Last week, I used my column in the Moscow News to ruminate about the Federal Protection Service (FSO), and the paradox raised by the sight of an officer hurriedly relighting the Olympic torch with his cigarette lighter, that this is at once one of the most visible yet secretive agencies within the Russian security apparatus. I wanted to use my blog—where I don’t have to worry about word limits!—to revisit that text and develop some of the thoughts within it.
On the one hand the FSO has a high profile, from the blue-jacketed security officers outside Lenin’s tomb and the goose-stepping Kremlin Guards at the Eternal Flame, to the inevitable sunglasses-and-earpieces coterie of bodyguards around President Putin. And it even gets a cameo role in the Call of Duty video game series.
On the other, the FSO is something of an enigma. (It’s also distinctly protective of its own privacy; last time I took a photo of an FSO officer in Moscow, he demanded I delete it from my camera. He had a gun. I complied.) Like most of Russia’s security services, it traces its pedigree back into the KGB, specifically its Ninth Directorate. With the dismemberment of the KGB in the collapse of the USSR, the Ninth metamorphosed into the Main Protection Directorate (GUO) and became an instrument of the increasingly willful and unpredictable Alexander Korzhakov, head of Boris Yeltsin’s Presidential Security Service (SBP).
Korzhakov, a classic Chekist thug made good, used the SBP and GUO to spy on and harass real and supposed enemies of the Kremlin in a way that often makes the present campaign against the opposition look positively affectionate. This was a time when oligarch Gusinsky’s bodyguards were forced to lie face down in the snow under the guns of SBP heavies, and when by his own admission he could hush up the death of a man struck by a drunk Yeltsin going for a drive. Yeltsin was happy to use him as an asset so long as he was useful (indeed, he granted him extraordinary powers), but once he became a liability, when Yeltsin needed the support of the oligarchs to win—steal—the 1996 elections, he was summarily sacked. The SBP was resubordinated to the GUO, which in turn was reorganized and renamed the FSO.
The FSO is a formidable pocket empire. There’s the Presidential Regiment, 5,500 of the finest examples of young Russian manhood (they have to be at least 190 cm tall, able to hear a whisper at 20’ and never been treated for a sexually-transmitted disease) ever to stand motionless in front of a red wall. If it’s movement you’re after, the Special Purpose Garage has a fleet of over a hundred cars, motorcycles and vans. If that’s not fast enough, there’s the four-aircraft Presidential Squadron. Just want to make a call? The Special Communications and Information Service (SSSI) is responsible for making sure Putin’s connected and not overheard (maybe there’s a job for Snowden there?). Roll in the bullet-catchers of the SBP, and General Evgeny Murov, the FSO’s director, has just over 20,000 officers under his command.
General Evgeny Murov
Born in Zvenigorod, Moscow region, 1945.
Has been in state security since 1971.
1974-91: various positions within the KGB, largely its First Chief Directorate (foreign espionage) including 3½ years in South East Asia.
1992-97: served in the domestic security services (called first the MB, then FSK, then FSB) in St. Petersburg
1997: Deputy head of the FSB Directorate for the city of St. Petersburg and Leningrad region.
1998-2000: First deputy head of the Department of Economic Counterintelligence in the FSB’s central apparatus.
2000-: Director of the FSO.
He has been awarded the Silver Cross, 1st Class, the Order “For Service to St. Petersburg”, the Marshal Zhukov State Award of the Russian Federation and the National Award of Peter the Great.
The FSO is much more than just guards and drivers, though (and, like any other Russian agency, an economic empire: it reportedly profits from approving licenses to supply food, drink and fitments for the Kremlin). It has acquired a role as something of a silovik fact-checker, called on to stop the president from being manipulated by his briefers from the other security agencies. In information as well as physical security terms, it has become the answer to the age-old question of who watches the watchers.
As well as proximity (uniquely, the FSO is headquartered in the Kremlin, in the Arsenal building, so-called Block 14, currently being renovated), this reflects Putin’s understanding of his spooks. An insider in his time, Putin knows how intelligence agencies can bend and burnish the truth. He relies on Murov—who unusually has a career spanning both foreign intelligence and domestic security and whose unerring memory and rigid devotion to duty are legendary—to tell it to him straight, and his has tended to be a voice of caution. He has also often sought to balance out other security agencies; when the FSB tries to empire-build, as it habitually does, he tends to join the coalition opposed to allowing one agency to become dominant.
This commitment to caution and balance, as well as his value to Putin, helps explain Murov’s longevity; he has held this position for 13 years, unprecedented for a post-Soviet silovik. (It’s worth noting that, as seems to be the norm for senior Kremlin insiders, there is a martial art connection: in 2007, he was elected—he was the only candidate—as president of the Russian Boxing Federation; I suppose it makes a change from judo).
However, he is now 68, well beyond the official maximum retirement age. There are some suggestions he is getting tired of the job; more to the point, lean and hungry would-be successors have begun their covert maneuvers. And Putin seems increasingly unwilling to hear tough truths.
Already, the SBP’s chief, Viktor Zolotov, has moved across to become deputy commander of the MVD’s Interior Troops (and probably commander, once retirement-age deputy minister Nikolai Rogozhkin retires). Now it may well be that the FSO will soon have a new chief, and that will mean a new voice whispering advice into Putin’s era. If that man is on the maximalist wing of the Russian elite and willing to support the likes of Investigations Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin, then that may tilt the balance of opinion in Putin’s inner circle towards repression. (Or vote-rigging: since 2003, the SSSI has had overall authority over the data links through which GAS Vybory, the official system logs and transmits election results.)
Until now, the FSO has played a calming role, seeing the greater threat in over-reaction. If the FSO changes tack, as Korzhakov demonstrated, it could become a powerful weapon for the Kremlin in the short-term—and a dangerous source of mistrust and instability thereafter.