Andrei Soldatov & Irina Borogan. Foreign Affairs. Volume 89, Issue 5. September/October 2010.
In December 2000, Nikolai Patrushev, who had succeeded Vladimir Putin as director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), gave an interview to mark the anniversary of the founding of the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police. He described the FSB’s personnel: “Our best colleagues, the honor and pride of the FSB, don’t do their work for the money,” he said. “They all look different, but there is one very special characteristic that unites all these people, and it is a very important quality: It is their sense of service. They are, if you like, our new ‘nobility.'”
Over the last decade in Russia, the FSB, the modern successor to the Soviet secret police, the KGB, has been granted the role of the new elite, enjoying expanded responsibilities and immunity from public oversight or parliamentary control. The FSB’s budget is not published; the total number of officers is undisclosed. But even cautious estimates suggest that the FSB employs more than 200,000 people. For ten years, Putin, a KGB and FSB veteran himself, has held power in the Kremlin as president and now prime minister. He has made the FSB the main security service in Russia, permitting it to absorb much of the former KGB and granting it the right to operate abroad, collect information, and carry out special operations.
When Putin was elected president, in 2000, the Russian secret services were in an extremely difficult position. They had been left behind in the mad rush to market reforms and democracy of the 1990s, and their ranks had thinned due to the lure of big money in Russia’s new capitalist economy. Those who remained faced daunting and dispiriting new challenges: the festering war in Chechnya and the resulting rise of terrorism in Moscow and other cities far from the Chechen battlefield. FSB officers faced pressures of corruption that far exceeded those of Soviet times. The organization also suffered from deep public distrust, a legacy of both the repression carried out by the Soviet KGB and the chaotic first decade of Russia’s post-Soviet experience.
Yet as the FSB appeared to be foundering, Putin gave the organization a new and riskier role. As a former KGB officer, Putin viewed the FSB as the only state agency he could trust. He gave the FSB the responsibility to protect the stability of the Kremlin’s rule-and, by extension, the stability of the country. Over the past decade, the FSB has become the main resource of human capital for filling positions in the state apparatus and state-controlled corporations.
As its power has increased, the FSB has reduced the space available for open discussion of politics and public life. It has intimidated the country’s scientific community with a series of harsh verdicts against scientists accused of espionage, restricted the work of nongovernmental organizations (ngos) by charging them with working for foreign states, and spied on Russian journalists.
Although many Russian dissidents, Russian journalists, and even some members of the security services have suggested that these changes represent a wholesale revival of the Soviet-era KGB, the reality is more complicated. The KGB of the Soviet Union was all-powerful, but it was also under the control of the political structure. The Communist Party presided over every KGB section, department, and division. Today’s FSB-unlike its predecessor-is impenetrable to outsiders.
In fact, the FSB has become something very different from either the Soviet secret service or the intelligence communities in Western countries. In some ways, it most closely resembles the ruthless mukhaharat, the secret police found in many countries of the Arab world: devoted to protecting the regime; answering only to those in power; and impenetrable, corrupt, and brutal in dealing with individuals and groups suspected of terrorism or dissent. Fsb officers now regard themselves as the only force capable of saving the country from internal and external enemies-the saviors of a nation damaged by the upheaval and chaos of the 1990s. In their view, they are the heirs not only to the KGB but also to the secret police that the tsars deployed to battle political terrorism.
The KGB, known formally as the Committee for State Security, was established in 1954 as an outgrowth of several Soviet security organizations. It combined dozens of different functions: gathering foreign intelligence, guarding national borders, protecting Soviet leaders, obtaining counterintelligence, silencing dissent, and closely monitoring all aspects of Soviet life, from the Orthodox Church to the military.
Despite its sprawling and intrusive structure, the KGB was restrained in one very significant way: the Communist Party was keeping watch. Each division, department, and office of the KGB had a party branch, a peephole through which the state could monitor its agents. The guidelines of the KGB, approved in 1959, established as much: “Party organizations and every communist have the right … to report about shortcomings in the work of the organs of state security to the respective party organs.” The Soviet Politburo, deeply traumatized by the Stalin-era purges, was determined to keep the secret police in check.
