The Spies Who Love Putin
How the FSB's loyalty to Russia's president made it the country's most powerful intelligence agency
It’s tempting to look to the playbooks and historical traditions of the late Soviet Union to explain the audacity of today’s Russian intelligence activity, from its meddling in U.S. elections, to apparently killing Kremlin opponents abroad. But these activities are not just products of old ways or new geopolitics. They also stem from a shift in the activities of Russia’s political police force, the infamous Federal Security Service (FSB). Originally established to protect the Kremlin’s rule at home, it has increasingly moved into Russia’s foreign operations. A new cohort of secret policemen, ignorant of the traditions of spycraft and secure in Putin’s protection, has fundamentally altered the nature of Russian intelligence.
The FSB stands accused not just of engineering the leaks against Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, but also backing extremist parties in Europe, stirring up discontent among Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic, allegedly murdering Chechen opposition leaders in Turkey and Austria, spreading disinformation, and even kidnapping an Estonian security officer across the border in 2014. And according to the infamous unverified dossier published by Buzzfeed on January 10, it also collected compromising information on Trump with the suspected aim of turning him into Vladimir Putin’s puppet. One has to go back to Soviet times for such a rich array of proven and suspected covert adventures abroad.
By allowing the FSB to move into foreign intelligence and covert operations, though, Putin has—probably inadvertently—unleashed a beast. The FSB is playing a central role in current developments not because it possesses greater technical capabilities than the other Russian agencies, but because, for the most part, it does not recognize or respect the same limitations as the rest of Russia’s security services. To put it crudely, the FSB does the kinds of things everyone else thinks about doing but doesn’t because they’re too risky, too politically inflammatory, or too likely to backfire.
The FSB is just the latest, longest-lasting iteration of the old Soviet KGB. In one of his many toxic legacies, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin ignored calls to disband an institution that appeared beyond repair and rebuild it from scratch. Instead, after 1991, he opted to partition the KGB. Its first chief directorate, responsible for espionage, was simply rebranded as the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). Most of the directorates tasked with domestic security were gathered together first under the umbrella of the Ministry of Security, then the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service, and, in 1995, the FSB.
Since then, the FSB has not looked back, especially after 1998, when for a brief time it was headed by a little-known ex-KGB officer whose career was about to experience an unexpected boost—one Vladimir Putin. In the years since, the FSB has been one his staunchest allies, hounding and discrediting his rivals, looking after his underlings, and clamping down on any spasms of popular protest. In return, he has shielded, empowered, and elevated the agency, turning a blind eye to corruption in its ranks, allowing it to one-up rival agencies such as the Federal Anti-Narcotics Service (Russia’s equivalent to the DEA, which was abolished in 2016), and giving its officers key positions, from regional governorships to head of his security council.
Traditionally, Putin controlled Russia’s sprawling bureaucracy by creating multiple, overlapping agencies, that he would then play off against each other. This is especially evident within the intelligence community. In Ukraine, for example, the SVR, FSB, and GRU, the military intelligence agency, all ran competing operations. When former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was toppled by the “Euromaidan” revolution in 2014, catching Moscow by surprise, the result was a hurried game of pass-the-buck. Although the FSB had been the agency most closely associated with Yanukovych and had argued most forcefully that he would survive, it enjoyed Putin’s support, and so the SVR wound up taking the blame for the intelligence failure.
One result of the agencies fighting over the same turf has been the increasing intrusion of the FSB into foreign operations. In 2003, the agency absorbed most of the electronic eavesdropping and cyber-espionage capabilities of FAPSI, Russia's equivalent of the NSA. In 2005, it began operating in post-Soviet neighboring states. In 2006, Russia passed a law allowing military force to be used “to suppress international terrorist activity outside the Russian Federation”—just before the murder of defector Alexander Litvinenko in London.
The FSB scrambled to fill the spook gap left by the flailing GRU and SVR. Suddenly, it was briefing Putin on foreign policy, edging its way into the traditional turf of the SVR and the foreign ministry. It lobbied hard and successfully for the funds and the mandate to mount political operations, first in Europe, then beyond, from funneling resources to populist parties and separatist groups, to penetrating both Democratic and, to a limited extent, Republican National Committee computers. When an indiscreet conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt emerged in 2014, it was almost certainly both intercepted and then leaked by the FSB. It may even have hijacked SVR and GRU operations: Intelligence insiders told me of FSB reports that claimed credit for information gathered by other agencies.
The FSB could do all this because it had Putin’s trust, and because it realized that he increasingly wanted his spies to tell him what he wanted to hear. As one embittered former SVR officer put it to me, “our mistake was to keep talking about the world as it is, not as he would like it to be.” Thus, the FSB’s political police officers flattered their way into a privileged position, getting tasked with manipulating elections, wooing electorates, and lobbying politicians across the West.
These are not just spies under a different acronym, though. Most do not know or respect the etiquette of the shadow war. Their backgrounds as secret police in an authoritarian state make them especially prone to bullying and blackmailing, corrupting and killing. They also operate under far fewer constraints than traditional spies. So long as they remain in Putin’s favor, they can (sometimes literally) get away with murder. Even Russia’s once-formidable Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, once able to challenge the spies, is now limited to cleaning up their messes.
This has all resulted in a brazen new turn in Russian intelligence operations, with the FSB at the helm. They were behind the cross-border kidnapping of Estonian security officer Eston Kohver in 2014, and, according to sources in Moscow, were behind the DNC leaks, even if the GRU actually collected the emails. They are the ones most eagerly backing and bankrolling divisive extremists and populist leaders in Europe. This is despite the fact that the SVR and GRU have a great deal more experience.
But the FSB’s greatest asset is its sheer willingness to take chances. In that respect, it is simply mirroring Putin himself, who has played his weak hand well, precisely by—at least in the pre-Trump era—being more unpredictable and confrontational than anyone else.
How will this work out in the long term? When the FSB kidnapped Kohver, it managed to draw attention to the very issue it sought to keep hidden: its own links with organized crime, which subsequently became the focus of more intensive investigation in both Estonia and Europe as a whole. One Italian counter-intelligence officer who had for years been warning about this problem, for example, told me that within a month he had been given the green light to open new investigations into corruption among Russian security officials.
Similarly, the agency’s hacking of Western politics looks worryingly effective, but is generating a backlash in the West against Russian interference and disinformation. It has become the story of the moment on both sides of the Atlantic, with the German and French security services warning that Moscow will try to manipulate upcoming elections in both countries. Just as dangerously, the SVR, GRU, and other agencies, have followed the FSB’s lead in tailoring their briefings to flatter Putin’s prejudices and assumptions.
As a result, the one man who decides Russian strategy has become cocooned in an ever-thickening latticework of half-truths, dubious interpretations, and ludicrous optimism, which may make him prone to dangerous adventures—deeper engagement in the Syria quagmire, a wider invasion of Ukraine, or tangling directly with NATO or China. In the long run, the FSB may well be as dangerous to Putin as to the West.