Date: 20 November 2016    Author: Jan Gajewski

Putin’s Chekists

When it was leaked that Vladimir Putin wanted to unify the Russian secret services into a single, powerful Ministry of State Security, there was a genuine sensation. A wave of warnings swept in against the return of the KGB and true terror akin to that of Stalin’s era.


However, there is little reason to treat the prospect of such an eventual scenario seriously. First, there is no evidence of it from the latest personnel and organizational decisions in the security apparatus. Second, creating a single, unrivaled center of power in such a sensitive area as state security would be absolutely opposite to the checks-and-balances rule, highly characteristic of Putin. Security sector reform is a foregone conclusion, there is no doubt about that. However, the direction it follows will certainly differ from the backward step depicted above.

On the post-election morning of September 19, the daily edition of “Kommersant” published an article which, according to its authors, revealed a plan of revolutionary reform of the state security apparatus in Russia, prepared by the authorities. The leak was arranged to test the reactions to ideas for change, and the authorities were to wait to introduce them until the results of the elections were known. The decisive victory of Putin’s party, United Russia, was supposed to pave the way for revolutionary changes in the secret services. What were the most important points of the leaked “plan”?

The Federal Security Service (FSB), the Foreign Intelligence Service (SWR) and the Federal Protection Service (FSO) were apparently to be combined into a single, powerful institution, nicknamed by some detractors the new KGB, with the official title of the Ministry of State Security (MGB). This super-ministry would be given new, greater powers and obligations, including the duty to “protect internal order and security in all law enforcement authorities and security forces”, which presents the possibility to control all such institutions in the country. The following changes would also apply to other services and institutions:
– liquidation of the Investigative Committee (SKR) including its structures in the Prosecutor General’s Office
– merger of the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Ministry of Justice
– liquidation of the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MCzS)
– resources of MCzS to be divided between the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
– exclusion of the Presidential Security Service (SBP) from the structures of the FSO

This idea of a return to a single, almighty security service is not a new one in post-Soviet Russia. During his first presidential term, Boris Yeltsin went even further and attempted to combine the majority of the former KGB with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, but the resistance of the opposition and the judicial branch was too strong. The idea to merge former parts of the KGB into one force has been raised a few times during Putin’s presidency as well. However, Putin, despite being a former KGB employee himself, having opened all institutions and sectors of the state to people from the security services, blocked the creation of “KGB 2.0”. This was not because he has anything against the people from the Lubyanka as such, but rather that he has a strong instinct for self-preservation. For every tzar it is always better to have a few competing coteries at the court rather than a single, dominating party that can eventually become a threat to the throne. The rule of “checks-and-balances”, which is well-known in Western democracies as well, (Russian cистема сдержек и противовесов) is one of the foundations of the government model created by Putin. It applies to all aspects of state functions, from the energy sector (Gazprom vs. Rosneft) to law enforcement structures. Putin prefers to divide and rule the security apparatus, keeping the balance of power in the secret services in check being the highest arbiter. The previous rulers of the Kremlin also realized that one of the conditions for them to remain in power was to ensure the loyalty of the security services. In the Soviet era, the Communist Party exerted control over the KGB. However, Putin lacks such a control apparatus, which means that such a super-ministry could become a threat to him, or, in the best-case scenario, an unruly institution. Putin’s growing fear of a palace coup also diminishes the idea of the MGB. In the current model of the security services, preparing and executing a coup requires the cooperation of at least a few services and interest groups. By merging the most powerful services into a single organism, Putin would be slitting his own throat. The second worst nightmare for Putin is a social revolution and a “Russian Maidan”. Among the comments responding to the alleged plan to establish the MGB, there were some claims that it was a reaction caused by a fear of revolution. This explanation is very simple, but also completely wrong. Firstly, the recently established National Guard Troops Service of the Russian Federation is the praetorian guard of Putin in the event of internal turmoil. Secondly, creating organizational chaos in the security services during the highly sensitive period before the elections would only weaken the law enforcement structures.