Since it was thoroughly embedded in Soviet life, the KGB suffered from the same inefficiencies that defined the Soviet bureaucracy as a whole. For example, many KGB officers in the Soviet army, whose job it was to ferret out corruption among military officials, were often themselves corrupt. The KGB worked according to a thinly veiled system of nepotism, which meant that the children of the Soviet elite-realizing the advantages of being stationed in the West-supplanted trained agents in the field. These intelligence officers working abroad often simply compiled reports from Western newspapers and passed them off as sensitive information.
But the KGB was able to use the secretive atmosphere of the Soviet system to hide its weaknesses and internecine rivalries. When the failures of the Soviet system became clear during the reign of Leonid Brezhnev, in the 1970s, the KGB chair, Yuri Andropov, deliberately promulgated a myth that the KGB was the only uncorrupt body capable of saving the state. Andropov, the longest-serving chair of the KGB, was infamous for his brutal repression of both the Hungarian revolt in 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968. In November 1982, when he assumed leadership of the Soviet Union, he cultivated the notion that the KGB was made up of intelligent people and not brutal secret police officers. Andropov sought to fight the Soviet Union’s stagnation by instilling workplace discipline and combating corruption, but his methods proved largely ineffective during his short, two-year reign. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, the KGB tried to distance itself from the crackdowns against dissidents that it had relied on throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Boris Yeltsin aimed to weaken the monolithic Soviet KGB by splitting it up into smaller independent agencies. He was afraid that if he did not, hard-liners in the security services might try to stage a coup similar to the failed attempt against Gorbachev in August 1991. Like many in his political circle, Yeltsin felt that the only way to control the secret services was to strictly delineate areas of responsibility. The largest new departments-initially called the Ministry of Security, then the Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSK), and finally, beginning in 1995, the FSB-would be responsible for counterintelligence and counterterrorism. The KGB’s former foreign intelligence unit was transformed into a new espionage agency called the Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, the agency responsible for the 11 Russian “illegal” spies uncovered in the United States in June. Other divisions, such as those responsible for electronic eavesdropping and cryptography, became self-contained agencies. Lastly, the KGB branches that had protected Soviet leaders and guarded the Soviet borders were turned into independent services.
Meanwhile, party control over the security services dissipated-yet even a weakened security apparatus was too feared by the Kremlin to be left alone. Yeltsin’s response was to encourage rivalry in the splintered intelligence community, providing a precarious system of checks and balances. Under Yeltsin, the foreign intelligence agency remained in direct competition with military intelligence. The FSB struggled with the communications agency, known as fapsi, which was responsible for electronic eavesdropping and cryptography and, like the FSB, was charged with keeping a close eye on the social and political situation in Russia. In one sense, this meant that Yeltsin had access to a diverse set of opinions: after reading a report from the FSB director, he could compare it with one from the fapsi director.
In the early 1990s, the FSK was hardly considered effective or competent. Among other missteps, it was responsible for orchestrating the ill-fated attack on Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, in 1994. It dispatched three columns of tanks carrying forces disguised as opposition militants to serve as a demonstration of force to the separatist Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev. But the disguised forces were ambushed by Chechens and their tanks burned in the streets of Grozny. The incident left the Kremlin with grave doubts about the abilities of the FSK.
After the FSK was renamed the FSB, it met with another failure-this time in the war against Russian organized crime. In 1996, the FSB opened a secret internal branch to prosecute Mafia groups. The unit quickly gained infamy as the most ruthless, brutal, and corrupt section of the intelligence services. In 1998, a number of officers from the group claimed that they had been ordered to kill the prominent Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. The unit was disbanded, and Nikolai Kovalyov, then the FSB director, was fired.
