Circling the Lion's Den

Russia’s Very Secret Services

By Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan

MOSCOW—When the Soviet Union collapsed, many observers expected its fearsome intelligence apparatus to wither as well. Instead, the post-Soviet era has seen the emergence of an even more influential collection of intelligence organizations that grew out of the two premier Soviet agencies: the KGB, which combined domestic and foreign political intelligence, and the GRU, which handled military intelligence. The prominent—even dominant—role of intelligence within contemporary Russia’s political system is a sign of the Kremlin’s growing ambitions. But it also reflects a profound fear of being outmaneuvered by the West in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, which now comprises 10 more or less independent nations that once belonged to the Soviet Union. Within that vast territory—and in the areas that directly border it—an intense and largely invisible battle for control is being fought every day.

This struggle has put the Kremlin’s intelligence agencies in direct competition with Western intelligence services, with all parties retaining some old habits left over from the Cold War. At the same time, the unique status and financial resources provided to Russia’s secret services in the early 2000s by then-President Vladimir Putin makes them even more unpredictable than their predecessor, the KGB, which was a powerful organization, but came under the firm control of the political structure. The Communist Party presided over every KGB section, department, and division. By contrast, over the last decade in Russia, the resurgent secret services have become a new elite, enjoying expanded responsibilities and immunity from public oversight or parliamentary control. Today’s Russian secret services are impenetrable to outsiders. While the KGB played by the Cold War’s rules, its inheritors are given a freer hand to make decisions on their own.

Surprisingly, though, the biggest beneficiaries of the elevation of Russian intelligence have been the authoritarian regimes that filled the vacuum after the breakup of the Soviet Union—the dictators of Central Asia, who have used Russian security forces to facilitate the abduction, even rendition, of their own opposition forces. In an unexpected reversal, Russia has become a hunting ground for the security services of many of the world’s most vicious rulers.


Today, there are three principal Russian intelligence services. The SVR, or Foreign Intelligence Service, operates largely in Western Europe and the United States. The gru, the old military intelligence service under the Soviet Union, remains intact, with virtually the same global portfolio. The FSB, or Federal Security Service, the most direct successor to the old KGB, operates principally in the former Soviet Republics, sometimes still referred to as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the loose confederation that was established to succeed the USSR after it collapsed. The FSB is also active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, both of which border the former Soviet sphere. Of course, these delineations are not set in stone, and there is persistent overlap and competition between these organizations, as agents of both the FSB and SVR are often found falling all over each other.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, the leaders of the former Soviet republics were very slow to create completely independent states. Initially, they even agreed to maintain the united armed forces of the CIS, giving Moscow a chance to retain its influence. Intelligence cooperation was a natural outgrowth of this dependency, and the Kremlin was happy to help the still-unproven leaders of these new states bolster their security structures. These relations were formalized in April 1992, when the SVR signed an agreement with its counterparts in the CIS, agreeing not to spy on each other.

But the relationship proved to be very much a one-way street. The SVR effectively assumed the posture of “Big Brother,” making visits to CIS capitals to attend multilateral meetings or bilateral talks, where they were sometimes received by heads of state.

Not all CIS members were equally happy at finding themselves once again under the direct scrutiny of the Kremlin. Throughout the 1990s, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan remained firm allies, allowing Russian military bases to remain on their soil and continuing to cooperate on intelligence. But Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine drifted in NATO’s direction, in part because Russia supported separatist movements in each of those nations. Lastly, the governments of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, long suspicious of ethnic Russians who had migrated during Soviet times, signaled their independence by purging Russians from the ranks of their security services.

During this time, Russia’s other security agency, the FSB, was also eager to establish its own special relations with security services in the CIS. This effort was aided in no small part by the rise of Putin, a veteran of the KGB’s First Directorate, which dealt with foreign intelligence activities. By the late 1990s, with Putin’s profile growing, the FSB had found its way into the “near-abroad,” as the former outlying Soviet republics are now called. It justified its expanded reach by pointing to a shared regional struggle against illegal drug trafficking and terrorism.

