Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Russia’s Security Agencies Are Both Terrifying and Incompetent

The ineptitude of the FSB sends a message about how powerful it is.

By , a writer, journalist, and online safety expert based in Washington, D.C.
Police officers detain a woman wearing a T-shirt reading "Freedom to Safronov" in Moscow
Police officers detain a woman wearing a T-shirt reading "Freedom to Safronov" during a gathering in support of arrested journalist Ivan Safronov in Moscow on July 13, 2020. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP

In 2007, the popular Russian rock group DDT released a provocative album that featured, among other things, a song called “At the general’s house.” The song, written mostly from the point of view of a drunken general at the FSB (the Russian Federal Security Service) surrounded by his stolen wealth, mocked the corruption and cynicism of Russia’s security forces. You might think this caused the band problems. But they remain as popular as ever.

That’s because everyone in Russia knows that the FSB, and other security agencies, are insanely corrupt—and also often massively incompetent. It’s a fact of life under President Vladimir Putin, as mundane as the weather. Russian state media may not like to dwell on it in order to protect its budgets, but Russians don’t need the newspapers to tell them something that’s already being rubbed in their faces every day.

Western media has written that the FSB’s incompetence and inefficiency were “exposed” by the botched poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny. But that incompetence, to Russians, is exactly what they expect from the security state. This isn’t to take away from the gravity of the situation around Navalny—what happened was a travesty, even if it did involve poisoned underwear, and a clueless hitman discussing the assassination with Navalny himself on an unsecured line.

In 2007, the popular Russian rock group DDT released a provocative album that featured, among other things, a song called “At the general’s house.” The song, written mostly from the point of view of a drunken general at the FSB (the Russian Federal Security Service) surrounded by his stolen wealth, mocked the corruption and cynicism of Russia’s security forces. You might think this caused the band problems. But they remain as popular as ever.

That’s because everyone in Russia knows that the FSB, and other security agencies, are insanely corrupt—and also often massively incompetent. It’s a fact of life under President Vladimir Putin, as mundane as the weather. Russian state media may not like to dwell on it in order to protect its budgets, but Russians don’t need the newspapers to tell them something that’s already being rubbed in their faces every day.

Western media has written that the FSB’s incompetence and inefficiency were “exposed” by the botched poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny. But that incompetence, to Russians, is exactly what they expect from the security state. This isn’t to take away from the gravity of the situation around Navalny—what happened was a travesty, even if it did involve poisoned underwear, and a clueless hitman discussing the assassination with Navalny himself on an unsecured line.

The FSB is not unique when it comes to botched assassinations. Take another security agency, the GRU, which attempted to poison another dissident in the UK—and the “chain of stupidity” that resulted in them being exposed.

In Putin’s Russia, the security services don’t actually need to be professional in order to be considered fearsome. In fact, no officials in Russia need to be professional in order to be feared. Instead, their terrifying reputation comes from a total lack of accountability.

In 2010, I had come to Russia to work as deputy editor of The Moscow News, an English language newspaper that was once a propaganda organ which traced its roots back to the Stalin era. Under my then boss, Tim Wall, the newspaper, while owned by state media agency RIA Novosti, was an editorially independent entity. RIA Novosti itself in those days was also very different from the propagandist cesspool it is today, with actual professionals in key roles, working to make it more like the Russian version of the BBC.

Even so, I was constantly warned about not running my mouth in front of some of the RIA people we worked with. When I became acting editor-in-chief of The Moscow News, I was even pulled aside and told to “watch myself” with some people rumored to be in constant contact with the FSB, reporting to them on all of my activities. The situation didn’t so much scare me as irritate me.

I once shared a cigarette with one of the very people I had been warned about, listening to him bitterly complain about how he’d been late for a flight out of Moscow because the border patrol, which is run by the FSB, was slow that day (Russians stamp your passport when you enter and exit the country, and they do that for everybody—it’s both an extra layer of security and surveillance).

“It was an outrage! Lines everywhere! But you can’t complain, can you? Who do you complain about the FSB to?” ranted the man many of us thought to be an FSB asset himself.

For me, this was an important lesson in how power works in modern Russia. The powerful are powerful precisely because they are allowed to be incompetent. Whether it’s a line at the airport, or an official motorcade blocking all of Moscow traffic, or an assassination gone wrong, the message is: “We’re going to do what we want, and we don’t care. Now watch us.”

In some ways, the incompetence of the armed and powerful in Russia can be even more terrifying than their flashes of competence. Just consider the botched Beslan siege, when Russian special forces stormed a school being held hostage and accidentally killed dozens of people.

In the Navalny case, even an assassination gone wrong can be exploited by the Kremlin for shock value. Yes, it will result in memes and plenty of people making fun of the situation. Yet at the same time, it’s not as if the Russian government is going to be brought down by memes, and the leaders know that. As a Russian official told me off the record once, the memefication of the security services’ screw-ups can actually be convenient, as it humanizes the participants.

In the UK case, when the men calling themselves “Petrov” and “Boshirov” sat down for a television interview in which they argued that they were innocent tourists and not GRU assassins, viewers couldn’t help but cringe on their behalf.

The horror of what happened—and the fact that a woman died as the direct result of their actions—was lost in the carnival atmosphere that dominated the media coverage. “Petrov” and “Boshirov” came off as so fake and pathetic during the interview that plenty of Russians wound up feeling sorry for them.

A similar situation occurred with the FSB’s Navalny poisoners. One of my favorite Russian writers, the playwright and satirist Valery Pecheykin, summed this up well in a Facebook post where he talked about the depressing states of the stairwells in buildings where both FSB hitmen and Russian dissidents live, with walls “green like ennui, like a phone call at 7 a.m., but also green like the spring.” Pecheykin’s posts capture both the absurdity and glacial stagnation of late Putinism—the government and its minions are a joke, the joke has been told over and over again, the joke is old, the joke is stale, and that too is part of its power.

Just like in DDT’s song about the FSB general, there is a heart of darkness buried underneath the absurdity. By their actions, incompetent Russian assassins demonstrate that the government doesn’t need to try. It just needs to exist.

When the narrator of the song asks the general how he wound up owning a palace, the general is first angry, then resigned. “Oh, son…” he says.

The weary paternalism of the general’s words doesn’t stop him from trying to mock-execute the narrator by dawn, after a night of drinking. If that’s not a metaphor for the Russian security state as a whole, I don’t know what is.

Natalia Antonova is a writer, journalist, and online safety expert based in Washington, D.C.

Tag: Russia

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