Retirement of FSO’s Murov may exacerbate Russia’s underground silovik conflicts

General Evgeny Murov - the stabilising silovik

General Evgeny Murov – the stabilising silovik

It’s not been confirmed, but there are reports that Evgeny Murov, head of the FSO (Federal Guard Service) is stepping down from his position, probably this autumn. Not a great surprise–he’s turning 69 this year and there have been reports that he’s wanted to step down for a few years now. Nonetheless, I view this with some concern because this is a time in which there are considerable pressures bubbling beneath the surface of the Russian intelligence and security community and Murov–the longest-serving of all the security agency chiefs currently in place–performed a quietly useful role as a stabilising force. Yes, his men are the besuited bullet-catchers with earpieces of the Presidential Security Service, the black-clad marksmen up on the roofs around the Red Square on parade days, the goose-stepping Kremlin Guard at the eternal flame and the guys guarding the State Duma and the like. But the FSO also plays an unofficial role as the watchers’ watcher, the agency that keeps tabs on the other security services to keep them in line, and gets to call bullshit if one or the other is briefing too directly for their institutional advantage–I discuss the FSO’s role in more detail here.

Murov’s reported successor is Alexei Mironov, his deputy and the head of Spetssvyaz, the FSO’s Special Communications Service. Fair enough: this should ensure a smooth handover at a time of tension. But it remains to be seen if Mironov has the stature, thick skin and independence of mind both to stay largely out of the silovik-on-silovik turf wars and also to help the Kremlin keep the agencies in check. If not, and this is a theme I’ll be touching on in a talk at Chatham House on Friday, there may be troubling times ahead both for Russia (as the spooks may end up in another internal war) and the outside world (as they may seek to gain traction with the Kremlin by aggressive moves abroad). I’ll be developing these issues more later.

The mystery that is Zaslon

Russian security guard in Iraq with a freed hostage, or a Zaslon operator? No way of knowing...

Russian security guard in Iraq with a freed hostage, or a Zaslon operator? No way of knowing…

There is quite a cult that has grown up around Russia’s Spetsnaz special forces, with books, movies and exposes both serious and farcical alike. Names such as Alpha and Vympel have become well known. Indeed, some could almost be considered franchises: as far back as the 1990s, veterans of the Alpha spetsgruppa had set up  private security firms, trading on their unit’s formidable reputation (see, for example, Tsentr-Al’fa). The one exception appears to be Zaslon (‘Screen’), a very shadowy unit established, by what accounts we have, in 1998 as a special forces unit for the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service). Trained to operate abroad, in everything from hostage-rescue to assassination missions, it continues to shun publicity. Even while researching my forthcoming book, Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991 (yes, consider that a plug: out in August and available for pre-order), I was unable to find anything much on it in Russian and foreign sources alike, even a unit badge. They seem to deploy wearing civvies or the uniforms of other units, including embassy security details.

Now I hear a hint that a Zaslon team (the whole unit only seems to number some 280 or so operators) has been or is about to be deployed to Syria (I report on this here, for Blouin). That implies that Moscow either anticipates serious threats to its nationals (not just the embassy, but also numerous civilian and military advisers working with the Syrian government) or else, readying for an endgame, it wants special forces operators on the ground to spirit out Russian or Syrian officials and/or incriminating documents (as they reportedly did in Iraq) or high-tech equipment they don’t want falling into rebel and thus Western or Iranian hands… Watch this space.

Why I don’t see any Russian plot behind the Boston bombings

I’ve been struck in the past 48 hours how many journalists’ queries I’ve fielded that seemed to take seriously the idea that the Russian state (or local agents in the North Caucasus) could somehow be responsible for the terrible Boston bombing. (I’m talking 6 serious journalists: not the kind of lunatics who, for example, claimed the real bombers were Navy SEALs.) The idea would seem to be that by encouraging, facilitating or downright arranging the attack, they demonize the Chechens, legitimize their brutal security campaign in the North Caucasus, and create a new, more favorable environment for dealing with the USA, in one fell swoop. A cute idea, worthy fodder for some lurid airport thriller, but in my opinion very, very hard to believe.

