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Interview: How Russia's Intelligence Agencies Have Adapted After Six Months Of War

Russian occupying forces in Ukraine's Kherson region in July.

It was supposed to be a lightning strike that could see Russian forces in Kyiv after three days of fighting, but six months after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin instead finds itself locked in a grinding war that has left its military and intelligence services humiliated.

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While the scale of Russia’s battlefield setbacks have taken center stage in recent months, it was Russia’s intelligence agencies -- most notably the Federal Security Service (FSB) -- that failed to bring down Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government or incite any form of pro-Russian support as tanks pushed into Ukraine.

Instead, Russian forces came up against widespread resistance from the Ukrainian military and its citizens and the Kremlin has had to deal with a government in Kyiv that has held firm and rallied international support.

But how did Russia’s intelligence agencies get things so wrong and why did the networks they had cultivated for years in Ukraine fail to yield results?

To find out more about how the war has changed Russia’s intelligence services and how their misjudgments have shaped events on the ground, RFE/RL spoke with Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist who has reported on Russia’s intelligence services for decades and is now a fellow in London with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

RFE/RL: Despite repeated failures, the FSB and leaders from other intelligence agencies remain in their positions and the agency has regrouped. What do you think these agencies have learned after six months of war in Ukraine?

Andrei Soldatov: We can see after six months that the war has affected the Russian security services in a very significant way.

If you compare with some other recent wars, such as Afghanistan in the 1980s or Chechnya [in the 1990s and 2000s], we have seen far more significant changes [in Ukraine]. Before the war, only two departments inside of the FSB were involved in dealing with Ukraine. These were the 5th Service, which was in charge of collecting intelligence in Ukraine and then also the Counterintelligence Department, which [was] focused on hunting down Ukrainian spies and attacking journalists and activists.

Now, you see, almost every major department of the FSB is involved in some way with this war effort…and they are getting more and more militarized, which isn’t something we’ve seen before, certainly not during the Chechen wars and certainly not on this scale. You also now have lots of [intelligence officers] from Moscow going to occupied parts of Ukraine for three- month tours. That means that soon there will be lots [of officers] with Ukraine experience, which will change the mentality and the mindset of people who are serving in the Russian security services.

RFE/RL: In the first few months of the war, there was reporting -- including by yourself -- that there was intense infighting among Russia’s intelligence agencies and that the leader of the FSB’s Ukraine directorate, Sergei Beseda, was placed under house arrest over early failures following the invasion. However, U.S. officials recently told The Washington Post that they have seen no evidence that President Vladimir Putin has held any officials to account. What is your reading of things now and has there been any accountability for these costly misjudgments?

Soldatov: I believe that’s the [narrative] that the FSB and the Kremlin wants to project. It's a narrative they are promoting because officially everything is going according to plan, which has been a famous line coming from the Kremlin [over the last] six months. They can’t admit that they started punishing people or the Russian security services because it implies failure.

The FSB has gone to some lengths to deny the whole thing [with Beseda] and tried to silence people who are raising questions and reporting about the problems [the FSB] has been facing. For instance, that's the reason why a criminal case was launched against me.

Actually, Putin was initially so angry [following the invasion of Ukraine] that he attacked Beseda and his department and everyone in the FSB knew that. But after the story became so big, Putin did something unprecedented and actually released [Beseda] because he wanted to show that everything is still going according to plan.

RFE/RL: What is the current status of Sergei Beseda then?

Soldatov: As far as we can see, he’s out of prison. He still has his rank of general [but] he’s not in control of his department. He has been seen publicly and within the FSB, essentially to send the message that he’s still there and that’s basically his role now.

RFE/RL: Is he still doing his job as the head of the Ukraine directorate?

Soldatov: No, you have his deputies doing [his duties]. He's just there to be present and show that he’s not in prison [anymore].

RFE/RL: So how did Russian intelligence manage to get things so wrong? Was it simply wishful thinking or something else at play?

Soldatov: It’s important to understand here that the FSB has never been a really good information service. Rather, they’ve been really good as an instrument [of repression]. They know how to suppress people, how to send them to jail, how to kill people, but to collect intelligence requires a different set of skills.

You also need a slightly different system of government for that to work. You need to have a system of sharing of intelligence [and] you need to have generals who [are] trusted by the rank and file, which is not the case right now.

Andrei Soldatov (file photo)
Andrei Soldatov (file photo)

For many years, there has been a crisis of generations inside the FSB. Putin appointed the most important generals to run the FSB back in the early 2000s and some of them are still holding the same positions. That means you have ambitious colonels and majors and they do not understand how they can get into new positions.

This also [breeds a culture] of distrust where even if they know something is not right -- for instance, around public support for the invasion of Ukraine -- they will tell their superiors what they expect to hear. That goes all the way up to the Kremlin.

Generals like Beseda also understand that they need to please Putin and they also know that Putin introduced selective repressions back in the fall of 2016, which means lots of people have been oppressed, including those inside the FSB. There have been colonels and even generals punished by the Kremlin not for the failure to do their job, but for economic crimes.

The outcome is that this creates a climate where no one is willing to risk their career for telling the truth.

RFE/RL: So where does that leave us? Russian intelligence had extensive networks across Ukraine before the invasion. What do those look like today and moving forward?

Soldatov: Before the war, the FSB relied mostly on bribing people and cultivating contacts in political parties [and government agencies] in Ukraine. Now this game [has] completely changed.

What we see now is something not seen since Chechnya or the end of the Second World War, which is the use of huge filtration camps.

The reason to have these filtration camps is not only to process people and to identify potential Ukrainian spies, but also an opposite use. The FSB has always approached using filtration camps as a way to recruit people. These [are] huge facilities where you process lots of civilians [and] it’s an opportunity to approach and apply physical or psychological pressure on them and recruit large numbers of new contacts.

That’s what the FSB is trying to do right now and then potentially use this new network of agents on the ground. How successful it can be is a good question, but it’s a problem that Ukraine will have to deal with as large numbers of people who went through these camps come back.

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.