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Putin Taps Duma Speaker As New Foreign Spy Boss In Latest Kremlin Shakeup

  • Mike Eckel

Sergei Naryshkin is a longtime supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Sergei Naryshkin is a longtime supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

President Vladimir Putin has appointed parliament speaker Sergei Naryshkin as head of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, the latest in a series of personnel firings, appointments, and shuffles at the Kremlin and top security agencies.

Putin made the announcement in a September 22 meeting with Naryshkin and Mikhail Fradkov, the outgoing head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, known as the SVR.

"It is important to promptly head off threats that arise in relation to Russia…neutralize these threats at an early stage," Putin told Naryshkin, according to a Kremlin transcript.

Naryshkin will formally assume his new post on October 5, according to a September 22 decree signed by Putin and published on the Kremlin’s website.

A longtime supporter of Putin who, like the president, hails from St. Petersburg, the 61-year-old Naryshkin reportedly worked abroad for U.S.S.R. intelligence, including a post at the Soviet Embassy in Brussels in the 1980s.

He has served as speaker of the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, since 2011. National elections held September 18 resulted in gains for Putin’s ruling United Russia party, which captured a constitutional majority. Opposition groups and election monitors say the vote was rife with violations.

Tasked primarily with intelligence gathering outside of Russia, the SVR was one of two agencies created when the KGB was split up in the early 1990s. The other is the Federal Security Service, known as the FSB.

Fradkov served as one of Putin’s first prime ministers early in his tenure, and was named head of the SVR in 2007.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that Fradkov will become chairman of the board of state-run Russian Railways. That post is currently held by Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich. The former president of Russian Railways is Vladimir Yakunin, also a longtime Putin friend who was sacked earlier this year.

Russian media outlets have cited unidentified sources as saying that Naryshkin will likely be replaced as speaker of the Duma by Vyacheslav Volodin, currently the first deputy head of Putin's administration and a key architect of Russia's political landscape during the president's third term.

The shuffling at the SVR follows a string of appointments and dismissals in recent months that have left observers scrambling to divine Putin’s intentions.

In April, Putin announced the creation of a new National Guard, headed by former bodyguard and longtime ally Viktor Zolotov, a move that set up an elite unit of interior troops capable of responding quickly to potential internal unrest. The new agency absorbed two other key units of the Interior Ministry -- the OMON riot police, and the SOBR rapid reaction paramilitary police -- effectively gutting the ministry.

In July, the FSB conducted raids against another leading law enforcement agency, the Investigative Committee, accusing several top officials of accepting bribes. The raids were an embarrassment to the committee’s chief, Aleksandr Bastrykin, and Russian media have reported that he will be formally fired in the coming weeks.

'Ad Hoc Decisions'

Last month, the Kremlin announced the dismissal of Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB officer and defense minister who at one point was seen as a top contender to succeed Putin.

And earlier this week, Russia’s Kommersant newspaper cited unidentified sources as saying that the Kremlin planned to fold the SVR and the Federal Protective Service -- responsible for Putin’s personal security -- into a single super agency along with the FSB.

The head of the Federal Protective Service, Yevgeny Murov, was also pushed into retirement earlier this year.

The new agency would reportedly be called the Ministry for State Security, or MGB in Russian, which analysts say could be granted comparably broad -- or even greater -- powers than those of the Soviet KGB.

A growing number of Kremlin watchers have linked the early Duma elections, which were previously scheduled to be held in December, and the personnel changes over the past year, to groundwork for the next presidential election, currently scheduled for March 2018. Russian political analysts have suggested the election could be held earlier.

Tatyana Stanovaya, a political analyst with Moscow’s Center of Political Technologies, argued that Putin’s decisions are increasingly ad hoc and reactive, and that they reflect a narrowing of the circle of advisers that he trusts.

“In this new personnel model, the president is increasingly outsourcing his workload. Overloaded with dirt on everyone around him, Putin has stopped trusting anyone, preferring to shift the burden of responsibility onto those who are beyond reproach,” she wrote in a commentary published by the Carnegie Moscow Center just days after Ivanov’s firing.

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