The FSB’s alleged order on hunting and killing targets abroad – hard to credit

The UK Daily Telegraph made quite a splash with the leak of what seems to be a secret internal FSB (Federal Security Service) document promulgating a new directive on the “observation, identification, possible return to the Russian Federation” of suspected terrorists, extremists and wanted criminals. It added  that “under special directives” the FSB and the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) could also be tasked with the “elimination outside of the Russian Federation in the countries of Near Abroad and in the European Union, of the leaders of unlawful terrorist groups and organisations, extremist formations and associations, of individuals who have left Russia illegally [and are] wanted by federal law enforcement.” All good, exciting stuff and coincidentally fitting well with the recent assassination of Chechens in Istanbul.

At first glance, the document certainly looks right: the appropriate seal and stamp, etc. Even the font used is the right one. And let’s be honest, Moscow clearly is willing to reach out beyond its borders, including having GRU agents blow up Chechen rebel president Yandarbiev in Qatar in 2004. In that, of course, Moscow is by no means unique – you’ll find similar sentiments and practices in Washington, Tel Aviv, etc. So there would seem no particular reason to doubt this latest revelation.

Figures such as former FSB director Kovalev have decried the document as a forgery, but it’s easy enough to discount such statements. After all, that’s what you’d expect them to say, isn’t it…?

And yet, and yet, I do find it hard to credit it. The first and most obvious point is that it leaked. Sure, secret documents do get out, but this is potentially politically explosive and not something that a huge circle of people would have access to. Would some FSB officer really get an attack of the existential guilts and leak it, knowing that s/he is facing a potential life sentence as a result. And if so, and with the greatest of respect to that august organ, would it be to the Daily Telegraph? I would not have seen it as the obvious recipient. (In fairness, we don’t know the route it reached it, so there might be a credible backstory there.)

Beyond that, though, there are various specific details which don’t ring true:

  • Nomenclature: The document, dated March 19, 2003, is said to have been signed by Colonel General M V Nechaev, deputy head of the FSB’s counterintelligence service (SKR) and head of its counterintel operations department. Mikhail Nechaev was indeed in that position until his death in 2007, but I understand that until July 2004 – over a month later – the counterintelligence service (sluzhba) was actually still the counterintelligence directorate (upravlenie).
  • Typoes: Sure, I’ve seen Russian official documents with mistakes, but frankly quite rarely. More to the point, one would presume that the letterhead would be right… but one Р (r) in counterintelligence is missing in it (контразведка instead of the correct контрразведка). That is a pretty amazing error. (Although the use in the document of the abbreviation KR for counterintelligence, which some Russians have questioned, is actually normal.)
  • Language: The document refers to the other post-Soviet states as the ‘Near Abroad.’ In the 1990s, that was widely-used term in the official Russian lexicon, but I think it had essentially been expunged by the 2000s. Foreign observers like myself still use it sometimes as a convenient shorthand that also handily nods to Moscow’s hegemonic assumptions about its role in Eurasia, but I would be surprised to find it in such a formal document.
  • Format: The signature would generally be below the name, not in the middle, and then stamped over it. I’d also anticipate a ‘secret’ stamp, not just a word-processed reference at the top right-hand corner.

It’s always difficult definitely to make any kind of judgement about documents like this, especially when all you are going on it a rather fuzzy scan and some of the above qualms must seem trivial. But there seem to be enough reasons to be skeptical about the document not to take it at face value. So where might it have come from? Perhaps predictably, fingers have been pointed at Boris Berezovsky, but  I have no idea: so far there is not enough information to say.

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