That explanation was nothing more than a pretext for a power grab—but it more than sufficed. By 2000, the FSB was becoming the dominant intelligence player in what had been the Soviet Union. That year, Russia backed the establishment of a CIS Antiterrorist Center, headquartered in Moscow with a Central Asian branch in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Though the center was conceived as a supranational structure, it was effectively under full FSB control—headed by the service’s first deputy director—and supervised “collective” anti-terrorist exercises in Central Asia every April. The Antiterrorist Center’s mandate was to create a database for intelligence sharing among the security services of all member countries. But the idea of pooling intelligence information was abandoned when members learned that the database would be located in Moscow. Some CIS states simply did not buy the notion that Russia had a sincere desire to help with counterterrorism efforts on their soil. Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan refused to send representatives to the center at all. They saw it, quite correctly, as a not very subtle Russian foot in their door. Still, the FSB’s timing was good. Under the umbrella of anti-terrorism, it soon had much more credible justification for its regional expansion.

In the early 2000s, it became evident that the political status quo in many of the post-Soviet republics was under threat. One after another, the old regimes that had been established in the early 1990s fell like dominoes in a series of popular uprisings known as the “color revolutions”: the Rose Revolution in Georgia (2003), the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004), and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan (2005). These regime changes were neither predicted nor prevented by Moscow. The Kremlin and the FSB viewed these events as Western concoctions, modeled after the toppling of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. As these events unfolded, the Kremlin became increasingly paranoid that Russia and its political allies in the region would be next. Russia’s sphere of influence, it seemed, had to be watched more carefully.


As the Kremlin turned increasingly to the FSB, it began to emerge as the single most powerful Russian secret service, especially in the former CIS regions. Although the SVR had promised not to spy within the territories, the FSB had never signed any such agreement and felt free of any obligation. As a result, in late 1999, the FSB was granted permission to establish a new directorate to focus on Russia’s nearest neighbors. The newly formed Directorate of Operative Information (UKOI) was established inside the Department of Analysis, Forecasting, and Strategic Planning. The structure of the directorate was established along geographical lines and its officers were granted the right to travel abroad—or at least to the “near-abroad.” ukoi was headed by Major General Vyacheslav Ushakov, a member of an influential group of intelligence veterans who had served together in the FSB’s regional departments in St. Petersburg and neighboring Karelia. The group included Putin himself, as well as then-FSB director Nikolai Patrushev.

On June 30, 2003, an amendment to the “Law on the Organs of the Federal Security Service” was adopted, stipulating that the FSB would contain a special body dealing with such foreign intelligence. In 2004, the directorate was re-named the Department of Operative Information (DOI), and its chief, Ushakov, was promoted to deputy director of the FSB. Ushakov was replaced as head of the unit by Sergei Beseda, a general who had become influential and well-connected while serving in the FSB section supervising the Administration of the President.

While the operations of this department are cloaked in the deepest secrecy, some of its key officials are believed to have traveled to the former Soviet republics during political turning points. In May 2005, the head of the FSB, Patrushev, claimed before the Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, to have helped unmask a plot against the regime in Belarus. According to Patrushev, international NGOs, mostly based in the West, had met in the Slovak capital of Bratislava in late 2004 at the time of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution “to plan the downfall of the regime of Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko.” Surprisingly, Belarus’s own KGB never expressed any outrage at this open intervention by the FSB into its internal affairs. Indeed, the day after Patrushev’s statement, the Belarussian KGB confirmed it, suggesting that it was perfectly content to have the Russian intelligence service operating so closely in matters relating to Belarus’s national security. A few days later, the heads of the security services of the CIS countries gathered in Astana, Kazakhstan. Patrushev warned his counterparts about the dangers of the “color revolutions.”

But the FSB’s involvement in the near-abroad has not always gone smoothly, and at times has even backfired. In 2004, the leadership of the FSB’s intelligence department reportedly visited Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia whose independence had yet to be recognized by Russia. The FSB officers met with Raul Khadjimba, a pro-Moscow candidate running for president of Abkhazia. It was one thing for the Russian Foreign Ministry to support an Abkhazian candidate; quite another for him to receive a visit from generals in the FSB. But Khadjimba lost the election.

His victorious opponent made it known that he was not happy with the FSB’s presence. As a result, FSB agents ceased to operate with a free hand in Abkhazia, seriously undermining the FSB’s position in Georgia and contributing to its failure to predict the Georgian move into South Ossetia four years later, which led to full-scale war between Russia and Georgia.


Beginning in the mid-1990s, Russia had become a safe haven for political opponents of Central Asian regimes. Using old but still valid Soviet passports, and taking advantage of suddenly porous borders, the flow of people into Russia included key political opponents of these regimes. In response, the secret services of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan began reaching into Russia to grab people who might cause trouble for the autocratic and corrupt regimes running those countries.

