The consolidation of Russia’s intelligence agencies into a massive security ministry, in effect recreating the old Soviet KGB, is a worrisome prospect for some Kremlin watchers.
The plan reportedly under discussion would merge the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s principal security agency, the Foreign Intelligence Service and the Federal Guard Service (responsible for protecting high-level Russian officials, including the president) into a new Ministry of State Security (MGB).
In what some analysts see as a bid by Putin to safeguard his power base, the MGB will not incorporate the National Guard, a 400,000-strong force created earlier this year that is directly subordinated to the president and oversees Russia’s Interior Ministry troops, including riot police and special forces units.
In this way, some Kremlin watchers say, the National Guard will serve as a counterweight to the new MGB, preventing the new ministry from becoming its own power base, as the KGB was able to do under Putin’s mentor Yury Andropov and Vladimir Kryuchkov, the Soviet KGB chief who led the abortive 1991 attempt to overthrow President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Between the 1950s and 1980s, the vast apparatus of both the KGB’s predecessor (probably not coincidentally, also called the MGB) and that of the KGB kept an iron grip on Soviet society; arresting human rights activists and persecuting those who wanted to leave the country, including Soviet Jews.
While Putin may be trying to tighten his grip on power, some observers say this is a sign of uncertainty and weakness rather than strength.
Mark Galeotti, a Russian security expert at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, said that the MGB initiative was probably aimed at helping the Kremlin consolidate the security apparatus and suppress dissent more effectively — a sign Putin may be narrowing his circle of trusted associates.
“Set aside the nonsense that this will mean more efficiency, as it will not," Galeotti told VOA. "Rather, this is all about politics, and the Kremlin's desire to try and consolidate control over the security apparatus. You only do that if you are worried they are not under your control, or because you are preparing for the possibility of using them in new ways."
What exactly, then, does Putin fear, which would lead him to take such steps?
Since 2014, the Russian president has boasted approval ratings hovering around 86 percent. It is not the masses Putin is worried about, said Galeotti, but rather his own ruling elite.
“I feel Putin is indeed concerned about the present and future loyalty of the elite," he said. "The FSB is an effective tool, to be sure, but Putin is moving from a model of bureaucratic pluralism to one of depending on a handful of trusted cronies, and this means consolidating numerous overlapping and competing institutions into a few, powerful super-agencies.”
It remains to be seen whether Putin will go through with consolidating his security agencies into a new Ministry of State Security. Reports of impending repressive measures that fail to materialize are not uncommon in the Russian press.
Should the reorganization actually take place, it will nominally increase Putin’s personal authority. However, it will also increase the authority of others who may not be as loyal to the president as he believes.
Thus, as Galeotti has suggested, Putin may be creating a body powerful enough to remove him from power.