One of the most respected Moscow-based experts on Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Andrei Soldatov, tells Diplomaatia about the unexpected consequences the Russian president Vladimir Putin has faced due to trusting the FSB too much.
When you compare the current relationship between the FSB and the Kremlin to that of its predecessor, the Soviet Union’s KGB, who has/had more power in the country—the FSB today or the KGB in the 1970s–1980s?
Without any doubt, the FSB is more powerful today—if only because the KGB could never have put one of their employees in place to lead the country, as Vladimir Putin is leading it now. (The Russian president, enjoying his third term of office, worked in the KGB from 1975 to 1991 and reached the rank of Podpolkovnik, i.e. Lieutenant Colonel in NATO terms—J.P.) Yuri Andropov (one of the leaders of the Soviet Union, and head of the KGB in 1967–1982) had never been a KGB employee but was, above all, an active member of the Party. Despite holding a KGB rank, Andropov was a civilian. In the case of Putin, his KGB and FSB background is very important since it influences the decision-making process. For example, take the case of Crimea. Steven Myers (Acting Moscow Bureau Chief of The New York Times—J.P.) listed the people in the circle that approved the decision to annex Crimea. All of them used to serve in the special service. A decision that is so important for the future of Russia was approved by people with a similar mentality, the same stereotypes, etc.
So, in that sense, it is easier for the FSB to declare its position on and understanding of events to Putin today than it was for the KGB to Leonid Brežnev back in the day?
Naturally! The FSB has no problems with that. A professional politician looks at the information that members of the special service are imparting to him with some critical judgement, because special services tend to exaggerate the importance of events or to refer to some external danger that interferes with them in carrying out their tasks. Such things characterise special services around the world. For example, in the 1990s, the FSB liked to refer to the global jihad that prevented them from restoring order in Chechnya. In the 2000s, the U.S. special services identified Iran as the reason for not winning in Iraq. While a professional politician is able to take a critical standpoint on such things, Putin is unable to do so, as he comes from this type of organisation himself. This gives the FSB a great advantage. On the other hand, I would not exaggerate the FSB’s hold over the Kremlin today because it is in fact smaller than we presumed it to be seven or eight years ago.
A strange thing occurred, something that social psychologists are probably best able to explain. The FSB received so many tasks and so much authority, such a high special status, that it became a closed structure that is completely impenetrable for both external monitoring and outside pressure. In addition to social monitoring and pressure I also mean the monitoring and pressure coming from the Kremlin and Putin. As a result, a fantastic but probably also logical thing happened—this structure no longer reacts to external irritants or orders. Today, it is extremely difficult for Putin to make the FSB do anything. Consequently, certain structures have come into being that nowadays play a far more important role in domestic policy than the FSB—for example, the Investigative Committee of Russia. This is, without doubt, in charge of how operations against the opposition are planned and organised.
So who affects whom more today: does Putin influence the FSB, or vice versa?
Putin basically destroyed all channels previously used to get information about domestic and foreign events. The media, for example, are no longer informative and have a solely propagandist function. It is not possible to get a reliable picture about what is happening in Vladivostok or Chechnya from the national media at this point. During Soviet times, the local situation was monitored along party lines and internal reports about the actual situation moved upwards through the hierarchy. Yeltsin [the first President of Russia, 1991–1999] had his own system for obtaining information about the country. The Kremlin does not have anything like that anymore. As a result, Putin has become extremely dependent of the information that the FSB passes on to him. In a way, he is a hostage of the FSB’s information, for he must believe what they report to him. His belief in the truthfulness of everything reported is helped along by his mentality. Put bluntly, if the FSB reports that it was the CIA who organised the Maidan events, he believes it because he has been taught to do so his entire life.
So, should the FSB wish to do so, they could manipulate Putin?
Not quite. They have the opportunities, but I do not believe that they would use them actively. As far as I can tell, the FSB does not have the ultimate goal of really wishing to rule the country. They have a sufficiently high status at the moment and they are satisfied with that.