This volatile and imperfect system hobbled along through the last of Yeltsin’s years in power. In the year before he resigned, Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin, who had served as a KGB agent in East Germany, to serve as the new director of the FSB. The late 1990s were a time of upheaval in Russia. In 1998, Russia defaulted on its debt and devalued the ruble, causing a financial crisis that bankrupted millions of people and cast doubt on the Western capitalist model. Russians wanted to find simple answers, and many looked for a strongman to replace Yeltsin, who was perceived to be a vacillating, weak character. This desire for decisive leadership came to a head in September 1999, when 216 people were killed in a bombing in two Moscow apartment buildings. Putin, whom Yeltsin had by then tapped to be prime minister, pointed the finger at the Chechens, vowing to “rub them out in the outhouse.” He launched a new military offensive in Chechnya, and such tough action immediately vaulted him to popularity.
With Putin’s rise, rumors began to circulate that the Kremlin was preparing to recombine all the parts of the former KGB into one agency. Such talk seemed to be coming true, at least at first, as the heads of the various Russian secret services under Yeltsin lost their posts one after the other. In December 1998, Alexander Starovoitov, founder of the communications agency, was forced out; in February 1999, Sergei Almazov, creator of the tax police, resigned under pressure; in April 2000, Vyacheslav Trubnikov, the director of foreign intelligence, stepped down.
A round of major bureaucratic reorganization followed. In March 2003, Putin, then president, signed a decree that merged the border guards into the FSB, divided the communications agency between the FSB and the Federal Protective Service, and turned the tax police into a state antidrug agency to be headed by Viktor Cherkesov, a former KGB officer and one of Putin’s close friends. In this reshuffling, the FSB came out with the upper hand over the Interior Ministry-which combines the functions of a national police force with an investigative department similar to the FBI-as FSB counterintelligence officers were placed in key posts in the ministry. Although the stated purpose of placing FSB officers inside the ministry was to strengthen discipline and morale inside the corrupted ministry, the larger purpose was clear: broadening the control of the FSB. Later in 2003, Putin appointed Rashid Nurgaliev, an FSB officer and close friend of Patrushev (then the head of the FSB), as minister of internal affairs. Finally, the Kremlin reinstated the FSB as the warden of army morale, giving the agency the responsibility of guarding against potential mutiny in the military. The agency’s advancement did not always come through absorption, however. When it could not wholly subsume the svr, for example, it created its own department for gathering foreign intelligence and operating abroad. In this way, the FSB entered the field previously dominated by the foreign intelligence service and military intelligence.
Putin made his mark on the FSB in other ways, too. In 2006, he changed the color of the uniforms worn by members of the Russian security services from green to black. Putin’s decision was driven by historical symbolism-a nod to a moment during the Russian Civil War when the White Army, losing its fight against the Bolsheviks, found inspiration by creating units comprised of officers dressed in black uniforms. They were strictly religious and wore black tunics as a symbol of their scorn for earthly goods.
Indeed, the FSB and the Russian Orthodox Church have been moving closer in recent years. In December 2002, the Cathedral of Saint Sophia was reopened just off Lubyanka Square, a block away from the FSB’s headquarters (it had been closed by Soviet authorities in the 1930s). Patriarch Aleksei II himself blessed the opening of the cathedral in a ceremony attended by then FSB chief Patrushev. Although it was a target of the KGB in Soviet times, the Russian Orthodox Church has always been closely connected with the state. The tsar was the head of the church; Russia’s brand of Orthodoxy is based on the notion that Moscow is “the Third Rome” (after ancient Rome and Constantinople) and on a belief in Russian “uniqueness.” As part of this uniqueness, today’s Russia sees itself as surrounded by numerous enemies-which must be combated by the FSB. In some cases, the fears of the church and the fears of the FSB align: in 2002, for example, five Catholic priests were expelled from Russia by the FSB, some of them accused of espionage. The FSB protects the Orthodox sphere of influence against Western proselytizing, and in return the church blesses the Russian security services in their struggle with enemies of the state. In short, after a few years of Putin’s reign, the FSB had evolved into something more powerful and more frightening than the Soviet KGB-it had become an agency whose scope, under the aegis of a veteran KGB officer, extended well beyond the bounds of its predecessor.
