Within a few hours of the brutal assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov in Ankara, the Russian president Vladimir Putin convened his inner national security team: the foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, the SVR (Russian foreign intelligence agency) director Sergey Naryshkin, and the FSB (Russian domestic law enforcement and counterintelligence agency) director Alexander Bortnikov. The absence of the prime minister Dmitry Medvedev is easy to explain and I have done so at length in one of my earlier article. In a nutshell, Medvedev is no longer considered an important player in the Russian political hierarchy and will soon be replaced.
However, the absence of the defense minister Sergey Shoigu is puzzling. Should not the GRU (Russian military intelligence agency) be also involved in developing a firm response to what is undoubtedly a shocking and unexpected blow to the Russian diplomatic and security establishment? Or is it perhaps the case that it was the GRU operatives who failed in their mission to warn their civilian counterparts on the imminence of a threat to the ambassador? It has barely been a year since the GRU itself suddenly lost its chief, general Igor Sergun, under what some have claimed were mysterious circumstances in the Middle East, though the official narrative insists that he died in Moscow.
During the (old) Cold War, the number of the GRU Western spies and defectors outnumbered those from the KGB and the information they revealed was much more useful and less subject to ambiguity and suspicion. For instance, the documents passed on to the CIA by the GRU colonel Oleg Penkovsky in the early 1960s helped the U.S. prevail over the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, Penkovsky was soon caught, convicted of being a traitor, and executed. The then chief of the GRU, general Mikhail Shalin, was fired and replaced by the KGB chief Ivan Serov.
Yet, it seems to me highly improbable that, at this time, Putin would harbor any doubts about the GRU or Shoigu himself. The reason for Shoigu’s absence is most likely of a technical nature. Perhaps he happened not to be in Moscow on the night of the meeting. Or he was already dispatched to the Middle East in order to organize the counter-strike operations on the spot. In any case, it is clear that the Russian response will be fierce. The public statement released after the meeting included a direct warning that the fight against terrorism will be “stepped up, which the criminals will find out firsthand.”
According to the recent speech by one of the meeting’s participants, FSB director Alexander Bortnikov, given at the December 2016 session of the Russian National Antiterrorism Committee, FSB detected a great deal of increase in the terrorist and extremist activity in Russia during 2016. For instance, compared to 2015, the number of terrorist and extremist internet sites doubled to approximately 26,000. These sites propagated radical jihadist ideas and sought to recruit fighters for the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in the Middle East and beyond. Bortnikov stated that FSB arrested 34 alleged recruiters, prevented 86 individuals from leaving Russia and joining the terror networks, and froze about 2,000 bank accounts of those with ties to these networks.
With respect to more serious matters, Bortnikov said that the Russian special forces killed 129 terrorists and prevented at least 42 terrorist attacks on the Russian soil in 2016. This shows the extent to which the Russian home front itself has turned into an increasingly militarized battlefield. It is being constantly tested for vulnerabilities and weak spots by the actual terrorist operatives as well as by their financiers and agenda-setters located in the states geopolitically opposed to Russia, though they have had much less success than in the 1990s. The Russian home front is also subject to intelligence collection and agent recruitment activities by the hostile intelligence services.
In order to examine in more detail the 2016 FSB operations mentioned by Bortnikov, I have analyzed the 2016 press releases published on the official FSB website. From January until the last week of December, there have been 52 press releases in total. The highest number of releases has concerned the successful counterespionage operations (8 releases) and the counter-terrorist and counter-extremist operations (10 releases), some of which directly concern the Islamic State operatives (4 releases). The rest of press releases have dealt with the anti-corruption and anti-hacking operations as well as a variety of technical matters and meeting announcements.
In this article, which is the first in the three-article investigative series, I will look closely at the press releases dealing with counterespionage. In the second article of the series, I will examine the press releases dealing with counter-terrorism, and in the third article of the series, I will look at the rest of the press releases.
