Andrei Soldatov’s beat is Russian spies, which is a hot topic for a new cold war. As editor of agentura.ru, an online “watchdog” of Putin’s clandestine intelligence agencies, he has spent the last decade reporting on and anatomizing the resurrection of the Russian security state, from KGB-style crackdowns on dissent at home to adroit or haphazard assassinations abroad.
Most recently, Soldatov and his coauthor and collaborator Irina Borogan broke serious news about the extent to which the Federal Security Service (FSB) was surveilling and eavesdropping on everyone within slaloming distance of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Soldatov has just emerged from a writerly purdah, which has seen him complete his latest and forthcoming title with Borogan, Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries. He spoke to me via Skype from Moscow recently about the latest Russian hack of the White House, the Boris Nemtsov assassination, the Boston Marathon bombings, reshuffles in Putinist spyland, and why neither Edward Snowden nor Glenn Greenwald will agree to be interviewed by him.
Weiss: You’ve no doubt seen the CNN report about Russian hackers infiltrating White House computers and obtaining President Obama’s personal schedule. What can you tell us about this operation?
Soldatov: Reportedly, it took months. This type of attack is about phishing, not real hacking. Social engineering efforts are used—they’re going after people, not systems. They sent emails provoking White House officials to disclose some information about their accounts. It’s a very special operation because the people behind it are very sophisticated; they know the types of questions to ask to solicit a response. You need to know how bureaucracy works, and what kind of request people expect to get. It reminds me of an investigated by the University of Toronto’s CitizenLab in 2012.
On February 23, 2012, an email was sent to the director of Tibet Group 1, an activist organization, addressed personally, and appeared to come from Mr. Cheng Li, a prominent China scholar based at the Brookings Institution. The email requested the assistance of Tibet Group 1 in verifying information on Tibetan self-immolations. The name and title provided in the email matched real details for Cheng Li provided on his Brookings Institute staff page. But the director noticed that the email was sent from a suspicious AOL account, and turned to CitizenLab experts. It was soon discovered that the account appeared to have been registered by the attackers for this specific attack. Attached to this email was an Excel spreadsheet with malware. The Chinese security services were thought to be behind it because the operation was very sophisticated.
There were some reports that some Russian opposition leaders were targeted by the same people [who hacked the White House]. But that’s the only evidence we have of Russian involvement right now.
So how are these phishing expeditions coordinated? Are Russian spies in Washington keeping tabs on White House officials and feeding the relevant information back to the hackers or the hackers’ government handlers?
One way is, as you say, to have Russian operatives gather the information. There might be also some activists or pro-government youth movements, which are more skilled in computer systems, who might be based in the U.S. and know how to do these things. Remember the story of how [Russian opposition leader Alexey] Navalny’s email was hacked: It was all done by phishing. Everybody suspected that the FSB had been behind it. A guy who broke into Navalny’s Gmail account claimed he was the “FSB cyber-brigade.” But that was bullshit. He was just a guy with skills to do this, though he was probably paid by some government organizations.
I wanted to ask you about the assassination of Boris Nemtsov in February. We’ve chatted privately about how struck you were by the killing—right in front of the Kremlin in one of the most closely invigilated areas in Moscow. What do the known facts of this case tell you about the possible culprits?
I think it was a very well-coordinated effort because at least three teams were actually involved in this assassination. The first one had to trail Nemtsov on foot to know his exact location at the exact time. The second team included the assassin or assassins. Then a third team manned the getaway vehicle. This was a very special operation not only because of the CCTV cameras in the area, but because of where it took place. This constituted a major security breach so close to the Kremlin, where it’s impossible to park your car, for instance. So you need to coordinate this operation almost within seconds. The gunman couldn’t wait for, say, 30 seconds for the getaway car to arrive. And from what CCTV has been made available, we know that the entire plot was very smoothly orchestrated. There was no delay in anything.
One of the first versions was that Nemtsov could have been killed because of his position on Ukraine by some rogue elements of separatist groups, but I don’t think these sort of people have the training to organize such a sophisticated operation, and the Chechens with military experience also have no such training. Let me explain: The best of them could be close to the level of Spetsnaz [Russian Special Forces], and the average Spetsnaz do not carry out these kinds of operations. As far as I know, the Spetsnaz units have a list of the kinds of operation they’re trained to do—ambushes and military-style assaults and so on. But they are not trained to plan these kinds of sophisticated hit jobs in a major city. It means that the level of coordination present in Nemtsov’s attack excludes veterans of Spetsnaz and people who got a similar training or below—i.e. all kinds of veterans, say, of the conflict in Ukraine or the Chechen Wars. They could only be used as executors of a plan but not as the planners themselves. For this, you need intelligence people trained at a level higher.
So who has the training to plan and orchestrate a murder like this?
Well, we can say two things: Such a high-profile assassination would either be carried out by the mafia or by intelligence agencies. Since there were no high-profile mafia assassinations [in Russia] for many years—the last one occurred in 2004, when a guy on a bike put the bomb on the roof of a car in Moscow—then the version about an intelligence service looks more plausible.
