Analyses The Coup in the Kremlin
By Nina Khrushcheva, Foreiggn Affairs, May 10, 2022
May 13, 2022 - 11:49:09 AM
On December 20, 1999, Vladimir Putin addressed senior officials of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) at its Lubyanka headquarters near Moscow’s Red Square. The recently appointed 47-year-old prime minister, who had held the rank of lieutenant colonel in the FSB, was visiting to mark the holiday honoring the Russian security services. “The task of infiltrating the highest level of government is accomplished,” Putin quipped.
His former colleagues chuckled. But the joke was on Russia.
Putin became interim president less than two weeks later. From the start of his rule, he has worked to strengthen the state to counteract the chaos of post-Soviet capitalism and unsteady democratization. To achieve that end, he saw it necessary to elevate the country’s security services and put former security officials in charge of critical government organs.
In recent years, however, Putin’s approach has changed. More and more, bureaucracy has displaced the high-profile personalities that previously dominated. And as the Russian president has come to rely on these bureaucratic institutions to further his consolidation of control, their power has grown relative to other organs of the state. But it was not until February, when Putin gave the orders first to recognize the independence of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and then, a few days later, to send Russian troops into Ukraine, that the complete takeover by the new security apparatus became apparent.
In the early days of the war, most branches of the Russian state seemed blindsided by Putin’s determination to invade, and some prominent officials even seemed to question the wisdom of the decision, however timidly. But in the weeks since, government and society alike have lined up behind the Kremlin. Dissent is now a crime, and individuals who once held decision-making power—even if circumscribed—have found themselves hostages of institutions whose single-minded purpose is security and control. What has happened is, in effect, an FSB-on-FSB coup: Russia used to be a state dominated by security forces, but now a faceless security bureaucracy has become the state, with Putin sitting on top.
THE SURVIVAL OF THE CHEKISTS
The modern FSB traces its beginnings to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, when the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission, also known as the Cheka, hunted down enemies of the new Soviet state under the fierce leadership of Felix Dzerzhinsky. Its subsequent iterations, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) and the Ministry of State Security (MGB), evolved under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s rule and were led most notoriously by Genrikh Yagoda in the 1930s and Lavrenty Beria in the 1940s and 1950s. The KGB became the Soviet Union’s primary security agency in 1954 under Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor. Over the following decade, Khrushchev expanded the Communist Party’s oversight of the Soviet state’s institutions of control, limiting their influence. But after Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964, Yuri Andropov, the longtime head of the KGB, reclaimed the organization’s lost authority, bringing the security service to the height of its power in the 1970s.
Andropov went on to lead the Soviet Union as general secretary of the Communist Party from 1982 to 1984. He was merciless in imposing ideological control. Any “diversion”—such as covert disagreement with Soviet politics—was grounds for prosecution. Some dissenters were imprisoned or placed in psychiatric wards for “retraining,” while others were forced to emigrate. Living in Moscow at the time, I remember police raids to catch indolent citizens and plain-clothes KGB officers—operating like Orwellian “thought police”—surreptitiously roaming city streets, detaining people suspected of skipping work or having too much leisure time. It was an atmosphere of total control, with Andropov’s KGB fully in charge.
By the late 1980s, reforms introduced by Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev loosened the grip of the security forces. Perestroika was supposed to renew the Soviet Union—some scholars even allege Andropov had a hand in the program—but it ended up threatening the survival of the regime. The last Soviet leader turned against his KGB masters, exposing the crimes of Stalinism and proceeding with an opening to the West. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 and Soviet satellite states in eastern Europe left Moscow’s sphere of influence, the KGB turned on Gorbachev, two years later launching a failed coup that hastened the Soviet collapse.
The security apparatus was humiliated—but it was not disbanded. Boris Yeltsin, the first president of post-Soviet Russia, considered communism, not the KGB, to be the greater evil. He thought that simply changing the name of the KGB to the FSB would change the organization, too, allowing it to become more benevolent and less controlling. This was wishful thinking. Russia’s security services trace their origins all the way back to Ivan the Terrible’s brutal bodyguard corps, the oprichniki, in the sixteenth century and Peter the Great’s Secret Chancellery in the eighteenth century. Yeltsin’s attempt at reform could not permanently suppress a system with such deep historical roots any more than Khrushchev’s could four decades earlier.
Russia used to be a state dominated by security forces, but now the security bureaucracy has become the state.