In most cases, Russia’s secret services turned a blind eye on the Central Asian secret services’ activities on Russian soil.

But the system of abductions was provisional and imperfect. It lacked some important elements: a coordination center, immunity for the secret agents involved in abductions, and legal grounds for transferring the captives. These kinds of activities appeared to be at odds with post-communist Russian law, which officially maintains an established procedure for formal extraditions, overseen by the general prosecutor. A new system, designed to avoid legal extradition entirely, was soon developed by Central Asian security organizations with the connivance of the FSB.

The broader system was embedded in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), founded in 2001 by China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The stated purpose of the SCO was the joint struggle against the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. In 2004, a special anti-terrorism organization was created within the SCO and named the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure.

(The English acronym, RATS, seems particularly appropriate.) RATS became the mechanism of choice for carrying out abductions across national boundaries and outside standard judicial procedures—operations quite similar to the American CIA’s practice of extraordinary rendition.

To improve RATS’s ability to detain suspects in the six participating states, it was necessary to guarantee absolute protection to the officers executing the operations. The SCO’s Convention on Privileges and Immunities, ratified by Russia in 2005, gave representatives of the organization the equivalent of diplomatic status.

They are not subject to criminal liability for any actions committed in the course of their duty, and they are immune from arrest and detention. The same unlimited immunity applies to RATS “experts”—secret service officers from any member country who are attached to RATS for the duration of their mission. Experts are shielded from arrest during and after their business trips.

Even their luggage cannot be searched.

The regime in Uzbekistan has been especially enthusiastic in its embrace of RATS. Islam Karimov, the country’s autocratic ruler, has long fought a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against Islamist opposition groups, led by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb ut-Tahrir. Members of these groups had been among those who found refuge across the border in Russia. RATS provided an effective way for Karimov to eliminate them.

“In the early 2000s, natives from Uzbekistan living in the Volga region and considered to be members of Hizb ut-Tahrir by Uzbek secret services started to disappear,” says Yelena Ryabinina, director for the Rights for Refugees Program at the Human Rights Institute, a nongovernmental organization based in Moscow. Ryabinina has spent many days in court, defending refugees from Central Asia against illegal deportation. Many of those deported were later found in Uzbek prisons.

In 2004, Alisher Usmanov, a teacher at an Islamic school in the Tatarstan region of Russia, was detained by Russian police and sentenced to several months in prison for illegal possession of ammunition. Usmanov had been wanted by Uzbekistan since 1998 for what the Uzbek government claimed was an “attempt to undermine the constitutional regime of the country.” But Usmanov had been granted Russian citizenship, and thus could not be extradited, since Russia, like many other countries, refuses to extradite its citizens. On July 24, 2005, he was due to be released. Instead, he simply disappeared, claims his wife, Aisha. “When we came to the prison, we were simply told that Alisher was released at 5:00 AM and went off with the people who met him,” Aisha says.

It was later determined that he had been abducted directly from prison by the FSB and its Uzbek counterpart. Usmanov was delivered to the airport and flown to Uzbekistan. In November 2005 he was convicted of “undermining the constitutional system,” participation in a criminal organization and falsifying documents, and sentenced to an eight-year prison term in Uzbekistan.

Perhaps no party has benefited more from the RATS program than the Karimov regime, to whom Russia has supplied a steady stream of dissidents, refugees, and alleged terrorists. Reflecting the centrality of Uzbekistan to the program, the RATS headquarters was moved from Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. And in 2005, Russia placed the Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir party, which is legal in Europe and the United States, on its national list of terrorist organizations, at the request of Uzbekistan. “The international terrorist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have made attempts to spread their activity to Russia,” FSB director Patrushev later declared.

Uzbekistan’s enemies are now officially considered a threat to Russian national security—another political gift for Karimov.

In fact, to a surprising degree, it appears that the other countries involved in RATS—especially Uzbekistan and China—have benefited far more from the program than Russia. Russia routinely ships back individuals sought by other countries but apparently receives none of those it seeks from them. According to information from Yelena Ryabinina, in 2007 Russia began to deport Chinese members of Falun Gong, a movement banned in China in 1999 for being “opposed to the Communist Party of China and the central government, that preaches idealism, theism, and feudal superstition,” according to the Chinese government. Publicly available FSB reports indicate that in the past decade, there were very few detentions of Russians in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, or China, and not a single suspect in a terrorism or extremism case has been extradited to Russia from Uzbekistan.