Yet the suspects in custody are Chechens with backgrounds in law enforcement.
Unfortunately, that reminds me of [murdered Russian journalist] Anna Politkovskaya’s assassination. It was the same story: some Chechens were caught along with some low-level policemen who had helped with surveillance, but that led nowhere as they all denied their involvement. And just as there were doubts with even their involvement in Politkovskaya’s case, we’ve already seen doubts about Nemtsov’s. For instance, one of the witnesses said that he cannot recognize the gunman who the investigators said shot Nemtsov.
Of course, I’m not trying to say that two of these killings were organized by the same people. But the people who killed Nemtsov seem to have learned some lessons from the killing of Politkovskaya. One of these lessons was that it’s very useful to use Chechens as hit-men. Given that we’re in 2015, not 1999, these guys would almost inevitably have ties to the Chechen law enforcement agencies and so you’d have a very predictable reaction from [Chechen warlord-president Ramzan] Kadyrov, who tends to protect his people in all circumstances. That means even if you arrest them, the investigation would stop right there and never get beyond them—to the masterminds.
The question remains: Who could be involved in planning of such a sophisticated operation? Some people in the security services are trained to do these things as the Russian secret services since 2006 have been authorized to conduct the assassinations of terrorists abroad. There have been a number of operations, some skillfully executed, for instance when some Chechens were killed in Istanbul in 2008-2009. That’d be the natural choice.
One of the theories advanced is that Kadyrov ordered Nemtsov killed, possibly over some rather mild blog posts Nemtsov wrote about the Charlie Hebdo massacre or because he wanted to embarrass the FSB, with which he’s rumored to be feuding.
I don’t believe in all these stories of the reported conflict between Kadyrov and the FSB because of Nemtsov’s assassination. I’ve seen no evidence of this. In fact, I see a great deal of cooperation between the two. Take the example of Syria. For the FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov it was extremely important for two or three years to say something about Russian fighters in Syria. It was a very important point for Russia to emphasize as it was actually the basis of some bilateral cooperation with the U.S. Now think about where and how the FSB might get intelligence about Russian Muslims in Syria. The most obvious thing is to use Kadyrov’s connections and his people in the diasporas. And Kadyrov’s people are known to be skillful in working in the Chechens diaspora in other countries.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was just found guilty in on all 32 counts for carrying out the Boston Marathon bombing. There was a lot of debate about how greater U.S.-Russian intelligence cooperation might have prevented that attack. And I’m sure you noticed that Bortnikov was invited to President Obama’s Countering Violent Extremism conference last month, despite the rupture in U.S.-Russian relations over Ukraine. Should the U.S. be working more closely with the Russian security services on counterterrorism?
The first thing we need to understand is that the FSB never tried to tip off the FBI about these guys. The FSB actually requested information from the FBI and the CIA but they failed to provide the reasons for their information requests so the intelligence cooperation went nowhere. Then, after the bombing happened, everybody started to say it’s all about warnings and intelligence sharing. But the Americans saying this fail to realize that the FSB is not very keen to provide any kind of intelligence to foreign services. As far as I remember, only once, in 2003, just after FSB and FBI directors signed a special memorandum of understanding, did the two services conduct a joint investigation. It was a sting operation, in fact. The FSB provided a fake surface-to-air missile launcher to a guy who was caught, but the whole thing was very low-level and unimpressive. It was fake missile launcher. This became a showcase for FSB and FBI cooperation, but it was meaningless.
Do the U.S. and Russia work effectively together on anything intelligence-related?
To be frank, we had some progress in only one field—organized crime. That was more about FBI and the Interior Ministry of Russia. The problem now with the FSB specifically is that they fail to divide their jurisdictions. It would be much more useful to have FSB’s department of counterterrorism to deal directly with the FBI. That’d be much easier and understandable. Instead, there is no division of labor. The main contact person in the FSB provided for FBI to help with the investigation of the Boston bombers, for instance, was Sergei Beseda, the same guy who a year later was exposed by the Ukrainian security services as a Russian FSB general who was in Kiev on February 20-21, 2014, during the Maidan Revolution. This was the same guy put in charge with talking to the Americans about terrorism!
Also, there was a spy story in May 2013 when an U.S. diplomat, Ryan Fogle, was accused of trying to recruit a FSB officer inside the counterterrorism department. It just doesn’t help, and there’s no trust between the agencies.
The FSB allowed the FBI to travel to Dagestan to investigate the Tsarnaevs. But this was politically motivated. The FSB wanted desperately for the Americans to provide support for the upcoming Sochi Olympics. And it worked. Russia got support from the U.S., and from Britain, which offered technical support for security measures in Sochi.
When the FSB is interested in getting international support, they’re happy to do these things, but it never lasts. No one is interested in developing a relationship with the American security services because that could ruin your career if there’s a major rift in relations—such as with Crimea and Ukraine.
