Putin’s KGB: The Coupling of the FSB and SVR

Vladimir Putin shares the same goal that his predecessors did before him: a world dominated by Russian influence. In order to achieve this goal, there needs to be several institutions in play which allow for the expedited movement towards global influence. One institution crucial to this mission is the intelligence community working both within and outside of Russia. Putin himself, being a former KGB officer and then the director of the FSB after the fall of the Soviet Union is fixated on developing an intelligence agency massive enough to project Russian influence all around the world. Unconfirmed reports from local Russian newspapers show that the government in on the edge of amassing its intelligence power into a single agency. The steps being taken by the government of Russia are detrimental to the western world.

The Russian intelligence community has had a long-standing tradition of working in ways which come off more as meddling than intelligence gathering, affecting the citizens of sovereign nations all around the world and even affecting those residing within Russia’s borders. In order to fully grasp why Putin feels the need to develop a massive intelligence community one needs to understand how the KGB came to be and operated prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The KGB traces their own lineage back to 1880, with the establishment of the Department of State Police, the Okhrana, whose main mission was to infiltrate and destabilize radical groups within Russia which countered the countries tsarist narrative. (Meissner) The name, Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, which translates into the Committee for State Security and gives the widely used acronym KGB, would not actually be assigned to any organization until after the 1917 October Revolution and the creation of the Cheka, Russian secret police. (Strauss)

The KGB found itself at odds with doing actual intelligence work, habitually stifled by western institutions during the Cold War, but was effective in policing their homeland and countering anti-communist revolution in Russia satellite nations. (Strauss) Most international efforts were made to counter the United States, in both areas of foreign interest and on U.S. soil as portrayed in the hit television series The Americans. The work done by the KGB to counter its own citizens garnered a negative outlook by many citizens, inadvertently destabilizing support for the communist party by playing a watchdog role. (Pringle) As the USSR fell, so did the KGB with it, being afflicted by the same levels of corruption and internal dissent seen in Russia’s other governmental organizations. After the fall of the USSR and the establishment of the Russian Federation, the FSB and SVR, domestic and international intelligence agencies respectively, were created to fill the void. (Strauss) Putin has increased both the budgets as well as the operating spheres of these two organizations which begs the question: Has the KGB been dissolved, or has it just changed masks?

The work of Russian intelligence agencies has habitually brought different issues to countries all around the world, both near and far from from Russian borders. The SVR has been known to plant moles in several different United States institutions, reminiscent of the KGB work during the Cold War which saw heavy attempts at Russian meddling in the American social and political arenas. (The Economist) As recent as 2010 the United States government apprehended ten agents which were participating in the “Illegals Program,” named by the Department of Justice, again reminiscent of the Cold War era spy operations. The FSB, though supposedly being the domestic intelligence source, has also seen action in international affairs, with agents having been outed in places such as Ukraine. In addition to destabilization activities, assassinations have always been on the list of undertakings by Russian intelligence agencies. Links have been drawn between numerous suspicious deaths and the FSB in Moscow, with foul play being ruled out in each and every case. (Brown)

Putin is currently in the workings of re-creating the massive intelligence agency by expanding the reaches of both the FSB and SVR. In addition to the upgrades in budget, the FSB has been found to have increased action in areas of foreign issue, blurring the line if domestic and international. In Syria, an alleged FSB agent was captured by ISIL forces and was beheaded by his captors in 2016. Prior to his death, the alleged agent was recorded making statements about his own ill-placed faith in the Russian government to come to his aid. (Ensor) Obviously Russia would never come forth to say that the individual was indeed an FSB operative, inevitably in order to maintain the agencies international integrity. Other workings in Syria have seen GRU operatives working with Assad’s forces to run a signals intelligence collection point named “Center S,” showing just how involved the Russian intelligence community is in foreign theaters. (Mitzer, Oliemans) Other FSB agents have been caught inciting violence in Ukraine in an attempt to destabilize the region and legitimize their actions there. (RFE/RL)

According to the report made in Kommepcaht, a local Russian newspaper, a new intelligence agency will fall under the name the Ministry of State Security (MGB) (reminiscent of the Stalinist intelligence agency of the 1940’s and 1950’s) and will encompass every aspect of intelligence collection, analysis, and distribution. (Operov, Safranov) Though the report was never officially confirmed by the Russian government, it was also never denied. In addition to this, Putin has taken several steps to bolster both the FSB and SVR in the time that he has been president, from allowing their funding to expand exponentially to giving broader areas of operations under the FSB and SVR flags. The strength of these agencies can also be highlighted in the new extensions to their facilities. The SVR has doubled the building space of their headquarters in Yasenevo since 2007. Along with quadrupling the parking space surrounding the building.

