Structural crisis of Russian special services and the fight against dissent

For discrediting participants of the so-called Russian special military operation will now be imprisoned for 15 years.

The Russian State Duma has introduced amendments to the Criminal Code. According to them, those who will criticize the Russians who went to war in Ukraine, waiting for up to 15 years in prison, or fines of up to 5 million rubles, or in the number of wages or other income of the convicted for a period of up to five years, or correctional or compulsory labor for up to five years.

For the so-called discrediting of the army, criminal sentences are given even now, the maximum term of punishment is five years in a colony. The new amendments will also allow punishment for those who criticize “volunteer units.” Given the existence of a criminal article for mercenarism, officials prefer to call the volunteer fighters of various PMCs.

Yevgeny Prigozhin Head of Wagner PMC forcibly recruits Russian prisoners for war

The most famous group currently fighting as mercenaries in Ukraine is Wagner PMC. Among its fighters are those convicted of various crimes, who were promised freedom in exchange for the likelihood of death on the frontline.

FSB – the main instrument of punitive policy and the fight against dissent by the Kremlin

The FSB, the post-Soviet reincarnation of the KGB in charge of counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and border security, was directed by Vladimir Putin from the very beginning to the front lines of the war with Ukraine.

The invasion had a huge impact on this special service. Before the war, the FSB had only two units dealing with Ukraine: one to collect intelligence in Ukraine, the other to counter Ukrainian espionage (which the FSB understood to include attacks on Ukrainian journalists). Since the invasion, almost all of the special services’ efforts have focused on the war.

In practice, this means that today all the main services of the FSB are actively involved in supporting the war effort, including the Economic Security Service, which should help Russia survive Western sanctions, and the Service for the Protection of the Constitutional System and the Fight against Terrorism, which is tasked with monitoring the “right” pro-war sentiments in academia, universities, and schools.

The main purpose of all these activities is to ensure regime stability during the biggest crisis Putin has ever faced. The scale of this transition is unprecedented and cannot be compared to what the FSB has done during previous crises or military conflicts.

Since the early days of the war, the secret service has intensified its fight against political opposition and any form of dissent. In the year since the war began, many prominent critics of Putin, including Vladimir Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin, have gone to prison, and mass arrests at anti-war demonstrations have shown that the regime will not tolerate any protest. New draconian media laws introduced censorship, and many prominent journalists and bloggers were prosecuted or wanted.

Although the FSB has been the main enforcer of this repressive policy from the beginning, its powers have recently been expanded. In December 2022, on the occasion of FSB Day, Putin called on the FSB to increase its vigilance against the growing threat from foreign intelligence agencies and to intensify the search for traitors.

Putin’s public announcement of the FSB’s expanded powers is a clear signal of the return of Stalinist methods, characterized by increased surveillance and censorship, as well as purges and mass arrests.

Despite all these changes, some key characteristics of the Russian security empire remained the same. For example, intelligence processing and analysis were as bad as they were during the Cold War.

A year after the conflict in Ukraine began, it became clear that many mistakes had been made in intelligence gathering and analysis of the political situation during preparations for the invasion, leading to a misjudgment of the strength of Ukraine’s military resistance. Usually, failures of this magnitude lead to resignations in the leadership of special services or reforms.

However, nothing of the sort happened. Although in the first weeks of the war, an enraged Putin sent General Sergei Beseda, head of the Fifth Service of the FSB, responsible for data collection in Ukraine, under arrest, he then, seeing that the decision had generated enormous public interest, returned him to his cabinet.

Thus, the refusal to make serious personnel decisions is a strategic decision of the Kremlin: trying not to rock the boat in a stormy sea, Putin is trying to convince the public that everything is going according to plan. This is why the Russian system of security services still looks the same as it did a year ago: the same structures with the same generals at the top.

On the left of President Putin is Alexander Bortnikov, Director of the FSB, and on the right is Sergey Naryshkin, Head of the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service)

Nevertheless, the conflict in Ukraine has fundamentally changed the way intelligence services function.

In 2022, much of the FSB’s efforts were focused on countering dissent at home and the war in Ukraine, which militarized the service and its officers, who gained firsthand experience in the war zone. And this could cause a long-term shift that will affect the way the Russian security apparatus will operate in the coming decades and cause a transformation that could lead to a regression of Putin’s security services to the darkest days of Stalinist repression.

The war could also affect the activities of foreign intelligence, which have already been dealt unprecedented blows. It remains to be seen how the SVR (Foreign Intelligence) and GRU (Military Intelligence) will respond to the gradual destruction of their agent networks across Europe. Will they accept the reduction of their capabilities and focus on Ukraine, or will they return to Cold War scenarios and invest all their efforts in sabotage and other covert operations in Western Europe?

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