It seems like little recompense for facilitating activities that could expose Russia to international condemnation.

What, then, does Russia gain from RATS? The payoff, from the Kremlin’s point of view, is a higher profile for the SCO, which Russia sees as a counterbalance to the NATO and U.S. presence in the region. In the 1990s, the SCO—then known as the Shanghai Five—was a marginal group.

Now, its meetings are attended by the presidents of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, India and Mongolia. The SCO’s growing profile has inspired the Kremlin to think that Russia might once again play a crucial role in the region—an impossible dream without the support of Uzbekistan and China. For the Kremlin, allowing Central Asian states to hunt down their dissidents on Russian soil seems to be an acceptable price in exchange for the chance to lead a strong regional alliance, which Russia has failed to do since the collapse of the Soviet Union.


On June 3, 2006, a Chevrolet Tahoe carrying five Russian diplomats was cut off by a minivan and a sedan about 400 yards from the Russian embassy in the upscale Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad. Gunmen attacked the diplomats’ car. One of the diplomats, Vitaly Titov, was severely wounded and died later that day. The other four men were kidnapped. On June 19, a group of Iraqi insurgents demanded Russian troops withdraw from Chechnya and free all Muslim prisoners in Russia within 48 hours—or the diplomats would be executed. On June 25, the terrorists released a hostage video showing one man being beheaded and another shot dead, as well as the body of a third.

The next day Russia confirmed that the four diplomats were dead.

On June 28, Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s secret services to find and kill the insurgents responsible for kidnapping and killing Russian embassy employees in Iraq. Patrushev, the FSB director, stated that the special services would do everything possible to eliminate the terrorists.

“We should ensure that any terrorist who has committed a crime will not avoid the responsibility,” he said. “This is not a casual assignment. It is in the logic of what we do.” In other words, revenge is what shapes the Russian secret services’ understanding of counterterrorism.

A few months later, American forces captured the lead kidnapper—an alleged senior al-Qaida commander known as Abu Nur—and turned him over to Iraqi authorities. But the killings gave Vladimir Putin an excuse to propose new legislation, allowing new and more lethal operations abroad. Aside from their retributive aims, such operations have become a means of changing the policies and behaviors of nations that have sometimes provided safe havens for Russia’s enemies.

Although it was presented in news reports as an emotional reaction to the diplomats’ murders, Russia’s policy of carrying out assassinations abroad had been under preparation for some time. The Duma had spent months discussing a legislative initiative that would allow the FSB to kill terrorists on foreign soil. According to Mikhail Grishankov, a deputy chairman of the Security Committee at the State Duma, the first draft of the bill was presented to the Duma in March of 2006, three months before the murder of the diplomats in Baghdad. Barely a week after Putin’s call for retribution in Iraq, both houses of parliament approved foreign assassinations by intelligence agencies.

The battered republic of Abkhazia appeared to be the first target after the bills were approved. Khamzat Gitsba—nicknamed “Rocky” because of his devotion to boxing—had become an Abkhazian war hero during the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict of 1992–1993. He had joined a battalion of Chechen Islamists who entered the battle on the Abkhaz side during the war. Later, he was one of the terrorists who took Russian and foreign tourists hostage on the Avrasia ferry in Turkish waters in January 1996.

At some point after 2000, Gitsba returned to Abkhazia to take charge of a radical Muslim group in the region.

On August 17, 2007, he was shot dead in the center of the tiny town of Gudauta, machine-gunned in front of a mosque by two assassins who waited for him in a Chrysler.

An hour later the Chrysler was found burning. The local police established that the car had been driven across the Russian-Abkhaz border at the Psou River a few days prior to the murder. Video cameras at the Abkhaz customs station identified the Chrysler’s registration plates, but because Abkhazia did not keep records of all those driving into the republic, the identities of the drivers were impossible to prove. The Abkhaz authorities turned to the Russian border guards, but Moscow media reported that the Russians said such a vehicle never crossed the frontier.

