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Vladimir Putin and Yuri Yakovlev at the Kremlin. March 2016.

What's going on at Russia's KGB successor? Andrei Soldatov explains why big business should brace itself

Source: Meduza
Vladimir Putin and Yuri Yakovlev at the Kremlin. March 2016.
Vladimir Putin and Yuri Yakovlev at the Kremlin. March 2016.
Photo: PhotoXPress

Russia's Federal Security Service—the FSB—is currently experiencing the biggest personnel changes it's seen in a decade. Yuri Yakovlev, the head of the FSB's influential Economic Security Service, recently resigned, followed by his deputies (men who led key branches in this division). Meduza asked Andrei Soldatov, a specialist in Russia's security agencies, to explain what these personnel changes could mean.

Andrei Soldatov

Expert in Russia's security forces, and chief editor of the website

FSB generals are rarely relieved of their duties for something they've done. This is an ideological position that dates back to the late 1990s, that the security agencies needed to be strengthened after Boris Yeltsin's reforms, and dismissing someone for failures or mistakes (and least of all trying to learn from these mistakes) only got in the way. Throughout Vladimir Putin's entire time in power, only a few FSB generals have been dismissed for mistakes or failures. In the summer of 2004, the president removed a few security-agency heads for allowing Shamil Basayev to march on Ingushetia, which resulted in the federal government losing control of the republic for a day. [During the midnight hours on June 22, 2004, militants under Basayev's command seized and blocked off a number of major administrative and military facilities in Ingushetia. According to official reports, 97 people were killed during the attack.] And a few FSB department heads were sent into retirement in the mid and late 2000s for overreaching their authority.

The current series of resignations in the SEB—the FSB's Economic Security Service—doesn't likely fall into this category of personnel changes. The SEB is a special branch of the FSB. This branch doesn't conduct investigations or uncover crimes—its function is to monitor. SEB officers are embedded inside Russia's largest corporations, just as key units' names indicate: the Office of Counterintelligence Support to Industrial Facilities, the Office of Counterintelligence Support to Transportation, the Office of Counterintelligence Support to the Credit and Financial Spheres, and so on. In the language of 2000s-era Russian security forces, “counterintelligence activity” doesn't mean the fight against foreign spies in banks and businesses (like it did during the times of the NKVD's State Political Directorate), but just that the FSB has a free hand to do what it likes.

Notably, the FSB is set loose precisely in the areas where Russia's true political conflicts take place (and not where the Kremlin plays its “political-technology” games).

The Economic Security Service is the FSB's main unit for monitoring Russia's oligarchs. It was here that agents planned the operations against the businesses of Vladimir Gusinsky, and later the former head of Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The people selected to head this outfit aren't random, and past heads of the SEB include Alexander Bortnikov, the current director of the FSB, and Viktor Ivanov, a man who's spent many years in Putin's closest circle.

Putin personally makes the decision the change the head of the SEB, and it's unlikely that he does so because one of Yuri Yakovlev's subordinates was caught red-handed. (According to one theory, the personnel changes in the FSB started because of a bribery investigation where one of the witnesses was a staff member in the SEB's 7th Unit Division.)

A year ago, moreover, Putin already changed the head of another FSB unit of equal size and importance in Russian politics. In April 2015, he appointed a new head to FSB's Counterintelligence Service: Vladislav Menshchikov, the former head of the Special Programs Chief Directorate, which is one of the most classified security forces inside the presidential administration. Menshchikov replaced the long-serving and highly experienced Oleg Syromolotov. 

Vladislav Menshchikov, head of the FSB's Counterintelligence Service
Photo: Sergei Porter / Vedomosti / fotoimedia

Then, too, there were rumors that Syromolotov had been transferred from the FSB to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because of the scandal with Svetlana Davydova, a mother of seven children locked up [temporarily] in a Moscow jail for phoning the Ukrainian embassy [about apparent Russian troop movements]. In fact, it was quite the opposite, and Menshchikov had received a carte blanche from Putin. Inside the FSB, there was talk that Putin told Menshchikov when he appointed him, “Bring the spirit of counterintelligence back to life,” and soon the president assigned him a new rank as general, as a sign of his personal approval. 

As a result, 2015 and 2016 witnessed a dramatic growth in spy mania, especially relating to Ukraine. All kinds of people found themselves in the middle of this: engineers in the military-industrial complex, air-traffic controllers, and sailors in the Black Sea Fleet. The latest example is the persecution of Evgeny Kiselyov's family. One of the founders of the television network NTV, Kiselyov has worked and lived for years in Ukraine. His wife and son are now being hauled in for questioning by the FSB because he dared to comment sharply on the story of [Ukrainian pilot] Nadiya Savchenko. 

Menshchikov might be just another career security services officer, but he appears to be only the first in a new generation, coming to the FSB from the presidential administration, sent to strengthen the agency. Last year in December, FSB head Alexander Bortnikov got a new deputy director in Igor Sirotkin, an active and influential lieutenant general in the “Petersburg Cheka.” In the FSB's St. Petersburg office, Sirotkin managed economic security—the same activity that's now being so heavily buffed up in the FSB's central apparatus. At the same time, there's talk about the possible arrival of “outsiders” from the Federal Protective Service—again in order to strengthen this branch of the FSB.

If all this strengthening isn't the agency's way of addressing past mistakes, it stands to reason that it is preparation for a coming assault. Big business in Russia should get ready for some unfriendly visits.

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