London (The Times), March 09 (13/03) At the height of its powers, the KGB was among the most formidable intelligence agencies in the world, a weapon of the state wielded to promote the Soviet Union’s interests at home and abroad. Since then, however, it appears Russian intelligence has suffered a precipitous fall.
The FSB, one of the successor agencies to the KGB, is being blamed in part for Russia’s stuttering invasion of Ukraine, according to security experts, with Vladimir Putin said to be furious at the inaccurate intelligence he has received.
“It is not a competent organisation,” said Andrei Soldatov, co-founder and editor of Agentura, an investigative website that has monitored the Russian secret services for more than 20 years. “The final reports that they produced on the situation on the ground in the run-up to the invasion were simply not right, which is part of the reason as to why things have gone so badly for Russia.”
The primary responsibilities of the FSB, of which Putin was director from 1998-99, are internal and include everything from counterterrorism to border security. Over recent years, its fiefdom has expanded and it is also responsible for monitoring the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Since 2014, the agency had spent a lot of time and resources on attempts to foment unrest in western Ukraine among far-right groups, which ultimately came to nothing, Soldatov said. Their assessments of popular support among Ukrainians for a Russian invasion and the extent to which the country would resist were also “terribly miscalculated”.
“We can’t rule out the fact that the intelligence they gathered on the ground was in fact very good,” said Soldatov. “The problem is that it is too risky for superiors to tell Putin what he doesn’t want to hear, so they tailor their information. The tailoring probably takes place somewhere between the rank of colonel and general in the FSB.”
A series of public embarrassments involving its officers over recent days has provided further humiliation. Last weekend an alleged report written by an officer within the FSB emerged. The disgruntled author complained about being overworked and about meaningless “box-ticking exercises” that had left the country woefully unprepared for the effect of western sanctions.
During periods of crisis, agents are often required to sleep in the Lubyanka, the imposing Moscow headquarters of the FSB which also served as the KGB’s head office. “When I speak to FSB officers, they are not doing it because of a big idea. It’s always because they are complaining about something relatively trivial,” Soldatov said.
“They are narrow-minded people. They are not like MI6 officers who have been to Cambridge and are supposedly the cream of the crop. They have left school and been educated at the FSB academy. They often go into it because their father and grandfather had also been an intelligence officer, it’s well-paid and they give you an apartment.”
The FSB, which specialises in sowing political instability, currently has hundreds of its agents operating throughout Ukraine, using tactical groups to intimidate civilians in occupied areas, the Ukrainian military said on Tuesday.
Philip Ingram, a security expert and former senior British intelligence officer, said the FSB had also attached its officers to each military unit to act as a “political commissar”. Ingram said: “They will be making sure that there is no dissent and that the party line is being followed, scaring the commanders and therefore the troops on the ground with their approach.”
When one of those officers, embedded with the 41st army outside Kharkiv, phoned another officer in Russia to tell him of the death of General Vitaly Gerasimov, the phone call was intercepted and published by the Ukrainian security services.
Rather than using the services’ secure communication channel Era, which was rolled out to much fanfare last year, they were speaking using normal sim cards.“The FSB is still a relatively old-fashioned organisation trying to play espionage the old-fashioned way, the way it has always done it,” Ingram said. “They will be smarting at the moment as Putin is very angry. You can see it in his body language, the way he is gesturing, the terminology he is using. He blames them for seeding him the advice that led to the poor decision-making in Ukraine.”