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TematicheRussia e Spazio Post-sovieticoA multi-headed hydra? Understanding Putin’s 007s

A multi-headed hydra? Understanding Putin’s 007s


When former KGB Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Putin became President of the Russian Federation in 1999, many expressed fear that the new President’s reforms concerning intelligence and national security would be a sort of KGB 2.0. However, despite many similarities in competencies and tactics, the current Russian information system is characterized by significant limitations compared to its predecessor. In a sense, the war in Ukraine represents a unique case study for assessing its overall (in)efficiency.  

The KGB and its legacy

The origins of Russian intelligence services are found in 1565, when Ivan the Terrible established the Oprichnina, subsequently dissolved and reconstituted by Peter the Great in 1697 under the name Preobrazhensky. In 1880, Alexander II created the Okhrana. Still, the most important transformation of the security apparatus occurred only in 1917: that’s when Lenin established the Cherezvechaninania Kommisya (Cheka), the security arm of the Bolshevik Party, responsible for the Red Terror between 1918 and 1922. Interestingly, its agents were often referred to as “checkists”, an expression still used to describe modern Russian intelligence officers. After the creation of the Soviet Union, the Cheka was replaced by the Obedinyonnoe Gosudarstvennoe Političeskoe Upravlenie (OGPU), the secret police of the Soviet regime from 1922 to 1934: it set up the Gulag system, carrying out a long series of extrajudicial killings aimed at repressing political dissent, a trend that persisted also when most of its functions were transferred to the Narodnyj Komissariat Vnutrennich Del (NKVD), the Interior Ministry of the Soviet Union.

After the death of Stalin in 1953, the NKVD was transformed into the Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti (KGB), the organ of state security of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). It’s important to stress that the KGB initially tried to distance itself from its predecessors in the interest of political legitimacy, emphasizing that it didn’t employ the same brutal methods. However, the reality was very different: the KGB monitored dissent and subversion throughout the entire USSR and was central to the suppression of both the Revolution in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968.

The KGB was one of the most potent security organizations ever created: it wasn’t simply an agency (like the CIA or UK’MI5) but an enormous apparatus with six different Directorates and an extensive network, both inside and outside the URSS. It was a de facto secret police monitoring its society, with competencies that included foreign and counterintelligence, as well as remarkable investigations, covert operations and systematic suppression of ideological dissent. Said otherwise, the KGB abused intelligence to create, sustain and preserve a totalitarian political power that saw all opposition as enemies.

One of the main features of the KGB was its degree of pervasiveness: its members permeated every single aspect of society and occupied key positions in the government itself. This trend continued even after Gorbachev decided to suppress the organization, accused of playing an essential role in the failed 1991 coup. This was a crucial moment in the history of Russian intelligence: not only did it fragment the KGB into four different agencies, but it also resulted in the dispersion of officers, whether serving, retired or resigned, into broader society and business. The most evident example of this process is, without any doubt, Vladimir Putin, ex-KGB member operating in Dresden, former director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), and current President of the Russian Federation.

Spycraft and putinism

Putin’s arrival in office resulted in one the most significant reforms of the Russian intelligence sector ever, with substantial increases in budget and competencies and massive campaigns of domestic repression and external destabilization. These reforms were to the considerable advantage of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s leading intelligence agency. The FSB was initially tasked to conduct just operations within the Russian Federation. Still, it gradually started to be particularly active abroad: let’s think about the cross-border operation in 2014 to kidnap Eston Kohver, an Estonian Internal Security Service officer. The aggressiveness of this agency is also demonstrated by the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, killed in London under mysterious circumstances after having published a book where he claimed that the FSB was responsible for the four bombings that killed more than 300 people in 1999. According to him, they aimed to generate support for Putin’s decision to wage a new war against Chechnya. The GRU, instead, is the military intelligence agency: its tasks include electronic, satellite and battlefield reconnaissance, as well as the employment of Russian special forces (the well-known Spetsnaz), but it ultimately fell in disgrace after the 2008 Georgian war.

In both Crimea and Donbas, Russian intelligence displayed excellent capabilities on the tactical level. Still, the same cannot be said for the strategic one: the 2022 blitzkrieg with which Putin intended to subjugate Kyev in a few hours was a colossal failure and reflects systematic severe weaknesses. There are several reasons for this. First, the various agencies are often poorly managed and affected by internal divisions, a problem exacerbated by the rivalries among the so-called siloviki (that is to say, high-ranking members of the Russian deep state). Agencies indeed tend to unite against a perceived common threat. Still, at the same time, solidarity often breaks down when the opportunity arises to make money or avoid blame. Not surprisingly, corruption remains endemic within the state apparatus and the intelligence community.

Secondly, Russian intelligence’s primary goal is securing the regime, not the constitutional order. This means that the Directors of the various agencies tend to support Putin regardless of the actual situation rather than providing him with information that conflicts with his vision of the world. A clear example is the public humiliation of Sergei Naryshkin, head of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVK), who stammered awkwardly when asked whether or not he favoured recognizing the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Third, we must consider that Ukraine has massively strengthened its intelligence and cyber capabilities since 2014. Thus, it’s plausible that Ukrainian intelligence has been conducting counterintelligence operations for a long time, infiltrating its agents and spreading disinformation on a vast scale. This would translate into a significant advantage, allowing Kyev to better defend its critical infrastructures and assets and precisely strike enemy ones. Let’s think about the explosion of the Kherch bridge on eight October 2022, the missile frigate Admiral Makarov (one of the Russian fleet’s major warships, reportedly hit by Ukrainian-made Neptune missiles) and the car bomb that killed the daughter of Aleksandr Dugin, a far-right ultranationalist considered “Putin’s ideologue”.


Modern Russian intelligence agencies continue to adopt the same aggressive and risk-taking behaviours of their predecessor. However, there’s a fundamental difference: if the KGB could be described as a hydra with a single intellect controlling it, the CPSU, the same is not true of today’s Russian secret services. As we’ve seen, there’s an apparent lack of coordination and unity among the various agencies, divided and in competition with each other. In particular, their subordination to Putin means they’re not the “power behind the throne” in Moscow but just another elite branch. These elements help us explain why, although Russian intelligence had the reputation of being among the most fearsome organizations in the world, during the war in Ukraine its effectiveness was at least dubious, especially in the initial phase of the conflict.

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