Dmitri Kochnev: the elusive new FSO director, and thus Putin’s primary protector

Evgeny Murov, the long-time head of the Federal Guard Service (FSO) finally got his wish, to retire, and in the process Russia may have become a little less stable — I explain why in a piece over on the ECFR website, here, but the essence is:

In short, however perverse it may sound, this most Praetorian and loyalist of agencies actually helped keep Putin grounded and the system stable. But Murov personally was clearly a driving force, not least because he evidently had no thoughts of personal advancement in mind. Is Kochnev able to play the same role? Willing? Even aware of it? That’s hard to see, and the 51-year old Kochnev, whose entire life has been spent within the FSO, is less likely to see his future as being heading the FSO for the next nine-plus years. Even if he is content with his new office, will any of his rivals believe it, anyway?

Now we are getting a little more granular information about the background of his successor, Dmitri Viktorovich Kochnev, although the official line raises as many questions as answers them. This is what the official bio on the FSO website says:

He was born in Moscow in 1964

He served in the military 1982-84

Then he went straight into “the security agencies of the USSR and the Russian Federation,” 1984-2002

In 2002, he has been in the FSO, in 2015 becoming deputy director of the FSO and head of the Presidential Security Service (SBP). He became a colonel in 2006 (expect that to change soon) and he is married.

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 18.27.30

Not exactly a lot to go on.According to his income declaration, in 2015, he earned 3.3 million rubles, but his wife more than 58 million. (The average monthly wage as of January 2015 was 31,200 rubles, for an annual 375,000 rubles, so he did OK.) There have been suggestions Kochnev was close to former SBP chief and now National Guard praetorian-in-chief Viktor Zolotov, and counter suggestions that he wasn’t (see Vedomosti here).

The real question is what he was doing in that shadowy period 1984-2002. Was he part of the KGB’s Ninth Directorate (the precursor of the FSO)? In that case why not simply transfer across to the FSO when it was established in 1996 out of the GUO (Main Guard Directorate, 1993-96)? There has been the suggestion he worked in RUBOP, the old (and in some ways quite notorious) Regional Directorate for the Struggle Against Organised Crime. These were formed in 1992, and so he may have jumped, through the 1991-92 chaos, from KGB to the Moscow RUBOP. In 2001, the RUBOPs were folded into the MVD’s regional Main Directorates (GUs), though, so this might explain another shift, if there was no room for him in the MVD or he simply preferred a more exalted service.

But then why not say so? I honestly don’t know. It is not as if being in RUBOP is some monstrously embarrassing past indiscretion. I feel there has to be something there, maybe simply that he was in proximity to some scandal or the like. Eventually, it will out: Russian journalists are no less tenacious than their Western counterparts and perhaps precisely because of the difficult environment in which they operate can be even shrewder in ferreting out the facts. I doubt this is especially important in itself, but the very opacity says something about the culture of today’s Russia, that even a public figure’s resume from twenty years back can be considered none of our business.

Meanwhile, let’s see how he measures up to the job…





April 2016 Publications Round-Up

Slightly premature, as there may be an eleventh-hour addition, but here is the April tally:

The Panama Papers show how corruption really works in Russia,’ Vox, 4 April

Moscow’s mercenaries in Syria,’ War On The Rocks, 5 April

Zolotov: Kadyrov’s Golden Roof?,’ Russia! magazine, 12 April

Russia’s ‘Panamization’ of politics,’ Business New Europe, 13 April

Bastrykin’s manifesto for the ‘North Koreanisation’ of Russia‘, Business New Europe, 18 April

Марк Галеотти: «Иногда мафию от бизнеса даже не отличишь»‘, interview in Slon, 19 April [in Russian]

The Putin myth: the Russian leader isn’t nearly as powerful as you think,’ Vox, 19 April

Assessing the myth of Vladimir Putin,’ interview with NPR, 28 April

Rusijos ekspertas Markas Galeotti: „Vladimirui Putinui Baltijos šalys nerūpi“‘, interview with 15.min, 28 April [in Lithuanian]

What makes Vladimir Putin so special?‘, interview podcast for Reuters War College, 29 April [ADDED]

I’d also add that I am now a contributing editor for Russia for Intellinews Business New Europe, so expect to see more of my thoughts there in the future…


Russia and Europe: the problem with being family, not just neighbours

RussiaEuropeI’ve just transferred from Moscow to London on the next leg of my travels, and have been catching up on podcasts. In a recent one from the Sean’s Russia Blog SRB Podcasts series, Andrei Tsygankov from SFSU was discussing Russian foreign policy. I agreed with some of his views, disagreed with others, but what struck when he very vigorously made the case that Russia considers itself part of Europe, even if sometimes it finds itself strongly arguing with the ‘rest’ of the continent. I think this is absolutely right; regardless of talk of ‘Eurasianism’ and the like amongst the chattering and governing classes, in my experience Russians of every political complexion and socio-economic status look westwards and consider themselves part of a wider European civilisation. Of course, this leads to problems and miscommunications. I have lost count how many times in the past couple of years Russians have felt the need to tell me, almost invariably in sorrow rather than anger, that the West is treating Russia badly, almost invariably couched in terms of not just common interests but common identity. The very reason for the splenetic way that Moscow responds to what it sees as slights and insults from its neighbours is precisely because they are not neighbours but family. The most savage rows are always with family, after all.