Somebody’s Watching Me
In Soviet times, political investigations were carried out by the infamous Fifth Chief Directorate of the KGB, which was created in 1967 under KGB Chair Andropov and comprised 15 separate departments. The first department infiltrated trade unions, the second planned operations against émigré organizations that were critical of the Soviet Union, the third worked among students, and so on. In the middle of perestroika, in an effort to improve its image, the Fifth Chief Directorate was renamed the Directorate to Defend the Constitutional System (known as Directorate Z). However, it did not survive the fall of the Soviet Union and was eliminated in September 1991. Even so, its experienced officers remained on active duty in Russia’s post-Soviet security services.
The FSB resurrected the unit in 1998, creating the Directorate for Protection of the Constitution. In an interview that year, its chief, Gennadiy Zotov, described his group’s role: “The state pursued the goal of creating a subunit ‘specialized’ in fighting threats to the security of the Russian Federation in the sociopolitical sphere.” He went on to say that the Russian state “has always devoted special attention to the protection of the country from internal sedition, for internal sedition has always been more terrible for Russia than any military invasion.” To date, this is the most honest and open comment made by any FSB official on the FSB’s motives for carrying out political investigations of prominent journalists, human rights activists, and opposition politicians.
In 2008, it was discovered that the Moscow regional directorate of the FSB was involved in penetrating the United Civil Front, a liberal political group that champions democratic electoral procedures and is led by the chess legend Garry Kasparov. Although Kasparov has only a few thousand followers, the FSB considered him to be an agent of the West who might be used by hostile foreign forces to overthink regime in Moscow The revelation came in February 2008, when a Russian man Alexander Novikov fled to Denmark, where he applied for political asylum. In Copenhagen, he told journalists that he was recruited by the FSB in 2006 to penetrate the United Civil Front. He said that he had become an active member of the United Civil Front’s Moscow branch. Indeed, records, interviews, and photographs show that he had taken part in numerous demonstrations and pickets organized by the group. Novikov insisted that he had played an important role in helping the FSB disrupt Kasparov’s political activities-for example, by informing the FSB about where Kasparov planned to hold public meetings to obtain signatures to become a candidate in the 2008 presidential election. In December 2007, the Kasparov group was blocked without explanation from renting a theater hall in Moscow; other venues similarly refused Kasparov and his supporters.
The 2008 election was, of course, won by Putin’s handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev. Despite this handover of power, the Kremlin’s efforts to maintain the political status quo have been challenged by the ongoing economic crisis. In response, the state has intensified its efforts to control the opposition. In September 2008, Medvedev changed the structure of the Interior Ministry, disbanding the department dedicated to fighting organized crime and terrorism and creating a new department charged with countering extremism. Overnight, thousands of experienced police officers accustomed to dealing with bandits and terrorists were redirected to hunt down a new enemy: “extremists,” a term that the Russian state uses to describe not only groups organized around racial or religious hatred but also opposition movements and independent trade unions.
In April 2009, Yuri Kokov, the head of the new department, explained the reasons for the reform at a public meeting: “The operative situation might get worse under the conditions of the global crisis, [with] deterioration of the social and economic situation.” In other words, any expressions of public discontent fell under the purview of the security services and could be combated accordingly. That same month, the head of the independent trade union at the Avtovaz car factory in the town of Tolyatti announced that he had been summoned to the prosecutor’s office for “explanations about actions aimed at overthrowing the existing order.” He had been questioned earlier by local Interior Ministry officials. His was not an isolated case: in June 2009 in St. Petersburg, police detained six protesters-real estate investors claiming they had been defrauded-and warned them that they ran the risk of being labeled “extremists.” Russian bloggers have similarly been targeted. In March 2009, Dmitry Soloviev, a leader of the youth opposition group Oborona in Kemerovo, Siberia, faced criminal charges for criticizing the FSB on his blog. Experts called by the prosecution alleged that Soloviev’s writing “incites hatred, hostility and degrades a social group of people-the police and the FSB.” (The charges were eventually dropped.) Sawa Terentyev, a 22-year-old blogger from the Komi Republic, received a one-year suspended sentence for posting a comment critical of law enforcement officers on the blog of a local journalist in March 2008.
