent sources of information. That’s a problem.

There have been noticeably fewer terrorist attacks in Russia over the past few years. Doesn’t that mean the FSB is capable of more than just political repressions?

There have indeed been fewer terrorist attacks, but there are many reasons for this: the war in Chechnya ended long ago and the generation of commanders in that war is stamped out, plus there’s now a new front in Syria, which is where the FSB has been forcing the North Caucasian Republics’ Islamists for years.

On top of this, Russians live in an authoritarian political system, which means the logic behind organizing major terrorist attacks disappeared long ago: there’s simply no chance of using terrorism to influence what we might call ‘Kremlin policy’ (for example, the terrorists who seized Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater in October 2002 demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya).

How bad is the infighting inside Russia’s intelligence community? What are the FSB’s struggles behind the scenes?

Political theories about feudal wars between Russia’s intelligence agencies were relevant in the 1990s and early 2000s, but the situation changed a long time ago. The FSB remains the main intelligence agency inside the country.

Admittedly, in some areas, the military (and not just the GRU) is starting to nip at the FSB’s heels: the Army, not the Federal Security Service, is responsible for ‘patriotic education’ in Russia’s schools, it admits children into the Youth Army movement, it meddles in classroom history lessons, rewrites the history of Soviet repressions, and is even building the country’s biggest cathedral.

That being said, we know Russia’s executive office (the presidential administration acting closely with the National Security Council) directly coordinates the handling of important FSB operations. One illustrative example is the case against Alexander Shestun, the former head of the Moscow region’s Serpukhov district, whom an FSB general and the president’s chief of staff coerced simultaneously.

Joint operations between the GRU and FSB would also be impossible without the presidential administration. The agencies function poorly when working directly; they need marching orders and control from above.

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FSB-graduates partying the end of their traineeship at the streets of Moscow in 2016. Picture CNN

Are there many disaffected people in the FSB’s ranks? Are there officers who actually oppose the regime? Is everyone else ideologically committed to the Kremlin or are they just corrupt like so many government officials?

A lot of the people at the FSB are unhappy — especially among the mid-level officers. From time to time, I used to like going to the Moscow District Military Court to look at the schedule for civil hearings. Case after case, it was ‘Warrant Officer Ivanov v. the director of the FSB’ and ‘Major Petrov versus the director of the FSB.’ They sued for apartments, for pensions, and for bonuses. Some of them even took their lawsuits to the European Court of Human Rights. One officer was so upset that he mailed a letter to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, asking him to pass it along to Putin (it’s unclear what exactly he was counting on here, given the relationship then with Tbilisi). Many of the officers who see no career prospects become disillusioned with their supervisors, and some even seek out journalists, wanting to share information.

There’s no one at the FSB, however, who is capable of any serious conspiracy. Russia’s bureaucracy knows how to discourage its subordinates. In order to create a secret society inside an intelligence agency (something like the Free Officers Movement that instigated the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, overthrowing the monarchy), you need to be able to build horizontal networks, distribute corrupt resources among accomplices, and establish a clientele. Russian officers have always struggled here. It’s no coincidence, after all, that the last serious attempt to stage a military coup was the Decembrist revolt in 1825.

Many in the FSB are genuinely committed ideologically to the regime. This is particularly true with the officers who joined the agency in the 2000s (already during Putin), but also with those who came aboard earlier, in the late 1990s. These people are now in senior positions, and life within this very closed community has influenced them profoundly. For a lot of these men, the job is part of their family history. They’re following in the footsteps of their fathers, grandfathers, and brothers, and they really believe that Russia is surrounded by enemies and must be saved by any means possible.

These sentiments, incidentally, coexist harmoniously with a love of material wealth. The officers defend their homeland from enemies, after all, so why shouldn’t Russia’s businesses, which think only of profits, share with their protectors?

What kind of country do the officers in the FSB want Russia to be? Do they dream of something like Stalin’s USSR? Maybe the Soviet Union under Brezhnev? Do they want it to be more like modern-day China? Or are they perfectly content with Russia now under Putin?

The Federal Security Service is a massive organization. The officers in Moscow might talk about the Chinese model, while folks out in the boondocks embrace altogether strange beliefs. In more remote regions, the agency is full of ‘Dead Water’ sectarians (in a nutshell, they believe that Russia has been enslaved by ‘Judeo-Christian civilization’) and ‘Hyperboreans’ (who believe that some miraculous treasure or secret knowledge buried in the Urals will explain why Russia is constantly under attack, from the Mongols and Napoleon to Hitler and NATO), as well as USSR fanatics. And all this can be combined weirdly with Christian Orthodoxy.

In the end, it is ardent faith in state service — in protecting Russia’s political regime (it doesn’t matter what kind) against shocks — that unites these people. This is what allows FSB officers to consider themselves the heirs of both the pre-revolutionary secret police and the Soviet Cheka (joining the revolutionaries who pledged to protect the regime instead of undermining it). This shared understanding of the past, however, hasn’t facilitated a common vision of the future.

Is it possible to reform the FSB, or does Russia need to disband the agency altogether?

Under President Yeltsin, the window of opportunity for reforms was very narrow — just three years or so, between 1992 and 1994. By 1995, everything started going back to the way it was. The FSB got its current name, becoming a ‘security service’ instead of a ‘counterintelligence service,’ but ‘security’ is a term that can mean anything.

Honestly, though, I think reforming this agency was as impossible then as it is now. A decorated combat officer in the FSB’s Vympel Group once told me that Russia ought to have carried out a ‘Chekist-military operation’ in Chechnya. The NKVD used this term in its postwar fight against the Ukrainian underground. But the Vympel Group had nothing to do with the Soviet repressions — its men weren’t even recruited from the KGB but from the USSR’s border troops.

You can escape this Stalinist legacy only if you start with a clean slate: disband the agency completely and establish a new one — something smaller, without the regional branches that Stalin created to carry out political repressions (the same branches that no one has yet dared to disband or repurpose).

What should serve as Russia’s model? You’ll find the best example of a publicly accountable intelligence community in Canada. Sure, life is a bit simpler there, but let it be an ideal to which Russia can at least strive. The Canadians have established an excellent system of parliamentary control over their intelligence agencies (in Russia, parliamentary control over the FSB is neither bad nor good — it simply doesn’t exist).

 They created this system back in the early 1980s. It’s built on the following three principles:

  • Operations should be proportionate to the severity of any threat;
  • If an agency’s actions encroach upon privacy and other freedoms, the damage may outweigh the benefits; and
  • Agencies should endeavor to adopt less aggressive methods unless the situation is an emergency.

Originally published by

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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