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Understanding the Hydra


In the popular consciousness, it is often thought that the Russian security services play a strong role in shaping the direction of the Kremlin’s actions. Yet rather than being all powerful agencies at the heart of the Putin government, a new European Council on Foreign Relations paper paints a picture of divided Russian security, subordinate to the Kremlin. Based on interviews with serving and former intelligence officials, ‘Putin’s Hydra: Inside Russia’s Intelligence Services’ reveals that the country’s intelligence agencies are in competition with each other, fighting for territory, and working to deliver quick results. While this may please President Putin, the paper argues that this ultimately delivers poor quality intelligence.

The Russian agencies may take an aggressive approach when carrying out actions in the West, but paper author Mark Galeotti argues that the present approach is strategically disastrous for Russia, presenting the country as an unpredictable threat. Answering PEN’s questions, Galeotti provides an insight into the modern Russian security establishment and the response the West can pursue.

What impact do you hope this paper will have in the policy making and security communities in the EU?

My hopes are two: the first is that the paper helps European decision makers at both national and EU level better understand the nature of the beast, not just the specific intelligence agencies operating out of Russia but what is distinctive about them and how they fit within the Russian system. After all, we tend to use one of two models for Putin’s Kremlin: the first is that it is driven by irrational, emotional impulses (such as punishing the West for not taking it seriously enough) and thus can be best understood by a grasp on its psychology and ideologies; the second is that Moscow is a rational actor and thus predictable through assessment of the objective facts on the ground. My view is that Putin is a rational actor, but is operating on the basis of partial, politicised intelligence, so what may seem rational to him may come as a complete surprise to us. By better understanding the ways in which Russian intelligence works and presents a picture of the world to Putin, we can better understand what he may do.

The second ambition is that the paper may help encourage a more co-ordinated and pragmatic policy in Europe to respond to Russia’s aggressive and ambitious intelligence campaign. We need to find the right balance of resolution and restraint, to act decisively when operations are uncovered but avoid the kind of empty rhetoric that simply inflames the situation. Most importantly, we need to appreciate that this is not simply about conventional counter-intelligence; as Moscow also uses financial flows to fund political operations, disinformation to spread disunity, and marginalised communities – whatever their ethnicity – to create tensions, so too do Europe’s counters need to include greater financial transparency, be educated on consuming the modern media, and fill the voids in governance and legitimacy the Russians exploit.

Do you feel that there is an adequate understanding of the Russian intelligence services amongst political elites in Europe today?

I don’t, sadly. The security agencies have a wealth of operational information on their Russian counterparts, but the gap for me exists in understanding quite how Moscow’s intelligence gathering operations connect – or fail to connect – with the policy process. There are widespread assumptions that the spooks are somehow in charge or else a unified interest group that really needs to be challenged if we are to best understand the Kremlin’s likely next steps.

Is the Russian leadership ultimately satisfied with the competition in the intelligence community – is there an acknowledgement of what you suggest are shortcomings in this approach?

The current system is dysfunctional, not least in the way that intelligence is politicised, because of and not in spite of the leadership. Sometimes rivalries between agencies get out of hand and Putin has to step in to resolve them, but in the main this seems to be considered an asset and not a problem. It keeps the agencies aggressive, willing to take risks, and eager to get the latest scoop.

However, at the same time it has, especially in recent years, also encouraged them to become courtiers, to flatter the prejudices and assumptions of Putin himself and the shrinking circle of people to whom he truly listens. The particular problem is that Putin in particular is sheltered from the realities of the world by the very system he has built around himself; it is not just the spies, but a whole cast of bureaucrats, advisors and ‘analysts’ who are carefully maintaining the illusion. I worry about what this means, in that we have little idea of how the world looks from the Kremlin window. I also wonder what this means when something happens to finally shatter the illusions constructed around him. Until then, though, he appears happy to be told what he wants to hear.

The paper indicates that the present intelligence set-up in Russia is ultimately proving counterproductive to the Russian government’s long-term strategic goals – is the system capable of reform under Putin?

My feeling is that the Putin regime has essentially lost its creative capacities and, like all organisms, once you do that, you begin to die, however long that may take. The Kremlin absolutely could make tactical, pragmatic changes, not least as and when it wakes up to the damage its current confrontation with the West is doing not just to Russia but to its own positions. But this will be nothing more than an expedient. For real, substantive reform, we have to look to a post-Putin Russia.

In putting together the report, what were your major challenges in accessing sources and gathering data?

Researching covert agencies is a problem in any society, and the current atmosphere in Russia makes it even more complex. While the TV media are essentially directly or indirectly controlled by the government, there is still much excellent reporting in Russian print and online media. Beyond that, though, you inevitably have to talk to people who know what they in turn are talking about, obviously not to get them to break the law and spill secrets, but to get their perspectives and experiences.

Pan European Networks Ltd