But I’d add that this goes both ways, in a rather different fashion. I would suggest that the West does treat Russia differently from other inconvenient, authoritarian, even insurgent powers. It is not just that Putin is Putin, or that Russia a nuclear power, or even a legacy of the Cold War. The standards for democracy, transparency and rule of law that we expect from Russia — loudly complaining when they are not met, and funding NGOs and the like to uphold — are not the same as those we look for in Saudi Arabia, in Pakistan, in Azerbaijan, in Thailand, even in China.

I’m sure there are many reasons (beyond that Russia doesn’t buy our weapons, make our iPhones, or cozy up to us), but one is, I suspect, a kind of reverse Orientalism. In the main, Russian cities look like “our” cities; in the main, Russians look like “us”; in the main, Russian institutions at least appear to be based on the same premises as “ours.”

On some level, I imagine, we look at countries with clearly different ethnic, religious, cultural, historical, political foundations as the West’s and don’t really expect them to be wholly like us. In the modern Whig historical trajectory that places us as the pinnacle of human socio-political evolution, we give them a pass for being further down the road. But the Russians are enough like “us” that somehow we feel their — in our eyes — backwardness and even wilful wandering from the proper path as being all the more poignant and infuriating.

I am ultimately an optimist about Russia of a very European sort; I think they are genuinely embarked at last on a journey that, once the national traumas Putin represents have been worked through, will bring them squarely into a European democratic, liberal, rule of law cultural fold. But it won’t be immediate, it won’t be easy, and we need, without in any way condoning abuses, to accept that Russia cannot and will not be like “us” tomorrow. And if we do want to critique Moscow (as we ought), then we should apply the same standards across the board, and not single Russia out for specially critical scrutiny. That kind of familiar “tough love” does no one any favours.

Four Security-Related Take-Aways from Putin’s ‘Direct Line’ Show

IMG_7279Another marathon (3 hours 40 minutes) ‘Direct Line’ show is over as Putin fielded the usual array of carefully-selected questions from the nation. As ever, one has to give him credit for being willing to do this at all, however staged it is (I don’t see Western leaders lining up to emulate him), although in the main it is beginning to feel like the series of a long-running show just before it gets axed, the lines predictable, the leads tired, the magic gone…

As such, not a great deal worth flagging up from a security-related perspective, but Read the full post »

Putin’s new National Guard – what does it say when you need your own personal army?


Zolotov, Putin’s Praetorian

The idea of creating a National Guard (NG) for Russia bringing together public security forces under a single command has been raised periodically and always abandoned for very good reasons, not least the lack of any apparent need to have a Praetorian Guard on steroids. In 2012, for example, I didn’t think it likely: it would upend the balance of power within the security agencies, create a monster, and not really meet any true security need.

So what does it say that Putin today announced that such a natsgvardiya was going to be formed? After a meeting with security luminaries include MVD Interior Troops commander (and new NG head) Viktor Zolotov – a trusted ex-bodyguard – he announced [my translation]:

Decisions have been made: we are creating a new federal executive body on the basis of the Interior Troops – creating the National Guard, which will handle the fight against terrorism, the fight against organised crime, and in close cooperation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, will continue to perform those functions which are [currently] performed by the OMON (riot police), SOBR (SWAT) and so on.

We will arrange, as we discussed with the Interior Minister [Vladimir Kolokoltsev], not only in the decree, but in a future federal law, so that there will be no discord in order to get everything working smoothly and clearly. I hope very much that the troops of the National Guard will effectively perform their tasks, as has been the case up now, and that they will strengthen the work on the areas that are considered priorities.

Read the full post »

‘Crime & Society: organisation, myths, control’ – my talk at the Sakharov Centre in Moscow

Sakharov2016-4A belated note that on 15 March I had the honour of giving a talk on Russian crime in the 1990s through to the present day at the Sakharov Centre, an institution worth noting and feting as one of the last truly independent and liberal public discussion spaces in Moscow. The full video of the event (in English), including the extremely interesting and stimulating questions (including the inevitable Nemtsov one), is now available:


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