On December 20, 1999, Vladimir Putin addressed senior officials of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) at its Lubyanka headquarters near Moscow’s Red Square. The recently appointed 47-year-old prime minister, who had held the rank of lieutenant colonel in the FSB, was visiting to mark the holiday honoring the Russian security services. “The task of infiltrating the highest level of government is accomplished,” Putin quipped.
His former colleagues chuckled. But the joke was on Russia.
Putin became interim president less than two weeks later. From the start of his rule, he has worked to strengthen the state to counteract the chaos of post-Soviet capitalism and unsteady democratization. To achieve that end, he saw it necessary to elevate the country’s security services and put former security officials in charge of critical government organs.
In recent years, however, Putin’s approach has changed. More and more, bureaucracy has displaced the high-profile personalities that previously dominated. And as the Russian president has come to rely on these bureaucratic institutions to further his consolidation of control, their power has grown relative to other organs of the state. But it was not until February, when Putin gave the orders first to recognize the independence of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and then, a few days later, to send Russian troops into Ukraine, that the complete takeover by the new security apparatus became apparent.
In the early days of the war, most branches of the Russian state seemed blindsided by Putin’s determination to invade, and some prominent officials even seemed to question the wisdom of the decision, however timidly. But in the weeks since, government and society alike have lined up behind the Kremlin. Dissent is now a crime, and individuals who once held decision-making power—even if circumscribed—have found themselves hostages of institutions whose single-minded purpose is security and control. What has happened is, in effect, an FSB-on-FSB coup: Russia used to be a state dominated by security forces, but now a faceless security bureaucracy has become the state, with Putin sitting on top. [Continue reading…]