Putin Casts Aside FSB following Latter’s Failed Intelligence on Ukraine

President Vladimir Putin has sidelined the Russian spy leader in the Russia-Ukraine war, replacing the leader with military intelligence personnel, including a former special forces officer who was accused of masterminding the Salisbury poisoning incident.

The Federal Security Service of Russia (The FSB) is blamed for botched intelligence that led to the latest awkward failure in the invasion operations.

According to a Russian security analysis report, the responsibility of spying on Ukraine has now been transferred to the GRU, the military intelligence agency that competes with the FSB.

The GRU is a branch of the Russian army with its own special forces. It has partaken in notorious actions around the world, including attempted coups, assassinations, and destruction of critical infrastructure. The British authorities list GRU agents, Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin as the two main suspects in the 2018 Salisbury poisoning attempt on the life of defector and former GRU officer, Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

One of the key masterminds tasked with the Salisbury assassination attempt, Vladimir Alekseyev, first deputy head of the GRU, is now responsible for Ukraine intelligence operations. Unlike most members of the FSB, 61-year-old Vladimir Alekseyev is a former special forces officer and has had experience with military operations. In a report published through the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), Russian security experts, Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov relate fellow officers’ descriptions of Alekseyev as being “brutal and self-confident to the point of recklessness”.

Since his appointment as first deputy head of the GRU, Alekseyev has been responsible for coordinating the military operations in Syria and Donbass. He faces sanctions from the United States and the European Union, the former for suspected involvement in Russian interference of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the latter for the Salisbury poisoning attack.

Ukraine Intelligence Service has already listed the Soviet Ukraine-born Alekseyev as a war criminal, and has announced his personal details, including the location of his Moscow home. As revealed by his fellow officers, Alekseyev is tasked with gathering information for missile attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine and monitoring false referendums from occupied territories.

Official media in Russia have implied changes in duties of the country’s intelligence agencies. In the TV program “Generals of Victory” aired over the Tsargrad TV channel last week, Alekseyev was identified as the intelligence commander of the “special military operations” in Ukraine. Despite being less famous than the FSB, the GRU has enjoyed advancing status ever since Sergei Shoigu assumed the portfolio of defense minister ten years ago. With the ambition to extend his briefing role to that concerning Russian foreign policy, Shoigu has increased the number of the GRU’s overseas dealings.

The rise of the GRU has witnessed the FSB suffer the humiliation of falling out of favor. The latter was accused of intelligence gathering and political incitement in Ukraine in the few years preceding the Russian invasion. The FSB, however, has had close ties with Putin. Putin was the FSB’s director a year prior to becoming the Russian president and worked for many years in the agency’s predecessor, the KGB.

Under Putin’s leadership then, the FSB expanded gradually while overseeing a large part of Russian life. Areas under its purview included publicity, surveillance, and border control. Although the FSB was officially the domestic security department of Russia and resembled the United Kingdom’s MI5, the Fifth Service department as an additional wing to the FSB was established in the late 1990s. As FSB director, Putin was then responsible for the national development of the former Soviet Union.

In March this year, following a series of setbacks in the early stage of invading Ukraine, the head of the Fifth Army, Sergei Beseda was sent to the Lefortovo Prison where Stalin once imprisoned many of his disgraced aides. Last month, 150 FSB officers were purged from the ranks of the FSB. Nevertheless, according to Borogan and Soldatov’s CEPA report, the 68-year-old Beseda recently returned to work at the agency’s grand neo-baroque office building, Lubyanka.

The report says that judging by the appointment of Vladimir Alekseyev, allowing Beseda to return to his office does not imply that Putin trusts the FSB or Beseda’s service on Ukraine.

“It is the gung-ho forces within Russia’s spy community that are now charged with plucking victory from the morass of their country’s worst military and intelligence failure since World War II,” Boragan and Soldatov further assert in their report.

The GRU operates through integrating information gathering and military actions. It normally recruits officers from among members of the special forces. Its training regime includes 14 hours of foreign language learning and rigorous workouts. In recent years, the agency has also assumed a role in cyber warfare.

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ANBOUND is a multinational independent think tank, specializing in public policy research, incl. economy, urban and industry, geopolitical issues. Est. 1993.