This new increase in space can mean one of a few different things. It could mean that with geopolitical tensions are on the rise, the Kremlin has sought to expand the resources and capabilities of the SVR. Or it could be making room for a combined headquarters between the SVR and the FSB if President Putin does choose to join the two. In addition to these instances, Russian military intelligence, or GRU has been working hand in hand with the SVR, mostly on Signal intelligence operations in foreign theaters. With allowing these agencies to gain power also comes a dedication from that organization, the more money Putin gives the more often they are willing to protect him politically, standing as puppets for the commander rather than servants of the public. (Peter) This comes with another host of issues as the new MGB will maintain the ability to follow up on criminal cases to their own content, making the already corrupt atmosphere of Russian courts nearly impossible to get through. (Operov, Safranov)

The pairing and expansion of the Russian intelligence community causes issues for the western world, nations and regions influenced by Russia, and Russian citizens themselves. For the United States and its western allies the threat is typical of any hostile nations intelligence community, the mission of the agencies revolves around countering democratic influence wherever possible with the allotted resources. For nations close to Russia which fall under its sphere of influence, such as Ukraine, the threat of Russian meddling only increases. Finally, with the Russian citizens, the threat of moving backward in time looms like a storm cloud. Both the KGB and FSB have a history of “intimidation and selective repression” which the Russian people would rightfully attempt to move away from. (Soldatov) The KGB was ruthless in dealing with citizens which opposed the communist regime and its priorities and moving back to this stage is inevitably what Putin aims to do. The threat of a massive Russian intelligence agency, which can project its domestic and international influence through destabilization missions, is knocking at the door of all the world.

Works Cited

Brown, Daniel. “Russia Is Reportedly behind a Disturbing Number of Assassinations Outside Its Borders.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 19 June 2017, www.businessinsider.com/russia-assassination-abroad-2017-6.

Ensor, Josie. “Isil Claims to Have Beheaded ‘Russian FSB Agent’.” The Telegraph, Telegraph

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Mitzer, Stijn, and Joost Oliemans. “Oryx Blog.” Captured Russian Spy Facility Reveals the Extent of Russian Aid to the Assad Regime, 6 Oct. 2014, spioenkop.blogspot.com/2014/10/captured-russian-spy-facility-reveals.html

Operov, Sergey, and Ivan Safronov. “Ministry of Emergency Powers.” Kommepcaht.ru, Kommepcaht, 18 Sept. 2016, https://en.wps.ru/articles/def-sec/ministry-of-emergency-powers/

Peter, Laurence. “Putin, Power and Poison: Russia’s Elite FSB Spy Club.” BBC News, BBC, 3 Feb. 2018, www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-42636245

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RFE/RL. “Ukraine Detains Two Russian FSB Agents Who Came Ashore From Black Sea.” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, 30 June 2017, www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-detains-russian-fsb-agents-black-sea/28588737.html

Soldatov, Andrei. “Putin’s Secret Services.” Foreign Affairs, Foreign Affairs, 31 May 2018, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2018-05-31/putins-secret-services

Strauss, Bob. “How the KGB Grew Into the World’s Most Feared Intelligence Agency.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 16 Dec. 2016, www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-kgb-4148458

“Unearthing Moscow’s Moles.” The Economist, The Economist, 29 Jan. 2015, www.economist.com/united-states/2015/01/29/unearthing-moscows-moles

“Ten Alleged Secret Agents Arrested in the United States.” The United States Department of Justice, Department of Justice, 28 June 2010, www.justice.gov/opa/pr/ten-alleged-secret-agents-arrested-united-states