The Fine Print
Leaked memo offers insight to Russian security agencies
Monday, December 6, 2010; 10:56 PM
New insights into Russia and its security services can be gained from a Nov. 5, 2009, confidential cable written to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III before his visit to Moscow that month. The briefing was among the documents made public by WikiLeaks.
Written by U.S. Ambassador John Beyrle, an accomplished Russia expert, it not only describes the heads of Moscow's three senior security services, with whom Mueller was to meet, it also outlines the roles those services play within the Russian power structure.
Beyrle made clear that the three "represent institutions that feel threatened - ideologically and materially - by the 'reset' in [Russian-U.S.] relations." But, he added, they appreciate the benefits from cooperation with Washington.
Before describing the personalities of the directors, the U.S. ambassador briefly spelled out the broader background of what he called the "tandem" relationship between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The two, he wrote, "reinforced long-standing elite divisions between the 'siloviki' [officials from the security and intelligence services] and the modernizers . . . [who] recognize that Russia's future depends on integration with the world economy and that confronting some of the country's most stubborn problems - such as corruption - requires transparency and the impartial application of the law."
Beyrle advised that "although there is evidence that their closest advisors spar privately over policies and personnel matters, the two leaders appear united and project complete ease with one another in the media." He pointed out that, as of a year ago, Putin remained more popular than Mevedev.
Mueller was preparing to meet with FSB Director Alexsandr Bortnikov, whose agency, like the FBI, handles domestic crime, terrorism and counterintelligence; SVR Director Mikhail Fradkov, whose agency is the equivalent of the CIA; and Internal Affairs Minister Rashid Nurgaliev, whose department controls police forces and has some similarities to the U.S. Justice Department.
Beyrle said all three "tend toward a Cold War mentality, which sees the U.S. and its allies intent on undermining Russia," making "public accusations to that effect." Their agencies, in turn "are skeptical about the West's motivations and are the most influential opponents of the engagement agenda."
However, the ambassador pointed out that "none of them is within the 'inner circle' of Kremlin decision-making, but instead enjoy the reflected power of their sponsors and allies." Fradkov, who worked for Putin years ago, and Bortnikov are economic specialists who work "behind the scenes to check the influence of Russia's powerful business magnates and advance the interests of their allies," Beyrle said. Only Fradkov had experience in foreign relations, working in the Foreign Trade Ministry in the 1990s and as ambassador to the European Union for a year beginning in 2002.
Still, only Nurgaliev has supported worldwide cooperative ventures, Beyrle said, and "openly lamented the culture of corruption with Russia's law enforcement system."
Unlike the FBI, the ambassador said "political factors determine the enthusiasm for pursuing investigations," and some elements of the security services were said to be linked to organized crime.
Noting that Russian security service directors play a more open role in politics than do their counterparts in the West, the ambassador said the three "accrue political power . . . by using the legal system against political enemies - turning the courts into weapons of political warfare rather than independent arbiters." But, he added, "Despite their similar outlook and background, they are also competitors for influence against each other, with shadowy conflicts occasionally bubbling to the surface."
Mueller was warned that the security services "maintain . . . active surveillance" against U.S. representatives and have "sought to stifle U.S. humanitarian programs in the North Caucasus." In addition, there have been investigations and trumped up charges against Western-supported, nongovernment organizations.
While the FSB had elements working cooperatively with U.S. law enforcement agencies in the areas of terrorism, narcotics, cybercrime, organized crime and nonproliferation, that agency's counterintelligence units have carried out "harassing activities against all embassy personnel [that] spiked in the past several months to a level not seen in many years," Beyrle wrote. These included false and slanderous attacks in the media, assertions that spouses had been killed accidentally and searches of homes.
Despite what Beyrle called "these challenges," he said Mueller's visit came with strong Kremlin backing and "a climate of renewed opportunity."
In fact, he said earlier visits to Moscow by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton "have produced more positive momentum in our bilateral ties than I have seen in over a decade."
But he said it was "premature to say we have reached a turning point in overcoming security service suspicions about U.S. intentions," despite the "vigor" with which the FSB pushed for Mueller's visit, including Russian payment for his aircraft's overflight and landing fees.