1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Is the Alexei Navalny fiasco harming Vladimir Putin?

Mikhail Bushuev
December 29, 2020

Russian intelligence services have made the headlines recently: The FSB embarrassed itself in the Navalny poisoning case and the SVR is suspected to be behind cyberattacks in the US. Will heads roll now?

FSB head Alexander Bortnikov, President Vladimir Putin and Sergei Naryshkin sitting in the audience clapping, at the event marking 100 years of SWR
Vladimir Puting is close to the leaders of the intelligence servicesImage: Alexei Nikolsky/dpa/Sputnik/Kremlin/AP/picture alliance

In Vladimir Putin's world, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny simply never happened. Russia's president doesn't even call the leading opposition politician by his name. He just refers to him as "the patient in the hospital in Berlin." But many Russians seem to be interested in what really happened on August 20, when Navalny lost consciousness on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow and spent the next 18 days in a coma. The videos showing his own research into what really happened, posted to investigative networks such as Bellingcat  and The Insider, have become hits on YouTube: The first one got 20 million views in the first week, the second 17 million in only two days.

The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) looks really bad in them: unprofessional and criminal. "That was embarrassing, much more so than the Skripal poisoning," said British historian and secret service expert Mark Galeotti in an interview with DW. For Galeotti, the main difference between the two cases is that the two agents for Russia's military intelligence agency (GRU) who allegedly poisoned double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia in Salisbury, England, in 2018, had the difficult task of conducting their mission on foreign soil – while the FSB was acting on Russian soil. "The FSB agents not only failed to kill Navalny – which was obviously their mission — they even left a gigantic trail. Because Navalny was evacuated to Germany, his case took on an international dimension," he explains. In the meantime, Putin and his spokesperson have confirmed that Navalny had indeed been under FSB surveillance. This was necessary, they say, because he had been receiving support from foreign secret services.

No FSB purges to be expected

Despite the embarrassment, British historian and secret service expert Galeotti does not expect a large-scale "purge" in the secret services. "When push comes to shove, Putin depends on the FSB," he said. This is the "fundamental structure" of Putin's government system: "If he were to purge the secret services, he'd run the risk of the agents asking why they should take any risks for him at all."

Mark Galeotti
'We hear a lot about the Russian intelligence services, because they are very active,' says British historian Mark Galeotti.Image: Mark Galeotti

Russian author and journalist Andrei Soldatov has been researching Russia's intelligence agencies for 20 years. He also does not expect any major purge of the FSB. If anyone is sacked, he says, it will just be operational staff, and "that will hardly be noticeable." The individual FSB chemical weapons and medical experts implicated in the investigations by Navalny and Bellingcat are a different matter, secret service expert Soldatov admits: FSB agent Konstantin Kudryavtsev, an alleged member of the team tasked with assassinating Navalny, is one of them. He was duped by Navalny into admitting the poison attack in a phone call. But even Kudryavtsev has nothing much to fear, Soldatov believes. He was an external "technical specialist," and he would not be expected to meet the same high expectations as operative agents.

The Kremlin still regards the secret services as "sufficiently effective", Russia experts Soldatov and Galeotti believe, and is unlikely to see a need for radical reform. The Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) just recently proved its effectiveness by conducting a massive cyber attack on the infrastructure of the United States, Galeotti points out. The "Sunburst" attack saw the months-long hack of US government agencies, research institutions, and private companies. The GRU, says Galeotti, may be less sophisticated in its approach, but the Kremlin does not see that as a problem: "Of course they'd prefer looking smart than dumb, but they can live with a certain amount of revelations and agents' blunders." 

The domestic Federal Security Service (FSB) is basically Russia's "political police," Galeotti explains. Andrei Soldatov agrees. "They have the task of protecting what the Kremlin calls 'political stability,'" he says. "That means protecting the regime. And they manage to do that." "As long as Putin manages to stay in power, that means they are doing their job," Galeotti concludes.

Both secret service experts warn against underestimating the Russian intelligence agencies. "I don't have the impression that the FSB really is as full of holes as some critics like to make out," Soldatov cautions. It is "very efficient" at "targeted repression" within Russia and at intimidating the politically active part of the population, the Russian writer warns. And the agency's strength is the fight against terrorism, which is its main task. "Keep in mind that Washington, Paris, and London see the FSB as a very reliable partner," he adds.

Andrei Soldatov,
Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov says 'we know much more about the Russian intelligence services than we did six years agoImage: DW/Nikita Jolkver

Naming and shaming doesn't work

Soldatov and Galeotti agree that "name and shame tactics" — when agents' covers are blown and Moscow is identified as the instigator — are hardly effective anymore. "That works only if the accused party actually feels shamed," Galeotti explains. But while Moscow may be "annoyed" or "confused" when its secret operations are revealed, they "believe they'll be able to deal with it," says the British researcher.

Moscow, Soldatov observes, worries less and less about such revelations. In 2016, when the FBI placed several FSB agents on a list of wanted persons after the cyberattack on the US Democrats, one FSB department was purged, the department head and two deputies dismissed and one officer imprisoned. That was the last time such revelations had serious consequences, says Soldatov. "After the Skripal affair we never saw anything like that again," he adds.

How is the US election playing in Moscow?

Another reason the Russian leadership needs no longer take the "naming and shaming" to heart is simply that the defense ministry and FSB have many more well-trained agents at their disposal now, Soldatov explains. "Even if 300 officers are identified (Bellingcat identified 305 GRU officers in 2018, Eds.) they still have ample human resources," he says. The defense ministry, for example, has seen an increase in cyber experts since it was made impossible to opt-out of military service in 2013. Young Russian IT experts were basically given the choice "Do military service in some remote Russian region under harsh living conditions and subject to harassment by your superiors, or join the 'cyber army'" Soldatov explains.

Turning failure into an advantage 

Both experts come to the conclusion that Moscow can even make good use of its intelligence services' perceived failures. Like in 2016, when a scandal erupted over Russia's alleged intervention in the US Presidential election. "Initially it was all about the failure of the operation because the hackers were identified as Russians," Soldatov recalls. But later, he adds, the Kremlin benefitted from this, as Putin was seen as the "kingmaker" when Trump won.

"The irony is that Moscow benefits in the end," British historian and secret service expert Galeotti believes. It seems like those in power in Russia have decided "Okay, we can't be the good guys, so let us be the toughest bad guys," says Galeotti. He concludes that incidents like the Navalny case confirm the theory that "the Kremlin is in the hands of ruthless politicians, who will stop at nothing."

This article was translated from German.