I can understand why the Tsarnaevs’ family and friends might want to believe that Tamerlan and Dzhokar were framed or set up. It’s the same impulse that leads to the disbelieving and perplexed statements that “he was a lovely man” or “he kept himself to himself” every time some serial killer or child abuser is arrested. Evil thoughts and plans, alas, do not always or even usually manifest themselves through sinister manner and demented cackles.

However, if we look at these particular suggestions (some of which also come from Russians), they seem to rest of a few basic assertions:

  • The FSB had suspicions about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, so the fact that they let him into the country shows that they had some ulterior motive.
  • Putin was willing to blow up Russian apartment buildings in 1999 for political purpose, so he’d have no more compunction seeing terror in Boston.
  • The Russians want to make the world stop hassling them about their tactics in the North Caucasus: this gives them a perfect way of demonstrating that they are simply fighting evil jihadists.
  • In the most ridiculously extreme cases, it’s asserted that the Kremlin just hates the USA anyway, and likes seeing mayhem there.

Of course Moscow will seek to make political capital out of this event; that’s what countries do (I remember when offers of assistance to the USSR after Chernobyl were also accompanied by patronizing suggestions about how this wouldn’t have happened if the Soviets were less Soviet and more Western). That certainly doesn’t mean that “hardliners in Russia might want another Cold War with America, and they may even secretly rejoice at the idea of mayhem in the West.” The pragmatic art of diplomacy is often about making the best from whatever fate presents.

The Kremlin has not shown itself averse to the use of violence in domestic and international politics (I’m inclined to accept the 1999 apartment bombings were state terrorism), but this is a world apart from actually trying to instigate an attack on US soil. The risks so outweigh the potential advantages that I don’t think it would even have been seriously considered. There is one basic rule of covert operations: at some point, they become covert no longer. If Tamerlan had been an active, aware agent, what would have happened if he had been captured? Even assuming that he was instead a dupe, groomed for the purpose by Russian undercover agents posing as jihadists, what happens when the US authorities–who, we can safely assume, are turning the full weight of their massive intelligence capacity onto this case–get a sniff of this? Any political advantages are likely to be transient (think how quickly the post 9/11 amity evaporated); any political risks astronomical.

Besides which, the FSB flags up potential individuals of concern all the time. They don’t necessarily bar them from the country. One could just as easily (and foolishly) suggest that the FBI’s failure to pick up on the brothers’ jihadist sentiments in 2011, after the FSB had passed on a warning about them, showed that somehow the US authorities were involved. (And for the record, while the inevitable inquiry will say for sure, we need not assume the FBI “failed” here–Tamerlan may not have been fully radicalized by then, the FBI get many such warnings, and in any case they are often rightly skeptical of FSB tip-offs as the Russians often claim people are “terrorists” on the flimsiest grounds or just to smear political oppositionists.)

The world is usually a simpler place than people think, and covert actions less common and less attractive than the movies suggest. We’ll wait and see, but to me this is a case of an alienated young man looking for answers and sadly finding them in the ideology of global jihad, and apparently bringing his brother into the cause. In some ways this is harder to understand than deep plots and cunning stratagems, because it requires us to accept that the Western liberal democratic model does not satisfy everyone and that we cannot control the vagaries of lost souls…

(Oh, by the way: North Korea has denied being behind the bombing, too. So that’s alright, then.)

11 alleged Russian spies indicted in New York: some first thoughts

Yesterday, eleven alleged Russian agents were indicted on charges of military technical espionage, specifically illegally exporting micro-electronics that are on an export control list (which can lead to a sentence of 20 years in prison without parole) through a Texas-based company. I reproduce the text of the FBI’s official release below, after the jump, and obviously we wait to see if the defendants are convicted in court. (Russian deputy foreign minister Ryabkov has said they’re not spies. Of course.)

