Tracing the Faultlines within the Russian Security Community

This week I’m speaking on ‘The Security Services and Russia’s Perceptions of Security Challenges and Threats’ at What Future for Russia?, which promises to be a very interesting event put on by NUPI. Apart from castigating myself for the bad planning of agreeing to go to Scandinavia in what seems to be the midst of Fimbulwinter, and flying there via Iceland, at that, this also got me thinking about the very notion of lumping ‘the security services’ together into one camp.

Of course, there are some broad traits which unite them, from a commitment to Russian national security to a common interest in talking up the challenges to it, in order to guarantee continued budgetary priority and political privilege. However, especially now that more and more the prospect of a post-Putin era is being contemplated — not that he’s likely to be going any day now, but people are no longer blithely regarding another twelve years as inevitable — then a variety of internal faultlines become increasingly significant.

I sketched these out while working on a piece on the siloviki for Oxford Analytica (‘Russia’s security interests will resist liberalisation’, Friday, January 20 2012) and have been mulling on it since. Broadly speaking, I’d suggest they are divided along five distinct dimensions:

1. Institutions. It is hardly a secret that the various agencies often compete vigorously and viciously over responsibilities, budgets and precedence. Particular rivalries are between the FSB (Federal Security Service) and the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service), the FSB and General Prosecutor’s Office, the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) and the military and the MVD and the FSB. Yes, everyone seems to hate and/or fear the FSB…

2. Factions. There are also some overarching alliances, sometimes called clans, that unite and sometimes divide agencies. The key ones are three: the FSB and SK (Investigations Committee), backed by Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev; an alliance of convenience between the FSKN (Federal Anti-Drugs Service) and FSO (Federal Guard Service) driven largely by a desire to prevent the expansion of the FSB; and the MVD and elements of the military. Most of the military arguably forms a fourth, which stands apart from these struggles as often as it can. Factional rivalries can also lead to major and public clashes, such as the struggle in 2007-8 which led to a series of high-profile personnel changes including the promotion-that-was-a-dismissal of FSKN chief Cherkesov and the transfer to the Security Council secretaryship of then-FSB director Patrushev.

3. Centre vs Periphery. This is a hard one to quantify and as much as anything else, I’m basing this on a few data points, a smattering of anecdotes and a general gut sense. The institutional and factional rivalries apply primarily to the central commands and those in Moscow and St Petersburg. In the provinces, they seem to matter much less. Agencies at odds in the metropola may well cooperate with each other in the provinces. In particular, there can sometimes be better relations between police and FSB, often because of personal connections. Even where there are disputes and rivalries, these tend to be driven by specific personal animosities and interests rather. If anything, cops, Chekists and even army commanders tend to become integrated into local political and economic circles. A concern about such provincial cabals, for example, is behind the MVD’s decision in 2011 to rotate local commanders regularly.

4. Military vs Spook. Although we tend to lump them together as siloviki, there is a definite distinction between the security agencies and the armed forces. Not only are the latter manned predominantly by conscripts who don’t feel the same kind of ‘silovik’ affinity as even the most junior FSB operative (who is, after all, a volunteer), they are also heir to a tradition that asserts loyalty to the motherland more than the state. Whether or not that is actually borne out by the historical record, certainly I’ve encountered many military officers who vehemently assert that they are a very different kind of silovik to the ‘Chekists’ and ‘menty’ (‘cops’).

5. Top vs Bottom. It makes a difference where you fit in the hierarchy. Many, especially within the police and the military, are either draftees or relatively junior officers with little in common with the long-serving professionals commanding them. They often have not been exposed to the same culture and are denied many of the perks and opportunities for legal and illegal enrichment that reconcile their seniors to the status quo. This has been evident in, for example, a number of whistle-blowing cases by junior army and police officers. Although defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov claimed that 80% of servicemen voted for the pro-Kremlin United Russia bloc in December’s parliamentary elections, for example, there are widespread accounts of coercion or simply fabrication of soldiers’ votes. Discipline within the services has not been tested and it is impossible to say how united they would be were they to engage in any unconstitutional or provocative acts. Certainly some police at recent protests have indicated their support for the liberals. Even within the FSB, junior ranks do not enjoy the kind of luxurious lifestyles often assumed, unless they are the sons of the elite or are involved in disproportionately lucrative corruption or other side ventures. I have much less personal evidence to draw on here, but I cannot help but wonder how many would actually not be too bothered if the often corrupt and exploitative senior rankers in even their own organization found themselves facing disgrace, dismissal or, worse yet, a tax audit…

In short, we obviously need to remember the institutional and factional weight of the security community. However, at a time when every individual and institution is becoming a political entrepreneur in their own right, increasingly it behoves us to consider the divisions and debates within the siloviki, too.

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