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Personnel Reorganization in Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service

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Personnel Reorganization in Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service

Sergei Naryshkin

Appeared in Bulgarian at A-specto, translated by Borislav exclusively for SouthFront

The Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation (SVR RF) is one of the most closed structures of power. Its successes and failures – which with Mikhail Fradkov were both happening – are usually hidden from the eye of the beholder. Now the new head of the office, Sergey Naryshkin, is building on the achievements of his predecessors, and he will have to solve a number of serious problems. What to start though? The appointment of Sergei Naryshkin as head of the SVR – in context and related to the whole chain of personnel reorganization – is seen primarily as a new period in the development of the state. The activity of SVR, which President Putin called “one of the most important structures of the executive authorities,” escapes analysis and public comments. This is logical – the daily activities of SVR should not be subject to public discussion. But in recent years this structure has become not only the main for the country (and not just military or foreign policy) but attracted unnecessary attention due to a series of failures in the American direction. The success of foreign intelligence traditionally has been less visible and are therefore interpreted in the media as not so impressive, and eventually a negative image of the service is formed.

Optimism and routine

The dispute about who must guide the service – a brilliant professional with hundreds recruits and atomic and cosmic secrets in his pocket, or a literate administrator – are as old as the service itself. A categorical opinion is impossible, and to take sides is conjectural. Sergey Naryshkin and his predecessor Mikhail Fradkov, are administrators, although the new head of the SVR has professional knowledge and experience. The first thing that a new chief with experience usually makes is governance reform. And there are things to change.

It is believed that some units of the SVR have cough a very dangerous disease – optimism. Since the beginning of the “Russian Spring” and the sanctions against Russia, a considerable part of “man-hours” were directed to a new, specially formulated economic direction. In particular, interest rose up toward the specific details of the penalties and the processes which the West uses, and the technical methods of their implementation, the banking sector, as well as the forms and methods of economic warfare. For example – US initiatives to create a transatlantic and transpacific partnership agreements. In this context, much of the information coming from Yasenevo looked very promising. Negotiations between the EU and US on the TTIP were thought to be unsuccessful. That is, if the output information can be interpreted in two ways, the rather optimistic were given at a low level. In any information something good and positive was looked for. Distributed among the audience, this type of error is tragic for the service.

But on the other hand, this approach can be seen as a trauma for all major political intelligence in the world – striving in some extent to be liked by the recipient of the information, they lightly beautify the data. The KGB suffered from this disease during the last two decades of its existence, the CIA is highly contaminated from this disease. How Mossad copes with this handicap – we do not know, they have their own specific methods.

Objectivity is the god, which foreign intelligence is obliged to worship. But sometimes the very formulation of the problem (and those who put it in front of Intelligence) requires deviation. In Soviet times the placement of non-political tasks were carried out by the State Committee for Science and Technology (DKNT). This mastodon gathered requests from all ministries and departments, racked them through expert advice, bringing together scientists and former intelligence and concisely conveying them to the KGB, and sometimes the GRU. But there has always been an explicit assignment: a certain due date to deliver key data on so and so specification of the submarine “Washington”, etc … Sometimes objectives were unclearly formulated, in other cases – with more details (including the precise formulas that had to be saved), but the same job remained the same at its core. And people went with it. Whether through lying, bribery or theft, but the information was provided, and honors, respect, and rewards were received.

Today there is no planned economy, no DKNT. In the building on Tverskaya Street, the Ministry of Education and Science is now located. But there are many public corporations and private companies, whose interests are identified side by side with the state interest. And regardless of the main tasks posed by the main guarantor – the president and the government, many “optional” ones are also created. They take time, resources and emotions (emotions are important in this profession), but their contributions are not always clear, especially by those who came in intelligence during the last 10-15 years with a patriotic fervor, who want to contribute to our country.

