Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 14

Changes may be on the way for the Russian security services

By Stanislav Lunev

Recent developments in the Russian defense establishment suggest that the Kremlin’s plans for military reform may be accompanied by structural changes in the other "power ministries" too. The removal of Yury Baturin as secretary of the Defense Council, which is personally headed by the Russian president and which supervises the "power ministries," and the appointment to Baturin’s post of a civilian, State Military Inspector Andrei Kokoshin, can be seen as the beginning of a shakeup in the upper echelons of the Russian security services as a whole. A number of the services may lose their present right to maintain their own troops. That, at least, is the prediction of a number of influential Russian newspapers.

The most serious shakeup, the press reports, awaits the Russian armed forces which, according to a proposal prepared by the General Staff, will be reduced almost by half. New people will be needed to implement these painful changes. This is confirmed by the personnel reshuffling in the highest echelons in the military that was carried out by the new minister of defense, Igor Sergeev, soon after he took office in May. Among notable newcomers is the head of the General Staff’s Main Personnel Directorate, Ilya Panin, who formerly held a similar position for the Strategic Missile Forces (from which the new minister of defense also came).

There are reports that the personnel shuffle will affect key branches of the General Staff, including the Main Operations Directorate, the Main Operational-Mobilization Directorate and others. Russia’s most mysterious and, so far, least reformed intelligence service, the GRU, also got a new head in May. He is the 51-year-old Col. Gen. Valentin Korabelnikov. He replaced the retiring Gen. Fedor Ladygin, who had headed the GRU since 1992. The outside world knows virtually nothing about the GRU, which has responsibility for overseeing all other branches of military intelligence, since it has not been successfully penetrated since Oleg Penkovsky in 1961.

Korabelnikov is a professional intelligence officer and a graduate of the Military-Diplomatic Academy, which trains professional officers for Russian strategic and operational intelligence. He is said to be a pragmatic and decisive officer. During his twenty years of service in the GRU, Gen. Korabelnikov traversed almost all the steps of the bureaucratic ladder in military intelligence. Even in recent times, when he was first deputy head of the GRU, he continued to be personally involved in operational work. He saw action in Chechnya, for example, where GRU spetsnaz brigades fought, and was himself wounded there. It was reportedly Korabelnikov who developed and implemented, on April 26 last year, the operation to eliminate Chechen president Djohar Dudaev. After Dudaev’s location had been identified by a special airplane from Air Force intelligence, the Chechen leader was killed by a missile strike which homed in on his satellite telephone link.

According to one press account, Gen. Korabelnikov has been tasked with "realigning the activities" of the GRU away from the strategic priorities of the Cold War and bringing them into line with the latest changes in military policy and the strictures of Russia’s post-Soviet budget. (1)

The GRU is Russia’s largest security service. It deploys six times more officers in foreign countries than the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), which is the successor of the First Main Directorate of the KGB. Moreover, 25,000 spetsnaz troops are directly subordinated to the GRU, whereas the KGB’s various successor-organizations have been deprived of their own military formations since 1991. Traditionally, the GRU has proved far more effective at collecting intelligence than the SVR, which tends to be occupied with its own political games. This perhaps explains why the GRU has not been subjected to any reform over the last seven years.

It was in large part the successes of the GRU that helped the Soviet Union stay in the technological arms race. For example, it is known that the design of the Soviet SS-20 is almost the same as that of Western intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Tu-160 heavy bomber, the An-72 military transport plane, and a whole generation of Soviet anti-aircraft missiles were copies of Western models. And yet, despite its remarkable successes, the GRU appears to have significantly less influence on the government than the SVR.

The head of the SVR, Gen. Vyacheslav Trubnikov, meets with President Boris Yeltsin every Monday. Gen. Korabelnikov, by contrast, has to follow the chain of command and report to his immediate superiors in the General Staff and the Ministry of Defense. And while the SVR enjoys the advantage of "its own man" in the Foreign Ministry (where its former chief, Yevgeny Primakov, is now in charge) the GRU’s influence is limited even within the General Staff.

