A Russian Roulette

I. The Security Apparatus

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

Also published by United Press International (UPI)

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Shabtai Kalmanovich vanished from London in late 1980's. He resurfaced in Israel to face trial for espionage. He was convicted and spent years in an Israeli jail before being repatriated to Russia. He was described by his captors as a mastermind, in charge of an African KGB station.

In the early 1970's he even served as advisor (on Russian immigration) to Israel's Iron Lady, Golda Meir. He then moved to do flourishing business in Africa, in Botswana and then in Sierra Leone, where his company, LIAT, owned the only bus operator in Freetown. He traded diamonds, globetrotted  flamboyantly with an entourage of dozens of African chieftains and their mistresses, and fraternized with the corrupt elite, President Momoh included. In 1986-7 he even collaborated with IPE, a London based outfit, rumored to have been owned by former members of the Mossad and other paragons of the Israeli defense establishment (including virtually all the Israelis implicated in the ill-fated Iran-Contras affair).

Being a KGB officer was always a lucrative and liberating proposition. Access to Western goods, travel to exotic destinations, making new (and influential) friends, mastering foreign languages, and doing some business on the side (often with one's official "enemies" and unsupervised slush funds) - were all standard perks even in the 1970's and 1980's. Thus, when communism was replaced by criminal anarchy, KGB personnel (as well as mobsters) were the best suited to act as entrepreneurs in the new environment. They were well traveled, well connected, well capitalized, polyglot, possessed of management skills, disciplined, armed to the teeth, and ruthless. Far from being sidetracked, the security services rode the gravy train. But never more so than now.

January 2002. Putin's dour gaze pierces from every wall in every office. His obese ministers often discover a sudden sycophantic propensity for skiing (a favorite pastime of the athletic President). The praise heaped on him by the servile media (Putin made sure that no other kind of media survives) comes uncomfortably close to a Central Asian personality cult. Yet, Putin is not in control of the machinery that brought him to the pinnacle of power, under-qualified as he was. This penumbral apparatus revolves around two pivots: the increasingly fractured and warlord controlled military and, ever more importantly, the KGB's successors, mainly the FSB.

A. The Military

Two weeks ago, Russia announced yet another plan to reform its bloated, inefficient, impoverished, demoralized and corrupt military. Close to 200,000 troops are to go immediately and the same number in the next 3 years. The draft is to be abolished and the army professionalized. At its current size (officially, 1.2 million servicemen), the armed forces are severely under-funded. Cases of hunger are not uncommon. Ill (and late) paid soldiers sometimes beg for cigarettes, or food.

Conscripts, in what resembles slave labour, are "rented out" by their commanders to economic enterprises (especially in the provinces). A host of such "trading" companies owned by bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defense was shut down last June by the incoming Minister of Defense (Sergei Ivanov), a close pal of Putin. But if restructuring is to proceed apace, the successful absorption of former soldiers in the economy (requiring pensions, housing, start up capital, employment) - if necessary with the help of foreign capital - is bound to become a priority sooner or later.

But this may be too late and too little - the much truncated and disorientated armed forces have been "privatized" and commandeered for personal gain by regional bosses in cahoots with the command structure and with organized crime. Ex-soldiers feature prominently in extortion, protection, and other anti-private sector rackets.

The war in Chechnya is another long standing pecuniary bonanza - and a vested interest of many generals. Senior Russian Interior Ministry field commanders trade (often in partnership with Chechen "rebels") in stolen petroleum products, food, and munitions.

Putin is trying to reverse these pernicious trends by enlisting the (rank and file) army (one of his natural constituencies) in his battles against secessionist Chechens, influential oligarchs, venal governors, and bureaucrats beyond redemption.

As well as the army, the defense industry - with its 2 million employees - is also being brutally disabused of its centralist-nationalistic ideals.

Orders placed with Russia's defense manufacturers by the destitute Russian armed forces are down to a trickle. Though the procurement budget was increased by 50% last year, to c. $2.2 billion (or 4% of the USA's) and further increased this year to 79 billion rubles ($2.7 billion) -  whatever money is available goes towards R&D, arms modernization, and maintaining the inflated nuclear arsenal and the personal gear of front line soldiers in the interminable Chechen war. The Russian daily "Kommersant" quotes Former Armed Forces weapons chief, General Anatoly Sitnov, as claiming that  $16 billion should be allocated for arms purchases if all the existing needs are to be satisfied.

Having lost their major domestic client (defense constituted 75% of Russian industrial production at one time) - exports of Russian arms have soared to more than $4.4 billion annually (not including "sensitive" materiel). Old markets in the likes of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, China, India, and Libya have revived. Decision makers in Latin America and East Asia (including Malaysia and Vietnam) are being avidly courted. Bribes change hands, off-shore accounts are open and shut, export proceeds mysteriously evaporate. Many a Russian are wealthier due to this export cornucopia.