Around the same time, a spate of murders of Chechens occurred in Azerbaijan. The Chechen insurgency was effectively wiped out during its second war with Russia, and Chechnya is now ruled by a Moscow-friendly autocrat, Ramzan Kadyrov. Yet Russian intelligence agencies and Kadyrov’s squads still vigorously pursue any Chechen they suspect of anti-Moscow activity. In early 2007, the Council of Chechen Refugees in Azerbaijan sent an appeal to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, reporting that the situation for Chechen refugees in Azerbaijan had “seriously worsened,” particularly as a result of “threats to the personal safety of our citizens who came to this country in search of refuge and protection.” The council referred to incidents involving “the abduction of people,” citing the case of Ruslan Eliev, who went missing in Baku in November 2006. In March 2007, his dead body was found in Chechnya near the village of Samashki. In November, Imran Gaziev, deputy chief of the representative office of the unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in Azerbaijan, was killed in the capital. A gunman shot Gaziev as he was getting out of his car.

In 2008 and 2009, a series of assassinations of Chechens took place in Turkey. In September 2008, Gaji Edilsultanov, a former Chechen field commander, was shot dead on a street in the Başakşehir district of Istanbul.

Three months later, on December 10, 2008, former Chechen warlord Islam Janibekov was also assassinated in Istanbul, in front of his wife and children. He received three gunshot wounds to his head and died on the spot. The Russian magazine Spetsnaz, which has close ties to Russian special operations forces, alleged that Janibekov was wanted by Russian authorities for terrorist attacks in the cities of Yessentuki and Mineralnye Vody and in the republic of Karachay-Cherkessia in the early 2000s. Musa Atayev (also known as Ali Osaev), another Chechen rebel, was killed in Istanbul on February 26, 2009.

These assassinations were apparently intended not only to reduce support for the Chechen insurgency abroad, but also to change the policy of the countries where these rebels—considered “enemies of the state”—had taken refuge. The strategy has proven effective.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Azeri authorities had tolerated Chechen militants on their soil, and allowed a Chechen office to operate in Baku. But in the mid-2000s, relations between Russia and Azerbaijan had surprisingly improved, and sources in Russia’s Interior Ministry confirm the existence of an agreement with Azeri law enforcement agencies that allows actions by Russian intelligence units and free passage across the border. (When we first published this information in the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, in December 2007, no denial was made by either Russia or Azerbaijan.)

Many Chechen refugees had found asylum in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul, and Russian secret services had long accused Turkey of providing support to Chechen rebels. Evidently, the assassinations in Istanbul did not damage Russian-Turkish relations, and in 2010 Turkey signed a deal lifting mutual visa requirements with Russia.


Last December, the WikiLeaks “CableGate” trove of documents included a message sent from the American embassy in Moscow to Washington in advance of a visit to Moscow by the director of the FBI on November 9, 2009. In the cable, Ambassador John Beyrle described the leadership of the Russian secret services as “the most influential opponents of the engagement agenda”—the Obama administration’s “reset” policy toward Russia. Russian intelligence chiefs, Beyrle noted, “tend toward a Cold War mentality, which sees the U.S. and its allies intent on undermining Russia—and they have made public accusations to that effect.”

Unable to rid themselves of that deeply ingrained KGB mind-set, the Russian secret services remain locked in the past, repeatedly exhibiting the same paranoia toward the West that marked decades of Cold War confrontation. At the same time, the closeness of high-ranking intelligence officials to the Kremlin—unprecedented even when compared with Soviet times—makes it difficult for Russian leaders to arrive at any independent assessment of information provided by the secret services. With increasing frequency, this has resulted in miscalculations and errors in Kremlin policy at home and abroad, especially when dealing with Russia’s enemies—real or perceived.

Facing terrorism in the North Caucasus, the FSB makes paranoid claims about the involvement of Western intelligence services in the activities of local Islamist rebels, compromising the ability of those services to help Moscow find and extradite militants who have fled Russia. As a result, Putin’s secret services have embraced assassinations, seriously damaging Russia’s reputation. A Russian hand is now suspected every time a Kremlin opponent is killed abroad.

By engaging in battles to counter a mostly imaginary threat of Western intelligence influence throughout former Soviet territory, Russia’s secret services repeatedly provide ammunition to the Kremlin’s critics, who promulgate an equally mythical image of an “imperial Russia.” In response, the Kremlin seeks to silence all criticism of the secret services in the wake of their failures. It’s a vicious cycle, one that effectively licenses, even mandates, that the FSB and SVR adopt ever more adventurous policies and brutal methods.

Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan are Russian investigative journalists who cover the operations of Russian security services. They are co-founders of the website Agentura, which chronicles the services’ activities. Last year, they co-authored The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB (PublicAffairs).

March 28, 2011

Published in World Policy Journal, Spring 2011 [Illustration by Marshall Hopkins]