‘New KGB’ plans betray Putin’s anxiety
If true, this would be a serious shift in policy, reflecting a dawning awareness on Putin’s part that his old strategies for governing Russia are looking increasingly ineffective.
There have been periodic suggestions that the Kremlin plans to bring the majority of the country’s intelligence and security services back into a single agency, effectively reconstituting the Soviet KGB. Vladimir Putin, himself a proud veteran of that agency, has hitherto resisted the idea, but a report in the well-connected newspaper Kommersant is claiming that a new Ministry of State Security (MGB) is to soon be formed. If true – and there are grounds to believe the account – then this would be a serious shift in policy, indicating serious concern and dissatisfaction at the current situation. Whatever Putin may hope, it is also likely to make the security agencies even more politicised and dysfunctional.
According to the report, which has since been picked up also in the state-run media, the MGB would largely be constituted on the basis of the current Federal Security Service (FSB), already the dominant agency, and reincorporate the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and most of the Federal Guard Service (FSO), except for Putin’s own Presidential Security Service (SBP). In spanning domestic security and foreign espionage, incorporating the whole intelligence community other than military intelligence (the GRU), this agency would directly replicate the KGB.
The name MGB has doubly unfortunate resonances, as it was both the name of the secret police in the late Stalin era, and is also used by both the Donetsk and Lugansk “People’s Republics” for their security agencies. It may well be that a more neutral formulation is used. Either way, though, this would create a single, massively-powerful and thoroughly under-supervised security agency. Indeed, it would actually be much less constrained than the KGB, which was tightly watched by the Communist Party apparatus.
Ministry of Kremlin Paranoia
There seems little objective justification for such a move. It will be expensive at a time when state resources are already under pressure. There is no lack of political police officers and spies at the Kremlin’s disposal and this will neither generate more, nor create meaningful economies of scale.
Instead, it seems to reflect a dawning awareness on Putin’s part that his old strategies for governing Russia are looking increasingly ineffective. Previously, he relied on a combination of legitimation through propaganda and the forms of democracy, co-optation through increasing standards of living, and the implicit but usually limited use of coercion. As the record low turnout in Sunday’s Duma elections underlined, the theatrics of pseudo-politics are losing their appeal, especially at a time when times are hard (and more austerity measures are almost certainly imminent).
On one level, this move might also, in its own way, be about theatrics: if Putin does use the name MGB, in particular, it would be a powerful symbol of potential repression. After all, the modern secret policeman would rather scare people into line than actually have to arrest them.
But, like the creation of a National Guard earlier this year, it would also be an agency built for potential use. A KGB 2.0 would be a powerful instrument not only to suppress any potential opposition within the country, but also to watch and tame the elite. Tellingly, according to anonymous FSB sources quoted by Kommersant, it would also investigate major crimes including fraud and corruption cases – the instruments of choice for controlling the elite these days.
Building a better cell for himself
All that said, though, this is actually likely to strengthen some dangerous and dysfunctional tendencies within the Russian security community. As became clear while researching the ECFR report Putin’s Hydra: inside Russia’s intelligence services, the most serious problems include turf wars, corruption, and the politicisation of the intelligence actually reaching Putin’s desk.
Hopes that turf wars would end by creating a super-agency dominated by the FSB will be misplaced. These days, many of the most vicious take place within agencies or between cross-agency factions. They will simply migrate inside the MGB, where the very lack of institutional boundaries will, in effect, mean everything is up for grabs. If anything, the temptation to fight for power, access, and resources will only be magnified.
Hence the new scope for corruption. Russia’s security agencies have an abysmal record investigating themselves, and when there have been successes, such as the recent arrest of an Investigations Committee officer protecting a notorious gangster, they tend to be because another service opens the case. The MGB would in practice be subject to no meaningful oversight, and likely a hotbed for corruption.
Finally, a key problem in the Russian intelligence process is that Putin and his closest allies are too often told what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. This is to a considerable extent because of a bureaucratic culture which never rewards the bearers of bad news, and leads to a dangerous disconnect between decision making and the real world.
The fewer the different sources of information, the greater this disconnect, and the creation of the MGB would grant that agency a near-monopoly on the intelligence on which Putin will make his decisions. This has actually been one of the reasons why, in previous years, he opted not to recreate the KGB: what does it say that now he regards this as a lesser evil?
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.