In fact, KGB officers were relatively well equipped to endure the collapse of communism and the transition to capitalism. To the security services, the Soviet-era call for a classless society of proletarians had always been merely a slogan; ideology was a tool for controlling the public and strengthening the hand of the state. Former members applied that pragmatic approach as they rose to elite positions in post-Soviet Russia. As Leonid Shebarshin, a former high-level KGB operative, has explained, it was only natural that those who trained under Andropov for a secret war against external and internal enemies—NATO, the CIA, dissidents, and political opposition—should become the new Russian bourgeoisie. They could handle irregular working hours, succeed in hostile environments, and use interrogation and manipulation tactics when called for. They squeezed every last drop of labor out of their employees and subordinates.
One of their number, Putin, was himself lauded as a pragmatist by Western diplomats after he rose from obscurity to become president of Russia in 2000. Even then, he made no secret of his intention to establish Andropov-style absolute authority, quickly moving to limit the power of the capitalist barons who had flourished in the 1990s under Yeltsin’s frenzied presidency. In Putin’s mind, an independent oligarchy in control of strategic industries, such as oil and gas, threatened the stability of the state. He ensured that business decisions relevant to the national interest were made instead by a handful of trusted people—the so-called siloviki, or affiliates of the state’s military and security agencies. These individuals effectively became managers or guardians of state-controlled assets. Many were from Putin’s native Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg) and most had served alongside him in the KGB. On the corporate side, their ranks include Igor Sechin (Rosneft), Sergey Chemezov (Rostec), and Alexey Miller (Gazprom), while matters of state protection are handled by Nikolai Patrushev (secretary of the Security Council), Alexander Bortnikov (director of the FSB), Sergei Naryshkin (director of the Foreign Intelligence Service), and Alexander Bastrykin (head of the Investigative Committee), among others.
Putin has been convinced that strengthening the state’s “extraordinary organs” would prevent upheaval of the kind that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Putting former KGB operatives in charge seemed to offer some economic and political stability. In an effort to maintain that stability, Putin acted in 2020 to extend his presidency, proposing constitutional amendments to circumvent the term limits that would remove him from office in 2024.
Since their ratification, the constitutional changes have given the state broad latitude to address problems ranging from COVID-19 to mass protests in Belarus to Russian opposition lawyer Alexei Navalny’s return to Moscow. As was the case in the Andropov era, all matters are now run through central regulatory bodies—federal organizations that oversee everything from taxation to science (the word nadzor, meaning “supervision,” in many of their Russian names makes them easy to recognize). Criminal prosecutions are an increasingly common tactic used against Russian citizens who complain about abuses of power, request better services, or express support for Navalny, who himself was convicted based on false accusations of fraud and other supposed crimes. A punitive apparatus of control has tightened its grip, led by the technocratic Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, a former tax official, and an assortment of midlevel managers inside the regime bureaucracy.
THE FSB COUP
Putin’s decision to recognize the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, and subsequently to launch a “special military operation” to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, followed a similar pattern of punishment for political deviation: he sought to penalize an entire country for what he deemed its “anti-Russian” choice to align with the West. But within Russia, the events leading up to and following the invasion also marked the completion of a political shift that has been years in the making. They exposed the waning power of the siloviki who dominated the early Putin era—and their replacement by a faceless security-and-control bureaucracy.
On February 21, during a nationally broadcast Security Council session, the president’s closest confidants seemed completely in the dark as to what the Donetsk and Luhansk recognition would entail. Naryshkin, of the Foreign Intelligence Service, stumbled over his words as Putin demanded an affirmation of support for the decision. By the end of this exchange, Naryshkin appeared to be trembling with fear. Even Patrushev, a hardcore conservative Chekist, wanted to inform the United States of Russia’s plans to send troops to Ukraine—a suggestion that went unanswered.
For a decision as consequential as the invasion of a neighboring country, it is remarkable how many organs of the state were out of the loop. Economic institutions were caught by surprise—when Elvira Nabiullina, head of the Russian central bank, tried to resign in early March, she was told to just buckle up and deal with the economic fallout. The military didn’t seem to be aware of the entire plan either, and spent months moving tens of thousands of troops around the border without knowing whether they would be asked to attack.
