Friday, February 8, 2008

Vladimir Putin and That Old Time Feeling

The Moscow Times is running a series on Vladimir Putin's successful effort to restore and enhance the power of the Russian state security/counter intelligence service the FSB. The FSB is the heir to the old Soviet secret police apparatus more famously known as the KGB. Foreign intelligence operations reside with the SVR, the old KGB First Chief Directorate (FCD). Note that the FSB retains the old KGB sword and the shield logo sans the Soviet red star.

Since coming to power in 1999, Vladimir Putin has systematically placed KGB officials into high positions within the government and private business.

It was a typical December night in Moscow. The cold was biting, the snow thick and dry. In the Federal Security Service's headquarters on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad, hundreds of intelligence officers met as they did every year to celebrate the founding of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police. Champagne glasses tinkled as the officers spoke in jubilant tones. Classical music played softly in the background.

The hall grew quiet as Vladimir Putin -- the former FSB director who had been appointed prime minister a few months earlier -- stood to speak.

"Dear comrades," Putin said. "I would like to announce to you that the group of FSB agents that you sent to work undercover in the government has accomplished the first part of its mission." Everyone in the room knew what the second part entailed, said an FSB officer who attended the event and related what took place.

"We knew that the second part was to become president and to appoint former KGB colleagues to top government posts," the officer said. In the speech, Putin assured the people in the room that he would not forget them once he reached the pinnacle of power, the officer said.

"There are no former agents," Putin declared, giving a new twist to a common joke among KGB officers.

The listening FSB officers raised a toast to Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky and Yury Andropov, the longest-serving KGB chief.

That night, they had one more reason to celebrate, the FSB officer said: After years of humiliation, the intelligence services were on the brink of being restored to their former prestige.

It was Dec. 20, 1999, just 11 days before Boris Yeltsin abruptly resigned and named Putin as acting president. Three months later, Putin won a snap presidential election. Now, as Putin prepares to leave the Kremlin eight years later, he has kept the promise made that night in FSB headquarters.

An astounding 78 percent of the country's leadership has links to the KGB or FSB, according to estimates by Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a leading sociologist who tracks Kremlin politics and the security services.

Twenty-six percent of the officials acknowledge their involvement, while the rest give themselves away "by the holes in their resumes," Kryshtanovskaya said.

In addition to filling government and company posts with intelligence officers, Putin has restored to the FSB much of the power and glory enjoyed by the KGB.

At the same time, a kind of spy mania has swept the country, with the FSB seeming to see enemies in every corner and accusing dozens of scientists of espionage.

The rest of the article is well worth a read. The bolded paragraphs are my own emphasis. Toasts to Dzerzhinsky and Andropov are just downright chilling. Just like the American saying, “there is no such thing as an ex-Marine,” it is equally true that no one ever truly leaves the KGB. The issue of paranoia is important to note too, as it was a constant theme in the Soviet intelligence services both during and after the Stalin era. The FCD was always on the look out for a western plot against the Soviet Union. Quite often, the FCD refused to accept any intelligence that did not confirm their paranoia. Many KGB operations, both active measures and counter intelligence, were quite successful, the paranoid strain in the upper echelons of the KGB led to serious miscalculations about western intentions, especially in regards to the United States.

How George W. Bush looked into Putin’s soul and saw a man he could trust is beyond me. Putin’s reconstitution and extension of the old KGB apparatus is a bad sign for democracy in Russia. Furthermore, Putin’s restoration and rehabilitation of Stalin doesn’t speak well of the man or the state of Russian democracy either.

The paranoid strain in FSB, which most likely exists in the SVR, is troubling as well. Russia has returned to great power status through its oil wealth, and Putin has developed friendly ties to Iran, Chavez's Venezuela and China. Russia is now a US rival. That its two major intelligence services are exhibiting their predecessor’s Cold War paranoia does not bode well for future US-Russian relations.

There is an old Soviet era joke that says, “The future is known, it’s the past that is always changing.” It appears that Putin has changed the dynamic so now the past is reconstituting the present and shaping the future.

Putin may well be responsible for the murders of Alexander Litvinenko and journalist Anna Politkovskaya, both of whom were vocal critics of Putin and his regime. Closer to home there is the case of the murder attempt on Putin critic Paul Joyal at his home in Adelphi in PG County.

Ironically, Putin’s idol Stalin once said, “Death solves all problems - no man, no problem.”

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