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Why Putin might be trying to recreate the Soviet-era KGB — and why he might regret it

Russian President Vladimir Putin salutes officers on February 18, 2004, shortly after his arrival at the observation point of the Artic cosmodrome in Plesetsk, where he came to watch the launch of the spacecraft Molnia, carrying a military spy satellite on board. 

A well-connected Russian newspaper is reporting that Vladimir Putin plans to unite his domestic security, foreign espionage, and counterintelligence agencies into one superagency, in effect recreating the old Soviet KGB. If true, it suggests Putin is seriously worried about his future — and that he dramatically misunderstands the risks in this maneuver.

The circumstantial evidence that this or a similar measure is in the works has been steadily growing. The Federal Security Service (FSB), the agency likely to dominate this new body, has been acting with unusual confidence, even arresting senior figures from other services. Russia’s chief investigator, Alexander Bastrykin, who has opposed this plan, is reportedly about to be sacked.

Besides, this fits a wider picture of a drift toward authoritarianism. The last time the creation of a security superagency was raised was in 2012, in parallel with the proposal to form a National Guard to control the streets.

At that time, Putin shelved both ideas. In April, though, he unexpectedly announced the formation of the National Guard, a force of 200,000 riot police and security troops and another 200,000 security guards, under one of his closest allies, Gen. Viktor Zolotov. It will be fully operational within a year and has units across the country, ready to respond to any signs of protest.

Now independent commentators and opposition figures alike are sure the changes to the security services are also happening — and even more tellingly, Putin’s spokesperson refused to rule out the idea when given the perfect opportunity to kill the story.

Putin has many reasons to want a “Ministry of State Security”

The plan purportedly under discussion would merge the FSB, the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the Federal Guard Service (FSO) — very broadly analogous to the FBI, CIA, and Secret Service, respectively — into a new Ministry of State Security (MGB). Only military intelligence would be spared assimilation into this ministry, which would essentially have the same breadth of powers and duties as the KGB.

Indeed, the MGB was also the name of one of the KGB’s predecessors, which functioned as Joseph Stalin’s murderous secret police agency between 1946 and 53.

The new ministry would handle everything from espionage abroad to suppressing opposition at home. What’s more, it would do so pretty much without any oversight, responsible only to the president.

From Putin’s point of view, that would be a win on multiple levels.

It brings all the security agencies under one man. In the past, Putin governed through a kind of royal court, with multiple organizations with overlapping responsibilities constantly in competition. Increasingly, though, he is now relying on a handful of his closest allies instead.

This is because he simply doesn’t seem to trust the elite as a whole and instead is elevating a handful of people he does trust. The MGB would also be a powerful tool to control them and head off any political coups or conspiracies. In particular, it would gain lead responsibility for investigating allegations of corruption and economic crimes, and these have become to main weapon the Kremlin uses to intimidate and eliminate its enemies these days.

Third, it would allow even more intensive and aggressive espionage overseas. At present the SVR and FSB both run spy networks, and they and the FSO all have their own electronic and cyber operations. Bringing them all into one agency could be a way to use them most effectively and avoid them working at cross-purposes. In the Democratic National Committee hacking case, for example, there were two parallel operations from different Russian agencies, neither apparently even aware of the other.

That should send alarm bells ringing across the West. Russia’s intelligence community is already as extensive and aggressive as it was at the height of the Cold War. It’s involved in everything from old-fashioned human intelligence (recruiting local agents such as the infamous “illegals” ring exposed in the US in 2010) to cutting edge cyber espionage that has stolen secrets from systems across the world, from NATO to the US State Department. It is also heavily engaged in so-called “active measures” such as supporting divisive political movements and assassinating Chechen rebel sympathizers.

The fact that sometimes the various intelligence agencies often operate at cross-purposes or duplicate the others’ efforts has been one of the few pieces of good news for the West. Creating the MGB will, Moscow must hope, help eliminate this edge.

But Putin might come to regret it

Putin has been trying to make the security apparatus more loyal and efficient, less prone to turf wars and corruption. The irony is that while creating the MGB might look like a step forward for him, it is likely actually to make things worse.

There will be even more scope for turf wars inside a superagency than before, as everything from budgets to responsibilities will be up for grabs. Meanwhile, it will be harder to control corruption. All the recent cases of corrupt security officials being caught have been the result of investigations from outside security agencies. Under this plan, there would be no outside security agencies.

The security agencies’ affairs divisions have tended to become nothing more than the protection racketeers’ protection racketeer, skimming their share from scams they uncover. For example, Mikhail Maximenko, head of internal affairs for the Investigations Committee — another security agency likely to lose its independence — was recently arrested by the FSB while arranging for a wanted gangster to walk free. With no outside bodies able to investigate the MGB, the opportunities for embezzlement and shakedowns will be greater than ever.

Meanwhile, Putin will be creating an agency that could ultimately come to challenge his quasi-dictatorial rule.

Putin is clearly concerned about the possibility of a conspiracy within the elite to oust him: This is a perennial topic of discussion in Moscow. He appears to see agencies like the National Guard and MGB as the guarantors of his power. However, the old model did at least mean any coup would have to involve many different groups. Ironically, Putin might be creating for the first time a single agency with enough power to topple him.

While that is unlikely, there is another way this agency will limit Putin’s power. Already, the intelligence he receives is dangerously politicized, slanted in ways designed to please him. There is no Russian equivalent of congressional oversight, not even an independent national security adviser to warn him when he is being fed slanted and partial data.

At least when several different agencies are briefing him, he may get multiple perspectives. The more Putin depends on just one agency, the more he may find himself free to make decisions — but always based on what the MGB tells him. Being the power behind the throne, after all, is often just as good as being on the throne.

Mark Galeotti is an incoming senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the director of Mayak Intelligence. He blogs at In Moscow’s Shadows and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.