How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In April, a series of protests hit the Moscow region. They were neither overtly political—citizens were protesting toxic landfills in their neighborhoods—nor very numerous, comprising, at most, a few thousand people in a region of over seven million. At their peak, people took to the streets in nine towns surrounding the city.
The protests, however, seemed well coordinated, and in some towns, the city authorities supported people and granted them permission to protest. Even for officials, it was difficult to ignore the awful smells emanating from the landfills, or the furious mothers and fathers of poisoned children. One of these cities was Serpukhov, some 60 miles south of Moscow.
One week after the protests started, an official from the Serpukhov district, Alexander Shestun, was invited to the Kremlin. There, he met with Ivan Tkachev, a general from the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s powerful intelligence agency and the successor to the Soviet-era secret police, the KGB. Apprehensive about the meeting, Shestun decided to secretly record the conversation, which he later posted on YouTube.
In the recording, Tkachev threatens Shestun. “You will be steamrolled if you don’t resign,” he says. “You will be in prison. Like many before you, you don’t understand, it’s a big [purge].” Intimating that he was receiving orders from the Kremlin, Tkachev then lists several top-level officials who had already been jailed, including a general from the interior ministry and two governors. Tkachev even suggests that Andrey Vorobyov, governor of the Moscow region and former chair of the ruling party United Russia, could be the next target.
The FSB’s clumsy attempt to silence Shestun was not an isolated incident. Rather, in its intimidation and selective repression—directed by the Kremlin and carried out by the FSB—the episode was a revealing example of the new governing model developed by Russian President Vladimir Putin over the last three years, and the role of the intelligence services within it.
THE NEW NOBILITY
From Putin's ascent to power in 2000 until quite recently, the FSB enjoyed the status of a “new nobility,” in the words of its former director Nikolai Patrushev. The agency was generously funded, immune from oversight, and free to act against the real and perceived enemies of the Kremlin. It also provided human resources—generals and colonels—for filling important positions within the state and state-owned corporations. For a period of time, the FSB became, as Irina Borogan and I described in 2010, the true elite of the country.
During his early years in office, Putin, himself a former KGB officer, had worked to reverse the decentralization of Russia’s intelligence services that had occurred in the 1990s—a task that largely involved concentrating power within the FSB and allowing its personnel to amass wealth and political influence. This, Putin hoped, would make the intelligence services into something like a new class—one loyal to the Kremlin, with a stake in the stability of the regime and able to serve as a check on the ambitions of Russia’s powerful oligarchs.
For many of Russia's newly empowered nobles, the temptations of power were too strong to resist.
Yet for many of these newly empowered nobles, the temptations of power and lack of oversight were too strong to resist. By the mid-2000s, Putin’s secret services—including the FSB, the Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN), and the Presidential Security Service—were at each other’s throats, fighting, spying on, and jailing one another in competition for spoils. Many, in fact, had turned into mercenaries of the oligarchs they were supposed to oversee. In 2007, Viktor Cherkesov, the chief of the FSKN and a close friend of Putin, complained that “the warriors” of the intelligence services had “turned into traders” after his deputy, General Alexander Bulbov, was jailed by the FSB for illegal eavesdropping. Because Cherkesov had complained in public, he lost his job.
Putin’s trust in the FSB, moreover, proved to be misplaced. The agency failed to predict the massive protests that struck Moscow in 2011, and once the protests started, it was powerless to respond to the demonstrators’ use of social media to mobilize and organize. When the FSB sent a request to Russia’s most popular social network, Vkontakte, to take down pages used by the protestors, it did so by fax. During the initial stages of the 2013–2014 crisis in Ukraine, Moscow sent an FSB team to help its ally, President Viktor Yanukovych. For the Kremlin, Ukraine was the most important country among the former Soviet republics, and keeping it within Russia’s sphere of influence was paramount. But not only did the FSB officers fail to help Yanukovych hold on to power, they failed to even see him losing his nerve, and were taken by surprise when he fled from the capital in February 2014.
Following these mounting failures, Putin began, around 2015, to change the scheme. He got rid of old friends who were proponents and beneficiaries of the enlarged role of the secret services. In August 2015, Putin ousted his former ally Vladimir Yakunin, an ex-KGB officer, from his position as head of Russia’s state-owned-railroad monopoly. Then in 2016, he dealt with the two Ivanovs, dismissing Viktor and dissolving his agency, the FSKN, in May, and downgrading Sergei, his chief of staff, in August. Around this time, Putin also ceased using the FSB as a recruitment base for important positions in the government and economy.
The goal of these changes was not to make the intelligence services less important; it was to reduce their autonomy. Putin was abandoning the search for a stable post-Soviet system of governance, in which the new nobility was supposed to play a crucial part. Instead, he was making it clear that what he needed was an instrument, pure and simple, for protecting his regime.
The new model is familiar from the late Soviet Union, when the Politburo called the shots and kept the intelligence services on a short leash, with minimal room for independent action. The KGB, in turn, kept elites off balance (and intimidated the population) through selective repression—a strategy that Putin’s most cherished Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, had called “improving labor discipline.” And improving discipline is exactly what Putin has started doing. Governors and officials found themselves in prison for corruption; film directors, scientists, and ordinary people were thrown in jail, accused of helping Ukraine. The FSB played a major role in these crackdowns, but never on its own initiative. Now Putin, ruling through the Presidential Administration, calls the shots, filling the Politburo’s shoes.
A crucial part of this new model is to keep everybody off balance, including law enforcement and secret services. Last year, the FSB was struck by purges in its Moscow directorate and its cyber unit, the Information Security Center, whose head, Andrei Gerasimov, was forced into retirement. Two deputy heads were prosecuted—Sergei Mikhailov wound up jail, while Dmitry Pravikov got a suspended sentence. The FSB was also deeply embarrassed by a widely publicized case last year against Major-General Vladimir Podolsky, a former commander of the FSB’s legendary special forces unit, Vympel, who was charged with fraud and sentenced to four years in prison.
Some understood pretty quickly that the country was returning to a Soviet model. In a December 2017 interview on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Cheka, the notorious predecessor of the KGB, FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov found some warm words for Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s chief hangman, and praised aspects of Stalin’s Great Purges. Others have kept a low profile. Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, is reducing its public presence, and the recently formed National Guard has abandoned its ambition to obtain surveillance powers.
Putin’s new model suggests little room for interagency rivalry and feuds. All of Russia’s bureaucrats, from ministers to FSB generals to regional officials, now face the same uncertain future. This should keep the elites of the country well under control, as everyone is afraid of making an unauthorized move. To achieve this security, Putin is even ready to sacrifice the capacity for long-term planning—nobody expects fearful bureaucrats, or even spies, to plan for the future.
Yet this new model has another fatal flaw. Putin saw the late Soviet model from his position as a low-ranking KGB officer in a regional department in Leningrad, and, later on, in East Germany. He was too far from the center of power in Moscow to see for himself the failures of that system, which was able neither to predict nor to prevent the Soviet collapse.
The key problem for the late-Soviet model was that the information services, including the KGB, eventually ceased supplying critical information to the top for fear of telling their bosses what they didn’t want to hear. It is, ironically, a problem that Putin never understands. He already saw his secret services failing him in moments of crisis, as during the Moscow protests. But with his method of fixing them, Putin is opening himself up to even more disastrous consequences.