Irina Borogan, Elena Grossfeld, Dr Daniela Richterova and Andrei Soldatov
It was meant to be a swift military victory. Several days after Russian tanks rolled onto Ukrainian territory, the Federal Security Service (FSB) was to help impose a new pro-Kremlin puppet government in Kyiv. Nevertheless, forecasts by Putin’s spies soon proved to be overly optimistic. They underestimated the Ukrainian population’s grit to oppose the foreign invasion, Ukraine’s armed forces’ capability and training, and the West’s uncharacteristically unified resolve to support Ukraine. A year later, Putin is waging a long war he never wanted to fight. The conflict has had a profound impact on Russia’s security and intelligence apparatus, which has inevitably been drawn into the war in myriad ways. Although on paper much looks the same, on the ground we are seeing fundamental changes in how Putin’s secret empire operates, both at home and abroad. In the long run, this could facilitate a much larger cultural shift, which could drag Russian intelligence and security services back into the cold – further into isolation and to the old repressive ways of its predecessors.
Changes on the ground: militarisation, increased repression and decimated spy networks abroad
The FSB – effectively the KGB’s post-Soviet incarnation responsible for civilian and military counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and border security – has stood at the forefront of Putin’s war on Ukraine. Unsurprisingly then, the invasion has had a profound impact on its mission. Prior to the war, the Security Service sported two departments dedicated to Ukraine – one focused on collecting intelligence in Ukraine, the other tasked with countering Ukrainian espionage efforts against Russia. Since the invasion, the FSB became almost fully consumed with the war, adopting an all-hands-on-deck approach. In practice, this means that today all departments are heavily engaged in supporting the Russian war effort – including the Department of Economic Security, now in charge of helping Russia survive Western sanctions; and the Unit for the Protection of the Constitution, which was recently charged with imposing the appropriate pro-war mood across academia, universities, and schools. The main goal is to ensure the stability of the regime during the biggest crisis Putin has ever faced. The scale of this shift is unprecedented, and cannot be compared to previous FSB support in times of crisis or war. The FSB’s over concentration on the war in Ukraine has inevitably led to the second key change in the way it operates: the militarisation of Russia’s domestic civilian service. This transformation is perhaps best exemplified by the FSB’s involvement in the so called ‘filtration’ of Ukrainian citizens. Set up either on Russian or occupied Ukrainian territory, many of these filtration facilities – some of which are camps – are said to be run by the FSB. Their ultimate aim is to identify members of Ukrainian armed forces and police, recruit collaborators, extract potentially useful intelligence, and collect ‘testimonies’ about Ukrainian war crimes. Here, FSB officers have been reported to interrogate, torture, take fingerprints, mine personal phones for data, and inspect social media accounts as well as personal messages of Ukrainian civilians. In some cases, Ukrainians are being forced to record disinformation videos accusing Ukrainian neo-Nazi regiments of committing war atrocities. Overall numbers are hard to establish: State Department figures from July 2022 estimate that between 900,000 – 1.6 million Ukrainians have been interrogated, detained, and forcibly deported by Russian authorities; Ukrainian estimates from December 2022 are citing at least 2.8 million. Even if the more conservative estimates are true, it is not surprising that all FSB officers are now eligible to be deployed for three-months-long tours in Ukraine. Although the Security Service engaged in such filtrations in previous conflicts – most recently in the Chechen wars – the scale of its current engagement is unprecedented.
The third transformation of the FSB relates to its operations within Russian borders. Since the outbreak of the war, Putin’s Security Service has increasingly clamped down on political opposition and public dissent. Since Spring 2022, a growing number of Putin’s most prominent critics have been incarcerated; while mass arrests at demonstrations have shown what will happen to those willing to take to the streets to protest against the war.
New draconian media laws have effectively introduced censorship and landed prominent journalists on the most-wanted list, or in prison. Although the FSB has been the flag-bearer of these oppressive policies from the very beginning, its remit has recently been expanded. In December 2022, on the occasion of the Security Services Day, Putin ordered the FSB to step up its surveillance, alleging increased threats from foreign intelligence services and traitors. Although in the latter half of 2022, Kyiv had indeed mounted a handful of symbolic covert operations against Russian citizens and infrastructure, Putin’s very public announcement of increased FSB powers signalled what could be seen as a step back into the cold – a return to the era of Stalinesque tactics directed against the population and civil society characterised by increased surveillance, censorship, purges, and large-scale arrests.
