Paramilitary: Russian Police Go Back To The Future

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August 28, 2013: Russia has reformed 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 in the last decade. For example, in the last five years the number of court approved wiretaps (mainly on phones or Internet accounts) has more than doubled to nearly 400,000. These include all the security services, from the police (there is a national police force) to the federal investigative agency (the FSB, formerly the domestic operations of the Soviet era KGB). 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 in the last two years, 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 based on 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) and a CIA like operation for foreign intel (the SVR) and several other separate operations 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 when, after it was over, 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, makes sense. The KGB had a well-deserved reputation for ruthless efficiency. Russians get nostalgic for stuff like that. But the guy who has been running Russia since 2000, Vladimir Putin, is a veteran KGB guy 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 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 until itself, as long as it stuck to its main task: keeping the Communist Party in power. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the KGB lost most of its power but did not disappear. It was split into many separate organizations, with the main ones being the FSB (a counterintelligence organization with police powers) and the SVR (conducted overseas espionage). But since the late 1990s, the FSB has been regaining a lot of its 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, and 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 during Stalin's reign. Less bloody-minded KGB officers were 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, naval ships, 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. But 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, 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 insuring 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. But, as in the Soviet period, getting drafted into the FSB is an attractive proposition for many young Russian men. Doing well in this job (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 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.

 

 


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