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Feb 6, 2018 | 09:00 GMT

6 mins read

Russia's Security Forces Prepare for a Power Grab

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with members of his government ahead of March 18 presidential elections.
  • After Russia's March presidential election, the country's government is planning to implement a series of reforms across all sectors.
  • One of the most impactful reforms would be a restructuring of the country's powerful security services, whose various organizations have historically been extremely competitive.
  • Restructuring the security sector puts competing factions in the position to grab critical investigative powers, which could tip the balance of power among the organizations.

With President Vladimir Putin's victory in Russia's March election a near certainty, Kremlin power brokers are already thinking beyond election day. Russian media and politicians expect that after securing his fourth term in office, Putin will exercise a freer hand to implement economic reforms, political reshuffles and updates to Kremlin social policies. And a recent report from the New Times, a Russian media outlet, claims that, after the election, the Russian government will also begin the process of restructuring its many rival security services. Security organizations form the backbone of the Kremlin and have long influenced Russia's overall stability. And while power struggles among these groups are nothing new, increasing unrest within Russia's borders gives these reforms even more significance.

A Fierce Competition

Russia currently has multiple government security organizations, including the Federal Security Service (known by its Russian acronym as the FSB), the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and a relative newcomer, the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya), created by Putin personally in 2016. These security entities have always engaged in competition, but in recent years the FSB and Rosgvardiya in particular have fought an escalating turf war. The FSB has historically been one of the most powerful organizations within the Russian government, but Rosgvardiya has begun to challenge the its authority, steadily pilfering responsibilities, forces and talent from the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), military intelligence (GRU), the Federal Protective Service (FSO) and other internal security agencies.

According to a report from the New Times, which is linked with the Russian opposition, Putin has grown increasingly unhappy with the FSB over the past year as the security service attempted to limit Rosgvardiya's power, engaged in confrontations with Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and failed to prevent the April 2017 terrorist attack in St. Petersburg. Reports from the Daily Journal, an independent anti-government Russian news source, indicate that Putin's administration has pushed FSB members out of key roles in big state agencies and had some of its high-level members arrested for their roles in U.S. election interference, which plunged Moscow's relationship with Washington to a post-Cold War low. Rosgvardiya, meanwhile, has made major power grabs. In addition to taking control of Russia's elite special forces, the organization has attempted to set up its own cybersecurity units, take over protection duties for regional leaders from the FSO and FSB, and participate in foreign security relations.

Restructuring Influence

Several possible configurations for restructuring the security services are rumored to be under consideration, each of which has the potential to swing the balance of power in the direction of either the FSB or the Rosgvardiya. One proposal on the table is to break out the unit of the FSO that directly reports to Putin — the Presidential Security Service (analagous to the U.S. Secret Service) — effectively positioning the FSO outside both the Rosgvardiya and the FSB. Indeed, that possibility may be what prompted Rosgvardiya to try to take over protective duties for regional leaders, giving it a new means of projecting power across Russia.

Perhaps the most influential proposal for the future of the country's security services is the possibility of reviving the Ministry for State Security, a bureau originally organized by Josef Stalin and operated between 1945-1954. Such a structure would strengthen the FSB by uniting several internal security services to create a conglomerate controlling espionage, counterespionage, protection and policing activities. Throughout the summer and fall of 2016, as Rosgvardiya slowly began consolidating power, the FSB had floated the idea of bringing back the security ministry, but spats among various security services caused talks to fizzle. Now, the possibility of a reconstituted Ministry for State Security is back on the table, and if realized, it could dramatically strengthen the FSB's position in the Russian government.

Whoever controls Russia's investigative and prosecutorial powers will wield the most influence.

The Power to Investigate

However, even if the FSB transforms itself into an overarching security agency, it would still need to compete with Rosgvardiya for control over perhaps the strongest security tools within the entire Kremlin: the powers of investigation. Russia's Prosecutor General's office and its Investigative Committee have the ability to investigate and prosecute even the most influential of Russian elites on the basis of real, exaggerated or fabricated criminal accusations, and internal security services have long fought for control over these powerful investigative offices.

In theory, the current Investigative Committee is a neutral body, but in practice its loyalty has swung between power players since its 2011 inception. Most recently, the chief of the Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, has been expressing partiality to the FSB and its alumni, helping prosecute some of that organization's chief rivals. The most prominent case involves the likely orchestration by influential oil czar Igor Sechin of the prosecution of Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukaev, the first major minister arrested since the Soviet period. But any restructuring of the investigative arms could indicate a shift in power. One rumored proposal is the creation of an independent entity, the Federal Investigative Service. It would ostensibly be a neutral body, but history suggests that the FSB and Rosgvardiya would compete just as eagerly for influence over any new entity as they have over existing ones. Another possibility is that the government could divide investigative authority among the various security services. This would create a free-for-all, likely sparking reprisal arrests and tying up judicial prosecutions.

Taking a broader view, one can see that Russia's current political climate provides fertile ground for security spats to increase. Putin and various elites are facing protests and dwindling support from a population that is increasingly demanding accountability and seeking anti-corruption investigations. The Kremlin will eventually have to engage in some sort of anti-corruption campaign to placate the electorate. And that means that whoever controls Russia's investigative and prosecutorial powers will wield the most influence, able to shape how the campaign unfolds and control which of Russia's elites retain or lose assets as the country's economy stagnates. In that context, the FSB and Rosgvardiya are likely to butt heads with increasing frequency, possibly compromising the stability of Russia's political system at the same time.

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