The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Even amid the saber-rattling, Russia’s spies reach out to the U.S.

Artyom Zayets, detained on suspicion of the illegal circulation of means of payment as a member of the REvil ransomware crime group, stands inside a defendants' cage during a court hearing in Moscow on Jan. 15. (Tverskoy District Court/Via Reuters)

Andrei Soldatov is co-author of “The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries” and a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis in D.C.

Even as Washington and Moscow continue to hurl threats at each other over the possibility of war in Ukraine, one Russian government body has been working hard to give Americans what they want: the infamous Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the country’s political police — the same organization that counts President Vladimir Putin among its alumni.

Last month, the FSB arrested 14 members of the REvil hacking group, whose ransomware attacks are allegedly responsible for millions of dollars’ worth of damage. The agency said it was responding to a request from the U.S. government. (In November, the U.S. State Department posted a $10 million reward for any information leading to the identification of anyone involved with the group.) The FSB move against REvil was widely publicized in Russia; the agency even published videos of the raid.

One week later, on Jan. 22, the FSB went after another high-profile Russian hacker — Andrei Novak, the leader of the Infraud Organization, a cybercrime cartel that ran a forum where hackers buy and sell stolen credit card data. Novak has been wanted by the FBI since February 2018.

So does all of this news mean that Moscow is finally willing to work with Washington on combating the long-standing problem of Russian cyber-criminals? The short answer is that it’s not so simple. What we’re seeing is less an effort to sow goodwill in the West than an attempt by the FSB to affirm its rising status as the major bureaucratic force behind Russian foreign policy — to the detriment of the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Russia’s diplomats haven’t been doing themselves any favors. Over the past few months, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his subordinates almost seem to have been striving to show the world how rude and untrustworthy they can be. Lavrov recently chided the United States for its alleged “boorishness” toward Russia, while the foreign ministry called on Britain to stop “spreading nonsense and concentrate on studying the history of the Tatar-Mongol yoke.” In November, the ministry actually published its correspondence with France and Germany on Ukraine — 28 pages of diplomatic documents that were supposed to stay confidential (an echo of the famous Bolshevik move to reveal the secret diplomatic documents of the czarist government in 1917).

This decline in the ministry’s international reputation merely confirms a long-standing trend. Western diplomats have long suspected that the ministry lacks the genuine authority to make policy on Ukraine. When Putin issued his ultimatums on NATO in December, observers noticed that the Russian diplomats dispatched for talks didn’t seem to have much of an idea about their own government’s next steps.

The FSB’s power is growing apace. It’s worth noting that the previous two U.S. administrations also sought expanded contacts with the Russian secret services. The Obama administration hosted the FSB director in Washington for talks about counterterrorism in February 2015. Three years later, under Donald Trump, the heads of all three Russian intelligence agencies — the FSB, the SVR (Russia’s foreign intelligence servicer) and the GRU (military intelligence) — arrived in Washington for meetings. The FSB has skillfully used its role as the lead Russian agency on counterterrorism to expand its influence in the U.S. capital. And these recent arrests — however calculated they might have been — will only reinforce the FSB’s image as the agency that delivers.

Even so, there are still clear limits to what the Russian security services are willing to do. It is highly unlikely that the FSB will ever let the FBI interrogate any of the suspects, let alone extradite them to the United States. In September, when the agency arrested one of the heads of Group-IB, the most prominent Russian private cybersecurity company, on espionage charges, the FSB made sure that information about criminal hackers’ ties with Russian intelligence would remain secret. Most experts continue to assume that the Russian intelligence services remain deeply entangled with a variety of cyber-criminals, whose services they are happy to exploit whenever it’s convenient. (The FSB and the GRU were at the forefront of Moscow’s efforts to influence the U.S. election in 2016.)

The FSB has also played a leading role in Russia’s efforts to shape events in Ukraine. And it was also the FSB that tried to poison Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny — which is why the agency’s director, Aleksandr Bortnikov, has been under U.S. sanctions since March 2021. Indeed, it is the FSB that is largely responsible for most of the Kremlin’s efforts to suppress any form of dissent.

Nonetheless, with the relationship between Russia and the United States unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future, the FSB has deftly positioned itself as a valuable interlocutor on the issues that really matter between the two countries. And that poses a challenge to all democracies. How should they deal with authoritarian regimes if their only reliable partner is the agency in charge of repression?