Russia’s security services have also been working on compiling an electronic database that will track everything from video surveillance to details about purchases of plane and train tickets to fingerprint records. At the same time, the Interior Ministry has begun to develop a database of “extremists”-a large storehouse of information that someday could be used in a criminal investigation. The system should be completed by November 2010, officials say, and will allow the Interior Ministry, the FSB, and the Federal Protective Service to share information. Moscow’s expanded surveillance efforts seem to be directly at odds with the spirit of the 1993 Russian constitution, which protects privacy rights, including the privacy of personal correspondence.
Whereas the Soviet police state tried to control every citizen in the country, the new and more sophisticated Russian system is far more selective-it targets only those individuals who have political ambitions or strong antigovernment views. Nonetheless, Russia’s growing surveillance state, led by the FSB and the Interior Ministry, reveals a regime that is less interested in the goals of civil society and more concerned with maintaining rigid control. As Lyudmila Alekseeva, head of the human rights organization the Moscow Helsinki Group, put it, “There is a sense of déjà vu: the practice of surveillance of dissidents is back, taking people off trains, preventing conversations. The practice not only returned, but is enriched with new means of pressure on the people.”
All in the Family
In the days of the KGB, the rank and file received bonuses and free apartments, sidestepping long waiting lists. High-ranking officers were chauffeured in official black Vblgas and qualified for country homes on the elite Rublyovka Road. But it was well understood by the recipients of these privileges that they were only good as long as one held on to one’s position. The real owner of the dachas and the cars was the KGB itself. Agents, first and foremost, were servants of the state.
In the years after the Soviet collapse, the country’s security officers once again developed a taste for luxury. They were awarded titles to the spacious country homes once managed by the KGB and drove around Moscow in black Mercedes and BMW equipped with special license plates and sirens that allowed them to cut through the city’s notorious traffic jams. Yet unlike in Soviet times, it was the FSB officers themselves-and not the state-who were the ultimate owners.
When Putin came to power, he offered current and former officers from Russia’s security services the chance to move to the top echelons of power, enjoying not just comfortable perks but real influence. Putin hoped, perhaps, that opening the doors of the most powerful institutions of the country to security agents would allow them to form a vanguard of stability and order. Under Putin’s reign, the ranks of such officers entering government and business swelled. Sergei Ivanov, who had served in the foreign intelligence branch of the KGB, for example, became deputy prime minister; Viktor Ivanov, another former KGB agent, became deputy chief of administration of the Kremlin. The telecommunications business of the huge Russian commercial empire Alfa Group, meanwhile, was headed by Anatoly Protsenko, the former deputy director of the Federal Protective Service. Vladimir Yakunin, a former Soviet intelligence officer, became president of Russian Railways, one of the world’s largest railroad networks.
The perks afforded FSB employees offered significant means of personal advancement. Russia’s new security officers were more than simply servants of the state; they were landed property owners and powerful players, capable of influencing hiring decisions and planting cronies and relatives in positions of power.
But once they had tasted the benefits, the agents began to struggle among themselves for the spoils. They failed to create a new elite capable of ruling the country-they are not, it should be said, a junta united by common perspectives on Russia’s present and future. Their motives are much more personal. Although Patrushev may toy with phrases such as “new nobility,” the members of the Russian security services-having been granted a free hand by Putin-have quickly moved to pursue their private interests, whether they be political or economic. Agents who were once colleagues in the KGB and took pride in its glorious past have found themselves in fierce competition with one another for influence and budgets.
In an open letter published in October 2007, Cherkesov, the head of Russia’s antidrug agency, claimed that many of the best and brightest in the ranks of the KGB went on to make their own fortunes elsewhere and were now turning on one another in fierce competition. “Today,” he warned, “experts and journalists started to talk about the ‘war of groups’ inside secret services. In this war there can be no winners … The caste is destroying itself from within, when warriors become traders.”
Agents of the Russian security services tend to favor state-controlled capitalism with a high degree of regulation. It is no accident that as the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia plunged into a new capitalist system, few KGB officers emerged as business leaders. They were outflanked by younger and fleeter hustlers: a new breed of oligarchs. Instead, KGB veterans found their calling in the second and third tiers of the new business structure, often running the security departments of the tycoons’ empires.