A significant part of the work of the service lies in obtaining intelligence information and materials that can hardly be attributed toward saving the world or the interests of the homeland. Thus, Fradkov said in 2010 that the SVR will not deal with “total intelligence.” In fact, it is impossible to assess how foreign intelligence has executed a brilliant operation, let alone have this announced (this is learned decades later). In a routine work, there is very little creativity and obligations such as the required daily checking of channels and lines of communication, ravage the soul more than jail, money or an army. Many scouts get frustrated when they find that their work has nothing of the exploits of James Bond or Nikolai Kuznetsov.

The change of such a system can only be done on a level higher than that of the Head of Service. Many have said that the political weight of Sergei Naryshkin is significantly bigger than any previous leaders of the SVR (except Yevgeny Primakov). In an exclusive club such as foreign intelligence, any change causes a domino effect. Nobody is saying that the “optional” are unnecessary, but what is necessary is objective control over their creation. Because there was a time when almost all of the intelligence work in the Balkans was done in the interest of Gazprom, which to put it mildly, is an incorrect formulation of the issue. Prioritization of intelligence is an administrative task with distant perspectives, and not just clearing of the terrain.

The cadres do not decide everything

“Contrary to popular belief, the work of a scout occurs within multiple instructions. Even his day to day life is strictly regulated, not to mention his operational.”

In recent years, the pressure on SVR has increased significantly. The volume of tasks increased significantly, and today it is not all about the “optional” but for the general policy issues. Work on economic and scientific-technical direction, has historically been considered important due to the ever-increasing needs of the defense industry and the banking sector. But in the current political situation, information should not be underestimated. Its not only about information needed by the president and the government, but for more complex operations, including the implementation of influence. There are unconditional successes, but in some countries and entire regions, the political situation sometimes develops so favorably, that there is a desire to present these natural processes as our own victory. That’s another of the misfortunes of a profession that relies on purely human qualities, and nobody cared to eliminate the problem with the cadres.

Indeed, the intelligence cadres have been significantly updated in recent years. Most of the newcomers in the service are young people, who differ significantly from the newcomers in the other departments. But the corporate habits left over from Soviet times, have not yet been outlived. The peculiar methods of recruitment sometimes affect the reputation of the service.

In the post-Soviet period, the system was arranged so that automatically pushes up was the average approved by a positive inquiry, and not the talent of a living person. Talent was even considered harmful, because it is possessed by a complex character: a man of unconventional thinking tends towards autonomy and thus may pursue a dangerous initiative. At the same time, the work of a scout, contrary to popular belief, is carried out by following multiple instructions. But in stressful situations (stress, incidentally, is almost a daily condition and eventually kills the organism) what is required is namely non-standard thinking, which can not be studied, nor instructed. Political intelligence service, requires non-standard thinking and a specific knowledge including local lore and language, as well as specific traits that are far from the average profiles.

As a result, political intelligence service, has become an article of a standard size. In the 90s, regional-geography as an applied science was abolished and only recently restored. Moreover, entire regions dropped from the professional sphere, and vice versa – were created from scratch. Only this year, in specialized schools appeared departments specializing in the study of the former Soviet Union, Africa, and Eastern Europe. A program was launched again to study the rare but relevant languages, including the languages ​​of the former Soviet Union. There were specific books published for the first time, specific textbooks not available before, like that from Serbian language for the military coup. These measures are aimed to support the general education of a new generation of professionals, but for senior officers the problem remains.

Specifics of the sinecure

“Naryshkin will have to make very small changes in the routine work of the established mechanism that works relatively well in recent years, but still suffers from the classic ills.”

No one throws stones at the retreating. But appointed at a too high a position in office in 2012 was a former aide of Fradkov, from distant times when he was head of the government (ie, his assistant, not inherited from the administration of Chernomyrdin). A few months before his appointment in Yasenevo, this guy was fired from the Management for inter-regional and cultural relations with foreign countries – with this euphemism are signified hotspots in the post-Soviet space and the ‘new’ countries SA (South Ossetia), RA (Republic of Abkhazia ) and TMR (Transnistrian Moldovan Republic) – for a scandalous failure in carrying out his activities. The scandal was so big that it led to the collapse of the political system in each of these countries, the consequences of which are still visible.

