Over the past two months, a team of reporters and researchers from multiple countries managed to identify several of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agents who tracked and possibly tried on several occasions to murder opposition figure Alexey Navalny. The investigation was a success because the officers committed a series of basic errors when using their cell phones and mobile Internet connections while in the field. The apparent bumbling at the heart of the story has raised questions about the professionalism of Russia’s top intelligence agency. For insights into this matter and for answers to other burning questions about the FSB, Meduza turns to journalist Andrei Soldatov, who together with Irina Borogan has written several books about the Russian intelligence community’s operations at home and abroad, including “The New Nobility,” “The Red Web,” and “The Compatriots.”
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 Safronovbehind 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.