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  • Russia's Very Secret Services
  • Andrei Soldatov (bio) and Irina Borogan (bio)

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Moscow—When the Soviet Union collapsed, many observers expected its fearsome intelligence apparatus to wither as well. Instead, the post-Soviet era has seen the emergence of an even more influential collection of intelligence organizations that grew out of the two premier Soviet agencies: the KGB, which combined domestic and foreign political intelligence, and the GRU, which handled military intelligence. The prominent—even [End Page 83] dominant—role of intelligence within contemporary Russia's political system is a sign of the Kremlin's growing ambitions. But it also reflects a profound fear of being outmaneuvered by the West in Russia's traditional sphere of influence, which now comprises 10 more or less independent nations that once belonged to the Soviet Union. Within that vast territory—and in the areas that directly border it—an intense and largely invisible battle for control is being fought every day.

This struggle has put the Kremlin's intelligence agencies in direct competition with Western intelligence services, with all parties retaining some old habits left over from the Cold War. At the same time, the unique status and financial resources provided to Russia's secret services in the early 2000s by then-President Vladimir Putin makes them even more unpredictable than their predecessor, the KGB, which was a powerful organization, but came under the firm control of the political structure. The Communist Party presided over every KGB section, department, and division. By contrast, over the last decade in Russia, the resurgent secret services have become a new elite, enjoying expanded responsibilities and immunity from public oversight or parliamentary control. Today's Russian secret services are impenetrable to outsiders. While the KGB played by the Cold War's rules, its inheritors are given a freer hand to make decisions on their own.

Surprisingly, though, the biggest beneficiaries of the elevation of Russian intelligence have been the authoritarian regimes that filled the vacuum after the breakup of the Soviet Union—the dictators of Central Asia, who have used Russian security forces to facilitate the abduction, even rendition, of their own opposition forces. In an unexpected reversal, Russia has become a hunting ground for the security services of many of the world's most vicious rulers.

Competing Spooks

Today, there are three principal Russian intelligence services. The SVR, or Foreign Intelligence Service, operates largely in Western Europe and the United States. The GRU, the old military intelligence service under the Soviet Union, remains intact, with virtually the same global portfolio. The FSB, or Federal Security Service, the most direct successor to the old KGB, operates principally in the former Soviet Republics, sometimes still referred to as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the loose confederation that was established to succeed the USSR after it collapsed. The FSB is also active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, both of which border the former Soviet sphere. Of course, these delineations are not set in stone, and there is persistent overlap and competition between these organizations, as agents of both the FSB and SVR are often found falling all over each other.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, the leaders of the former Soviet republics were very slow to create completely independent states. Initially, they even agreed to maintain the united armed forces of the CIS, giving Moscow a chance to retain [End Page 84] its influence. Intelligence cooperation was a natural outgrowth of this dependency, and the Kremlin was happy to help the still-unproven leaders of these new states bolster their security structures. These relations were formalized in April 1992, when the SVR signed an agreement with its counterparts in the CIS, agreeing not to spy on each other.

But the relationship proved to be very much a one-way street. The SVR effectively assumed the posture of "Big Brother," making visits to CIS capitals to attend multilateral meetings or bilateral talks, where they were sometimes received by heads of state.

Not all CIS members were equally happy at finding themselves once again under the direct scrutiny of the Kremlin. Throughout the 1990s, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan remained firm allies...


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pp. 83-91
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