Nonetheless, if it transpires that the prosecutors’ case is proven it says a few things worth noting:

  • Russian intelligence activity is sustained, aggressive and back to Cold War levels. It has been said before (not least, with great vigor, in Ed Lucas’s book Deception), but is worth saying again. It is striking how, after the decimation of their espionage apparatuses in the late 1980s and then 1990s, the Russians have rebuilt them, and also how much latitude they are granted. To be blunt, while Moscow would rather its operations not get publicly blown and complicate Russia’s international relations, it does not see this as important enough to restrain its activities. Nor does this apply just to the USA, with alarm bells ringing across the West, from Prague and Tallinn to Brussels.
  • Multiple Russian intelligence organizations operate in the USA. The agency involved in this case has not been named, but while most espionage is carried out by the SVR, the Foreign Intelligence Service, the specific purpose of this operation might suggest GRU, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff — military intelligence. The domestic security service, the FSB (Federal Security Service) also operates in a very limited way abroad, though — largely monitoring real and perceived security threats such as supporters of North Caucasus terrorists and, rather less creditably, some allies of the opposition movement at home.
  • Economic and technical espionage is an increasing priority. At a time when the SVR is also investing money into systems to monitor and also influence the internet and social media, this is in many ways the new battleground. The Chinese intelligence community understood this first, but the Russians are renewing an interest in high-tech targets which had slipped somewhat in the closing days of the Cold War and since.
  • Russian intelligence seeks to use naturalized US citizens of Russian descent as agents. Most of the alleged agents were Russian-born, naturalized citizens. Of course, the overwhelming majority are good, loyal US citizens, but nonetheless there is likely to be an increased drive to seek to place or recruit such agents following the 2010 roll-up of a long-term illegals operation in the States.
  • This may have some political fallout back in Moscow. It is another potential intelligence debacle, after several others. If it does turn out to be the GRU, then that will add to the problems of a service already struggling to retain its status and relative autonomy. This may be the last straw and see it demoted to a regular directorate of the General Staff and perhaps lose portions of its networks to the SVR. But the SVR is likewise not in the best odor, especially after the recent arrest of two alleged agents in Germany. Although Mikhail Fradkov’s position as its director is probably not in jeopardy, there may be yet another round of inquests and find-the-scapegoat in its Department S, responsible for illegals — undercover agents abroad — or else its technical intelligence division. There may be another bid by the FSB to take it over, but I still don’t see this as happening. Either way, the spooks don’t seem to be giving great value for money at the moment.

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Waiting for the Bastrykinshchina?

на русском языке

The “shchina” is one of those splendid and distinctive features of Russian history and language: it literally just turns a name or word into a generic thing, but in effect, it tends to mean the “bad time” associated with someone or something. In the twentieth century, it essentially has connotations of purge and repression: the 1937-8 Yezhovshchina when Yezhov’s NKVD swept through the CPSU, butchering and banishing to the Gulags, the 1946-52 Zhdanovshchina that forced Soviet culture in a Manichean mould; dedovshchina, “grandfatherism,” the seniority-based culture of bullying that still afflicts the armed forces; and so on.

A little tongue-in-cheek, as I certainly don’t anticipate any mass purges or convoys of hapless prisoners heading off for forced labor projects (Skolkolag, anyone?), but I did find myself wondering how long before we start to think of the potential for a bastryshchina?

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Shuffling the siloviki: who may be the winners and losers in 2012?

With Putin’s presidential election over, now the question becomes who will make it into the new government, at a time when some insiders are suggesting there may be some substantial change. On the whole, the siloviki tend not to experience particularly rapid reshuffles, but there are some who are looking more vulnerable. In a couple of columns for the Moscow News, I look first at the three key silovik ministers (Serdyukov at Defense, Nurgaliev of the MVD and Prosecutor General Chaika), and secondly at the chiefs of the main security and intelligence services (FSB, SVR, GRU, FSKN, FSO). After all, it’s not just about personalia: the decisions about who stays and goes and more to the point the nature and origins of any new hires will say a lot about what Putin plans for the future, and what he fears.

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