The Case of Yuri Ivanchenko
The first 2016 press release dealing with counterespionage was published on March 31. It stated that on March 26, the FSB arrested Lt. Colonel Yuri Ivanchenko, an operative of the counterintelligence department of the Ukrainian National Security Agency (SBU). Ivanchenko entered Russia under the pretense of visiting relatives, but his arrival was expected by the FSB, which implies that it has successfully penetrated the Ukrainian service. In fact, the press release claims that Ivanchenko’s visit was a part of a bigger plot concocted by the SBU and the CIA (which, according to the release, supervises the SBU in its anti-Russian activities) with the intention of entrapping the FSB operatives in Kiev. Ivanchenko, who already offered his services in 2014, was supposed to convince the FSB of his credibility and establish a network of dead-drops in Kiev by the way of which he would pass the supposedly secret documents to the FSB. At some point, the SBU and the CIA operatives would burst onto the scene and arrest the FSB operative(s) picking up the documents. The information would be passed on to the state-controlled media with the expectation of making an international scandal aimed at discrediting Russia in the eyes of the international community. However, as is clear, nothing came out of it.
Upon Ivanchenko’s arrest, the FSB allowed him to contact the personnel of the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow. After brief consultations, he was expelled from Russia and banned from entering it ever again. The question which, of course, was not addressed in the press release, but which we could speculate on, considering how quickly he was released, is the following: did Ivanchenko become a double agent or was he, perhaps, one all along? This will no doubt be the main worry of the SBU and their supervisors and mentors at the CIA.
The Case of Arstidas Tamoshaitis
The second 2016 press release dealing with counterespionage was published just a week after the first one, on April 6. It dealt with the court case against the operative of the military intelligence of the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense Arstidas Tamoshaitis who was accused of espionage. Tamoshaitis was arrested in Moscow on May 19, 2015 in the act of receiving secret documents from a Russian citizen (not named in the press release). He lived in Moscow as an Illegal (an undercover foreign agent with false identity). The press release noted that on March 17, the Moscow City Court found Tamoshaitis guilty under Article 276 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (dealing with espionage) and sentenced him to 12 years in a maximum-security prison. As is also typically the case in the situations like this in the EU and the U.S., the prominent diplomatic representative of the government under suspicion for spying (Lithuania) was present in court during the sentencing. It is interesting that it took the FSB almost three weeks to publicize the court decision with an official press release.
The Case of Yevgeny Mataitis
Just a week went by and there was another FSB press release dealing with counterespionage on April 13. This press release also dealt with a court case, but this time against the Russian citizen, Reserve Navy Captain Yevgeny Mataitis who was accused of espionage for the benefit of the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense. Though he was tried by the Kaliningrad City Court (more than a thousand kilometers from Moscow), Mataitis could conceivably have been that Russian citizen who passed on the secret documents to Timoshaitis. Mataitis was accused of being recruited by the Lithuanians in 2009 in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius and of providing the Lithuanian military intelligence with the Russian military secrets, including top secret materials, in exchange for monthly payments during the period of six years. In the course of the investigation, he fully confessed his guilt (no doubt revealing all he knew about the “other” side). The court stripped Mataitis of his military rank, fined him 200,000 rubles ($3,500) and sentenced him to 13 years in a maximum-security prison. During the Soviet KGB days, the treason of this magnitude would quite certainly result in execution. However, since the mid-1990s, Russia has established a moratorium on death penalty and the last execution took place in 1996.
The Case of Arsen Mardaleishvili
About a month after the Mataitis case, on May 13, the FSB published a press release reporting the arrest of the resident (non-citizen) of Estonia, Arsen Mardaleishvili (with the obviously Georgian last name) in St. Petersburg on the charges of espionage. The press release alleged that Mardaleishvili was caught collecting secret information about the state of the Russian military on behalf of the intelligence department within the Estonian Ministry of Interior. The charges against Mardaleishvili were brought under Article 276 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (also applied in the case of Tamoshaitis, the Lithuanian operative). The effort to uncover his possible accomplices on the Russian side was ongoing.
The Case of Artem Shestakov
For the next two months, there were no FSB press releases dealing with counterespionage. Then, in mid-summer, on July 18, the FSB published a press release on the arrest of the Ukrainian citizen Artem Shestakov who worked as a translator for the Monitoring Mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Ukraine. According to the press release, Shestakov was recruited by the Ukrainian National Security Agency (SBU) under the codename “Svarog” in the summer of 2015. Due to the nature of his OSCE position, he frequently travelled to the so-called Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) and collected various types of political, economic, and military information which he would later pass on to the SBU in Kiev.
In the fall of 2015, Shestakov was “taken over” by the Ukrainian military intelligence agency (GUR) and began supplying it with the information dealing specifically with various official and unofficial military groups in the LPR in order to assist it in the planning and execution of subversive covert activities and assassinations. The FSB claims that the information provided by Shestakov enabled the Ukranian intelligence operatives to track and eventually assassinate one of the leaders of the Cossack movement Pavel Dremov. In addition, Shestakov was also in charge of helping Ukrainian intelligence operatives penetrate other international organizations active in the Donbass region.
