FSB in Charge

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When it was announced in February that the Federal Security Service would be taking charge of the counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya, there was quite a bit of confusion and discussion. Never before in Russian history, even during Stalin's time, have the security services been given control of a military operation. Previously, the authorities have always been wary of conflicts between the military and the security organs.

Now, however, the government is telling us that the military capacity of the separatists has been broken and it is time for the FSB Ч in keeping with its mandate Ч to take up the fight against domestic terrorism. However, combating terrorism is precisely what the FSB is least equipped for mentally and ideologically.

In fact, historically, the only thing that post-Stalin Soviet security organs considered to be terrorism was attacks on government and Party officials. I remember when I was studying at the Minsk Counterintelligence School in the late 1970s. We were given the following legal question: Suppose some madman shot at the regional Communist Party secretary and missed, killing his driver instead. Is this terrorism? The answer was "no." Because of this extremely narrow definition, the KGB did not even have a counter-terrorism department, and the famed Alpha anti-terrorist group had a fairly low standing in the organizational hierarchy.

As far as combating armed paramilitary groups, the security forces do have a certain amount of experience accumulated during and just after World War II. In this period, they were responsible for suppressing armed revolt in Ukraine, Belarus and Chechnya. But in the late 1950s, Khrushchev carried out a major restructuring of the KGB with the goal of rooting out the vestiges of Stalinism. The military capacity of the NKVD was liquidated and all such functions were transferred to the special forces of the Defense Ministry and to military counterintelligence. In keeping with this reform, it is these organizations that have been doing most of the counter-terrorism work in Chechnya in the last 10 years, including state efforts to capture rebel leaders such as Shamil Basayev and Khattab.

Admittedly, they haven't had much success so far. However, the reason for this is simply that they are not really trying. The war in Chechnya is being conducted on some sort of agreed-upon basis, and there apparently is direct contact between the "warring" sides. There has been considerable reasonable speculation that Basayev has cooperated with Russian intelligence at least since the Georgian civil war in the early 1990s. The transfer of control of the Chechen operation to the FSB is clearly a political, rather than a strategic move. The operation there has been a dirty one and continues along these lines. The true mission of the FSB, then, apparently is to help the military cover up what has really happened down there over the last 18 months.

In this light, it is not surprising that one of the first tasks of the FSB since taking over the operation has been the elimination of independent journalists. Novaya Gazeta reporter Anna Politkovskaya was detained in Chechnya after going there to investigate credible claims of war crimes by the Russian military. Politkovskaya wrote about how Chechens were held for ransom by Russian troops and how those who did not pay ransoms were cruelly tortured.

The FSB responded by labeling all of Politkovskaya's reporting nothing but lies. An FSB general immediately appeared on national television and denounced all of Politkovskaya's claims, which apparently were not even worthy of serious investigation. The FSB's mission in Chechnya can also been seen as part of the larger Russian government effort to polish up its image abroad, a campaign that has been much in the news in recent weeks. From the statements of Press Minister Mikhail Lesin and from reading the newly adopted policy on patriotic education, it seems clear that a state-mandated propaganda effort on a par with anything that existed in Soviet times is in the making.

True enough, after the FSB declared that Politkovskaya's reporting was untrue, the prosecutor's office did send someone to Chechnya to investigate, but he apparently was satisfied with the explanations that were provided. He was told, for instance, that the pits in which Politkovskaya claimed prisoners were kept were actually used for showers. Although the prosecutor's office pretended that it was satisfied, President Vladimir Putin's human rights envoy in Chechnya, Vladimir Kalamanov, was less sanguine and made it clear in his public appearances that he did not find the military's explanations convincing.

In fact, digging pits as temporary detention chambers for prisoners is a Soviet military practice dating back to World War II and also widely used in Afghanistan.

I noticed that Admiral German Ugryumov was appointed head of special operations in Chechnya. Many may wonder what an admiral is doing in the mountains of Chechnya. In fact, Ugryumov did not receive his rank as a result of his exploits at sea. He is a graduate of a naval academy, but he is also a career KGB officer who worked his way up the hierarchy of military counterintelligence in the Pacific Fleet. He is the one who for the last few years has been slowly and publicly tormenting environmental whistle-blower Grigory Pasko.

Immediately after being appointed to Chechnya, Ugryumov was also awarded the Hero of Russia medal. That more than anything should indicate that his mission in Chechnya will be a stunning success. No matter what happens.

Konstantin Preobrazhensky is a retired KGB lieutenant colonel. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.