The heads begin to roll in Russia
European media report that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the house arrest of two senior Federal Security Service (FSB) officers. Colonel-General Sergei Beseda, Chief of the FSB’s “Fifth Service,” reportedly was detained along with his deputy, Anatoly Bolyuk, charged with providing flawed intelligence about Ukraine and their improper use of operational funds. Separately, Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s national security council chief, claimed that several Russian generals have been fired. The implications portend more suffering yet to come, but likewise opportunities to increase pressure on the Russian leader from within.
Perhaps emulating Joseph Stalin, this could be the onset of a purge and Putin’s desperate ploy to provide his domestic audience with a fall guy for self-inflicted wounds. His call to rid Russia of “scum and traitors” as “a necessary self-purification of society” might be Putin’s theatrical unveiling of not merely a further crackdown against the Russian people, but also his version of a “cultural revolution” to bring further to heel those around him on whom he has counted to take and maintain power. If I were one of the oligarchs or “siloviki,” those from Russia’s intelligence services who profiteered on Putin’s kleptocracy, I’d be more than just a little worried.
Putin’s rhetoric is victimization, villains and heroes. He casts himself as the people’s champion. Putin chose the FSB, a machine organized and conditioned to execute his autocratic vision and tell him what he wants to hear — whether or not it conforms with reality.
Putin has relied on the FSB as his principal source of power and protection, not merely at home, but also across the former Soviet states over which he is determined to restore Russia’s dominion. His reorganization of the FSB from the KGB’s ashes should have told us precisely the direction he planned to take.
Putin’s outlook was made clear to me during my first meeting as the CIA’s chief of station in a former Soviet state with the local FSB chief, the “Rezident,” a general known for crushing the anti-Russian rebellion in Chechnya. He looked the part of a film noir Cold War villain, comically uncomfortable in the posh local restaurant. FSB protocol required that he bring another officer; Moscow prohibited its officers from meeting alone with the CIA.
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Our contact was an education for me, a Russian-speaking CIA operations officer who had worked the target beyond Russia’s borders. The FSB chief wanted to let me know whose turf this was and how the game was played in his house. While we toasted collaboration to fight the evils of terrorism, he depicted the local officials as “members of his team” and the territory as an extension of “greater Russia.”
Although the CIA’s natural official counterpart is Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, it was the Kremlin’s internal security agency, the FSB, that ran the show across the former Soviet states. Putin, while FSB director in the 1990s, structured it as such, providing what had been the KGB’s former counterintelligence directorate with a disproportionately larger share of its parent organization’s power and influence. The KGB’s foreign intelligence directorate would become the less muscular SVR.
The Fifth Service, or Operational Information Department, was established as a new FSB branch to collect intelligence on the former Soviet states and conduct “active measures” to assure they continued to gravitate around Moscow’s orbit. That meant everything from propping up pro-Kremlin regimes to neutralizing threats from those aiming to move their countries closer to the West.
From 1999 to 2009, the Fifth Service grew and took charge of Russia’s brutal war in Chechnya, where the FSB, not the army, called the shots. It was the Moscow apartment building bombings in September 1999, which killed 300 and wounded more than 1,000, that then-Prime Minister Putin used to justify that war, claiming the attacks were undertaken by Chechen militants. The bombings, as it turned out, allegedly were the FSB’s handiwork under Putin’s direction.
Putin does not trust the army, a sentiment likely validated by its poor performance and his natural KGB-era disposition. The KGB spied on Russia’s armed forces, to purge them of “reactionary” elements, often the country’s best and most faithful officers. Putin’s FSB is modeled after Stalin’s chekists, the secret police, his most trusted means to reconstitute a Soviet-era structure that keeps the public’s civil liberties and those possessing any power within his tent well in check.
My FSB counterpart preached the need to target families who offered leverage against “hooligans,” as he referred to Russia’s enemies. “Better to preempt them early,” he said, ridiculing America’s “surgical” approach. He argued that such enemies were “cockroaches” whose nests had to be destroyed. The “pests” turned out to be his own people. The general was ethnically Chechen.
Whatever value Putin might believe exists in casting aside his most important supporters has no upside for him — but possibly does for us. Colonel-General Beseda, the reportedly detained Fifth Service chief, had been in his job for years and was the driver behind Putin’s strategy. He literally knows where the bodies are buried. That Beseda’s reporting and counsel likely was spun to align with Putin’s own warped view of the world and misguided expectations for the invasion of Ukraine is a product of the Russian leader’s own making. In such a system, who’s going to tell Putin anything different? But having done Putin’s dirty work and placated his demand for absolute obedience, only to be thrown to the wolves, Beseda’s removal will reverberate throughout the Kremlin, even if Putin leaves in place his FSB boss, Gen. Alexander Bortnikov.
Unlike Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and SVR Director Sergey Narayshkin, Bortnikov might enjoy greater protection as a career officer, rather than a professional politician. Bortnikov’s elimination could pose too great a risk, given his network and command over the safety net on whose survival Putin depends.
Putin’s desperation does not bode well for whatever guard rails we would hope to constrain him. A purge undermines Putin’s image of infallibility and strength and could precipitate threats from those who see his desperation as an exploitable vulnerability, or an incentive to act before they’re next. As he chances antagonizing the hammer and shield with which he maintains power — the FSB — and mistrusting the army’s ability to win his war abroad, the dynamic could draw him inward, forcing reconsideration of his Ukrainian campaign.
Facilitating this dynamic with continued external pressure, and perhaps internal meddling, is not without risk, but it may be the best means with which to force Putin to pay a dear price for his actions. A purge of scapegoats among those he has enriched, coming as Russia’s economy collapses, could boomerang and create a byzantine backdrop of palace-plotting that compels him to compromise or causes his fall. But insular and paranoid as Putin’s decisions seem to suggest he has become, a darker alternative is his choosing to go down with the ship — and possibly taking us with him.
Douglas London is the author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.” He teaches intelligence studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. A Russian-speaking operations officer, he served in the CIA’s Clandestine Service for over 34 years. Follow him on Twitter @DouglasLondon5.
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