This hierarchy remains in place today: although many high-ranking FSB officers have benefited personally from the rise in commodity prices, the state has not attempted a large-scale renationalization program, and the main beneficiaries remain Russia’s oligarchs. Indeed, the Kremlin appears willing to appease the FSB only until such a course threatens Moscow’s economic interests. In April 2010, Yuri Trutnev, Russia’s minister of natural resources, admitted that the production of shale gas by competitors is a “problem” for the state-run gas giant Gazprom. New hydraulic fracturing technology has made the shale gas that lies underneath many European countries more accessible, threatening Russia’s grip on European energy supplies: member states in the eu receive about a quarter of their gas from Russia, with Poland especially dependent on Russian imports. But energy experts estimate that Poland is sitting on vast reserves of unconventional shale gas and now finds itself being courted by Western energy giants such as ExxonMobil and Chevron.
Trutnev’s statement marked the change in Russia’s policy toward Poland. Afraid of what energy independence might allow an adversarial government in Warsaw, Moscow has quickly moved to court its longtime rival. In April, Putin attended a memorial ceremony commemorating the 1940 Katyn massacre-an issue that has been a thorn in the side of Polish-Russian relations for decades-accompanied by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. (Polish President Lech Kaczynski was flying to another commemoration when his plane crashed in the forest near Smolensk, killing 97 Polish dignitaries.) Such a gesture from the Kremlin would have been unthinkable a year before. That same month, as part of Moscow’s warming relations with Warsaw, Medvedev handed over 67 volumes of Soviet documents on the Katyn massacre to Poland-another unprecedented move.
The FSB can hardly be content with such a dramatic change of policy: those who killed Polish officers are still praised as war heroes at headquarters. In 2008, the FSB’s regional department in Tver published a history of the department that depicted the major in charge of Tver’s World War II-era NKVD-an early predecessor to the KGB-as an effective German spy catcher. But his department was also responsible for the execution of 6,000 Polish officers in the Ostashkov camp in the spring of 1940. The reports on the executions were signed personally by the NKVD major, yet no mention of this appeared in the book. But in the end, it was the interests of Gazprom and not the FSB that played the decisive role for the Kremlin.
The Paranoid Style in Russian Politics
The officers who stayed with the FSB (and its predecessors) throughout the turbulent 1990s believed that the West had supported radical democrats who had split up the KGB and weakened the security services and the country. These officers have a provincial and inwardlooking perspective, rooted in the FSB’s organizational structure. The FSB comprises two unequal parts: its headquarters in Moscow, with a staff of a few thousand, and its regional offices, which employ hundreds of thousands. The structure of these regional directorates has remained largely unchanged for decades, which, when combined with the FSB’s system of personnel rotation, means that the fossilized provincial state security offices shape the FSB from within. FSB officers are moved from one regional bureau to another and are eventually offered positions at FSB headquarters. For them, the KGB is still the ideal security service, lost in Russia’s transition to democracy.
The FSB’s skeptical and xenophobic outlook has helped shape Russia’s approach to the West. The suspicions at FSB headquarters of the West were inflamed by a series of “color revolutions,” which, between 2000 and 2005, toppled authoritarian regimes in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. The FSB viewed these events as Western concoctions and became increasingly paranoid that Russia and its political allies in the region would be next. In an attempt to justify its role as the protector of the state, the FSB has played on the Kremlin’s fears, blaming foreign intelligence services for, among other things, supporting Russia’s NGos, which by the middle years of the last decade were the only remaining source of scrutiny over the Russian authorities. The FSB-led crackdown against the country’s NGOs has created a paucity of independent information on government policy.