Is it possible that, at some point, the FSB will not be able to manage all the numerous tasks and authority given to them?
It is possible. Many authorisations given to them have not been carried out in practice. A new ideology appeared in the FSB at the beginning of the 2000s, which can also be called the emergence of “a new aristocracy”. This has come to nothing. For example, the FSB was supposed to start playing an important role in Russian financial and business circles, to control the oligarchs and help Putin to organise a new industrialisation. This has had no effect whatsoever. A vast number of FSB officers were dispatched to different positions in state corporations, but they are not reporting anything that would allow the FSB and Putin to control these sectors. On the contrary, they have started to act on behalf of those corporations and industrial sectors inside the FSB. At the beginning of the 2000s Putin had an idea that he would start relying on the FSB elite, but we still cannot say that they were able to realise those many authorisations and powers given to them. This becomes clear from all the foreign and domestic political crises.
What was there to stop them?
I think that problems and shortcomings in education proved to be an obstacle. Many other world powers try to recruit the elite of people with knowledge and skills—people who have graduated from the best educational institutes etc.—to the intelligence services, especially to counterintelligence services. For example, when the Americans need new blood in their organisations, they can very quickly recruit specialists from business circles who bring modern views on management, problem-solving etc. with them. The traditions of the Russian intelligence services are different; it is a family business to many. The grandfather used to work for the KGB, then the father, and now the son works for the FSB. The cadets of the FSB academies still live in a barracks regime; they form a claustrophobic view of the world at a young age. There is their own small FSB world, and the outside world. They have an extremely poor understanding of how the normal outside world functions, and a poor understanding of socio-political relationships in society. When one listens to them, one understands that their talk and understanding are rather primitive. They are able to achieve certain local goals, but nothing more.
Can we draw the conclusion that today’s world has proved a bit too complicated for the FSB?
It has proved to be too mobile, too changeable. The oligarchs of Russia understand those things better. Let us not forget that, until recently, up to 2011–2012, the oligarchs were intellectually helping the Kremlin in every way. If we look at the main advisors of Yeltsin, Putin and Medvedev, we see that almost all of them were in fact delegated to the Kremlin by the business elite—from Boris Berezovsky to Vladislav Surkov and Gleb Pavlovsky, who also came to the Kremlin from the business sector. None of them had a special services background.
Incidentally, I also have some acquaintances who have an FSB background and I have always wondered how can they talk with the same devotion about the Okhranka of Czarist times [the Department for Protecting Public Security and Order] and Felix Dzerzhinsky [the founder of Cheka—the predecessor of the KGB and FSB—in 1917, during the formation of the Soviet Union] and regard themselves as the successors of both. At the same time, they are not at all bothered or intrigued by the fact that the same Okhranka imprisoned Dzerzhinsky and that, in turn, Dzerzhinsky blew Okhranka up with his mob. How can you even talk about any intellectual power with such peas for a brain?
Yes, they justify this by the fact that the two organisations served the country in different times. This is of course schizophrenia. Let me bring another example—how is it possible to support the repatriation of the remains of the Russian White Army generals, such as Denikin, and at the same time take pride in the operations of the NKVD [the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs], during which those same white generals, like General Krasnov, were murdered?
How is the FSB monitored pursuant to law?
It is ridiculous. There is no societal monitoring, as is admitted by the State Duma’s Committee on Security, which should basically perform that kind of inspection. The prosecutor’s office formally has the right of monitoring, but it is extremely limited. For example, according to the agreement between the Prosecutor General’s office and the FSB, one is allowed to view the FSB’s documents only on their premises. It is believed that the FSB is monitored by a special FSB department, located in the FSB headquarters. But naturally, we understand perfectly well how reliable such an inspection is when an institution is inspecting itself.
What about monitoring the financial activities of the FSB, the way they use money? Does the Accounts Chamber [the Russian equivalent of a national audit office] or the Ministry of Finance inspect that?
I have not heard that they do.
