Vienna, January 5 – Russia’s intelligence and security services did not have a good year in 2009, according to Moscow’s leading independence specialist on their activities. Indeed, so great were their failures that the FSB chief even dropped what had become a post-Soviet tradition: the annual report to the media of his organization’s successes against Russia’s enemies.
In a review of the activities of the special services published in today’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” Andrey Soldatov, who heads the Agentura.ru portal, points out that they had suffered real losses in almost all areas but had been able to obscure that by excluding media coverage of and thus public control over ever more of their activities (www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=9746).
The FSB’s “largest losses” over the last year, he continues, were in Chechnya, where control over the campaign against the increasingly active militants was handed over to republic President Ramzan Kadyrov, and in Crimea where the Russian agency was forced to pull 19 of its officers after an embarrassing reports by and threats from the Ukrainian security agency.
“In both cases,” Soldatov says, “the FSB adopted the tactic it has used before in the case of defeats: it gave the impression that [both of these actions] had been entirely its own idea.”
The Russian security services also dusted off another tactic from the past: it employed falsified reports about the supposed involvement of British and American diplomats with Russian prostitutes. Moscow succeeded in getting the British diplomat withdrawn, but it failed in the American case when the US ambassador stood up for his staffer.
Indeed, the media coverage these cases received gave the Russian intelligence services another black eye. To the surprise of few people, Soldatov said, it turned out that the original source of the reports about the two Western representatives was informacia.ru, a site notorious for its “ties with the special services.”
Another loss for the Russian intelligence services, the Moscow analyst continues, involved the replacement of the head of the GRU. While that was “predictable” given reports of problems there, “the unexpected publicity of his retirement could not affect the quite significant cutbacks” in that agency.
But “the most dramatic events took place on the front of the struggle with terrorism,” Soldatov argues. “Two forces which today represent the main terrorist threat to Russia – militants in the North Caucasus and nationalists went over to the attack against representatives of the regime and the force structures.”
Despite this new tactic of the terrorists, one which is “clearly more dangerous for the powers that be,” Soldatov continues, “the special forces did not consider it necessary to change anything in their strategy of opposing terrorism.” Instead, they continued to speak and act as if the policies which have not worked up to now should simply be continued.
At the same time, however, the Agentura.ru analyst says, “in one direction in the anti-terror line, the position of the Russian special services was strengthened consistently and cruelly in 2009: the FSB did everything it could” to limit coverage by the media of both terrorist actions and counter-terrorist operations.
In May, he recalls, Russia became “the only state in Europe which has not agreed even to think about reviewing the limitations on journalists that were imposed after September 11th.” And in October, a Russian official shocked a Vienna conference on “The War of Words” by his angry attacks on journalists and his bluster about Moscow writer Anna Politkovskaya.
The clearest indication of the way things are going with Russia’s special services, however, was provided by a non-event. For the first time in many years, the director of the FSB did not hold a press conference at the end of December to call attention to his organization’s successes against terrorists and foreign spies.
Instead, apparently having decided that even such limited publicity was “an unnecessary inheritance of the 1990s,” FSB director Aleksandr Bortnikov decided to provide information about his agency’s operations only to a session of the Russian government’s National Anti-Terrorist Committee.
This change in venue, Soldatov says, is significant in two ways. On the one hand, it means that the FSB is now providing information only about its struggle against terrorist, “hardly the only direction of its activity.” And on the other, it demonstrates that the FSB no longer sees a need to provide an accounting of its work to the Russian people.
In this way, the Moscow analyst concludes, the FSB director “clearly showed that his service no longer considers it necessary even to give the impression that it is a structure subordinate to anyone except the regime,” yet another indication of how far Moscow has moved away from the greater openness of the Yeltsin years.