Putin’s clandestine operation was even hidden from other clandestine operatives. Leaders of the FSB department responsible for providing the Kremlin with intelligence about Ukraine’s political situation, for instance, didn’t fully believe that an invasion would happen. Many analysts had confidently argued it would be against Russia’s national interests. Comfortable in the assumption that a large-scale attack was off the table, officials kept feeding Putin the story he wanted to hear: Ukrainians were Slavic brothers ready to be liberated from Nazi-collaborating, Western-controlled stooges in Kyiv. A source in the Kremlin told me that many officials now envision a disaster akin to the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which ended in a disgraceful withdrawal and helped precipitate the dissolution of the Soviet empire. But in a government that has become increasingly technocratic, institutionalized, and impersonal, such opinions are no longer permissible.
As the conflict continues into its third month and evidence of war crimes mounts, most officials and politicians continue to back Putin. Big business is largely silent. Economic elites, cut off from the West, have rallied around the flag. Even though some may be grumbling in private, very few are vocal in public. Rare exceptions include the billionaire industrialist Oleg Deripaska, who has repeatedly called for peace; the former Putin associate Anatoly Chubais, known for leading Russia’s privatization under Yeltsin, who has fled to Turkey; the oligarch and former Chelsea soccer club owner, Roman Abramovich, who has tried to facilitate a negotiated settlement; and the entrepreneur Oleg Tinkov, who was forced to sell his shares in his hugely successful online bank, Tinkoff, for kopeks after speaking out against the “operation.”
Putin has never made a secret of his intention to establish absolute authority.
The rest of Russia’s 145 million citizens—except for those tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands who have fled abroad—are similarly falling in line. Having lost access to foreign flights, brands, and payment systems, most are forced to accept that their lives are tethered to the Kremlin. In a sharp departure from the early days of the Ukrainian operation, when public shock was palpable and people took to the streets expressing antiwar sentiment, polling shows that around 80 percent now support the war. The actual number is likely lower—when the state exercises total control, people give the answers that the regime wants. Still, my own conversations with relatives and friends across Russia confirm that speaking against the war is increasingly unpopular. An acquaintance in the resort town of Kislovodsk in the Northern Caucasus, for instance, insisted that Putin needs to complete “the mission of ‘de-Nazification,’ take care of the Donbas, and show Americans not to mess with Russia.”
As the shock wears off, fear has taken its place. In a televised address in mid-March, Putin insisted that Western countries “will try to bet on the so-called fifth column, on national traitors,” implying that all opponents of his “operation” are the unpatriotic enemies. The government’s security branches had previously announced a new law: spreading “fake information,” or any narrative that contradicts the Ministry of Defense’s official story, is a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Independent media outlets were blocked or disbanded, including the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, liberal radio Ekho Moskvy, and Dozhd TV, all of which regularly criticized the government until two months ago. The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, and other foreign media packed up and left the country. Since the end of February, more than 16,000 people have been detained, including 400 teenagers. People have been arrested for just being near a protest. For one Muscovite, merely showing up at Red Square holding a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace was enough to warrant detention.
In this atmosphere of complete repression, political figures who once seemed to offer alternative ideas now echo Putin’s uncompromising words. Former President Dmitry Medvedev has insisted that criticism of the operation amounts to treason. Even Naryshkin, a skeptic in February, has found his war footing and now faithfully parrots the government line. People no longer speak with their own voices; the shadow of Putinist Chekism now covers the entire country.
THE NEW SECURITY STATE
The journalist and writer Masha Gessen once dubbed Putin “the man without a face.” Today, however, his is the only face, sitting atop an anonymous security bureaucracy that does his bidding. Another coup, either in the Kremlin corridors or on the streets of Moscow, is not likely. The only group that could conceivably unseat the president is the FSB, which is still technically run by nationalist siloviki who understand that some foreign policy flexibility is necessary for internal development. But such officials are no longer the FSB’s future. The indistinct body of security technocrats now in charge is obsessed with total control, no matter the national or international consequences.
The last time the Kremlin built such an all-controlling state, under Andropov’s leadership in the early 1980s, it unraveled when the security forces relaxed their grip and allowed reform. Putin knows that story well and is unlikely to risk the same outcome. And even without him, the system he built would remain in place, sustained by the new security cohort—unless a 1980s Afghanistan-style debacle in Ukraine destroys it all. With this bureaucracy holding tight to power, Moscow’s foreign adventurism might abate. But as long as the structure holds steady, Russia will remain oppressed, isolated, and unfree.