Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 10

Russia’s intelligence failure in Chechnya has deep roots

by Martin Ebon

"The grandiose failure [in Chechnya] was the natural resultof the systematic ruining of our special services that began inAugust 1991. Prior to that time, the KGB of the USSR was an enormous,powerful special service. … [Now] the brain center of the Russianspecial services has been completely destroyed."

An anonymous Russian intelligence officer

in Komsomolskaya pravda, July 4, 1995

Russia might have avoided the bloodbath in Chechnya if Moscow’sdomestic secret services had functioned efficiently. The formerKGB’s internal operations are now known as the Federal CounterintelligenceService and that group’s director until last week was Sergei Stepashin,a man who could easily have been dismissed for allowing Yeltsinand the Russian government to drift into war. But the domesticintelligence service’s problems in Chechnya did not start withthe hostage crisis in Budennovsk.

Victor Ivanenko, head of the Russian KGB in 1991, visited Chechnyawith Russian vice president Aleksandr Rutskoi in October to seehow Moscow might respond to Dzhokhar Dudayev’s drive for independence. While many in the Russian Supreme Soviet, and in Moscow moregenerally, wanted to use force against Grozny, Ivanenko spokeout against that. On November 11, he said that he had "alwaysopposed the use of force against the republic’s national movement",and Dudayev acknowledged that the KGB along with the Russian interiorministry had left his republic "without firing a shot"even though he accused them of fomenting unrest against Grozny.

By April 8, 1992, Dudayev had replaced the regional KGB officewith his own Ministry of Security, headed by a close associate,Salman Aldakov, In effect, the Russian KGB had yielded internalsecurity to the Dudayev regime; and for all practical purposes,Ivanenko’s KGB had granted Chechnya administrative independencedespite the wishes of Yeltsin and the Russian parliament.

But Ivanenko did not last long, The entire apparatus of theKGB’s internal directorates passed through a kaleidoscopic seriesof personnel shifts and rearrangements. One after another, supposedlytrusted Yeltsin appointees passed through these new positions. On December 10, 1991, Yeltsin issued a decree merging the domesticKGB and Interior Ministry into a single super-agency, but he quicklybacked down in the face of a massive public outcry as well asa bureaucratic rebellion within the services’ ranks. As a result,the interior ministry retained its separate status, and the FederalSecurity Service was created from portions of the KGB’s domesticsecurity apparatus. But Yeltsin then chose former interior ministerViktor Barannikov to head this new group, a decision that quicklyproved to be a major blunder.

In his memoir, The Struggle for Russia, Yeltsin says thatBarannikov betrayed his trust by engaging in the very corruptionthat the KGB successor agency was supposed to fight, and by allowinghis wife and her friends to go on a Swiss shopping spree. WhenBarannikov was sacked in July 1993, the public explanation wasthat Barannikov was corrupt and had failed to exercise effectiveleadership of the Russian border guards on the Tajik-Afghan border.

When Yeltsin dissolved the Russian parliament on September 21,1993, rebellious vice president Aleksandr Rutskoi named Barannikovas his security minister. And during the fighting, Barannikovdirected the attack on Ostankino, the Moscow television center. After Yeltsin supporters stormed the parliament, Barannikov joinedRutskoy in Lefortovo prison.

Yeltsin then named Nikolai Galushkov to head the FSS. But afterthe parliament amnestied the conspirators of August 1991 and October1993, Yeltsin fired Galushkov who apparently was only too willingto release those amnestied by the parliament.

As a result of this continuing administrative chaos, the FSSnever devoted sufficient time to the obviously delicate task ofdealing with the Chechen independence movement and employing suchnon-military means as intrigue, cajoling, threats, bribery, corruptionand blackmail. Instead, the relatively inexperienced and certainlynaive Stepashin tried only very late to create a puppet Chechenregime, and to hire conscripts–secretly paying recruits the equivalentof $1200 a month to fight Dudayev.

Had the FSS been less involved with its own survival and withbreaking in new directors, its operatives might have been ableto devise an offer to Dudayev–such as an ambassadorship in theMiddle East–that he would have found hard to decline, or to startnegotiations which could have sold the Chechens on the desirabilityof accepting a status like that of Tatarstan. Either of thesemight have been possible before Moscow committed military forcein December 1994, and both would have spared Russia and Chechnyathe horrors of the last six months. Indeed, the FSS could evenhave used propaganda to build up Moscow’s puppet regime in Chechnyato spare the country what it has gone through.

But Stepashin’s FSS failed to do any of these things and, sincethe Russian intervention, failed to provide adequate intelligenceabout Chechen morale. But its failures were not unique in theRussian intelligence community: the GRU–Russia’s military intelligence–hasconspicuously failed to provide accurate assessments of Grozny’sforces and plans. Clearly, Stepashin deserved to be fired. Theproblems he leaves for his successor are enormous.

Martin Ebon is a longtime specialist on the Russian securityservices

and most recently author of KGB: Death and Rebirth.