Intelligence: Russia Returns to Smersh


June 4, 2023: Because of the disastrous performance of the Russian military and intelligence agencies in Ukraine, many prominent Russians in the military and intelligence agencies are calling for bringing back the World War II era Smersh (Smert Shpionam or death to spies) organization to deal with the growing leaks of secret information and anti-government commentators.

In Ukraine Russia is having a lot of problems Ukrainians in areas Russian troops occupy. This is especially true in areas like Crimea and the Donbas, which Russia has controlled since 2014. Some of the Ukrainian resistance is showing up just across the border in Russia (Belgorod province). This was not supposed to happen and has caused many Russians to question the wisdom of Russians trying to conquer Ukraine.

Smersh only existed from 1943 to 1947 and, even while paranoid dictators Josef Stalin was still alive, was seen as excessive. After Stalin died in 1953 there was even less police state terror in Russia as the 1930s NKVD was replaced by the less oppressive KGB.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 it became obvious that Russians wanted nearly all Soviet era security practices gone for good. The KGB turned into a less threatening FSB. This meant less arbitrary justice, state-controlled economy and massive conscription. Democracy was introduced but it never really took hold and when Vladimir Putin gained national power in 1999, he gradually brought back many Soviet-era practices.

Putin joined the KGB in 1975 and missed its police state powers after 1991. When Putin gained national power in 1999 he began turning the FSB into a more powerful agency similar to the KGB. Putin has encountered increasing resistance to this from Russians with long memories or just unwillingness to live in a police state. Putin’s response has been to increase the police state practices and consider backing another use of Smersh tactics. The source of all this unrest is the invasion of Ukraine in2022. Putin thought this would be a quick victory and absorption of a neighboring nation that Putin declared part of Russia and not meant to be independent. The Ukrainians successfully fought back and inside Russia many people blamed Putin for this mess and supported getting out of Ukraine. Recently some of these Russians have been armed and fighting back against Russian security forces.

The Russian situation should not surprise anyone, especially when you consider the growing police state oppression in Russia over the last decade. In 2013 Russia completed reforms of its police forces, which comprise over one percent of the population and have traditionally been far more powerful than their counterparts in the West. Russia has also been using its police much more aggressively since 2000. For example, the number of court approved wiretaps (mainly on phones or Internet accounts) grew, reaching about 400,000 by 2013 and continuing to increase. Causing more unrest among Russians.

In Russia the security services include the national police force and the FSB (federal investigative agency). The FSB replaced the Soviet era KGB in the 1990s. This growth in wiretap activity continued, apparently unaffected by the enormous changes the police forces underwent during this period. For example, the national police underwent a major reform a decade ago, with all police now reporting to federal control. Before that, and since the establishment of police in Russia 300 years ago, police forces had been controlled by city or regional governments, which paid for and controlled the local police. There was some supervision from the Ministry of the Interior, but the cops were mainly local. Since a new law was passed in 2011, that has changed. All police now work for the Ministry of the Interior and police strength in Russia has been cut 20 percent.

A few years before that Russian intelligence officials began a largely successful effort to resurrect the Cold War era KGB. When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, the new Russian government broke up the KGB, creating a domestic intelligence agency (the FSB) , a CIA-like operation for foreign intel (the SVR), and several other separate organizations that used to be part of the KGB. But because of poor performance by the SVR, and a certain nostalgia for the powerful KGB of yore, FSB officials made an effort to absorb the smaller SVR. That did not succeed, but other efforts to absorb organizations that used to be part of the KGB have succeeded.

The FSB, which appears to have inherited the ruthlessness that made the KGB such a fearsome organization, believed that Russian espionage operations had become sloppy since the SVR took over KGB foreign intelligence operations in 1991. This is in sharp contrast to the Cold War. In the 1990s it was revealed that the Russians were much better at the spy game than their Western opponents. But those super spies appear to have moved on to more lucrative work in the civilian sector or the government. In any event, the past masters are no longer running the show. It's amateur hour now, and the Russians would rather not talk about it. But in light of all this, the calls for merging SVR with the FSB, to create a neo-KGB, made sense. The KGB had a well-deserved reputation for ruthless efficiency. Russians get nostalgic for stuff like that. But the man who has been running Russia since 2000, Vladimir Putin, is a veteran KGB officer and decided that the SVR should stay independent and perhaps improve itself. Putin was more accepting of FSB moves to absorb domestic paramilitary organizations.

