The New Cold War
Putin's Threat to Russia and the West
By Edward Lucas
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2014 Edward Lucas
All rights reserved.
Putin's Rise: How the KGB Seized Power in Russia
Vladimir Putin hardly seemed worth a footnote to Russian political history when an ailing President Yeltsin made him prime minister on 9 August 1999. The fifth prime minister in less than a year, he looked like a run-of-the-mill Russian bureaucrat: dull, unappealing, and all too likely to end up as another casualty of the country's unmanageable economic troubles and chaotic politics. Initially, little was known about him, personally or professionally. He liked judo and spoke German. After working as a KGB officer in the former East Germany, he had returned to his home city of St Petersburg and quietly worked his way up the bureaucratic ladder. From the university's foreign relations department, he moved to a job dealing with foreign investors and then to the Kremlin, where he worked in the presidential property department, a huge business empire based on the assets of the former Communist Party. After a brief stint overseeing the ties with Russia's regions, he became head of the FSB.
But even then, a closer look suggested his appointment was more important than it seemed. A KGB career was a red-hot sign of distinction in the Soviet Union. Apart from the Communist Party leadership itself, the KGB had been the country's most knowledgeable, efficient and privileged organisation. It not only attracted the brightest people; it gave them a formidable training and an unbeatable network of contacts. They harboured a sense of great superiority over the shabby, humdrum and ill-informed lives of the ordinary citizen. For many, that sense was stoked by special training in psychological tricks: how to manipulate strangers, to gain their trust or break their resistance. The result was more like a cult than a government bureaucracy: omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. In a perverse sense, KGB officers felt themselves to be almost a lay priesthood. Being uniquely well placed to see its shortcomings, many harboured private doubts about the workability of communism. But they compensated both with a passionate patriotism, and an unbending loyalty to their fellow officers.
The presence of any KGB veteran at the head of government would have been significant, but Mr Putin was not just a run-of-the-mill KGB officer. He had served abroad. The First Directorate of the KGB, which handled external espionage, was an elite within an elite. Its members were specially selected and trained to withstand the temptations they would be exposed to during foreign travel – something that was an almost unimaginable luxury in the closed society of the Soviet Union. It is still unclear what exactly Mr Putin did while he was in Dresden. The files of the East German secret police, the Stasi, are curiously sketchy on his career there. Some believe that he was a lowly counter-intelligence officer, whose job was checking up on more glamorous frontline operatives. Others think he was given, but botched, an important job in managing the survival of Soviet intelligence networks as communism crumbled in East Germany. Both versions may be true. At any rate, Mr Putin was handpicked for his loyalty, brains – and toughness.
An early sign of how his background might influence his behaviour in political office came during his brief stint as prime minister, when Mr Putin spoke to his former colleagues: 'A group of FSB operatives, dispatched, under cover, to work in the government of the Russian Federation, is successfully fulfilling its task.' At the time, many thought that was a tasteless joke. In retrospect, it seems pretty close to a statement of fact. Since 2000, veterans of the Soviet intelligence and security services have taken control not only of the Kremlin and government, but also the media and the commanding heights of the economy. Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, estimates that up to three-quarters of the top posts in Russia are held by siloviki, an untranslatable term for current and former intelligence and security officers, derived from the Russian word sila (power).
The rise to power of Mr Putin and his friends is the culmination, accidental or deliberate, of a process that started in the early 1980s, when the KGB became frustrated by the gerontocracy surrounding the increasingly senile Leonid Brezhnev and the Communist Party leadership. Under communism, even the KGB was not all-powerful. It was not allowed to spy on the Soviet military intelligence service, the GRU, or on the Communist Party, which regarded its 'sword and shield' with a mixture of awe and contempt. Like its terror-inducing secret-police predecessors – the NKVD, OGPU, the Cheka, and before them the Tsaristera Okhrana and even the black-cowled monks of Ivan the Terrible's Oprichniki – the KGB could terrorise the powerless but only advise the powerful: it had no political authority of its own.
That came close to changing in November 1982 when Brezhnev died and the KGB chief Andropov was elected General Secretary in his place. For fifteen months, the KGB was at the summit of power. The austere, intimidating Andropov tried to restore the Soviet system in both economics and politics. He had little success, partly because the Soviet Union was inherently unsalvageable, and also because his diseased kidneys gave out within months of his taking over; when he died, stagnation returned under his successor, a doddery Communist Party hack called Konstantin Chernenko who lasted only eighteen months. Resigned to the inevitability of change, the KGB then became a strong supporter of Mr Gorbachev's reforms – at least until they seemed to be leading to the country's disintegration.
