Russian spy-watcher Andrei Soldatov on Snowden’s strange behavior in Russia, the Nemtsov assassination, and signs of a power struggle in Putin’s inner circle.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Full article: Edward Snowden Is Acting Very Strange Inside Russia (The Daily Beast)