At the moment, the impact of the war on Russia’s two other key spy agencies – the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and its military equivalent, the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces (GRU) – is more difficult to decode. It is clear, however, that in 2022 Russia’s foreign spy agencies suffered significant blows. In the early months of the conflict, Moscow’s intelligence officers were expelled in unprecedented numbers from across European capitals. What is more, in some cases, governments exposed their identities, effectively preventing future service abroad. Several weeks into the war, Slovak media released video footage of a clandestine meeting between a GRU officer and his Slovak asset recorded by one of the country’s counterintelligence departments. This forced exodus of hundreds of Russian intelligence officers from Europe arguably brought Putin’s secret empire further back into isolation, significantly impacting its ability to maintain existing networks of agents on the continent, as well as its ability to recruit new ones. Arrests of Russian agents across Europe have also notably increased, many of which were placed at the heart of the countries’ security establishments. Most recently, the German government uncovered a Russian mole within its Foreign Intelligence Service (BND).
Over the past year, a number of so-called ‘illegals’ (deep cover officers sent abroad to infiltrate institutions of strategic interest) have also been arrested in the West. The Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) arrested an aspiring intern at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, who turned out to be a GRU officer deployed to infiltrate the war crimes tribunal currently investigating Russian conduct in the war in Ukraine. These arrests do not automatically signal a shift in Moscow’s strategy or scale of operation. In fact, most uncovered assets had been working for Russia well before the invasion. They do, however, show the depth of Russian penetration of numerous strategic and security targets across Europe. Moreover, they signal a shift in the mindset of European governments. While for years some states have opted for a softer-touch approach to Russian espionage, recent arrests indicate that those days are a thing of the past.
Continuity on paper: intelligence failures and old structures
Amidst all this change, some key characteristics of Russia’s intelligence and security empire remain the same. Crucially, Russian strategic and tactical intelligence analysis seems to be in as dire a state as it was during the Cold War. A year into the conflict in Ukraine, it is increasingly clear that Moscow’s invasion was paved with a variety of policy, military, and intelligence failures – ranging from misreading Ukrainian geography and terrain, to misjudging the strength of popular and military resistance. Although little is known about the actual analytical interactions between Russian producers of intelligence, their spymasters, and the ultimate consumers of their intelligence, intelligence failures of such magnitude typically lead to leadership decapitations or institutional shake ups. However, we have not seen any such strategic shifts aimed at punishing or rectifying this blunder. Although in the early days of the conflict a furious Putin sacked the chief of the FSB’s Ukrainian Directorate, indicating that heads of other key spy departments may begin to roll, we have not seen any other significant institutional or leadership changes within the Russian secret state. Holding off on such major changes might be a strategic decision on the side of the Kremlin: in an effort not to rock the boat while on rough seas, Putin might be looking to pretend like all is business as usual.
Towards a cultural shift?
Structurally, the Russian security and intelligence apparatus looks much like it did a year ago. It is made up of the same institutions and led by the same chiefs. Nevertheless, the conflict in Ukraine has fundamentally changed the way Putin’s secret state operates. Most notably, the FSB’s mission has become entirely consumed by the war effort and by containing dissent at home. This, in turn, has militarised the service and its officers who will soon all have first-hand experience of operating in a warzone. This may facilitate a long-term cultural shift impacting the way the Russian security apparatus will function for decades to come – a transformation that could see Putin’s Security Service regress to the darkest times of Stalin-era repressions. The war might also impact the culture within Putin’s foreign intelligence apparatus which suffered unprecedented blows during the first year of the war. At the moment, however, it is unclear how SVR and GRU will react to the gradual decimation of their officer and agent networks across Europe. Will they cut their losses and focus on Ukraine, or will they revert to their Cold War playbooks, which contain elaborate plans for sabotage and other covert operations aimed at western European targets?
Published in the Centre for Grand Strategy в King’s College “Back into the Cold: Putins Intelligence and Security Apparatus a Year into the Ukraine War”