That may seem a paradox. Certainly the main aim of many liberals and reformers in the Soviet Union's provinces in the Gorbachev era was to outwit the central institutions of power: the Kremlin, the armed forces, the bureaucrats who ran (or misran) the planned economy, and most of all the cold grey men of the KGB. The two main levers of Soviet power, economic planning and the one-party police state, seemed one and the same thing. What nobody realised was that collapse of state planning would soon give the savviest people in the former Soviet Union – the ex-spooks – a chance to beat the West at its own game: capitalism. Political freedom and human rights, which seemed to be at the heart of public life, were just optional extras. They were dispensed – and then dispensed with.
It is Andropov, not Mr Gorbachev, who is Mr Putin's role model. In July 1999, while still head of the FSB, Mr Putin laid a wreath on his grave. Later, he had a wall plaque restored on the wall of the old KGB headquarters, the Lubyanka, and praised Andropov as an 'outstanding political figure'. Since Mr Putin's rise to power, the FSB has achieved something that the KGB never quite managed: its members, current and former, are running the country. The difference between the two types is largely cosmetic. Shortly after becoming prime minister in 1999, Mr Putin told Russian television 'there is no such thing as an ex-Chekist'. Viktor Cherkesov, a close Putin ally who, as the KGB chief in St Petersburg in 1988, ordered the last political repression in the Soviet Union and now runs Russia's drug control agency, wrote in 2004: 'We [siloviki] must understand that we are one whole. History ruled that the weight of supporting the Russian state fell on our shoulders. I believe in our ability, when we feel danger, to put aside everything petty, and remain faithful to our oath.'
In the book on judo that he co-authored, published in 2004, Mr Putin repeatedly makes the point that success is achieved with 'minimum effort, maximum effect'. That is a salient feature of both his foreign and domestic policy. Trying to control everything, as his communist predecessors in the Kremlin did, makes the grip on power rigid and brittle. Much more effective, then, to concentrate not on crushing opponents crudely, but keeping them unbalanced – and therefore vulnerable to a deft throw and armlock. Although the FSB has in effect mounted a successful putsch, recreating a semi-authoritarian political system, it shuns total control. Instead, it has retained the outward appearance of political pluralism, in a way that still fools outsiders and wishful thinkers.
At first sight, the story seems simple. Russia was already in a terrible mess when Mr Putin became prime minister. Then a spate of deadly and mysterious terrorist attacks, costing some three hundred lives, put the country in a state of national panic. Mr Putin's response, of tough talk and still tougher deeds, made him the nation's most popular politician within weeks. He was therefore the logical and popular choice to succeed Yeltsin as president. Since then he has reversed the abuses of the Yeltsin years and made Russia strong and prosperous. For many Russians and outsiders, that is still the essence of the past seven years. Later chapters will deal with the abuse of power. But the means used in Mr Putin's ascent to the presidency should dispel any illusions about the real nature of his regime once in office.
The story started with an obscure news item, barely covered outside Russia. Fighters from the breakaway province of Chechnya raided villages in neighbouring Dagestan in August 1999. A few days later, on 31 August, a seemingly unrelated bomb exploded in Moscow, in an underground shopping mall – a glorified term for a warren of kiosks around the entrance to a subway station. One person was killed and forty injured. Many blamed a mafia feud, though a previously unknown anarchist group left a note claiming responsibility. On a much bigger scale was the outrage on 4 September, when a car bomb outside a military apartment block in Buinaksk, a town in Dagestan, killed sixty-four people and wounded dozens. Russia blamed separatists from Chechnya. Mr Putin authorised attacks on what he called 'illegal military units' there. It was not until four days later, when a large bomb planted in the basement blew up a nine-storey apartment building in southeast Moscow, killing ninety-four people and wounding 150, that Russians began to think that they were under a sustained attack by terrorists. That impression was confirmed by two more mass murders. On 13 September, the day of mourning for those victims, another bomb blew up an eight-storey building, also in southern Moscow, killing 118 and wounding 200. Three days after that, a truck bomb in Volgodonsk, in southern Russia, killed a further seventeen people.
The atmosphere created by this sustained assault was frantic. At night, vigilante groups patrolled the back streets of Moscow. The Chechens had long been Russia's least popular ethnic minority and the attacks demonised them further. Mr Putin immediately authorised a military operation against the 'terrorist' republic. Russia would 'wipe out' the culprits, even 'in the shit-house' he said. That was a shocking piece of gangster slang that no previous Russian leader would have dreamed of using in public. Some educated Russians winced; but it caught the national mood. The time for being nice was over. But puzzling questions remained. The Chechens had no record of attacking such targets, or using such means. The bombs had been expertly planted in buildings whose construction made them most vulnerable to attack. Military specialists have that sort of expertise (and ready access to high explosive). But the Chechens had previously shown no sign of having the organisational clout needed to get hold of big quantities of explosive, or the knowledge of how to use them so professionally. The bombings had been well planned, probably months in advance, yet the fighting in Dagestan was quite recent. Chechen terrorist tactics in the past involved taking hostages and making practical demands: for the release of prisoners, or for negotiations with the Kremlin. This time, the supposed perpetrators had no motive. The inevitable result of the attacks was a war in which their already ruined republic would be obliterated.
