The Russian newspaper Kommersant, citing unnamed sources, reported this week that before the next presidential election, scheduled for March 2018, the Kremlin plans to create a gigantic new ministry that will absorb most of Russia’s existing security agencies.
According to Kommersant’s sources, this new security behemoth will be called the Ministry of State Security, with its Russian acronym MGB. That is the same name Soviet dictator Josef Stalin gave to his repressive apparatus which operated from 1946 until his death in 1953. After Stalin’s death, the MGB was reformatted as the KGB, the Committee for State Security.
The new MGB, the newspaper reported, will merge the existing Federal Security Service (FSB), currently Russia’s principal security agency, with the Federal Guard Service (FSO), which protects high-level officials and includes the Presidential Security Service (SPB), which guards the president.
The MGB will also absorb the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Russia’s external spy agency. The investigative arm of the MGB will deal with the country’s most important criminal cases, and MGB staff will oversee the work of many of Russia’s remaining law-enforcement bodies, including the Interior Ministry and the Investigative Committee.
Years of shifts
If the rumored restructuring plan indeed comes to pass, it would be just the latest major change that President Vladimir Putin has made to Russia’s security system. Earlier this year, he created the National Guard, which is charged with securing Russia’s borders, combating terrorism and organized crime, ensuring public order and guarding key state facilities.
The National Guard is directly subordinated to the president and headed by Viktor Zolotov, who served as Putin’s bodyguard in Saint Petersburg in the early 1990s. Zolotov headed the Presidential Security Service from 2000 to 2013, after which he served as commander of the Internal Troops, the Interior Ministry’s paramilitary force, from 2014 to earlier this year, when he was picked to head the National Guard.
Is the Russian government really planning to revive a Stalin-era security behemoth? VOA’s Russian Service spoke with several experts.
Boris Volodarsky, a former officer with the Russian military’s intelligence agency, the GRU, and an expert on Soviet and Russian intelligence agencies, said he believes there really is a plan to create such a state security structure. He also said the proposed use of the name “Ministry of State Security” is not coincidental.
“Because the Kremlin has a clear tendency to refer to the good old Stalinist and post-Stalinist days, it is clear that they intend to create a ministry that will unite all the security structures under its own roof,” he said. “They have already created the National Guard, and are now recreating a ministry which earlier, under Stalin, consolidated foreign intelligence and internal security.”
Volodarsky said he does not think that the FSB or its current top officials will play the dominant role in the new security ministry, adding that even now, the FSB is not the main player in Russia’s security system.
“The main structure was and is the Federal Guard Service - and, within it, the Presidential Security Service,” he said. “In fact, people from the Presidential Security Service dominate all the other security bodies.
Viktor Zolotov, who heads the National Guard, was Putin’s personal bodyguard, and he was made head of the Presidential Security Service. And, from that post, Putin sent him first to the Interior Ministry to get everything there under control, and then put practically all of the power structures under his control,” Volodarsky said.
Reflection of Kremlin’s ‘fear’
Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia’s security services and chief editor of the Agentura.ru website, said Russia’s current main security body, the Federal Security Service, has already acquired the characteristics of the Soviet KGB.
“The FSB has been involved in a lot of things over the last 16 years (time since Putin assumed power), but it has been obvious since last year that two functions, two directions, have intensified – the hunt for spies and targeted repression,” he said.
“These are functions of the KGB, if you think about it: it was precisely through these [functions] that the system of KGB control over Soviet society was maintained: keeping the population in the grip of spy mania, and gathering material on the elite and using [that material] if so ordered. Putin is changing the functions of the FSB closer to what the KGB did. From that point of view, the new name [MGB], is quite logical,” said Soldatov.
Still, Soldatov said the FSB no longer has the same influence it had 10 years ago. “The FSB suddenly stopped being ‘the new nobility’ – it is no longer the supplier of personnel [for other government and state bodies]; cadres are now chosen from among the Federal Guard Service and technocrats.”
Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the desire to create a single powerful national security ministry is a sign of the Kremlin’s fear of the future.
“It's a reflection of the power elite’s fear of what can happen with the country in the coming years,” he said. “Moreover, this fear has various characteristics – foreign policy and domestic policy [fears]; fear of the people; economic fear, that the crisis could drag on and… cause some social turbulence, and this turbulence will have to be extinguished somehow."