So can we still say that only one person actually controls the FSB?
Yes. But the problem lies in the fact that, while one person can manage to control the special service of a country as big as Liechtenstein made up of 50 people, we are talking about special services that comprise at least eight different agencies plus a border guard service.
Doesn’t the Kremlin Security Council, led by the former head of the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, inspect the FSB in any way?
Can you imagine how it would be possible for the Kremlin to inspect the work of the FSB’s Vladivostok office in order to find out whether they are stealing funds there? Let us imagine that the Kremlin sends Patrushev there to investigate the local situation. Patrushev would naturally meet with the local FSB chief, who will ensure that there is no stealing. And what could Patrushev possibly do then?
But Patrushev must still have some hold over the FSB?
It is true that the senior management of the FSB has not changed much since his departure. Alexander Bortnikov (who became the head of the FSB in the spring of 2008 after Patrushev had led it for ten years) has not succeeded in bringing the management fully under his leadership. Patrushev’s influence is still strong there. This means divided loyalties in the management of the FSB. They are loyal to Bortnikov, but at the same time they do not wish to ruin their relationship with Patrushev.
How important are the so-called Siloviki uniting into clans in and around the Kremlin today?
The Siloviki clans have gone through a major shift. They held a steady position at the beginning of the 1990s—they were formed to oppose a particular person and lasted about three or four years. In comparison, today’s clans are formed to resolve a certain question or problem. For example, they cooperate in order to gain control over something or someone or when they need to carry out a large oil transaction. After that, they fall apart and may even become opposing sides with different interests to resolve another question. All of this is extremely mobile. Today, there is no point in constructing schemes as before, when this special service served the interests of one person and that special service served the interests of another.
Does the FSB have any real competition in Russia, like the many problems they used to have with the Ministry of Internal Affairs? For example, from the Investigative Committee, which has considerably increased its power?
They do not. The Investigative Committee has extremely good ties with the FSB. One of them is very active (the Investigative Committee) and the other very powerful (the FSB), and they are cooperating. The Ministry of Internal Affairs is, however, completely under the influence of the FSB.
So the famous battles for leverage amongst the Chekists in the 1990s that occasionally surfaced in the mid-2000s, even in 2007–2008, are no longer relevant?
These battles are not an issue anymore, at least between government agencies. Arguments do occur, but between certain generals or groups of generals, not between agencies. A certain competition at the agency level has survived only between the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Investigative Committee. Back in the day, Yeltsin would knowingly turn the special services against each other, so that he would have different sources of information. He would always read and compare the reports of different special services about the situation; this was his way of obtaining reliable information. Putin destroyed that system when he made the FSB the main special service of the country.
How strong are the business interests of FSB generals today?
Naturally, they do have an impact on business, but since they have serious problems with mentality, they are not able to fully control whole industrial sectors. In this sense, Russia differs greatly from Egypt, for example, where the generals control entire industrial sectors and large industrial enterprises. This is not the case in Russia. Yes, the FSB generals have their own “spheres of influence” in the business world, but they are not extensive.
Who are the most influential generals in the FSB?
This is a very interesting topic. In Egypt, the generals could form a klientella through the business ventures they owned; they had their own officers who they supported and who in turn supported their general with all means. There is no such system of vertical loyalty in the Russian special service, and never has been; on the contrary, the polkovniks do not much care for the generals, and the generals in turn do not trust the polkovniks. In addition to the lack of mutual trust, there is no money available for such a system. The financial resources are gathered by the general for himself, not in order to sustain 500 loyal officers. The reason I am discussing this is to explain why there is no point in naming the five most influential generals. Each of the FSB generals could be thrown out on the street tomorrow, and there would not be even five officers whom they could count on. They do not have their klientella and thus they also lack significant power. The ejected general will have no ambitions to speak of and he should be happy with getting a position as the vice-president of some bank’s board of directors.