Where was Putin during his 11-day “disappearance”? Rumors ranged from recovering from a back injury to getting a new round of Botox to welcoming his latest child into the world to fending off a coup.
I think some sort of power struggle exists. It’s already evident. Just today [April 8], there was a new chief of counterintelligence appointed inside the FSB. The whole thing is very interesting because Oleg Syromolotov was a longstanding chief of the counterintelligence department. He was appointed in 2000 and was a very powerful figure, very well-connected. He was in charge of security at Sochi, which was a big success. And all of a sudden he is moved to the Foreign Ministry with very unclear ideas of what he might do there, because he was set to be in charge of counterterrorism cooperation—but there’s already a guy who’s in charge of that inside the Ministry. So today we got his replacement, Vladislav Menshchikov, from the Main Directorate of Special Programs. It is another security service, in charge of underground bunkers to keep the Russian leadership safe in case of a nuclear attack. During the Soviet period it was known as the 15th Department of the KGB. It’s a very powerful and very secretive department, officially inside the Administration of the Office of the President. Menshchikov was appointed to this post a year ago and now he’s chief of counterintelligence of the FSB. This suggests that decisions are being made chaotically, with no clear strategy.
Remember, too, that for almost three years, the FSB was very passive. It did almost nothing during the Moscow protests; it was the Investigative Committee that was much more active. Then, all of the sudden, in the fall of the last year and in January of 2015 there was a spate of spy stories—the Estonian spy case, captured alleged Ukrainian spies. Now the well-respected and longstanding counterintelligence chief is removed. There is some sort of uncertainty. Even the siloviki are not united.
For Putin, this is a very difficult situation. He’s trained as a KGB officer, so tactically he’s very good but strategically he has problems. His biggest problem is what to do next. In my opinion, the moment he disappeared was the moment he tried to understand what to do next.
You saw John Oliver’s interview with Edward Snowden, I presume.
Right across from the FSB headquarters… I know you’ve tried repeatedly and creatively to get an interview with Snowden. How’s that worked out?
It’s still impossible for Russian journalists to interview Edward Snowden. It’s also impossible for foreign correspondents based in Moscow. I tried different tactics to talk to him. We had the strange exchange of remarks in the Guardian when he commented my remark on him and I commented on his, so I tried to use this to send him a message—hey, maybe we can talk directly? It failed. When I was in New York, I tried to talk to a guy from ACLU—Ben Wizner, Snowden’s attorney—and I told him, “Okay, you are not ready to arrange a meeting in Moscow but maybe from your office in New York I can talk to Snowden in Moscow.” No answer. I also told him and other people I’d interview Snowden for my book and that this wouldn’t see daylight for seven, eight months, thinking maybe it was a timing issue. But it was the same story all the time: No, I was told. I also put some requests to Glenn Greenwald. I got no response. I thought that was strange—if it’s all about Snowden’s personal safety, why Greenwald cannot talk to Russian journalists from Brazil?
I think there is some sort of a deal with the Russian authorities. It seems Snowden insisted that he’d never be used by Russian propaganda. He never made it onto RT or other state media outlets and of course they would be happy to have him.
He tries to be completely invisible in Russia. There was a strange case a few months ago. The Russian Association of Electronic Communication, or RAEC, announced in the spring of 2014 that they’d secured an approval from Snowden to have a special Snowden prize for Internet media… So RAEC had the ceremony in December. I was there. The problem was, there was no sign of Snowden! There was not even a video message from him, just nothing.
It seems the idea is to stress that he’s just not in the U.S., he’s somewhere, but not in Russia. I don’t think it was his strategy from the beginning. After all, he questioned Putin last April during Putin’s annual question-and-answer press conference about mass surveillance in Russia.
So my impression is that it’s not his decision.
But that gives the lie that he’s not being controlled.
He’s clearly being exploited—after all, many repressive measures on the Internet in Russia were presented to Russians as a response to Snowden’s revelations. For instance, the legislation to relocate the servers of global platforms to Russia by September of this year, to make them available for the Russian secret services, was presented as a measure to assure the security of Russian citizens’ personal data.
I was told that there was some talk in American human-rights organizations that there might be interviews arranged for Russian journalists. But that never happened. So obviously Snowden’s handlers told him that he could say whatever he wants about the NSA and so on, but only to American journalists coming from the United States.
What I find interesting about this is that in December of 2014 Snowden, when asked about his security situation at the Amnesty International event, said, “My security’s great. I live a fairly normal life, I ride the Moscow underground when I go about day to day.”
Thus he’s withdrawn the only plausible reason for why he’s not transparent here in Russia. So what’s the reason to be so secretive? There is some problem with logic here. For instance, I would understand if he says, “Look, I cannot comment on Russian surveillance, this is not my war.” Instead, he asked his question about Russian surveillance. And he is not transparent. I just don’t get it.