The Ukrainian War has provided an insight into how Vladimir Putin has retained his power over the years and kept public support through silencing opposition and military actions conducted by the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU). Over the years, the two agencies have been used to carry out direct order from Putin, but the conflict in Ukraine has revealed the power dynamic between the two and the structure of the relationships between top officials and Putin.
A report published by Center for European Policy Analysis, has revealed that though the FSB has been assigned to intelligence gathering of the former Soviet states/satellites, it’s failure in intelligence assessment of the Ukrainian situation and longer than expected invasion, has led to a transfer of operations over to the military intelligence focused GRU. The change in assigned leadership demonstrates Putin’s power to assign and control all military operations, but also the single decision made when it comes to Russia’s foreign policy. The decision does not only shed light into the role that Putin has in decision making for the entire country and disregard for the state Duma, but also how loyalists are kept within Putin’s circle to retain power. The move also comes after the leader of the FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, has been previously touted as a potential predecessor by western media and British intelligence. The power dynamic is quite clear, loyalists are rewarded and decisions are ran through Putin with no tolerance for failure. Intelligence source Andrey Soldato for example, has revealed how the failure of Sergey Beseda to assess the situation in Ukraine and invasion plans. has led to the removal of his role and was placed on house arrest. Whereas public officials who may be voted in cannot be fired at will by the Prime Minister or President, those which are involved in the GRU and FSB can be assigned and removed at simple order.
The importance of the moves to utilize both the GRU and FSB lies in what is known as stealth authoritarianism, a form of authoritarian in which unconfirmed and speculative forms not approved by the government are utilized to further instill power over the country and bypass legal obstacles. But it is much more than an invasion, military action, or even an insurance policy. The stealth authoritarianism in Russia has led to a system in which the next person to rule the country aligns with the old Soviet Era thought and a filter of top officials to ensure that a coup does not take place.
Though it is not necessarily a secret, the resulting focus on Ukraine is demonstrating exactly who and why the FSB and GRU are utilized. This however, is not the first rodeo for the GRU, and utilizing covert operations at home and abroad to enact on Putin’s orders. In the past, the GRU has had active roles in the past in numerous hackings, poisonings, and cover ups. Essentially, the agency ran actions are a get around to not relying on diplomatic solutions or publicly acknowledging to the Russian people how Putin feels towards certain policies and can shift blame to focus on rogue actors rather than taking responsibility for himself.
So what does the playbook reveal and used for overseas? Well, Russia and Putin are not mutually exclusive to this form even though they are most prominent. One example can be found in the Philippines under acting President Rodrigo Duterte but through different uses. Whereas Putin is using the playbook to make decisions by himself without consulting with the state Duma and retain power, the case in the Philippines is a bit different and unorthodox. Ironically, the use of stealth authoritarianism is not found in the decision to use “covert” actions and assassinations against political opponents. Instead, Rodrigo Duterte has made the decision to have the assassins target drug dealers instead in order to fully deliver on his promises to clean the streets from drugs. In a trial, it has been confessed by one of those hitmen that “We were tasked to kill criminals every day”. Though the circumstances are different where one is doing so to “deliver” on a promise or policy while the other is doing so to stay in control or take over a geographical point of interest, the two are fundamentally utilizing the same form of authoritarian rule to bypass democratic methods and institutions to instill their own objectives and ensure that they are holding power.
The playbook is not just important because of the role that the covert operations can play in taking out political opponents or catering to military action without the approval of a democratic process, it also important due to the fact that there is no other manner to moderate or limit the roles that they may take through a democratic process either. With such a powerful figure in charge and control of agencies with such capabilities, it denies and gets rid of the institutions meant to keep the executive branch accountable.