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A public policy blog from AEI
On September 19, news broke of a potentially massive reorganization among Russian security and intelligence services.
The reorganization would combine the FSB, SVR and FSO (roughly equivalent to the American FBI, CIA, and Secret Service, respectively) into a new “Ministry of State Security,” or MGB. The MGB was the name of Josef Stalin’s intelligence agency and secret police force from 1946 to 1953 and the predecessor to the KGB — an ominous historical throwback. While Russia watchers see this as the latest example of Putin consolidating power amidst a stagnant economy and presidential elections in 2018, history suggests the MGB will play kingmaker in the long run. Sound far-fetched? Look at the coup of August 1991.
In the short term, the MGB won’t threaten Putin. He remains firmly in power, has spent years consolidating the bureaucratic levers of power under his control, and thanks to military adventurism and domestic repression, his popularity is at an all-time high. However, by granting the new MGB sweeping control and authority, Putin has created a powerful organization with a great deal to lose should a crisis strike the Russian leader who empowered it. The attempted coup of 1991 is an example of a security service playing kingmaker in a moment of political crisis.
However, by granting the new MGB sweeping control and authority, Putin has created a powerful organization with a great deal to lose should a crisis strike the Russian leader who empowered it.
In August 1991, KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov spearheaded the failed coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in an attempt to crush the burgeoning democracy and federalism sweeping across the USSR. Though remembered today as a farce that collapsed under the weight of its own incompetence and public drunkenness, the coup was also the final act of Russia’s last centralized security service. The KGB faced an obvious political threat: the breakaway of Soviet member states would have been a devastating blow to its operational authority. There was also no love lost between the Russian president and the KGB: the latter harassed Yeltsin, spread disinformation, and possibly tried to kill him in 1989 and 1990.
By contrast, the Soviet military was well-represented in the 1990 presidential elections and, due to low morale and sympathy for federalist movements, was unwilling to use force to crush the independence movements. Therefore, it had fewer incentives to participate in the coup, and its support was correspondingly half-hearted. While Putin has initiated reforms which have improved its effectiveness, the military still suffers from morale problems and issues with conscription. The military was not a coherent, unitary actor in 1991 and-despite progress-may not be in the future.
Russian leaders dating back to Stalin have doted on their internal security and foreign intelligence services. The MGB is surely no exception. It will never have a stronger proponent than former intelligence officer Vladimir Putin, a ruler who praises his security officers as the new nobility. The MGB will strengthen Putin’s personal control and solidify the system he created. And this is exactly why the next succession crisis will force the new MGB to take action. The military can live without Putin. 1991 shows that the MGB can’t.
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