Recruiting at the Border

The logic of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, is incomprehensible to normal people. Who could have imagined, for example, that two recent actions by the service -- the introduction of a hot line for spies and putting the border guards under the agency's command -- were done for the same reason? Only a specialist can figure out why. The reason for these two moves is the catastrophic shortage of agents -- both Russian citizens and foreigners alike. Greatly agitated by the lack of agents, the security service, known by its Russian initials FSB, has decided to take desperate steps to redress the situation.

Until quite recently, agents numbered in the millions in Russia. They did not take their eyes off any citizen who was tied to work abroad, and were on their guard for any unusual moments in such a person's behavior. Oddly enough, they were able to catch Soviet citizens working for foreign governments this way.

Today, the FSB no longer has such wide-ranging capabilities. The old network of agents on the whole has lost much of its counterintelligence potential, and young people do not want to be recruited. Service in the intelligence service no longer brings the kinds of advantages that were offered under Soviet power.

Only in the Foreign Ministry has everything remained as in the past. Its current leadership brought with it the most qualified staff members of the intelligence service. As a result, the Foreign Ministry has now come under greater control of the secret service than it was under Stalin's NKVD. Almost every Russian diplomat these days is either an intelligence officer or an agent of one. Other kinds of people are simply not taken into the Foreign Ministry.

Everyone who has studied in KGB schools knows that agents, domestic as well as foreign, were recruited for three reasons. They were devoted to the Soviet Union and Russia, were in it for the money or feared compromising material would be used against them. But there are now few people who love Russia so much that they are prepared to risk their lives for it. The FSB does not have kind of money needed for recruitment. It doesn't even have enough to pay the wages of its own workers. In order to find compromising material on Russian or foreign citizens, good agents are needed. But there aren't such agents for the two reasons mentioned above.

This is why the FSB decided to take the ridiculous step of creating a hot line for agents to confess that they are working for foreign secret services. It was a ludicrous move, first because such a hot line had already existed, and also because the Russian people, who have had much experience with the secret service, were not about to report on suspicious movements of their colleagues and be provoked by the FSB. Through the hot line, the FSB has apparently only managed to uncover a few old cases and unmask a few inexperienced spies who sincerely repented and turned themselves in.

The problem of the shortage of agents remained. It was for this reason that the FSB then took the daring step of subordinating the border troops to it, which aroused sharp indignation on the part of the border guard officers. The head of the border troops, Andrei Nikolayev, resigned in protest against the FSB move. Service regulations forbid him to name the true reasons for his stepping down.

As for the border guards, they too have foreign agents -- in Afghanistan, China,Tajikistan and even Finland. They have agents in almost all neighboring countries, with the exception of Japan and the United States. All these agents are people with a very low social standing. They include Afghan smugglers, Chinese shepherds and Finnish fishermen and woodmen. But to recruit such agents costs much blood. Border guard intelligence officers work in far harsher conditions than classic FSB agents. If the FSB recruits its agents in fine restaurants and knows that the state is defending it, then the border guards carry out their recruitment conversations while hiding in shrubs at the border and in places where a stray bullet could cut them down at any time.

It is this pitiful network of agents that the FSB has decided to enter into. This is what lay behind President Boris Yeltsin's decree "on the operative subordination of the border troops to the FSB." What does "operative" mean in plain language? Not every Russian citizens understands this professional KGB jargon, much less foreigners. It simply means intelligence work. The FSB will now be directing the agents of the border guard.

This network of agents already exists at Sheremetyevo Airport. There are many of them there, believe me. The passport control, luggage check and border control are all in the hands of the border guards. Now they will be replaced by the FSB and counterintelligence workers who will have every right to pass for border guards. Dressed in the green border-guard uniforms, they will be able to pursue foreigners at the airport, carry out friendly conversations with them and agree on meetings in another place. Foreigners who are tired after travelling many hours will be an excellent target for provocations.

Why is all this necessary, you might ask. Only because it will justify the meaning of "operative subordination" of the border guards to the FSB. But surely the FSB won't be able to recruit anyone at Sheremetyevo, you might say. And there is just as little chance of bringing a foreign spy to light as on the hot line. The chances are indeed small, but there is a chance nevertheless.

Aside from foreigners, the victims of the merger of the FSB and the border guards will be the graduates of the FSB Academy. They will now be sent to the borders of Russia, where it is dangerous and uncomfortable. But they themselves chose their own career path.

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