The reputation of Russia's weapons manufacturers is dismal (no spare parts, after sales service, maintenance, or quality control).  But Russian weapons (often Cold War surplus) come cheap and the list of Russian firms and institutions blacklisted by the USA for selling weapons (from handguns to missile equipped destroyers) to "rogue states" grows by the day. Less than one quarter of 2500 defense-related firms are subject to (the amorphous and inapt) Russian Federal supervision. Gradually, Russia's most advanced weaponry is being made available through these outfits.

Close to 4000 R&D programs and defense conversion projects (many financed by the West) have failed abysmally to transform Russia's "military-industrial complex". Following a much derided "privatization" (in which the state lost control over hundreds of defense firms to assorted autochthonous tycoons and foreign manufacturers) - the enterprises are still being abused and looted by politicians on all levels, including the regional and provincial ones. The Russian Federation, for instance, has controlling stakes in only 7 of c. 250 privatized air defense contractors. Manufacturing and R&D co-operation with Ukraine and other former Soviet republics is on the ascendant, often flying in the face of official policies and national security.

Despite the surge in exports, overproduction of unwanted goods leads to persistent accumulation of inventory. Even so, capacity utilization is said to be 25% in many factories. Lack of maintenance renders many plant facilities obsolete and non-competitive. The Russian government's new emphasis on R&D is wise - Russia must replenish its catalog with hi-tech gadgets if it wishes to continue to export to prime clients. Still, the Russian Duma's prescription of a return to state ownership, central planning, and subsidies, if implemented, is likely to prove to be the coup de grace rather than a graceful coup.

B. The FSB (the main successor to the KGB)


The KGB was succeeded by a host of agencies. The FSB inherited its internal security directorates. The SVR inherited the KGB's foreign intelligence directorates.

With the ascendance of the Vladimir Putin and his coterie (all former KGB or FSB officers), the security services revealed their hand - they are in control of Russia and always have been. They number now twice as many as the KGB at its apex. Only a few days ago, the FSB had indirectly made known its enduring objections to a long mooted (and government approved) railway reform (a purely economic matter). President Putin made December 20 (the day the murderous Checka, the KGB's ancestor, was established in 1917) a national holiday.

But the most significant tectonic shift has been the implosion of the unholy alliance between Russian organized crime and its security forces. The Russian mob served as the KGB's long arm until 1998. The KGB often recruited and trained criminals (a task it took over from the Interior Ministry, the MVD). "Former" (reserve) and active agents joined international or domestic racketeering gangs, sometimes as their leaders.

After 1986 (and more so after 1991), many KGB members were moved from its bloated First (SVR) and Third Directorates to its Economic Department. They were instructed to dabble in business and banking (sometimes in joint ventures with foreigners). Inevitably, they crossed paths - and then collaborated - with the Russian mafia which, like the FSB, owns shares in privatized firms, residential property, banks, and money laundering facilities.

The co-operation with crime lords against corrupt (read: unco-operative) bureaucrats became institutional and all-pervasive under Yeltsin. The KGB is alleged to have spun off a series of "ghost" departments to deal with global drug dealing, weapons smuggling and sales, white slavery, money counterfeiting, and nuclear material.

In a desperate effort at self-preservation, other KGB departments are said to have conducted the illicit sales of raw materials (including tons of precious metals) for hard currency, and the laundering of the proceeds through financial institutions in the West (in Cyprus, Israel, Greece, the USA, Switzerland, and Austria). Specially established corporate shells and "banks" were used to launder money, mainly on behalf of the party nomenklatura. All said, the emerging KGB-crime cartel has been estimated to own or control c. 40% of Russian GDP as early as 1994, having absconded with c. $100 billion of state assets.

Under the dual pretexts of "crime busting" and "fighting terrorism", the Interior Ministry and FSB used this period to construct massive, parallel, armies - better equipped and better trained than the official one.

Many genuinely retired KGB personnel found work as programmers, entrepreneurs, and computer engineers in the Russian private sector (and, later, in the West) - often financed by the KGB itself. The KGB thus came to spawn and dominate the nascent Information Technology and telecommunications industries in Russia. Add to this former (but on reserve duty) KGB personnel in banks, hi-tech corporations, security firms, consultancies, and media in the West as well as in joint ventures with foreign firms in Russia - and the security services' latter day role (and next big fount of revenue) becomes clear: industrial and economic espionage. Russian scholars are already ordered (as of last May) to submit written reports about all their encounters with foreign colleagues.

This is where the FSB began to part ways with crime, albeit hitherto only haltingly.

The FSB has established itself both within Russian power structures and in business. What it needs now more than money and clout - are respectability and the access it brings to Western capital markets, intellectual property (proprietary technology), and management. Having co-opted criminal organizations for its own purposes (and having acted criminally themselves) - the alphabet soup of security agencies now wish to consolidate their gains and transform themselves into legitimate, globe-spanning, business concerns. The robbers' most fervent wish is to become barons. Their erstwhile, less exalted, criminal friends are on the way. Expect a bloodbath, a genuine mafia gangland war over territory and spoils. The result is by no means guaranteed.

Part II. The Energy Sector

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