Kremlin spooks still wedded to the bad old ways

Jolted by own-goals and scandal, Russia's security chiefs are still skilful oppressors, writes Phil Reeves
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The Independent Online
Russian intelligence chiefs have been congratulating each other following the arrest of a Russian army officer suspected of gathering secrets about Russia's nuclear missiles to sell to the CIA. It has been a long time since they have had much to cheer about.

The officer, who held a post with the strategic missile forces stationed near Orenburg in the southern Urals, is facing a charge of high treason, a crime which until this year was punishable by a bullet through the skull, but which now carries a jail sentence of 12 to 20 years. He was a big enough fish to merit arrest by Colonel-General Alexander Molyakov, the Federal Security Service's (FSB) chief of military counter-intelligence.

The arrest, earlier this month, was what the service needed. Times have been hard for the FSB as well as Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, both agencies created from the ashes of the KGB. Just as the CIA has been struggling to redefine its role after the fall of communism, so too - buffeted by financial worries, internal scandals and own-goals - have Moscow's spymasters.

Budget cuts and Russia's diminished international role have prompted foreign intelligence chiefs to close about 30 listening posts abroad in the past few years. There has been a brain drain, with top agents leaving in search of bigger pay packets in the private sector, especially in banks and security firms. And some leading informants, such as Aldrich Ames and Harold Nicholson, have been caught .

But the intelligence agencies' worst debacle was in Chechnya. Throughout the 21-month war, the FSB, which carried out military intelligence, fatally underestimated its enemy, a tiny but disciplined separatist army. Its bungled analysis drew Boris Yeltsin into an unwinnable war in which some 80,000 died.

"The FSB is a demoralised organisation," said Natalya Gevorkyan, a journalist with Kommersant newspaper. "They don't know what their role is; that creates a dangerous vacuum."

Yet "the organs", as Russians call them, are still highly active. Abroad, they still spy, just like the old days, and still squabble. The Germans have been complaining that Russian espionage is rife, prompting complaints from Moscow that Bonn is trying to perpetuate Cold War hostility.

But these days there are other priorities: combating the Mafia and the smuggling of nuclear materials, conducting economic espionage, especially in the arms industry.

And at home the FSB remains a powerful entity. After his violent stand- off with the Russian parliament in 1993, Boris Yeltsin brought the security services under his control.

In 1995, laws were passed restoring some of the most repressive powers of the KGB. So the FSB can run its own prisons, set up its own undercover businesses, bug and infiltrate. Last year, the President become so chummy with his security generals - notably Mikhail Barsukov and Alexander Korshakov - that it split the Kremlin. They were eventually fired, but concerns remain. Vladimir Oiven of the Glasnost Fund, a human- rights group, says: "What worries us now is that the state has many organisations doing the same thing;. there's the tax police, the customs, and Fapsi, the federal communications organisation."

So far, such activities pale by comparison with the Soviet security apparatus. With 75,000 per-sonnel, the FSB, still based at the Lubyanka in central Moscow, is far smaller than the KGB was with 500,000 full-timers and count- less informers. And Russians no longer suffer the Fifth Directorate, which infiltrated and persecuted dissidents. But there are still echoes of the evil past.

The security services allegedly played a part in the murder of investigative newspaper reporter Dmitri Kholodov, blown up by a booby-trapped briefcase in Moscow during 1994. And then there's the possible conviction of Alexander Nikitin, a former Russian naval officer, whose terrible "crime" was to tell Bellona, a Norwegian environmentalist group, about the terrifying scale of radioactive pollution caused by Russia's northern fleet.