The intelligence disaster in the spring of 2022 was so big that Putin couldn’t ignore it. The repressions were anticipated and quick to follow. But then, something changed.
Sergei Beseda, the head of the Fifth Service of the FSB, was placed under house arrest. And soon, he was transferred secretly to the Lefortovo prison. Bellingcat independently confirmed that dozens of officers of the Fifth Service had their phones turned off, indicating that a substantial number of the FSB officers were arrested.
Everyone’s Busy, Everyone’s Bitter
There were repressions in other agencies, too. Roman Gavrilov, a deputy head of the National Guard, was forced to resign and reportedly arrested. Then there were arrests of generals in the Interior Ministry, including an adviser to the Interior Minister. But in the summer, something changed. The repressions stopped. Beseda was taken from Lefortovo – back to his Lubyanka’s office – a very dramatic move, last time we saw something like that under Stalin. In January, Beseda was shown at a public event in Moscow to prove the point that nothing ever happened to him. His son Alexander was made the head of the department overseeing siloviki, a very powerful position.
Apparently, Putin came to think that he had no choice but to wage the war with the tools he had at his disposal, and that meant the FSB. The FSB now is on the forefront of this war, with almost every branch of the agency involved in the war effort.
Running the new crackdowns in Russia are the FSB’s counterterrorism unit, its counterintelligence service, and its investigative department. The FSB special forces and the military counterintelligence branch are running operations targeting Ukrainian service people in occupied territories and beyond. The Operative-Search Department, a criminal investigation unit within the FSB, oversees thwarting Ukraine’s sabotage operations. The FSB’s border service is processing Ukrainian refugees, as well as harassing Russian men fleeing the country and foreign journalists. The Economic Security Service is enforcing import-substitution, a Russian economic policy to survive the sanctions. And everywhere, in regional departments, at FSB headquarters at Lubyanka Square, the FSB’s rank and file are angry, because just like in the 1990s with Chechnya, they are again sent for three-month tours of duty in the occupied territories. And none of them like it.
Stalin’s Secret Police
Before the war, the FSB’s main point of reference was the KGB of the 1970s and 1980s. For instance, that’s how the cult of Yuri Andropov came along. Now the FSB personnel started invoking the practices of something much scarier: Stalin’s secret police. Even in public, it became fashionable to refer to SMERSH, operational in 1943-1946. SMERSH was an agency notorious for its brutality. It also became quite ok to talk about NKVD, the service which had conducted the great purges.
It makes sense, from the FSB’s perspective. Stalin’s secret services were war-time agencies – even when there was officially no big war. War was the natural habitat of Stalin’s regime. On the other hand, the KGB was an agency which operated during relatively peaceful time for the Soviet Union. Invasions didn’t affect the modus operandi of the KGB. There were no big structural changes in the KGB because of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, or the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Now Russia is at war, so the FSB massively escalated.
Before the war, Russian opposition politicians were never accused of high treason, of being traitors – now, we have Vladimir Kara-Murza being convicted of exactly that. Before the war, there were several repressive options for the opposition politicians, now – it’s only prison. Before the war, lawyers were not arrested, now we have Dmitry Talantov, who worked on the FSB cases, in jail. The list goes on and on.
O Tempora, O Mores
Even mainstream sectors of the Russian economy came under FSB pressure. Since June, the Russian financial monitoring agency, together with the FSB, has investigated medical clinics across the country for prescribing Western drugs rather than Russian ones. The campaign was presented to the public as “cracking down on schemes by foreign pharmaceutical companies that sell their drugs through Russian doctors.”
The most striking development concerns the FSB’s tactics in Ukraine. Before the war, the FSB’s job was mostly to recruit Ukrainian politicians and bureaucrats. Now, the agency is running a massive operation to detain large numbers of Ukrainians in Russia and in the occupied territories in filtration camps. Similar filtration camps were used extensively by Stalin’s secret police during WWII. But Ukrainians are detained not only in the filtration camps. The Lefortovo prison, under control of the FSB, has lots of Ukrainian prisoners.
The main objective of those camps is not to imprison but recruit. And the more people you process, the more assets you recruit, and the more difficult it for the Ukrainian counterintelligence to counter. You recruit when you have the biggest leverage – you can apply all kinds of pressure in a filtration camp.
Come Home or Else
Stalinization of Russia’s security services is bad news for the Russians in the country, but it is also bad news for the Russians abroad. Stalin was obsessed with political emigration and exiles. Putin inherited that obsession. Just like his Soviet predecessors, he dismisses the political emigres as completely irrelevant but tasks more and more departments inside the security services to address a challenge posed by the emigration. The reason is the same feeling of insecurity.
On Lubyanka, there is a strong belief that in 1917 the mighty Russian empire was taken down by a bunch of emigrant revolutionaries who returned to the country. So why another group of exiles, that theory goes, will not try the same thing, if only given a chance?
Since May 2022, the FSB has been visiting the families of Russian exiles to convey the message that the Russian government is ready to welcome the exiles back. But in 2023, the Kremlin came up with a straightforward strategy to deal with the new wave of emigration: to lure back those who are important for Russia’s survival and Russia’s war effort – the IT-specialists. And to silence those who are politically active.
This is something we need to keep in mind: the Russians in exile who stand up against the war have targets on their back, now more than ever.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). This article was written for the Lennart Meri Conference 2023 special edition of the ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.