Staunton, January 6 – Despite its much ballyhooed success in preventing any attack on the Sochi Olympics, the FSB has not had a good year in Ukraine, where its military competitor the GRU played the dominant role in the annexation of Crime and where its inability to predict developments in Ukraine constituted an intelligence failure of the first magnitude.
In Yezhednevny Zhurnal on January 6, Andrey Soldatov and Irina Borogan, two of the most prominent independent commentators on the Russian intelligence services, say that given the FSB’s responsibilities to monitor Ukraine, many in the Russian capital last spring were asking how it could have performed so poorly.
People asked “how such a special service which so self-confidently conducted itself in Ukraine – and only by such an attitude can one explain the arrival in Kyiv at the time of the Maidan events of a group of highly placed officers under their own names – in fact did not understand anything about what was going on and could not predict anything, including the disappearance from [Kyiv] of the president under their control.”
Moreover, the two say, “judging from the fact that so many people came out of nowhere to become leaders of the pro-Russian party in Crimea, the FSB did not have any serious intelligence positions even on the peninsula, otherwise the selection of politicians [there] would have been more sensible.”
“The war which began in the east of Ukraine,” they write, “from the very beginning” featured PR specialists and propagandists “in key positions,” and thus “for the Russian special services, it began a PR war,” perhaps even more than an intelligence one. This reality was highlighted by the fact that the Russian media “for months” discussed whether the leader of the pro-Moscow militants was working for the GRU or the FSB.
According to Soldatov and Borogan, “this discussion lasted so long that it degenerated into a farce at the end of December when on the eve of the Day of the Chekist an interview appeared in ‘Nezavisimoye Voennoye Obozreniye’” in which an anonymous FSB general said he had recruited Girkin (Strelkov) in 1995.
But it was not only in Ukraine that the FSB’s involvement with PR seemed to get the best of it, the two say. They say that the spy scandal which occurred when Russian border guards seized an Estonian “was unique because it was played out according to the rules of propaganda which in that case contradicted the traditions of the special services.”
Initially, it all looked normal enough. The Russians said he was a spy but as more facts came out, “many journalists began to suspect that the entire history was a put up job and the spy not a real one.” That led to a response: NTV put out a film entitled “Our Man in Tallinn” whose hero said he had worked 20 years for the Russians.
But what was “curious” about all this is that he said he worked all that time “not for the SVR or the GRU,” the two agencies it would have been most appropriate for such a spy to be employed by but rather “for the FSB.” Moreover, Soldatov and Borogan say, “in violation of all unwritten rules,” the film showed “even the officer who ran him, “a completely unbelievable thing for the Russian special services.”
Even more intriguing, they write, “in fact for the first time, the FSB acknowledged [by so doing] that it was involved in foreign intelligence activities.” That is because, despite the FSB handler’s assertions that the man provided information on foreign intelligence operations against Russia, it is clear, “the field of [his] activity was broader” than that.
Such public relations efforts reflect “the far reaching ambitions of the FSB” to play a bigger role abroad, something that Soldatov and Borogan say was also confirmed by the new treaty between South Ossetia and the Russian Federation according to which the State Security Committee of the former becomes part of the FSB.