Spy vs Spy: Inside the Complex Web of Russia's Warring Intelligence Agencies

    Russian intelligence chief Sergey Beseda and his deputy, Anatoly Bolyukh, were placed under house arrest on March 9. Beseda and Bolyukh oversaw the foreign intelligence branch of the FSB, which is the Russian security service. They were allegedly the main proponents of the assumption that Ukraine would swiftly collapse, which has proved deeply flawed.

    But, as has become increasingly clear over many years, Vladimir Putin has become intolerant of opinions that contradict his preferred course of action. So although the intelligence was flawed, Beseda’s claims likely manipulated facts to fit what the Russian president wanted to believe. Having led the foreign intelligence branch since 2009, it is likely Beseda knew what his boss wanted to hear. Yet both he and Bolyukh have taken the blame for the wider invasion failure.

    Putin has been living in a virtual bunker. The presidential administration, his primary information source, is a secretive organisation and has been feeding Putin a controlled information flow for over a decade. The institution acts as a gatekeeper to Putin and blocks non-positive intelligence from reaching him.

    This twisting of facts to fit a particular worldview is only part of the problem. Another factor is that the different security services compete and undertake their own projects in the hope that this pleases Putin.

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    The Federal'naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti (FSB) or Federal Security Service, is one of many agencies. While the FSB is commonly thought of as a domestic intelligence agency, it also operates in other post-Soviet countries, except the Baltic states. Meanwhile the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedkiis (SVR), or Foreign Intelligence Service is involved in foreign intelligence gathering outside the post-Soviet space. The Federalnaya Sluzhba Okhrany (FSO), or Federal Protective Service, protects high-ranking officials. The Glavnoye upravleniye (GU), or Main Directorate – previously the GRU – is military intelligence.

    The Rosgvardiya, or National Guard, which was created in 2016, is not strictly an intelligence agency but is effectively Putin’s praetorian guard. It is increasingly involved in external operations and has a direct line to Putin through its chief, Viktor Zolotov. He was Putin’s personal bodyguard from 2000 to 2013 before becoming minister of internal affairs and head of the internal troops from 2014 to 2016.

    Vladimir Putin with the head of the National Guard (Rosgvardiya), Viktor Zolotov.
    Viktor Zolotov, the head of Vladimir Putin’s Rosgvardiya, or National Guard. EPA-EFE/Alexei Drushinin/Sputnik/Kremlin pool

    Spy v spy

    Ostensibly the different Russian security services are like their western counterparts. But the FSB in particular is more carnivorous than its western equivalents, having largely consumed the signal-intelligence service, FAPSI. Putin as a former KGB Officer himself views them as crucial to his personal survival and making Russia great again. In 2020 Russia spent 5.5 trillion roubles (US$69 billion) on the security services. This amounts to 28% of the annual budget or 3.5 times the amount spent on health and education combined.

    This comes at a price, though, with Putin demanding results. Each service is aware that they need to come up with the scariest crisis – or intelligence that fits Putin’s worldview – to increase their budget and influence. One example of this scare tactic was FSB chief, Aleksandr Bortnikov, claiming that the 2012 Siberian forest fires were the work of al-Qaeda. Scare tactics and only providing positive information to Putin results in a lack of coherence.

    Each security service jealously guards its own territory and views the others with suspicion. This makes working together for a common good difficult. This rivalry is intense, and is built on a combination of mistrust and wanting Putin’s attention. In particular, the FSB appears to have the highest level of mistrust for other services and is constantly sniping at them. Competition also occurs at the intra-service level, with different groups conducting their own policies sometimes to the detriment of the agenda of their own branch.

    All this makes for a very confusing picture, which is likely by design. By having inter and intra-service rivalries, the security services are too focused on their own jealousies, rather than other issues. With the war not going to plan there have also been murmurings that some security personnel are considering a coup.

    Isolated and out of touch

    Increasingly Putin’s inner circle is getting smaller and there is a growing level of mistrust and discontentment both by and against Putin. Rosgvardiya deputy Roman Gavrilov resigned in March over alleged claims of leaking information. Like Zolotov, Gavrilov was part of Putin’s personal bodyguard and when Zolotov tried to intervene, Putin refused to see him.

    Russian president Vladimir Putin looks at a rifle with Russia's defence minister, Sergei Shoigu
    Comrades in arms: Putin and defence minister Sergei Shoigu in December 2021. EPA-EFE/Mikhail Metzel/Tass/Kremlin pool

    In the past month, eight generals have allegedly been sacked, in another sign that Putin is growing more isolated. His rambling speech and potted history in the build-up to recognising the independence of the two Donbas people’s republics were from someone who appears increasingly out of touch.

    Since the pandemic’s start, Putin was isolated in a bunker with disinfection tunnels and largely sequestered from face-to-face meetings. The March 18 rally at Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium is one of many pointers that Putin remains in – or very close to – a bunker, only appearing for crucial meetings.

    The long table in the Kremlin is another sign that Putin fears face-to-face meetings. For years, he has had food tasters. This creates a certain paranoia and the Ukraine conflict – and before it the pandemic – has turbocharged it.

    Putin has long believed he is the most informed politician in the world. But this simply is not the case. Like the emperor with no clothes, Putin suffers from a warped reality where only positive information is allowed. This is what makes the current Ukrainian conflict particularly dangerous.

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    Evarist Chahali

    Evarist Chahali

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