MOSCOW — Soon after he was first appointed prime minister back in 1999, Vladimir Putin joked to an audience of top intelligence officers that a group of undercover spies, dispatched to infiltrate the government, was “successfully fulfilling its task.”
It turns out Putin doesn’t do jokes. Over Putin’s years in power, not just the Kremlin but almost every branch of the Russian state has been taken over by old KGB men like himself.
Last week news broke that their resurgence is soon to be topped off with a final triumph — the resurrection of the old KGB itself. According to the Russian daily Kommersant, a major new reshuffle of Russia’s security agencies is under way that will unite the FSB (the main successor agency to the KGB) with Russia’s foreign intelligence service into a new super-agency called the Ministry of State Security — a report that, significantly, wasn’t denied by the Kremlin or the FSB itself.
The new agency, which revives the name of Stalin’s secret police between 1943 and 1953, will be as large and powerful as the old Soviet KGB, employing as many as 250,000 people.
The creation of the new Ministry of State Security represents a “victory for the party of the Chekists,” said Moscow security analyst Tatyana Stanovaya, referring to the first Bolshevik secret police. The important difference is that, at its core, the reshuffle marks Putin’s asserting his own personal authority over Russia’s security apparatus.
Putin, who in 2004 said that “there is no such thing as a former KGB man,” has always had a complicated relationship with the FSB.
Vladimir Putin gestures as he opens the cabinet meeting on the 1999 budget | AFP/Getty Images
On the one hand, Putin has allowed the FSB to absorb pieces of the old KGB, chopped off when Boris Yeltsin tried to dismantle the once all-powerful Soviet security apparatus in the early 1990s. Under Putin, the FSB regained control over Russia’s borders, border troops, and electronic intelligence gathering. At the same time, former KGB men began their takeover of every institution of state, as well as Russian businesses.
But at the same time, Putin has made several attempts to reform and control the FSB. In 2007 he put his close ally Viktor Cherkesov in charge of the Federal Anti-Drug Agency and tasked it with investigating the murky business dealings of top FSB officers. When Cherkesov’s clean-up failed, Putin built up another rival security agency, the Investigative Committee, and tasked it, rather than the FSB, with investigating high-profile political murders like those of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.
The aim in all cases seems to be to replace old-guard Putin allies with younger, more loyal and less independent figures.
Now, however, Putin seems to have put that divide-and-rule policy into reverse and is instead consolidating power into a pair of super-agencies: the National Guard — created in July, that united internal security troops under the Kremlin’s control — and now the new Ministry of State Security. Putin will personally control these super-agencies.
“On the night of September 18 to 19 … the country went from authoritarian to totalitarian,” wrote former liberal Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov on his Facebook page.
Further evidence of Putin’s gathering of power into his own hands is an ongoing purge launched over the summer that has already claimed the heads of the Federal Narcotics Service, Federal Protection Service (Putin’s bodyguard), the Federal Migration Service and Russian Railways, as well as the president’s Chief of Staff and personal confidant Sergei Ivanov.
The aim in all cases seems to be to replace old-guard Putin allies with younger, more loyal and less independent figures. The same pattern has been repeated among regional governors — four of whom have recently been sacked, and two replaced by Putin’s personal bodyguards.
Protect the regime
The creation of the Ministry of State Security is part of a “project aimed at replacing old allies with new ones,” said independent Moscow-based analyst Stanislav Belkovsky. Putin “dislikes being surrounded by people who feel untouchable because of their personal closeness to him. He doesn’t want to have anything to do with his old friends, he wants people who can execute his will.”