As Russia’s war against Ukraine enters its third week, President Vladimir Putin is cracking down on his favorite agency — the FSB. Journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, who have long specialized in covering Russia’s security services, report that the FSB’s foreign intelligence arm, the so-called Fifth Service, has become the target of repressions. According to Soldatov and Borogan’s sources, its leadership has been placed under house arrest. There is no official confirmation of these reports as yet. For Meduza, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan explain how the FSB’s Ukraine intel got this bad.
Please note. This translation has been edited for context and clarity.
The Fifth Service — or, as it’s officially named, the Operational Information and International Relations Service — oversees the FSB’s communications with foreign partners, including with U.S. government agencies. It’s also home to the infamous Department of Operational Information (DOI), which handles the FSB’s foreign intelligence work.
The FSB was granted the right to conduct operations abroad in the late 1990s, under its then director Vladimir Putin. At the time, a new bureau was already taking shape within the FSB, one that was tasked with conducting intelligence operations on the territory of the former Soviet Union. (We’ve been following and writing about this FSB unit’s activities for a long time.)
After the “color revolutions” ousted a number of pro-Kremlin leaders in the post-Soviet space in the early 2000s, this bureau was given the new task of doing everything in its power to keep these countries in Russia’s “sphere of influence.”
In 2004, the bureau received a status upgrade, having been transformed into a full-fledged department — the Department of Operational Information. Shortly thereafter, it acquired a new head: Sergey Beseda, who previously ran the FSB department that oversaw Russia’s Presidential Executive Office, where he had excellent connections. Soon, DOI agents began popping up in Belarus, Moldova, and Abkhazia (a breakaway state recognized by most countries as part of Georgia). As it turned out, standard espionage wasn’t their main task in these countries — instead, they supported pro-Kremlin candidates during local elections. Meanwhile, Ukraine occupied a special place among the DOI’s priorities in the post-Soviet space.
In June 2010, we received information that a website posting classified FSB documents had appeared online. The site had a telling name — lubyanskayapravda.com (the Lubyanka building is the FSB’s headquarters in Moscow, and pravda is the Russian word for truth). Among the various intelligence reports published on the site were DOI reports addressed to Putin directly. One of them referred to a document that had been forged in an effort to undermine relations between Ukraine and Turkmenistan. In particular, it described a fraudulent Ukrainian intelligence report on financing the Turkmen opposition. It was a classic FSB “active measure” — the DOI had leaked the fake report to the Ukrainian media. But then something unexpected happened: Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (the SVR) took this report to be authentic and reported it to officials in the Kremlin.
Describing what had happened in a report addressed to the head of state, the DOI’s Sergey Beseda was clearly proud of himself.
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In April 2014, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry sent its Russian counterpart a request to interrogate Sergey Beseda. Kyiv claimed that he had been in Ukraine during the Maidan Revolution, in particular, from February 20–21. The Ukrainian authorities thought it important to interrogate Beseda as part of the investigation into crimes committed during the large-scale protests in Kyiv from February 18–22, 2014 (dozens of people had been killed in the city center, including by snipers, amid clashes between protesters and riot police).
FSB officials were forced to confirm that Sergey Beseda really had been in Kyiv from February 20–21, 2014. But they claimed that he only went there to check the level of security at the Russian Embassy — a story nobody believed. The U.S. and the EU have had Beseda on their sanctions lists since 2014.
This incident didn’t affect the Fifth Service’s standing at all: DOI operatives continued to gather intelligence, recruit sources, and conduct subversive activities in Ukraine.
In fact, it was the Fifth Service that was responsible for providing Vladimir Putin with information about political developments in Ukraine in the leadup to the invasion. And after two weeks of war, it now appears that Putin has finally realized that he was misled: afraid of angering the Russian leader, the Fifth Service simply told him what he wanted to hear.
Now, our sources report that General Beseda and his deputy have been placed under house arrest — for reasons including the alleged misuse of funds allocated for operations, as well as for providing bad intelligence. Indeed, it appears that the intel delivered by Putin’s career intelligence officer has only gone from bad to worse.
Story by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan
Translated and edited by Eilish Hart