KGB or Koschei: will the SVR be swallowed by the FSB?

RFE/RL’s Brian Whitmore’s latest Power Vertical blog post rounds up the latest chatter, that news that the brace of Russian deep-cover spies in the USA were blown by Colonel Shcherbakov, the man running such operations in North America for the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) may be used by the Federal Security Service (FSB) as a pretext to swallow up its smaller rival.

The FSB, after all, has form, having already consumed the lion’s share of FAPSI, Russia’s electronic eavesdropping counterpart to the NSA (the rest ended up with the GRU, military intelligence). Ever since the KGB was dismembered by Yeltsin after the collapse of the USSR, the FSB in whatever incarnation has tried to reincorporate its lost portions. In that, it brings to mind the mythic Russian figure of Koschei Bessmertnyi, Koschei the Undying, who even dismembered lumbers around trying to regain and reattach missing parts of his body.

To an extent, this is simply a question of bureaucratic politics. The more the FSB grows, the more it takes over rivals (and the Investigations Committee and Drug Control Service would be next), the bigger a shark in the sea it is. It is also a sentimental one, a recreation of an omnifunctional agency that many in its command structure – and Putin himself – regard with fondness. Thirdly, this can also be regarded as in line with the logic of the power vertical notion itself, creating a centralised, disciplined tool of rule, and in particular a control agency to keep the other tools in line. And finally, of course, the FSB is a key power base not just for Putin but also Sechin, and while the SVR could hardly be called Medvedev’s, under its current director, Fradkov, is has largely held itself aloof from the subterranean intrigues in Moscow.

Whether the SVR really will be swallowed, though, I doubt. It makes no operational sense, for a start. It would be unpopular with many within the SVR itself. It would represent a clear concession to the siloviki and thus would appear a blow to Medvedev, whether he really cares or not.

In part, the chatter – which is obviously orchestrated – reflects the FSB enjoying the opportunity to discomfort its rival. It may also pave the way for Fradkov’s replacement with someone closer to Sechin: this can then be spun as a compromise, retaining the separate identity of the SVR but under a different director. The most obvious point is that none of this outcry is genuinely driven by the practical needs of Russian intelligence and security, but instead the usual byzantine round of personal, factional and institutional ambitions and grudges within the new aristocracy of Russia.

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