The fact that after having discovered all this about Shestakov, the FSB let him go free (by expelling him to Ukraine) leaves no doubt in my mind that he told them all that he knew and thus caused a serious damage to the present and future intelligence operations of both the Kiev government and its NATO allies (including the U.S.) in Ukraine, Russia and beyond.
The Case of Roman Sushchenko
It could easily be that the first victim of Shestakov’s revelations was Colonel Roman Sushchenko, an operative of the Ukrainian military intelligence agency (GUR) whose arrest in Moscow was described in the press release on October 3. Sushchenko was accused of collecting top secret materials on the Russian military and the newly-formed Russian National Guard. He was charged under Article 276 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (also applied in the cases of Tamoshaitis and Mardaleishvili). According to the press release, the investigation is still ongoing. There is no doubt that Sushchenko had informant(s) from within the Russian military whose identity is now being ascertained by the FSB. I expect that the Sushchenko case will be the subject of other FSB press releases in the future.
The Case of the Ukrainian Subversives
This case could potentially also be linked to Shestakov's revelations. On November 11, the FSB published a press release on the arrest of a group of the operatives of the Ukrainian military intelligence agency (GUR), described as the subversive-terrorist group, whose plans allegedly included the destruction of critical civilian and military infrastructure objects in the Crimea. The group was arrested in Sevastopol with a large amount of weapons, ammunition, explosive and communication devices, and a set of maps with the coordinates of the targeted objects.
The case of the subversives (also referred to in the media as the saboteurs) captured a lot of international attention. However, at this time, many questions still remain unanswered, especially as to how such a well-armed group could slip through the Crimean border unnoticed. Of course, it is true that the FSB might have let them enter the Crimea under its close surveillance in order to catch their probable internal accomplices. The investigation is ongoing, while, predictably, the Kiev government denied any complicity and rejected all allegations. The press release did not state under what charges the group was being held.
The Case of Leonid Parhomenko
The last 2016 press release dealing with counterespionage was published on November 22. It dealt with the arrest of Reserve Navy Captain Leonid Parhomenko, employed by the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. Parhomenko was charged under Article 275 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (the same charges were applied in the case of his fellow navy officer turned spy Mataitis). He was allegedly an asset of the Ukrainian military intelligence agency (GUR) and collected and passed on information concerning the activities of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
Considering that the arrest of Parhomenko took place less than two weeks after the arrest of the group of the alleged GUR subversives also in Sevastopol, it seems very likely that these two events are connected. It could easily be that one of the inside sources of the GUR group was Parhomenko himself. It is doubtful that he is the only one, and so I expect that this story will unfold with further arrests in 2017.
Conclusion: FSB Counterespionage in 2016
All in all, according to its press releases, the FSB dealt with eight counterespionage cases this year. The most striking thing to note about all of them is the absence of the intelligence operatives of other Great Powers. For instance, there are no cases concerning the U.S. or Western European or Chinese operatives. Perhaps they are hiding well, or the FSB is not publicly disclosing when they are caught and expelled. Or, what I think is the most likely is that the globally powerful intelligence agencies, such as the CIA and the MI-6, are using the operatives of their satellite intelligence agencies in the former Soviet republics to do the work for them. This is very convenient because if and when they get caught, these (supervisory) intelligence agencies can play dumb. In intelligence terminology, it is called plausible deniability.
And, indeed, the Lithuanian, Estonian, and Ukrainian intelligence agencies whose operatives were arrested by the FSB and charged with espionage all function under the U.S. intelligence umbrella. It thus remains as true as during the (old) Cold War that, in the matters of espionage, U.S. is the main security threat to Russia.
Filip Kovacevic, Newsbud-BFP Analyst, is a geopolitical author, university professor and the chairman of the Movement for Neutrality of Montenegro. He received his BA and PhD in political science in the US and was a visiting professor at St. Petersburg State University in Russia for two years. He is the author of seven books, dozens of academic articles & conference presentations and hundreds of newspaper columns and media commentaries. He has been invited to lecture throughout the EU, Balkans, ex-USSR and the US. He currently resides in San Francisco. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
 The entire account of this episode can be found in Tennent H. Bagley. Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games. New Haven, NJ: Yale, 2007.