Putin Gets the Spies He Deserves

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s difficult for Russians, regardless of their attitude toward Vladimir Putin’s regime, to accept the bumbling incompetence of the country’s supposedly elite military intelligence officers, who are getting caught all over the place carrying out pointless operations in unconscionably sloppy ways. These spies are supposed to be highly trained experts, not just tools of the current political leadership.

Yet it’s possible that 18 years of Putin’s rule have affected the Russian intelligence community in the same way as other areas of Russian life: They’ve made it less intelligent and emptied it of competent professionals. 

Even Russian intellectuals who don’t feel compelled to echo the official denials are trying to rationalize the GRU’s blown missions: hacking sports anti-doping agencies or spying on laboratories that tested the substance used in the failed poisoning of an ex-double agent in the U.K. 

“The moral aspect of the matter aside, it appears that the GRU acted boldly if somewhat too directly in all these episodes,” Vladimir Frolov, a former diplomat, wrote on Republic.ru. “All things considered, it accomplished its combat missions. The analysis of these actions’ diplomatic consequences is outside the purview of intelligence services, it’s up to higher authorities.”

Former Deputy Education Minister Igor Fedyukin wrote on Facebook that Russian intelligence has likely used similar methods for the last 15 years, and their Western counterparts had allowed it. “This whole style of work that appears comical to us now was probably quite successful up until last year, it was the norm, nothing else was required,” Fedyukin hypothesized.

Neither theory is plausible. The hacking operations have done little more than feed some meaningless talking points to the Kremlin propaganda machine; the public relations damage the Putin regime is suffering because the spies got caught is far greater than any benefit that could have accrued had they been successful. And it’s hard to imagine that any Western country would consciously allow Russian agents to act as recklessly on its territory as people identified as GRU officers recently have done.

They’ve traveled on passports with numbers that immediately followed one another; nobody had bothered to provide them with credible backgrounds, and the easily available passport files gave a Defense Ministry phone number to call with any questions. One kept a taxi receipt for his trip from a GRU address to the airport. Yet another one was easy to identify from publicly available photographs from his military academy. Cars, 305 of them, that appear to belong to GRU officers turned out to be registered to the address of their military unit, with the owners’ mobile phone numbers and other personal data linked to the registrations. The extent of the carelessness is mind-blowing.

But then, professionalism in general has become rare in Russia, especially in the government sector outside a tiny technocratic elite that deals with sophisticated economic policy. Putin’s struggle to appoint competent regional governors is a case in point. Last month, for the fourth time since 2016, the Russian president picked one of his former bodyguards to run Astrakhan, a place to which he has no obvious connection. After a Kremlin appointee disgraced himself by losing a gubernatorial election in Vladivostok, the governor of Sakhalin, also in Russia’s Far East, was urgently appointed in his place with no apparent plan for his own succession. Putin hasn’t learned how to deal with his people’s electoral losses, which occurred in four regions last month: Wasn’t the system set up so they couldn’t lose?

Putin doesn’t have a deep bench when it comes to competent bureaucrats, diplomats or law enforcers. Perhaps the best evidence of that can be found on Dissernet, a website run by a group of activists who use ingenious software to check the doctoral theses of officials, generals and other regime leading lights. Hundreds of them, some rubber-stamped by elite schools like the Moscow Institute of Foreign Relations and the Diplomatic Academy, are blatantly plagiarized. 

Russia has had difficulty retaining its intellectuals, especially in recent years. According to a recent paper from the Gaidar Economic Policy Institute, about 2.7 million people born in Russia now live outside the country, 1.5 million of them still hold Russian passports. On average, these emigres are far better educated than Russia’s general population. Most of the recent emigres interviewed by the Gaidar Institute said they’d left because of the economic slowdown since 2014 or due to disappointment with Putin’s aggressive and repressive policies since that year.

In their 2015 book, “The State of Russia: What Comes Next?” Nikolay Petrov and Masha Lipman, two of the most knowledgeable commentators on Russian domestic politics, predicted the consequences of Putin’s post-2012 efforts to coup-proof his regime:

To achieve this goal, the regime will use the entire repressive machine of the state security system, courts and prosecutors, as well as the institutions that affect mass socialization and public opinion – the media, educational system, culture and the Church. Such a policy will most likely result in curtailed vertical mobility and negative selection of administrative personnel, as well as in the archaization of mass consciousness.

That prediction appears to be coming true. Years of thought suppression, the erosion of intellectual life and educational institutions, and Putin’s clear preference for personal loyalty over competence have taken a toll on Russia’s public service, including the intelligence community.

Putin may be so strangely passive in the face of the intelligence failures because there’s not much he can do to limit the fallout and stop the chain of failures: There simply isn’t anyone on his team who is both loyal and capable of the difficult damage-control job. After all, the GRU officers were caught carrying out operations that were themselves damage-control efforts, and more competent people apparently couldn’t be found to carry them out.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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