“The icing on the cake” for the hero was his unpleasant behavior and not quite adequate condition on the premises of the local CIC, which was captured on video. The news of his appointment to a General post in SVR was assessed as “monstrous” and a “nightmare”. His accomplice in the scandal even took office security at “Norilsk Nickel”. Taking into account the specifics of the modern career movement, there was no reason for his to stay at Yasenovo.

The conversion of SVR as a cross of a sinecure with an orphanage is not new. We may recall, for example, the end of the career of Victor Erin – Interior Minister under Yeltsin removed from office after the incident in Budyonnovsk (when on 14 to 19 of June, 1995, Chechen terrorists held more than 1,600 hostages at a hospital, among them 150 children and pregnant women, and the incident ended with 105 victims). Erin had no experience with non-legal intelligence. In Soviet times he worked in criminal investigation and OBHSS (Department for combating thefts of socialist property). Such cases we had with Primakov, who, with all due respect to him, was willing to surround himself with people personally loyal to him, and born mainly in Tbilisi. Fortunately, this “geographic war” has long been outlived.

Back then the competition was mainly between “clans” in the regions of operational work. The winners were usually “Asians”, especially “Hindus” (Leonid Shebarshin, Vyacheslav Trubnikov) whom Primakov implicitly supported. Popular was the statement of one Orientalist (who now represent the country in some European organizations) that a person who knows eastern languages ​​can be assigned to any high public office, as far as the knowledge of the Tamil language, disciplined intellect. Nobody checked whether that corresponded to the truth, but this clearly did not support the successful operation of the non-Asian departments.

In such an environment, employees lose motivation for career development and this confrontation was so exciting that even the appointment of Sergei Lebedev, for head of the office in 2000, was called “a fundamental turn” since he lived in Uzbekistan in his childhood, and spoke the Uzbek language. It seemed ridiculous and unprofessional (journalistic publications abounded with scathing criticism of the press service of SVR), especially taking into account the fact that Trubnikov was personally recommended by Lebedev, whose professional background is from Central and Eastern Europe, especially in Germany, until he became the official head of the SVR in the United States.

In the Soviet era, the service was heavily damaged by the Komsomol and party appointees, very few of whom have become good professionals. Moreover, the notorious nepotism became a positive phenomenon. There are many problems associated with the organization and optimization of operational work that requires a specific approach. This is an administrative decision which Sergei Naryshkin must take. But obviously he will not face a lack of understanding by the head of state, or the traditional rivalry of the “neighbors”. FSB already has powers to conduct operations outside Russia, concerning combating organized crime, drug trafficking and economic crimes. But this is not intelligence.

The ideas to merge the SVR and GRU, which initially seemed like a terrible dream, are abandoned. The GRU historical performs a completely different range of tasks, which are more specific than those of the SVR. GRU serves the needs of the army, and the issue of the intermingling of professional interests – for example in scientific and technical intelligence – is again an administrative matter on the one hand, and on the other – purely human. Rather than compete, they should try to find a common language, no matter how difficult that is, and without leaving the embassy building.

Naryshkin will have to make small changes in the routine work of the already established mechanism which works well in recent years, but still suffers from the classic handicap of all intelligence services around the world, as well as the special legacy of the Soviet era. Administratively, this is solvable, including the issue of staffing. The other thing is that right now the activity of the SVR is needed as never before in the post-Soviet era. It is necessary to observe a balance between reforms and the maintaining of daily working conditions of the whole structure. What the results will be, society will know only when the stamp “secret” has been taken down.

Author: Eugene Krutikov
Translation with abbreviations: Dr. Radko Handjiev

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