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The Russian State Takes Ominous Steps To Bolster 'Foreign Agents' Law

FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov (left), Russian President Vladimir Putin (center), and Foreign Intelligence Service Director Sergei Naryshkin (right) attend a meeting with intelligence officers in Moscow in December 2019.
FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov (left), Russian President Vladimir Putin (center), and Foreign Intelligence Service Director Sergei Naryshkin (right) attend a meeting with intelligence officers in Moscow in December 2019.

MOSCOW -- Earlier this month, the Federal Security Service (FSB) published a draft instruction listing military and technical topics that Russian citizens could be deemed "foreign agents" for discussing, making them subject to restrictions and possible administrative or criminal punishment.

The FSB's instruction -- containing 61 separate points -- would be an explanatory supplement to the controversial "foreign agents" law from last year under which individuals can be designated "a person carrying out the function of a foreign agent" if they "are deliberately collecting information about military or military-technical activities of the Russian Federation that, if received by foreign sources, could be used against the security of the Russian Federation." Under the law, which President Vladimir Putin signed in December 2020, designated "foreign agents" can face up to five years in prison for failing to report on their activity.

The FSB's draft document includes points such as "information about evaluations or predictions of the development of the military-political or strategic environment," information about the purchase of goods and services for the army, the location or number of military units, personal information about military personnel or their families, and information about investigations by the FSB or military investigative agencies. It could also be dangerous to comment on the space agency Roskosmos, which is mentioned by name in at least a dozen points.

Sweeping Restrictions

The document's third point is particularly sweeping, including "information about the locations, real names, organizational structures, weaponry, or numbers" of military units, units of the National Guard, executive branch units responsible for civil defense, the foreign intelligence services, all organs of the FSB, organs of government security, military prosecutors, the military investigative units of the Investigative Committee, organs responsible for military mobilization, military firefighting units, or any special structures created during wartime.

"Under these new conditions, just to pronounce the words 'transparent security services' would be considered a crime," said journalist and author Andrei Soldatov, editor of the website and co-author, most recently, of The Compatriots: The Brutal And Chaotic History Of Russia's Exiles, Emigres, And Agents Abroad.

The headquarters of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) in Moscow.
The headquarters of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) in Moscow.

"Secrecy is being taken to a monstrous extreme," he said.

Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer noted that the FSB's list is not about state secrets, saying that individuals run the risk of being labelled "foreign agents" even if they are merely quoting state television reports.

"In order to prove treason or espionage, you have to prove that a person collected information for some organization…and you have to prove that the information was secret," he told RFE/RL. "And if the information was not secret, it is much more difficult -- although it can still be done."

The new law and the FSB's draft instruction, Felgenhauer said, are "incomprehensibly written."

"In general, that is the way we write laws here," he said. "It means that anyone who is interested in military topics, writes any sort of posts, has a blog, and who was cited as a source somewhere can be designated a 'foreign agent.'"

"And if you are designated, our legal system has no way back," Felgenhauer added. "It will create living conditions for you that will most likely prompt you to move abroad if you have that possibility. That is, [the law] makes it much easier to push people out without actually having to imprison them as traitors.”

De Facto Public Enemies

Given the increasingly oppressive atmosphere, he said on a wryly bleak note, “Maybe that is actually sort of humane.”

Soldatov made the same point, saying that "it even looks a little democratic, [officials] probably think, because people aren't thrown into prison but are just turned into de facto public enemies."

Military analyst Yury Fyodorov agreed that the FSB's list is ominously expansive.

"Practically nothing remains," he said. "The whole point of these actions is to expand as much as possible the range of instruments and legal grounds in the event that it is necessary to imprison someone or just to ruin their life."

"Another point is to make sure that Russian media only publish things that are useful…to the Defense Ministry and military commanders," Fyodorov added.

Fyodorov said it is government policy to emphasize reports of newly developed weaponry for both domestic and international reasons and, therefore, it is important to keep a lid on information that could undermine such assertions.

At the same time, he argued the military could use the new restrictions to prevent reports of its own failures from reaching the political leadership, up to and including Putin.

"This issue bothers the military and the military-industrial complex even more than the idea that such information might reach a potential enemy," Fyodorov said.

Felgenhauer noted that such a mentality was a powerful feature of the Soviet system and is also found in Western societies. Massive military spending, he said, often depends on the perception of the situation the military conveys to the political leadership.

"People can't be allowed to interfere in such games where such enormous sums of money are at stake," he said. "They must be stopped."

The looming expansion of the "foreign agents" law not only does not necessarily involve state secrets, but it also does not necessarily involve foreign governments. The FSB document emphasizes that Russians can be designated if their information reaches "foreign governments, foreign government organs, international or foreign organizations, foreign citizens, or people without citizenship."

Soldatov said the secret services are bolstering their already-strong ability to protect their own secrets.

"I worked for years to get information about crimes committed by FSB agents," he said. "They had already been convicted and stripped of their ranks, and removed from any current service, but nonetheless information [is classified.] Even simple statistics without any names are classified."

He added that journalists are particularly vulnerable because even if they get editorial or even governmental approvals for their stories, the government's position could change or a new official could appear with different ideas and "the person whose name is on the story will be to blame."

"There is no way out of this situation besides simply curtailing coverage of such problems," he concluded.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting from Moscow by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Yelena Rykovtseva.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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