Spooks in the Kremlin
The dangers of Putin’s unhealthy reliance on Russian intelligence.
Three leather-bound folders shape the world—or Vladimir Putin’s world, at least. Every morning, after his swim and workout, Russia’s president begins work by looking at these three briefing documents: The domestic Federal Security Service (FSB) gives him an analysis of the state of the country; the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) provides an overview of the global situation; and the Federal Protective Service (FSO), his personal guard, contributes a summary of goings-on among the domestic elite.
There is nothing unusual in a head of state receiving morning briefings. In the United States, for example, the President’s Daily Brief keeps critical intelligence flowing into the Oval Office. There are, however, several distinctive aspects to the Russian process. Together, they suggest that Putin’s government is transforming from an autocracy into a form of government one might call a spookocracy, a government ruled by spies. The implications are worrying for Russia—and the world.
Much is made of Putin’s early career in the KGB—the Soviet-era security agency—and his later 13-month stint, in 1998 and 1999, as director of the FSB. By all accounts, however, Putin was a mediocre field officer and an unmemorable director. In his 16 years in the KGB, his main posting was to East Germany, where he largely whiled away the hours compiling reports and collecting press cuttings for others to study; he undertook no missions in the West, received no awards, and had no command responsibility.
Putin spent the immediate years following the collapse of the Soviet Union largely working in the St. Petersburg city government, where he rose to become deputy mayor. After a seven-year hiatus from the intelligence world—a world through which he had failed to work his way up—he was appointed to run the FSB for essentially political reasons: President Boris Yeltsin wanted someone who he thought would be loyal, reliable, and willing to cover up his bosses’ misdeeds and peccadilloes. Those motivations were apparent to the FSB’s career staff; according to a former senior figure within the service, Putin “didn’t know the people around him or how the service worked at that level.”
Putin remains an intelligence amateur. Less a seasoned veteran of what the Russians call the special services, he is rather their greatest fanboy. The veteran spooks Putin has recruited into his inner circle include his former chief of staff Sergei Ivanov (ex-KGB) and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak (formerly of the military intelligence service, GRU), as well as oligarchs such as Rosneft chairman Igor Sechin (widely believed to be a former GRU officer) and Nikolai Patrushev, the current secretary of Putin’s Security Council, which is the closest thing to a national security advisor in the Russian system. (A former director of the FSB himself, Patrushev makes Putin look dovish by comparison; he has indicated that he believes the United States wants to dismember Russia.)
Putin cozies up to high-ranking spies because they teach him about a world that he was unable to master himself; he masks his deficiencies by surrounding himself with these experts. In response, they compete for his favor. They have learned that nothing wins Putin’s respect so much as telling him what he wants to hear, rather than what he needs to know. As one former Russian intelligence officer told me, they have learned that “you don’t bring bad news to the tsar’s table.”
Russia’s special services have an outsized influence in shaping Putin’s worldview. According to sources in the presidential administration, for example, when Ukraine was in the grip of the Euromaidan revolution in 2013 and 2014, the SVR warned that incumbent President Viktor Yanukovych’s position was at serious risk. The FSB, by contrast, reassured Putin that everything was under control. But when Yanukovych was forced to flee to Russia, the SVR wasn’t praised for its foresight. Instead, it was punished, with several SVR officials getting fired, even as the more politically savvy FSB dodged accountability. Putin seems to have accepted the FSB’s explanation that Western intelligence was behind the Ukrainian revolution—and that it was the SVR’s fault for not having warned as much.
It is no surprise that the competition among Russian intelligence agencies to please the boss often becomes cannibalistic. Unlike the President’s Daily Brief, which is a single document compiled by the director of national intelligence, each Russian service briefs the president individually—in person and on paper. Nor is there a body like the British Cabinet Office’s Joint Intelligence Organisation to synthesize alternative perspectives from the different agencies and to try to resolve contradictions before they reach policymakers. The result is an escalating spiral of politicized intelligence, as agencies compete to present the most ideologically appealing perspectives—and to stab each other in the back.
The Russian spy community’s sycophancy has worsened in recent years. Putin, like so many authoritarian leaders, has over time become less tolerant of alternative perspectives, and he has limited his circle to yes men and fellow hawks. This context may explain why Putin has not seen through the spooks who play a disproportionate role in setting his agenda. It is not that they are in any way dominant; Putin is still the unquestioned tsar and is not above playing the services against one another. Rather, it is that he indulges them and is willing to take their word above that of the other institutions meant to inform and advise him. Putin used to personally speak to a wide range of Russian officials and traveled the country to experience public problems firsthand. Now, he scarcely even leaves his palace for his offices at the Kremlin. It usually takes a disaster, military exercise, or sporting event to get him out of Moscow.
Putin’s determination to trust his spooks has led to a string of miscalculations. After the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014, the FSB and GRU advocated a subsequent proxy war in southeastern Ukraine. They assured Putin that Kiev would quickly capitulate and accept Moscow’s hegemony. Five years on, the Russians are still mired in an undeclared war that has united Ukraine and brought painful economic sanctions.
In 2018, when the GRU tried to poison Sergei Skripal—a former officer who had become a British spy—the military intelligence service and the SVR predicted the assassination would lead only to temporary tensions with the United Kingdom. In fact, the attempt triggered an unprecedented global reaction: 29 countries threw out 153 Russian diplomats and spies. Even Russia’s botched pension reforms last year, which led to nationwide protests and an embarrassing government climbdown, were ultimately pushed through because, according to parliamentary sources, the FSB was confident the public would meekly accept them.
One despondent former Ministry of Foreign Affairs staffer was quite open about the influence of Russia’s spooks, saying that by the time Putin reads the ministry’s briefings, “he’s already made up his mind based on what he’s been told by Patrushev and the special services. When our briefing runs up against some paranoid lunacy they’re pushing, he doesn’t ask why they’re misinforming him—he tells us we’re being naive.”
When does autocracy become spookocracy? Formal power does not need to be usurped; the chief executive may simply become dependent on a single policy community for information, advice, and options. The results are on display in today’s Russia, in the form of intelligence briefings that are systematically and deliberately framed to flatter the president’s prejudices and paranoid assumptions.
Russia is in a dangerous situation. Its spookocracy means that the struggle for Putin’s ear and thus his agenda becomes more important than giving good advice. It locks sources of alternative—and often better—guidance out of the room. Most seriously of all, it drives even rational policy actors to make bad decisions. Although the risk of open conflict with the West remains small, it is worth bearing in mind that most wars are triggered not by a lack of intelligence but by bad intelligence.
This article appears in the Spring 2019 print issue of Foreign Policy.