Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pivotal role in running the country is beyond doubt for the vast majority of Russians, but the institution they see as the next in importance, according to a recent Levada Center poll, is not the government or the church – but the Federal Security Service (FSB) (Levada.ru, July 26). It is not the old fears and shadows that shape this perception, and not even Putin’s loyalty to the special services and his demonstrated pride of his formative experience in the KGB. Propaganda does have an impact, but basically people have fairly good idea about the incessant growth of the FSB, justified by the hard tasks of countering terrorism, and of the agency’s rapid spread across the state bureaucracy and penetration of key business groups (Gazeta, July 27).
Speaking last week at a Kremlin ceremony for promoting senior officers, Putin praised the “high professionalism” of the FSB while also stressing global security threats. He singled out the new U.S. bases in Eastern Europe and reiterated, “The Americans will be deploying elements of their strategic weapons systems in Europe for the first time.” It is exactly this perpetual confrontational rhetoric that conjures the specter of a new Cold War, which does not correspond at all to the realities of the fundamentally demilitarized European transformation but is extremely useful for the ever “vigilant” FSB and other special services.
Current political fashion in Moscow dictates a particular stress on advanced technologies, so Putin, chairing last week’s meeting of the Security Council, demanded that leaders concentrate efforts on the task of making Russia into “one of the leaders of the global information space by the year 2015” (Vremya novostei, July 26). It is typical that “strategic priorities” of this kind are discussed not by the government but by the Security Council, where all special services are duly represented (Gazeta, July 25). They are typically portrayed as being “cutting-edge” and technologically advanced and Putin, visiting the new headquarters of the military intelligence (GRU) last autumn, praised its sophisticated communication and monitoring systems based exclusively on Russian technologies (Newsru.com, November 8, 2006). In fact, however, it is exactly in the information technology and computerization fields that Russia is hopelessly lagging behind, and the massive new financing for projects based on nanotechnologies resembles not a scientific breakthrough but a multi-billion dollar hoax (Gazeta.ru, July 23).
The FSB and other special services remain true believers not in databases or satellites (despite Putin’s pet global navigation project GLONASS that reportedly will outperform the U.S.-controlled GPS), but in networks of agents and informers that generate invaluable “human intelligence.” The “cadres” constitute their key asset, but the intoxicating feeling of omnipotence accentuated by all-penetrating corruption makes their performance erratic and outright dangerous. A week ago in Moscow a taxi driver was shot by an angry drunk passenger who turned out to be an FSB officer, so the case was promptly closed (Novaya gazeta, July 26). This sort of behavior becomes characteristic for operational activities as well but each time Russian agents are caught red-handed, as in Tbilisi last September, when a storm of indignant protests against “hostile provocations” engulfed Moscow. There was barely any mention in the Russian media of the recent hearings in the U.S. Congress on the Russian special services’ activities, which did not miss the occasion of the CIA 60th anniversary to remind about its fiascos, from the Bay of Pigs to the non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (Vesti, July 26).
Putin spared no praise for the Foreign Intelligence Service, asserting that its work “contributes to strengthening the international positions of our country,” which might appear rather odd in the week when the international scandal around the murder of ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko reached its peak. No irony was implied, however, and Putin’s scornful remark that U.K. officials should “have their brains changed” before advising Russia to change its constitution appeared to come from the bottom of the heart (Ekho Moskvy, July 26). That rare raw emotion betrayed more than just irritation over the stain on Russia’s prestige; Putin understands perfectly well that the “traitor” was deliberately executed in such a brutal and unusual way so that he would have to become personally involved in the cover-up of the polonium trail.
It is not just Putin’s loyalty that the FSB leadership counts, but also his political dependency, which is accentuated by carefully laid entrapments, such as the Litvinenko case. This “very special” self-serving service is certainly not going to sit and wait until Putin makes up his mind about a successor; instead, it is actively managing the transfer of power. While the media attention is focused on comparing the ratings of two semi-official candidates – Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev – neither of whom makes a convincing claim, a “special operation” appears to be in the making in order to capture the commanding lead by a surprise attack. Earlier this month, Igor Ivanov quietly resigned as secretary of the Security Council. Being a professional diplomat he was probably not thrilled by the enthusiastic recycling of the quasi-Cold War discourse, but perhaps more importantly – he understood that his position was of great value in the cutthroat intrigues around the throne (Vremya novostei, July 19). His deputy, Valentin Sobolev, (with an impeccable FSB pedigree) has been appointed as acting secretary, but the person who gets this job in the coming weeks could enforce a compromise on the competing clans of Putin’s courtiers.
The problem is that allowing the FSB to fill the position would not necessarily produce a candidate who would be up to the job, which would require courage in facing the accumulated problems rather than skill in their manipulation and denial, and leadership in team-building rather than a predilection to secrecy and obsession with control. The gap between the FSB parochial interests and Russia’s national interests has considerably widened hear the end of Putin’s reign and every virtual attack against the West will only make it harder to bridge in the dawning period of reckoning with reality.