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Silovikiland And Its Discontents

Federal Security Service (and former KGB) headquarters in Moscow.
Federal Security Service (and former KGB) headquarters in Moscow.
Despite KGB veteran Vladimir Putin's imminent return to the Kremlin, there is a lot of angst in siloviki-land.

As I blogged earlier in the week, the GRU has just undergone a painful downsizing and downgrade. In the wake of the recent German spy scandal, which bears a striking resemblance to last summer's Anna Chapman debacle in the United States, the Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, has again found itself under unwelcome scrutiny. And as intelligence expert Andrei Soldatov recently wrote, the FSB -- the crown jewel of Russia's security apparatus, has found itself in its "most serious internal crisis in years."

I recently spoke with Russia expert Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and author of the excellent siloviki-watching blog "In Moscow's Shadows" about the situation in the security services (sorry, no link as the interview is yet unpublished). Galeotti says Putin is moving quickly to bring the situation under control before next year's presidential election:

It is clear that Putin's return is a good thing for the siloviki in general and the [individual] security services in particular. They've done terribly well over the past decade not just in terms of their salaries but also in terms of the perks of the job and freedom of maneuver they've been given to carry out extracurricular ways of earning money. I don't think that is going to stop. But at the same time, Putin is looking to be sure that with all those privileges, also comes loyalty and efficiency. Because he knows how the siloviki work, he has some sense of what's going on. Therefore he is launching this campaign to remind them of who is boss. Just to make sure that they don't just concentrate on enriching themselves but are also working for the state...

It's not that Putin has anything against the siloviki and the security apparatus, quite the opposite. Putin wants to remind them who is in charge and that the key thing they need to do is to do their jobs. They can enrich themselves as well, they can play political games as well, but they have to do their jobs.

That said, each of the main security services has its own set of problems. Let's take these one at a time.

As far as the GRU goes, Galeotti says a combination of insubordination and bad performance led Putin to make an example of it:

The GRU is suffering for two reasons. One, politically it made a mistake in being far too outspoken in its criticism of the military reform program. Even though it is being spearheaded by [Defense Minister Anatoly] Serdyukov and [General Chief of Staff Nikolai] Makarov in the military, clearly Putin has smiled upon it -- it wouldn't be happening otherwise. So they need to be brought to heel. But the GRU is just being used as an example of what happens when a military intelligence service is seen as being too outspoken, breaking the etiquette of Kremlin politics, but also insufficiently effective. It has to be said that the GRU has not been seen to be doing a particularly good job of late. It hasn't brought in any particularly great intelligence, it didn't do that well in [the August 2008 war in] Georgia so it was doubly vulnerable in that respect.

In addition to losing more than 1,000 officers and 80 generals, the GRU is about to lose its privileged access to the president and will report instead to the General Chief of Staff instead. (For a more detailed discussion of the changes at the GRU, see my post "Resetting the Siloviki.")

For its part, the SVR doesn't appear to have the GRU's insubordination problem, but it is suffering from a competence deficit in the eyes of many intelligence watchers.

Following last summer's embarrassing (and admittedly titillating) spy scandal in the United States involving 10 deep cover agents including the racy Chapman, the SVR came under intense scrutiny and fierce criticism. There were persistent rumors in the media that the service's director, Mikhail Fradkov, might lose his job and the SVR would be swallowed up by the FSB.

Fradkov and the Foreign Intelligence Service managed to weather that storm. But now, with the recent arrest of two deep cover agents in Germany, the SVR is again under the microscope.

Galeotti told me that he doesn't believe that the SVR would end up being be swallowed by the FSB, but -- depending on how the German scandal shakes out -- Fradkov could again find himself in jeopardy:

The FSB, because it is Putin's old service and is the biggest, clearly has a gravity all its own. It is often raised as the agency that might swallow up the SVR. That is not impossible. But to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure this actually makes sense. There is an emotional drive toward re-gathering the old shards of the KGB and that's fair enough. But even in the old KGB days, the foreign intelligence director was sort of an autonomous animal within the service. I think the SVR is probably safe. Though individual members and its current leader may not be in light of the current German scandal.... If this becomes an embarrassment for Russia, then Fradkov's position becomes vulnerable. You get a certain amount of chances with [Putin], but I think Fradkov has probably used up his full allowance of blunders.

And what about the jewel of the crown, the FSB? With the GRU and the SVR under fire, they should be sitting pretty, right? Well, not so much according to Soldatov.

In a recent article, Soldatov explained that the FSB is currently plagued by a conflict between its senior officer and a rising younger generation eager to receive the perks their superiors enjoy.

Among the gripes, Soldatov writes, is that the senior officers are snapping up all the prime real estate along Moscow's prestigious Rublyovsky Shosse (an exclusive area favored by the Russian elite) as well as the most lucrative moonlighting jobs in state companies:

In the days of the KGB, even generals who built luxury homes for themselves in Rublyovka had to hand the keys over to the state upon their retirement. But in the mid-2000s, senior FSB officials privatized their swanky Rublyovka homes while at the peak of their careers. A level or two lower, colonels and majors were indignant, not only because their superiors were exponentially more wealthy, but because now all the best Rublyovka real estate had been taken. That left the next generation of generals with no land on which to one day build their own private estates in one of the most prestigious areas of Moscow.

It is common practice for the FSB to place officers in large state-affiliated companies, such as Gazprom, to head their internal security operations. This is also a source of tension between generals and midranking officers, who receive much less money and fewer career opportunities. Generals receiving highly remunerative jobs in major companies are more easily tempted to forget the larger interests of the FSB. Instead, they focus on their “civilian” bosses in the business world, and their loyalty to the FSB gets shifted to second place. Thus, it is no wonder that FSB junior and midlevel officers are constantly bickering about corrupt generals.

It may seem banal and petty, but the issue is reportedly causing serious friction. The FSB, according to Soldatov, is also faced with a potential leadership problem because many of its senior officers are approaching retirement age:

Putin chose people of his own age for most of the current senior posts in the FSB. Naturally, many of those officials are nearing or have surpassed 60. Because the law stipulates a retirement age of 60 for military and other state jobs, all of these generals are in a vulnerable position. Only a presidential decree prolonging their contracts can enable them to remain at their posts...

Under such conditions and given the tensions and mistrust between senior and midlevel officers, there is very little chance that a group would appear from within the FSB capable of producing leaders or leveraging its influence prior to the elections. The age crisis has caused a paralysis of leadership, and the friction between the different generations has engendered passivity among mid-ranking officers

For his part, Galeotti expects the FSB to face some form of shakeup in the near future:

Frankly at the moment, the FSB hasn't been doing a very good job. I am quite surprised that the FSB has had such a free ride so far and I don't think Putin is going to let that happen. I think that on this side of the presidential elections, there is going to be something happening. I'm not saying it is going to be as dramatic as a new director, but perhaps some staff turnover at the deputy level and a push to get them to get their house in order."

Galeotti says Putin's basic message to the FSB is this: "Look, you are both corrupt and inefficient. If you want to be allowed to be corrupt, then you at least have to be efficient.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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