At the same time, the FSB has desperately tried to win the support of Central Asian governments. Moscow views the presence of U.S. and NATO forces in the region as a continuation of the nineteenth century’s Great Game. With the FSB taking the lead, the Kremlin has deliberately turned Russia into a hunting ground for the security services of the most authoritarian regimes in Central Asia.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, Russia had become a safe haven for the political opponents of Central Asia’s dictators. Taking advantage of porous borders and using ?6?G old but still valid Soviet passports, a number of refugees, political opponents, and Islamic activists flowed into Russia, arriving from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Then, in 2004, under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization-an international group founded in 2001 by China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan-Russia led the call for the hunt for separatists and political opponents who posed a threat to the regimes of the SCO’s member states. In just one example, Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, the former head of Tajikistan’s state gas company, who later challenged the regime in Dushanbe, disappeared in Moscow in 2005 and later turned up in a prison camp back in Tajikistan-Tajik authorities claimed that he had been handed over by Russian security services. Other countries have benefited more from this arrangement than has Russia: although Russia has extradited dozens of people accused of extremism or terrorism to Central Asian states since 2004, it has not received anyone on its own wanted list.
The largest security challenge of all-for both the FSB and Russia as a whole-has been the tide of terrorist attacks originating in the North Caucasus. In 2002, FSB troops stormed the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow, where Chechen terrorists were holding several hundred hostages. In the rescue operation, more than 100 hostages died, most from the fentanyl gas pumped into the theater by FSB operatives. The FSB called the storming of the theater a victory, hoping to stave off the next calamity. But during the next attack, two years later, at a school in Beslan, the leadership of the security services failed to take decisive action-indeed, failed to even arrive at the scene. Patrushev, then the FSB director, and Nurgaliev, the minister of internal affairs, did not make it any farther than the airport in Beslan before flying back to Moscow.
Russia’s security services appear to have miscalculated the nature of the enemy in the battle against terrorism. Faced with guerrilla warfare, the security services responded in kind, carrying out operations to eliminate a generation of Chechen warlords and leaders, including Asian Maskhadov, Shamil Basayev, and Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. But when these leaders were wiped out, new ones took their place. The FSB makes paranoid claims about the involvement of Western intelligence services in the activities of Russia’s Islamic rebels, spoiling the chance that these services could actually help Moscow find and extradite those militants who have fled Russia. As a result, Putin’s secret services have turned to assassinations abroad, such as the killing of Yandarbiyev in Qatar in 2004. These killings have seriously damaged Russia’s reputation, and its hand is now suspected every time a Kremlin opponent is killed abroad. Indeed, the high-profile poisoning of the former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 severely damaged British-Russian relations-four British diplomats were expelled from Moscow, and the two countries suspended cooperation on counterterrorism.
To date, Russia’s security services have failed to find an effective way to deal with terrorism-a failure that was underscored once again in March 2010, when two female suicide bombers detonated explosives on Moscow’s subway during rush hour. The bombings raised anew an important question that had been asked following the Dubrovka siege and the Beslan massacre: If the secret services have been given so much support by the Kremlin in the name of providing security, why did they fail to prevent such a tragedy?
When Putin was elected president, in 2000, the security services, and chiefly the FSB, rose to prominence with him. They were hoping for a resurrection from the long decade of the 1990s, when they had felt left out of the tumultuous new capitalist economy and postSoviet Russia’s uncertain politics. Putin, who had been an officer in the KGB for 16 years, effectively invited the security services to take their place at the head table of power and prestige in Russia.
But this invitation to join the country’s post-Soviet nobility failed to bring the expected results. The FSB hunted down foreign spies, but the unseemly methods it used raised questions about whether the threat was real or trumped up. Likewise, the FSB targeted NGOs out of fear that such groups might inspire a popular revolution against the Kremlin. This was a clear miscalculation; the organizations in question were too small to be significant threats and did not command widespread support.
The FSB was supposed to be a cog in the machinery of a state governed by the rule of law. But the rule of law remains a distant goal in today’s Russia, where the security services have concluded that their interests, and those of the state they are guarding, remain above the law. The mindset of Russia’s security services has undeniably been shaped by tsarist and Soviet history: they are suspicious, inward looking, and clannish.
Although Putin awarded high-ranking security officers more privileges and benefits, they retreated from risk and responsibility and thus proved less than effective in their duties, leading to lasting questions about their role in Russia’s future. If Medvedev is serious about modernizing Russia and ending what he calls the “legal nihilism” that has run wild in recent years, he will need defenders of the state who are in tune with this goal, not security services deeply mired in the past.