There have also been personnel decisions made by Putin regarding the highest positions in the security services, that contradict the thesis of “KGB 2.0”. Assigning loyal and efficient people to lead the SWR and the FSO (Sergey Naryshkin, the former Chairman of the State Duma, and Dmitri Kochnev, the former bodyguard of the president, respectively) suggests that both services are going to be important in Putin’s state security system. It can hardly be assumed that the president entrusted the position of the head of intelligence to the previous chairmen of the lower house of the parliament and an experienced colleague from Soviet services for a maximum of one year. It is unlikely that Naryshkin was the best candidate to liquidate the SWR. Therefore, a denial by the former Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office and a former high-ranking intelligence officer, Sergei Ivanov, was not a surprise. In a press interview from October 18, he denied the “Kommersant” news report a month earlier. He stressed that intelligence and the counterintelligence cannot operate under unified leadership. It is unlikely that he came up with this kind of revelation on his own, especially as the Kremlin was previously reluctant to deny the reports on the MGB with certainty. Why did it take a month to reject rumors about the return of the KGB? One of the theories for this is that Putin and his people behind that leak which served to compromise the idea of the MGB. Later it seemed that it was the objective of the FSB, and not Putin himself. There is also another possibility: it was the FSB that wanted to exert pressure on the Kremlin by publishing the article; this hypothesis is supported by the fact that “Kommersant” has been considered to be the FSB’s mouthpiece for a long time.

The confusion surrounding the publication of the article on “the plan to establish the MGB” confirms the very high level of tension within state security structures in Russia. The article and the related commotion are just another stage of the fight for the future form of the state security apparatus that, according to Putin’s idea, is supposed to be based on two strong pillars in the form of two competing centers, which is in line with the “checks-and-balances” rule, utilizing a consolidated and economic formula.

Putin’s vision for the functioning of the state security apparatus in the coming years of his presidency is based on the assumption that there are two types of secret services operating in Russia. This does not mean military and civilian services. Putin is successfully creating law enforcement institutions that are primarily loyal, not to the State but to him personally. This means that we are facing the creation of an apparatus where the FSB will look after the interests of the regime, its members and the State they believe to be their property, while the safety of Putin himself and his position will be taken care of by other institutions: the National Guard and the FSO.

The most important event of the year for the security forces was the creation of the Russian National Guard, also known as Russian Guards (Russian: Rosgvardiya). As expected, Putin excluded internal troops from the structures of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and created the National Guard on their basis. Other military formations were also excluded from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: OMON and SOBR. They too are now part of the Russian Guards, which is headed by Viktor Zolotov, who spent nearly three years as the Commander-in-Chief of internal troops. Zolotov is a former officer of the Ninth Chief Directorate of the KGB. In the 1990s in Saint Petersburg, he was responsible for protecting Putin; after that he headed the Presidential Security Service for 13 years. In 2013, Putin sent the trusted officer to the Ministry of Internal Affairs to prepare the ground for the creation of the Russian National Guard on the basis of internal troops. The new formation has already been nicknamed ‘Putin’s praetorians’, as they answer directly to him, while their commander is the most trusted silovik of the president; some even say that he is for Putin what Nikolai Vlasik, Stalin’s head of security, was for the Soviet dictator. On 4 October 2016, Putin issued a decree specifying the powers of the Russian Guards. The list contains about a hundred powers, including the right to conduct “information actions”, collect fingerprints, issue permits to sell guns and give concessions to private security agencies. The tasks of the formation totalling even half a million trained and armed men (with its own armored and air forces) also include securing the state borders, fighting terrorism and organized crime, ensuring public order and protecting key facilities and state infrastructure. It is difficult not to notice that the Russian Guards’ competencies overlap with those of the FSB and the FSO. This is not a coincidence, as the Russian Guards are supposed to compete with the FSB and to complement the FSO.

The Federal Protection Service and its component, the Presidential Security Service, are to serve as Putin’s personal security service together with the National Guard. This is why in May 2016 Putin thanked Evgeny Murov, Head of the FSO, for his several years of service. The 71-year-old security services veteran (in the KGB since 1971, and later in the FSB) was one of the longest-serving heads of security services in post-Soviet Russia (2000-2016), which clearly reflects Putin’s trust in him. However, new times call for even more loyal, and younger soldiers. This is why Putin appointed his own candidates to the positions of the heads of FSO and SBP instead of those chosen by the outgoing Murov. The new Director of the FSO, Dmitri Kochnev, was previously the head of SBP, where he was replaced by Alexei Rubezhnoi, Putin’s former aide-de-camp. Changes in these positions are just as important as those in the FSB, GRU or SWR. The Federal Protection Service is the most elite, and best equipped and manned security service in Russia. Moreover, it has as many as 20,000 officers. Not only does the FSO protect important facilities and state officials (in the case of the president, this is the role of the SBP), but it also serves a function similar to the NSA in the United States (electronic intelligence).

