There’s a New Player Leading the Kremlin’s Moves Abroad: the Russian Army

Investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov talks about why the Kremlin’s brazen actions on foreign soil are about what’s going on back in Russia.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin watches an air show in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow, on Aug. 17, 2011.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin watches an air show in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow, on Aug. 17, 2011. Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images

MOSCOW—For the last 20 years, the Russian investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan have been reporting about their country’s security services, and—as they point out in their forthcoming book, The Compatriots—they have a bloody history. 

From the 1940 assassination of the Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky in Mexico to the attempted killing of the former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom in 2018, the Russian security services have always aimed to settle their scores abroad. Centuries of repression—from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union to today—have left Russia with the world’s third-largest diaspora, making monitoring, co-opting, and sometimes assassinating members of the vast emigre community one of the central functions of Russia’s elusive spy services. The most recent targeting appeared to occur in late August, when an ethnic Chechen rebel soldier who had fought Russian troops and sought refuge in Germany was gunned down in broad daylight in Berlin. His alleged assassin was later apprehended and identified as a Russian citizen.

Foreign Policy spoke with Soldatov about what motivates Russia’s ever-changing security services and where the system is headed under President Vladimir Putin. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Foreign Policy: Russia is front and center in the global media. Given everything going on at the moment, how does this story of Russians abroad explain where we are today?

Andrei Soldatov: It’s absolutely clear as Putin goes into this late stage of his time in power that he’s not only interested in international affairs, he wants to be a global power, and he’s tried to use everything at his disposal to carve out a place for Russia. Given the fact that we have this long history of Russians abroad that goes all the way back to the 19th century, plus the recent surge of Russians leaving the country under Putin, we thought it would be very interesting to explore what is going on in these diasporas, especially when everything is so much more connected than ever before. 

FP: A big part of the book is the role of the security services being fixated on Russians abroad. Given what we’ve seen from Russian intelligence in the last few years, it does seem that they’ve become more aggressive when acting abroad, especially when going after other Russians. Should we expect this to continue or even accelerate? 

AS: It’s about political stability, and the best way to secure stability is for the leader to be popular. Unfortunately, what Putin has discovered is that if you can produce an escalation with the West, that makes you popular. The Second Chechen War was portrayed as a conflict where the other side was supported by the West. The war with Georgia in 2008 was an even clearer example of this. The same thing happened with Ukraine and with Syria. Every time Putin sees his popularity in decline, he knows that he needs some kind of escalation that can produce popularity for him. As we’ve seen, this boost doesn’t last forever, but it’s certainly served him well over the last 20 years. 

FP: You said in The Red Web and again in this book that the 2016 U.S. election interference was expected to be a low-risk operation, which is obviously not what happened. So, how can we explain this? 

AS: When we look at how this whole operation began, originally Russian hackers had simply acquired information and didn’t show they had an intention of publishing anything. But in April 2016, the Panama Papers were published, and this made Putin very angry, because his personal friend was attacked and his own wealth was targeted, and it looks like he decided to use what [hacked documents] they already had and ramp up their cyber and online elements. Obviously when you do an attack of this nature, the risk of exposure gets bigger and bigger. 

In our previous book, we mostly focused on the online elements, such as hackers and trolls. But now we wanted to understand the Kremlin’s networks of operatives and so-called compatriots abroad through religious, cultural, and civic organizations based in the [United States]. To our surprise, we found out that they didn’t activate them [in 2016], which I think is quite strange. For some reason, the Kremlin decided not to, and to be honest, I’m still wondering why. Probably one of the reasons is that the online element was exposed very early. They started using them in April, and by June the first report from Crowdstrike was published. They probably decided that their spy element is more precious and not worth compromising.

The other thing is that if you look at the history of Soviet or Russian intelligence operations in the West, they are surprisingly incompetent if we look at how these play out for a Western audience. But when we look at how they work for a Russian audience, whether in the country or among the emigre community, it is incredibly effective. 

FP: Like with the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, the former Russian military officer who acted as a double agent for the U.K.? 

AS: Yes, that is a good example. For the West, it was a clear failure, but from the Russian point of view, it was a success. We spoke with many Russians abroad for this book that became very scared after Skripal. Most of these people received the message that they could be next and that they can be found anywhere. So, it worked to some extent in that way. 

FP: But given the aftermath of the Skripal poisoning, can this really be deemed a success? 

AS: The Kremlin lives in two parallel realities. Look at the scandal of the Russian “illegals” being caught in 2010. It was portrayed as a victory in two countries. In the United States, it was a win, because they had caught and exposed a Russian spy network. But it was portrayed as a victory here to the Russian audience. Even for the spy agencies, they took this story as an example to show their own people that Russia was getting back to the global stage. The message was that we are capable of doing this again, just like in the old days of the Soviet Union. 

FP: Is it a reasonable expectation that there will be another attempt to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election, as some American officials have suggested? 

AS: Unfortunately, yes. It’s very possible, but I need to get a bit more complicated to properly answer that question. 

We have several different spy agencies here, and for most of Putin’s time we’ve been focused on the FSB [security agency], the SVR [foreign intelligence service], the descendants of the KGB. But we now have a new element and player in this game: the Russian army. It’s not only about the GRU [Russian military intelligence] either. The army is getting more and more active politically, both domestically and internationally. For instance, they are playing a bigger role in Russian ideology, history, the economy, and even increasingly so in the affairs of the Orthodox Church. This is something we need to look into more deeply, and it concerns me. Russia has never had the army play a role like this—they’ve always been kept in check by the security services. Trust in the armed forces last year surpassed even confidence in Putin, which is crazy given how low it was after the Chechen wars. 

The army has become Putin’s most effective foreign-policy instrument and central to the Kremlin’s geopolitical ambitions. Right now, they are more active and more independent, which is a new phenomenon. Many of these adventures abroad, from Syria to Skripal, they have a military element to them, and they’re all becoming more adventurous and less restrained. They’re allowed to run their own independent international policy at the moment, [and] that’s why anything is possible.

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan