Mark Galeotti writes: It’s tempting to look to the playbooks and historical traditions of the late Soviet Union to explain the audacity of today’s Russian intelligence activity, from its meddling in U.S. elections, to apparently killing Kremlin opponents abroad. But these activities are not just products of old ways or new geopolitics. They also stem from a shift in the activities of Russia’s political police force, the infamous Federal Security Service (FSB). Originally established to protect the Kremlin’s rule at home, it has increasingly moved into Russia’s foreign operations. A new cohort of secret policemen, ignorant of the traditions of spycraft and secure in Putin’s protection, has fundamentally altered the nature of Russian intelligence.
The FSB stands accused not just of engineering the leaks against Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, but also backing extremist parties in Europe, stirring up discontent among Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic, allegedly murdering Chechen opposition leaders in Turkey and Austria, spreading disinformation, and even kidnapping an Estonian security officer across the border in 2014. And according to the infamous unverified dossier published by Buzzfeed on January 10, it also collected compromising information on Trump with the suspected aim of turning him into Vladimir Putin’s puppet. One has to go back to Soviet times for such a rich array of proven and suspected covert adventures abroad.
By allowing the FSB to move into foreign intelligence and covert operations, though, Putin has — probably inadvertently — unleashed a beast. The FSB is playing a central role in current developments not because it possesses greater technical capabilities than the other Russian agencies, but because, for the most part, it does not recognize or respect the same limitations as the rest of Russia’s security services. To put it crudely, the FSB does the kinds of things everyone else thinks about doing but doesn’t because they’re too risky, too politically inflammatory, or too likely to backfire. [Continue reading…]