Putin has already attempted to build his private security service before. In autumn 2007, after the famous “siloviki war”, he decided that he could no longer be sure of the loyalty of the FSB; therefore, he established the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (SKR). It eventually transpired that this “Russian FBI” was not sufficient for his aims, especially as it became very closely tied to the Lubyanka. It was at this point that Putin decided to base his reign on internal troops; in 2013 he entrusted Zolotov with this mission and sent him to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. However, building the might of the Russian Guards is no easy task. Preparations took nearly three years, and when the formation was ready, other siloviki, feeling threatened by the new service, showed Putin that he would still have to take their opinions into consideration. He suffered an embarrassing setback regarding. On 6 April 2016, Putin issued a decree assigning the newly appointed head of the National Guard to be a permanent member of the Security Council of the Russian Federation. However, the decree was corrected after only five days: it turned out that Zolotov would have actually been given the lower status of an ordinary member of the Security Council. This means, for example, that the director of the FSB would be his superior.

The FSB is to be the second pillar of the security system. This is apparent first from its activity in recent months and second from personnel decisions. Staff changes at the Lubyanka strengthened the position of the Secretary of the Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev (former Director of FSB), and Zolotov. At the same time, this does not undermine the position of the current Director of the Federal Security Service, Alexander Bortnikov. There have been claims that these two figures, who in recent months have clearly moved up in the FSB structures, are considered as potential successors of Bortnikov. By the end of 2016, Yevgeny Zinichev unexpectedly became FSB Deputy Director. He is a former officer of the SBP; in the past he had been a member of Putin’s personal security team. In June 2015, the president assigned him to the FSB as head of the FSB’s regional directorate for Kaliningrad. In July of the same year, Zinichev became acting governor of the Kaliningrad region, and was later appointed to a new, specially-created sixth deputy director position at the FSB. At the Lubyanka, he would become the eyes and ears of Zolotov and, through him, of Putin himself. He may also be groomed to be the successor of Bortnikov.

The second possible candidate for head of the FSB, apart from Zinochev, is Sergei Korolev, the new head of the Economic Security Service division at the FSB (SEB FSB). His position and role in the recent actions of the FSB indicates that the Kremlin chose him to be the “main Oprichnik”. A series of FSB actions aimed at governors, members of the government and officers of other security services as part of the fight against corruption means that the Lubyanka is expanding its influence and using powers which until now had been unused. All major arrests and revisions in 2016 can be attributed to an elite cell with less than 40 employees, the 6th Main Directorate of Internal Safety (GUSB FSB). The service, created in 2007, remains a mystery, although there have been rumors that it is under the influence of Zolotov. Until recently, the 6th Directorate, was headed by Ivan Tkaczhev, while GUSB was headed by Sergei Korolev, who had previously been connected to the Minister of Defense, Anatoliy Serdyukov.

This list of special operations of the Korolev-Tkaczhev combination is impressive. It all started in 2014 with the arrest of the head and deputy head of the General Administration of Economic Security and Combating the Corruption at the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Both were charged with graft and lost their positions. Denis Sugrobov, heading the anti-corruption structure of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, was replaced by Dmitrij Mironov from the FSO, Zolotov’s man. Boris Kolesnikov fell from a balcony after the interrogation and died on the spot. In September 2015, GUSB FSB detained the Governor of Komi Republic, Vyacheslav Gaizer, for corruption. Alexander Khoroshavin, the Governor of Sakhalin, who had connections with Rosneft President Igor Sechin, was detained in March 2016. A few days later, Deputy Minister of Culture Grigoriy Pirumov was arrested and, at the end of March 2016, the same fate befell Dmitry Mikhalchenko, the most powerful businessman in Saint Petersburg, charged with smuggling and corruption. The latter was actually a blow against Murov, as Mikhalchenko had some connections with the FSO and the son of its director. However, it was the arrest of Nikita Belykh, Governor of Kirov Oblast, by GUSB FSB that generated the greatest media attention, whereas the attack of the FSB on the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (SKR) had the greatest political importance. In July 2016, GUSB detained a number of high-ranking officers, including those closely connected to the Head of SKR Alexander Bastrykin: Deputy Head of SKR in Moscow, General Denis Nikandrov, and the Head of the Main Directorate of Interdepartmental Interaction and Inherent Security of the Moscow SKR, Colonel Mikhail Maksimenko. Those arrests were connected to notorious gangster “Young Shakro”, who enjoyed the protection of the Moscow branch of the SKR in return for millions of rubles in bribes. Bastrykin was not informed about the action. This was the first time that the FSB had decided to strike against the Investigative Committee with which it had always cooperated before, which may confirm that the days of the SKR are numbered.

