Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service Assumes Higher Public Profile

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 29 – Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, is undergoing a fundamental change under its director Sergey Naryshkin: it is now talking about itself via its press office, something that would have been unthinkable only a few months ago, according to Yevgeny Krutikov. 

            Last week, Naryshkin visited Saudi Arabia, an entirely ordinary event in today’s world, the Vzglyad commentator says. But what was surprising was that this visit was reported by the SVR’s press bureau on its official site and signed by Sergey Ivanov, the head of the press bureau and formerly of Komsomolskaya pravda and Tribuna (vz.ru/politics/2019/1/23/960702.html).

                In the past, not even a mouse escaped from the SVR’s press office, Krutikov says. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t busy. It assisted in books by veterans of the intelligence service, interacted with writers on intelligence questions, “but on the whole beyond the framework of the corporate culture, their activity never went.” 

            But now the SVR and its press office are changing. Last year, the commentator says, “we unexpectedly found out about the trip of Sergey Narushkin  made to the United States.” And just before New Year’s, there was a television documentary on the SVR and Naryshkin, something that had not happened before.

            Taken together, Krutikov continues, this suggests “a change of the internal corporate culture of intelligence.”  Last year too, Naryshkin “for the first time in history,” acknowledged the intelligence officers serve in Russian embassy. He said they were there for security, but the acknowledgement represented a clear break with the denials of the past.

            Naryshkin himself is a very public person, head of the Russian Historical Society and a frequent guest on Russian television. That alone sets him apart from his predecessors who were typically completely hidden figures. But both Naryshkin’s approach and the new openness of the SVR public affairs office in fact helps increase rather than decrease the protection of secrets.

            By talking about what can’t be avoided, the press office effectively blocks speculation of all kinds about many things, including about things that shouldn’t be discussed, Krutikov argues. Moreover, it makes the SVR more like the intelligence services of other countries rather than something mysterious.

            And perhaps most important, it allows the SVR to be more open and to have a more open corporate culture. “The complete self-isolation of ‘the intelligence society’ never led to any good.” Indeed, it often contributed to mistakes that a more open testing of the waters would have prevented.

                No one should conclude from this that Naryshkin and his agency intend to become like the CIA whose officers engage in all kinds of public activities. That would be completely out of character and even harmful. But some carefully considered steps to greater openness will help preserve rather than to undermine the traditional intelligence culture.

            It is, of course, possible, Krutikov concludes, that what has been on public view is not the result of an intentional plan by the SVR leaders.  “But the role of political intelligence in our time has sharply grown.” And the population needs to know more about it than the images provided by TV serials and movies.

            After all, the GRU has already taken steps in this direction. (See vz.ru/society/2018/12/29/956130.html.)

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