In addition to the GRU, the proposed reforms could affect other Russian security services, most probably, the Federal Security Service (FSB). This is the main successor of the former KGB’s internal punitive apparatus. The activity of this service is well known, thanks to a whole series of arrests of "foreign spies" made by the FSB in the last few years. In 1996, for example, the FSB exposed 27 professional intelligence officers and 60 Russian citizens alleged to have been working for foreign intelligence services. (3)

The growth of espionage on behalf of foreign countries in Russia was said to be so high that FSB director Nikolai Kovalev was obliged to set up a special "hot line," which Russian citizens who had been recruited by foreign security services were invited to call. This measure, according to the FSB director, was extremely successful, but it has not insulated the FSB from further reorganization. In a decree signed at the end of May, President Yeltsin ordered that most of the FSB’s former subdivisions should be reorganized into five departments: counterintelligence; counterterrorism; analysis, prognosis and planning; personnel; and support. (4) Only four subdivisions escaped reorganization: the investigative, security and management directorates, and the external surveillance service.

The FSB’s Kovalev has also been given the task of forming, on the basis of the economic counterintelligence directorate, a new subdivision devoted to investigating and countering the activities of organized crime. There are also rumors that several agencies that were subordinated to the KGB until that body was broken up, may be put under the control of the FSB in the form of two new departments. The agencies in question are the Federal Border Service (FPS) and the Federal Government Communications and Information Agency (FAPSI).

Several candidates are said to be vying for the leadership of the renewed FSB, which has already acquired almost all of the KGB’s former organizational might. Many observers think that the present director of the FPS, Gen. Andrei Nikolaev, has the inside track. His chances of getting this important post were seen as improved when he met recently with First Deputy Premier Anatoly Chubais. Six months ago, Chubais helped the FPS win the right to levy a special tax for crossing the border.

Nikolaev is often depicted by the media as preferring the interests of his own department to those of the state. This is how the press interprets decisions such as the FPS’s creation of its own military institute in the city of Kurgan, or the opening of a departmental medical institute in Nizhny Novgorod. Otherwise, such decisions are hard to reconcile with the current climate of budget cutbacks and financial austerity. It is not, after all, as if border guards had their own special medical theory or practice.

Specialists argue, too, that the fact that FPS’s decision to maintain its own external intelligence service exceeds Russia’s budgetary possibilities. Such extravagance hardly fits in with the announced reform plans to streamline the system, reduce duplication, and consolidate everything under the FSB. Obviously, in today’s complex sociopolitical situation, cuts in the armed forces and security services, and the personnel reshuffling connected with them, must be carried out in a careful and delicate manner, not in the manner in which the departure of defense minister Igor Rodionov was handled, the circumstances of which gave the army and navy little cause to trust the announced military reforms.

Yeltsin has dismissed as "absolutely without foundation" rumors of Kovalev’s impending replacement at the head of the FSB. (5) In the past, Yeltsin has been known to make such denials just days before removing prominent officials. But Yeltsin has already announced one very important change in the force structures, that is, a far-reaching reform of, and increased role for, the Ministry of Justice. Previously, the Justice Ministry was confined to purely symbolic functions. This is set to change since Yeltsin’s July appointment of Sergei Stepashin as Justice Minister. Until the summer of 1995, Stepashin headed the Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSK), precursor of today’s FSB. Yeltsin has personally promised to increase the role, independence and range of responsibilities of the Justice Ministry. This will begin with the transfer of responsibility for pre-trial detention centers, prisons and labor camps from the Interior Ministry (MVD) to the Justice Ministry. The Justice Ministry is also being tasked with checking the cases of everyone who is behind bars or in pre-trial detention "to see whether they are there for a good cause or not."

Turning the entire penitentiary system over to the Ministry of Justice will mean a substantial reduction in the responsibilities of the MVD and its chief, Gen. Anatoly Kulikov, whose sacking has been predicted countless times by the Russian media. So far, Yeltsin has resisted any temptation to dismiss Kulikov, who regularly reports fresh successes in the fight against organized and other forms of criminal activity.

These recent changes and reorganizations reflect an ongoing struggle for power and influence in Russia’s highest military-political circles, accompanied by the desire of the newly promoted leaders to put their own people in key positions in the "power ministries." In light of the incomplete and unpredictable nature of these process, one may expect that the personnel reshufflings and reorganizations will continue and will be accompanied by increased instability and unpredictability in Russian politics.


1. The Moscow Tribune, May 28, 1997

2. The Moscow Times, May 28, 1997

3. Washington Times, July 4, 1997

4. Delovoi mir, June 23, 1997

5. ORT, September 3, 1997

Translated by Mark Eckert

Stanislav Lunev was formerly a colonel in Soviet Military Intelligence [GRU].