The Korolev-Tkaczhev alliance was also deployed in a purge within the FSB. First, the Economic Security Service division at the FSB (SEB FSB), which covers economic counter intelligence, accused the GUSB of an abuse of power in the Belykh case. In response, the GUSB started to send inspection teams to the SEB and accused their heads of connections with the apprehended businessman Mikhalchenko. In June and July 2016, the head of SEB and heads of departments subordinated to him: Department “K” (credit-financial sphere), Department “P” (industry enterprises) and Department “T” (transport enterprises) were forced to resign. Korolev has become the new head of SEB, and Tkaczhev has become the head of the crucial Department “K”. In this way the group considered to be connected to Zolotov achieved a monopoly on fighting corruption, destroying counterpart structures of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the SKR and the FSB in the process. It is not difficult to detect the hand of Putin in these development, as he knows that the key to discipline the elites, especially during an economic crisis, is to wage an anti-corruption crusade. The power of this tool could be seen by the elites in mid-November, when a blow was struck against the Minister of Economic Development, Alexey Ulyukaev.

The year 2016 was one of the most turbulent in post-Soviet history of state security structures in Russia, as the greatest shifts since the beginning of Putin’s reign took place. Spectacular arrests and revisions, surprising resignations and nominations, resulted not only from the plans of the Kremlin, but also from an increasing nervousness in the sector and officers’ attempts to secure their positions, without consultations with their superiors. First, through his decrees Putin liquidated the Federal Migration Service (FMS) and the Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN). Their assets were taken over by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, as a form of compensation for taking away the internal troops as well as the OMON and the police Spetsnaz (SOBR) units. Calling up the National Guard closed this first stage of reforms. The campaign led by the FSB against the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the SKR has been aimed at the ultimate marginalization of the former’s role in the state security sector and the probable liquidation of the latter. Interestingly, scandal avoided only the FSB and Russian Guards/FSO, which are the two pillars of the newly constructed security system. Standing aside, there are two other important stand-alone secret services: the civil intelligence (SWR) and the military intelligence (GRU). The latter was severely weakened by the Kremlin during Serdyukov’s reforms and now has no independent political role (i.e. is no longer a potential threat to Putin), as it concentrates the majority of its activities on military conflicts in which Russia participates (Ukraine, Syria). However, in early 2016 the military intelligence was strong enough to oppose Putin: instead of the former bodyguard of the president, Alexei Dumin, it was Igor Korobov, a man from within the “Aquarium” who became the new head of the GRU. It was a tough battle, as confirmed by the fact that the new head of the GRU was announced a month after the death of his predecessor. As far as the SWR is concerned, it cannot be perceived by Putin as a potential collaborator in the conspiracy against him, because of its specificity (intelligence operations outside the country, mostly analytical functions).

The dissolution of the KGB only formally broke the unity of the security apparatus. The area of internal safety, external safety, and foreign intelligence have been tied together and been the subject of cooperation for a long time, and separating them was merely a façade. To a large extent, this was caused by personal reasons: the common KGB origins of medium and high-level personnel in each service. It took a generation for things to start changing. Resignations of subsequent old-time heads of services and their replacement with officers whose careers practically started in Putin’s Russia strengthened the breakdown of the Russian intelligence community more than structural divisions and changes of names. Importantly, the shifts in executive positions were accompanied by the lowering of the political importance of new heads of services and departments. Viktor Ivanov, Konstantin Romodanovski, Pawel Fradkov or Evgeny Murov were all much stronger and independent players. Their successors are not only younger, but also devoid of political ambitions, and ready to follow Putin’s orders to a greater extent than the old comrades.

The third presidential term of Putin has stimulated an increase in the ambitions of people in the security services. First, it has been encouraged by the general global trends of anti-US rhetoric, growing isolationism in Russia and the crisis of the liberal project. Second, the role of the secret services has expanded as a result of conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. Militarization of state policy has made the Security Council, where siloviki are strongly represented (with the former head of FSB, Patrushev, as its Secretary), the real center of authority instead of the government. Faced with these new conditions, Putin has to reconstruct the entire security system of the regime. Objective factors, including the aging of the old guard, help him in this respect. After a few years of his reign, Putin was less dependent on his former friends from the Lubyanka, who took positions in nearly all areas of public life: business, policy, law enforcement institutions, central administrations and regions. On the brink of another presidential term, a new type of chekist is emerging. Contrary to the veterans of the Soviet KGB, practically their entire careers are connected to Putinocracy, and it is Putin himself they owe the most to. It is they who are eager to secure the continuous reign of the current incumbent of the Kremlin.

All texts published by the Warsaw Institute Foundation may be disseminated on the condition that their origin is credited. Images may not be used without permission.

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