How loyal is the FSB to Putin anyway? If there were a coup in Russia tomorrow and Dmitri Medvedev, who is considerably more acceptable to the business elite, were made President, how might the FSB react?
They will do their job as before and swear allegiance to Medvedev. One of the reasons, amongst many, that lie behind the Kremlin’s severe reaction to the Maidan events was also the fact that on the day that Viktor Yanukovych [the former president of Ukraine] fled, there was only one SBU [Security Service of Ukraine] officer present in the building. Putin knows that and sees 1991 repeating itself. The same story is always repeating itself—you have a vast special service but if something huge happens, everyone suddenly disappears. If one talks to former KGB employees, it turns out that they loved the Soviet Union. If you loved it so much and swore to protect it, where did you disappear to in 1991, why didn’t you protect it to the last drop of blood? None of them came out on the streets. Then we had Maidan and, again, no one came to protect Yanukovych; only the members of Berkut [the former special service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine] were making a fuss. When they saw that, it was natural for them to get scared—what if their men acted the same way?
Who can Putin count on, then? Who can he trust if such a moment should occur at some point?
I believe that he trusts no one; he counts only on himself. As long as he can keep everything under control and maintain order, he has done well. Perhaps he is counting on his friends from St. Petersburg. It is difficult to say.
Why did Putin significantly reinforce his personal defence units about a year ago?
Nobody knows for certain, but there is talk of there having been some discontent amongst the President’s personal bodyguard due to low wages. This was reported to Putin, who allegedly became enraged and, as a result, Viktor Zolotov was replaced. (Zolotov is the former chief of the bodyguard service, who was replaced by Oleg Klimentjev in September 2013. Zolotov is now the second most important person in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, as deputy commander of the ministry’s troops.—J.P.) Putin was probably shocked that, as it turned out, he could not even trust the head of his personal bodyguard, because Zolotov had always reported that everything was in order. And suddenly, this little mutiny. The same story repeats itself all the time—the generals report to Putin that everything is fine, then something happens and the situation gets out of control. Since they do not have alternative information sources, they are constantly anxious: maybe the general is lying?
The FSB is constantly receiving more authority, but where is the limit? And does the FSB itself want this ever-growing authority or does the Kremlin force it upon the FSB because it is the biggest and most important special service?
This is a more difficult matter than it seems. During the protests [the winter protests of 2011/2012, mainly in Moscow], the FSB acted rather passively and Putin criticised them quite severely for this. As far as I know, the FSB was somehow forced to address Putin’s criticisms. Everywhere in the world, including in the U.S., the special services’ favourite response to criticism is to say “we would do something, but we have insufficient authority, so grant us more”. So far, Putin has agreed with this. He believes this and plays along. Nobody knows how long it will last.
The limits are not yet in sight?
No. If you are in a crisis, you usually return to your stereotypical behaviour that you have been taught since your childhood. They have now returned to the Soviet stereotypes and are trying to realise them. The question is—when does all of that clash with reality?
Are there any conflicts between the generations within the FSB?
Yes, there are, but they are expressed mainly in one way. When we were talking about the fact that Putin does not receive reliable information about a situation, as he is relying only on the FSB’s reports, then the generational conflict between the FSB’s generals and polkovniks means that the generals do not receive reliable information from them. The colonels think that the generals are corrupt and receive extremely high wages compared to them, and do not understand why they should struggle and receive low wages for the benefit of the generals. What is the result? For example, there is a certain process going on in society that the polkovniks should report to the generals. The polkovniks, however, do not completely understand what is happening, but they do comprehend something. The generals definitely do not understand these events but they must report them to Putin. This kind of situation is best characterised by the events on the Maidan. FSB officers cooperated with the local SBU generals in Ukraine for years, and the latter did nothing but repeat over and over again that everything was under control. And then—oops-a-daisy!—Yanukovych fled the country. And everyone was surprised. Why? Because there were no regular systems for collecting information.
So it is just a matter of time until this pyramid falls apart?
Absolutely. The difference from reality will simply grow too great at some point.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.