Even before the current SVR merger business, the FSB was being given more and more of its old KGB-era powers, and personnel, back. Before the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, the KGB was the most powerful organization in the country. It was a law unto itself, as long as it stuck to its main task: keeping the Communist Party in power. Since the late 1990s, the FSB has been regaining a lot of the KGB’s Cold War powers and people. It again controls the border police and several specialist technical organizations. While this pleases the law and order crowd, it disturbs Russians who remember when the KGB was the principal organization keeping the communist dictatorship in power for so long. The new powers give the FSB more authority to do whatever they want, just like in their good old days when the communists were in charge. The FSB is believed to directly control over 100,000 personnel and have authority over many more in other government departments (like the national police force).

The KGB acquired most of its power just before World War II, after dictator Joseph Stalin had killed most of the army leadership to prevent what he believed was the possibility of a military takeover. The KGB was to be a powerful state secret police, a sort of FBI, CIA, Border Patrol, Coast Guard, and more rolled into one organization. The KGB was everywhere as it worked diligently to keep its communist masters in power. For example, the KGB had a network of informants in the military, as well as among the civilian population.

When Stalin died of natural causes in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev and some close Communist Party associates took over. One of the first things they did was execute the head of the KGB, an old Stalin crony named Beria, who had been responsible for large scale massacres within the KGB and elsewhere during Stalin's reign. Less bloody-minded KGB officers were subsequently promoted to head the organization. Until the very end of the Soviet Union, the KGB remained at the top of the social, political, economic, and legal pecking order. In the late 1980s, reformers like Gorbachev rose to power via the assistance of senior KGB officials who saw a need for reform. The KGB were aware that their tsarist predecessors survived the 1917 Revolution. They were a relatively small group compared to the military and the Communist party and they were prepared to survive the next "revolution." This the KGB did, and now they are being rewarded for their loyalty and effectiveness in dealing with terrorism, corruption, capitalism, and criminal gangs by having many of their old powers restored.

While the FSB has regained control of the border police, this force is but a shadow of its former, Soviet self. Back then the Soviet Union maintained 200,000 KGB border troops. This "army" had armored units, warships, and combat aircraft. These forces served the same function as the United States Coast Guard and Border Patrol, but in America these forces amount to fewer than half as many personnel. The KGB border forces had much more power than their American counterparts. The 25,000 sailors in the "Maritime Border Guards" (MBG) answered to no one but the head of the KGB. To put it more clearly, a lieutenant commanding an MBG patrol boat could order any Russian warship to halt and then arrest its captain. In fact, this was one of the principal functions of the MBG, to prevent mutiny or defection by ships and sailors of the Soviet Navy and merchant fleet. Smuggling was a minor problem, as Russian currency was useless outside the country and there were few items Russia produced that were good enough, and small enough, to be profitably smuggled. Moreover, much of Russia's coastline is in arctic waters and most of the remainder was adjacent to other communist nations. What kept the MBG busy was ensuring that Russian citizens didn't flee the country. Such flight was a criminal offense and several prisons were full of Russians who attempted it and got caught by the MBG.

The FSB still relies on conscripts for many low level security jobs. As in the Soviet period, getting drafted into the FSB is an attractive proposition for many young Russian men. Doing well in this job, which includes guarding nuclear weapons or other important national assets, marks you as someone worthy of other jobs within the security services. What bothers many Russians is the ultimate purpose of the FSB. The KGB was known as the main protector of the Communist Party. The communists are gone and the FSB is seen as the supporter of wealthy criminals who used their KGB connections and powers after the Soviet Union collapsed, to grab ownership of many state-owned assets. The current Russian government is acting more and more like the autocratic rulers Russia has suffered under for centuries. The FSB seems to act more like the palace guard than public servants. The guards want more power and are likely to get it.

The FSB suffered a setback in Ukraine, where they believed their subversive activities had weakened the Ukrainian government and security services enough to enable a quick Russian victory. The Ukrainians and now a growing number of Russians, successfully fought back and the FSB is seeking salvation in a revived Smersh campaign.




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