Seven Questions: Russia's Cloaks and Daggers

From London to Moscow, rumors are swirling about who was behind the assassination of a former Russian intelligence agent last week. From his deathbed, Alexander Litvinenko fingered President Vladimir Putin. Others aren’t so sure. To cut through the confusion, FP spoke with Yevgenia Albats, an expert on the murky world of Russia’s secret services.

FOREIGN POLICY: What is the current state of Russias secret services?

Yevgenia Albats: Reform of the KGB never really happened. The organization was broken into several agencies in the early 1990s, but the reforms were abandoned,especially after [Vladimir] Putin became president . The KGBs capacity to be a political organization is back. And unlike the Soviet era, the secret services are now in full power. [Putin] was a lieutenant colonel in the FSB [the KGBs successor agency] and all his major associates and deputies in the Kremlin are former KGB employees. Major Russian monopolies such as Gazprom and the railroad monopoly are controlled by former KGB agents. Overall, some 6,000 former or current intelligence officers are in the executive [branch] and legislature.

FP: Are the secret services receiving high levels of funding from the government?

YA: The budget of the Russian secret services has been increased time and time again, but we dont know by exactly how much. All we know is that [the budget] is huge. There is no public or parliamentary oversight and no checks and balances on how they spend this huge sum of money. Whether covert actions inside or outside the country are covered or acknowledged in this budget, we dont know. The other important feature of the secret services is that they report to one man: Vladimir Putin.

FP: What are the current priorities of the Russian secret services?

YA: Hard to know. Its a black box. However, given that law enforcement cant make the country safe, we can say confidently that public security is not a priority of the Russian secret services. They were very much involved in the second war in Chechnya. We now know that the Russian secret services were involved in the murder of the former Chechen president in Qatar. We know that was done by military intelligence. Three people were caught red-handed, tried, and sentenced [in Qatar]. Then they were deported back to Russia at the request of President Putin. They were met at the airport by the minister of defense, who put out a red carpet and treated them like heroes.

FP: What about secret service operations in Europe and the United States? Do we know anything about them?

YA: American officials have been pretty open about the fact that the Russian embassy is as stuffed with spies as it was in the old times. Yet I think it is important to point out that in the Soviet era, Russian spies were more or less working in the interest of the Soviet state as an institution. Now, many of them are involved in different kinds of business. Sometimes, they look more like businesspeople than intelligence officers.

FP: Is it accurate then to say that some secret service officials may not be fully under the control of their superiors?

YA: Absolutely. They might not even be fully under the control of the person to whom they report. And thats what disturbs me the most. At least in Soviet times it was Stalin or [Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav] Molotov who gave the order for assassinations abroad. In [Premier Leonid] Brezhnevs time, there was a politburo meeting and the head of intelligence gave the order to kill Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London back in 1978. At least there was a clear line of authority. Now, I believe we can safely say that there is no clear line of authority in the current secret services. They are out of hand, which is very dangerous.

FP: What is your view about the recent assassinations of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former intelligence official Alexander Litvinenko?

YA: There are several conspiracy theories floating around. I hate conspiracy theories. I prefer to deal with facts. I would be happy to learn that Anna Politkovskaya or Alexander Litvinenko were killed by some crazy people, say from Chechnya, who are conducting blood revenge. I would be happy to know that. I would probably also be happy if exiled Russian oligarchs happened to be behind the murders. I would be happy because that would be best for the security and well-being of my country and my personal security. However, I dont see sufficient evidence to prove those two theories. Unfortunately, I see more arguments in favor of the theory that [the assassinations] were done by chekists [Russian secret service operatives]. The only question that many people debate in Moscow is whether the killing was approved by Putin or whether he had no idea. If that theory, for which we are lacking essential facts, happens to be true, I would say we are done here in Russia. No one can feel safe anymore in this country or in any country for that matter if you happen to be proclaimed an enemy of the current authorities.

FP: As someone who writes about these issues in Russia, how safe do you feel?

YA: I dont feel safe, but theres nothing I can do about it. I choose not to think about it. Im a mom, I have a kid, and I have a lot of work to do.

Yevgenia Albats is professor of political science at the Moscow-based state university, The Higher School of Economics, a political talk-show host at Echo Moskvy Broadcasting, and author of The State Within a State: The KGB and its Hold on RussiaPast, Present and Future (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994).