The real beneficiaries were in Moscow. Rumours had been swirling around the Russian capital for a year that senior figures in the Yeltsin Kremlin were planning to use violence to head off what seemed like their impending downfall. The country's most powerful tycoon-politician, Boris Berezovsky, was under investigation for diverting foreign cash revenues from the national airline, Aeroflot. Another controversy surrounded Pavel Borodin, the head of the presidential property department. He had commissioned a controversial Swiss firm, Mabetex, to carry out richly priced renovations on the Kremlin's historic buildings. In September 1999, the Yeltsin family came under renewed scrutiny when Swiss investigators claimed to have found documents confirming that Mabetex had paid $15 million in bribes, including by providing credit cards for the president and his two daughters. The Yeltsin family has consistently maintained its innocence.
In response, the Kremlin played dirty. The prosecutor-general, Yuri Skuratov, had to resign after a video of a man bearing a strong resemblance to him cavorting with two prostitutes was shown on prime-time television. Only blatant bribery of deputies postponed an attempt in the Duma to press ahead with Yeltsin's impeachment. Another seemed certain to succeed sooner or later. Yuri Luzhkov, the powerful mayor of Moscow, had thrown his political and financial weight behind Mr Primakov's presidential candidacy. Elections were due in 2000, but they could happen even earlier were Yeltsin to be impeached. Appointing Mr Putin prime minister and giving power to the 'Chekists' was, in effect, the Yeltsinites' last desperate throw of the dice. The bombing campaign and fighting in Chechnya gave the move all the more impact: attention shifted from the shenanigans about official corruption to the authorities' commendably tough response to a terrorist onslaught on Russia. Few wanted to make the accusation outright, but the bombing campaign was certainly a remarkably convenient coincidence.
Such theories would have remained at the fringes of discussion, but for the 'bomb' that didn't go off. On the night of 22 September, Aleksei Kartofelnikov saw a white car parked outside his twelve-storey apartment block at 14/16 Novosyolov Street in Ryazan, 200 kilometres from Moscow. An unusually observant man, he noticed that the licence plate had been doctored to look like a local registration. He looked more closely, and saw three people carrying sacks into the building's basement. He called the police. Experts investigated what appeared to be a bomb and removed the sacks, a detonator and a timer that had been set for 0530. Hundreds of people living close by were evacuated; eventually a nearby cinema was opened to take them in. A local police explosives expert, Yuri Tkachenko, used a gas analyser to examine the sacks' contents: yellowish granules, resembling pasta. The machine identified them as hexogen, a powerful explosive. The detonators were real and correctly wired. The police immediately put checkpoints on main roads. The car spotted by Mr Kartofelnikov was found; it turned out to have been stolen.
On the evening of 23 September the head of the FSB's public relations division, Aleksandr Zdanovich, appeared on a top talk show, Geroi Dnya (Hero of the Day). Though happy to take the credit for the foiled bombing, he seemed oddly confused about what had happened; perhaps because he was ill-briefed, or perhaps for some other reason. The interior minister, Vladimir Rushailo, speaking at a conference the next day, nearly forty-eight hours after the 'bomb' was discovered, criticised the law-enforcement agencies for lack of vigilance, and praised the public for theirs. The next day, 24 September, Mr Putin praised the air strikes on the separatist capital, Grozny. On Ryazan, he said:
If the sacks which proved to contain explosive were noticed, that means there is a positive side to it, if only in the fact that the public is reacting correctly to the events taking place in our country today. I'd like ... to thank the public ... This is absolutely the correct response. No panic, no sympathy for the bandits. This is the mood for fighting them to the very end. Until we win. And we shall win.
Neither he nor any other official source made any suggestion at this stage that the discovery had been of anything but another terrorist plot. Then the head of the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, stunned Russia by saying that the whole thing had been merely an exercise. He congratulated the residents of Ryazan for their 'vigilance'. The sacks had merely contained sugar and had been planted as part of a series of practice drills.
The Ryazan FSB reacted with fury to the news that the bomb was a hoax. They issued a statement saying:
It has become known that the planting on 22.09.99 of a dummy explosive device was part of an ongoing interregional exercise. This announcement came as a surprise to us and appeared at a moment when the ... FSB had identified the places of residence in Ryazan of those involved in planting the explosive device and was preparing to detain them. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The New Cold War by Edward Lucas. Copyright © 2014 Edward Lucas. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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