Russia: How the FSB spies on foreign diplomats and journalists

(To Renato Caputo)

La Operational Research Directorate of the FSB (seventeenth directorate, also known as OPU) is called by Russian agents with the nickname "Nikolai Nikolaevich" - from the first letters of the words "External Surveillance" which in Russian is written наружное наблюдение (transliterated: Naruzhnoe Nabludenie) . OPU employees are engaged, among other things, in espionage against foreign diplomats, businessmen and journalists within the borders of the Russian Federation.

Recently, a source who served at the Operational Research Directorate, revealed how undercover OPU agents work in Moscow, how external surveillance is linked to political assassinations, what qualities are expected from employees, and how the intelligence services reacted to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The employees of the Operational Research Directorate of the FSB work in large hotels where foreigners stay, in embassies, in representative offices of foreign military attachés, in ambassadors' residences, at international exhibitions, festivals and so on. Several surveillance groups operate during visits by foreign leaders.

In the budget of the Seventeenth Directorate there are dozens of secret abodes, the largest fleet of FSB vehicles: hundreds of cars, cover documents, sets of spare license plates, video surveillance and photographic equipment.

The OPU is the only department of the FSB, where almost half of the staff are women, and for particularly important tasks seventy-year-old officers who are in the operational reserve are used.

The head of the OPU of the FSB is General Gennady Viktorovich Shvetov, who, like the secretary of the security council Nikolai Patrushev, is a native of Karelia.

General Shvetov was born on April 4, 1962 in the city of Petrozavodsk, Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. In 2003, after moving to Moscow, he held the position of head of the XNUMXth security detachment of the Central Directorate of Internal Affairs of Moscow, responsible for the protection of foreign missions. FSB officers were assigned to this detachment. 

In addition to spying on diplomats, Putin has used the department to monitor Western journalists in Russia since the early years of his presidency. Putin likes to be personally briefed on the FSB's surveillance of Western journalists, former US and former Russian officials said. Leaked FSB documents related to previous surveillance cases against foreign journalists show agency leaders along the chain of command adding pencil notes in the margins of formal memos, so top brass can delete any comments that may not be welcome to the president.

“They do their job extremely well, are ruthless in carrying out their work and are not tied down by any resources”, said Dan Hoffman, former head of the Central Intelligence Agency in Moscow, about the modus operandi of the Operational Research Directorate of the FSB.

The unit's officers are well paid by Russian standards, receive bonuses for successful operations, access to low-cost mortgages, stipends for unemployed spouses, preferential access to beach resorts and medical care at FSB clinics which are among the best in Russia.

The invasion had a profound impact on Russia's security and intelligence apparatus. While things look the same on paper, on the ground there are fundamental changes in how Putin's spy network operates. The FSB's transformation concerns its operations within Russia's borders. Since the outbreak of the war, Putin's security service has increasingly cracked down on political opposition, dissent and public criticism. A growing number of prominent Putin critics have been jailed, mass arrests at demonstrations have shown what happens to those willing to protest Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine, and draconian new media laws have effectively introduced censorship and placed prominent journalists on the wanted list or in prison.

Although the FSB has been the standard-bearer for these oppressive policies from the beginning, its mandate was expanded in December 2022, when Putin ordered the FSB to step up surveillance, citing a growing threat from foreign intelligence services and of "traitors". This could be seen as a return to the era of Stalinist tactics directed against the population and civil society, characterized by increased surveillance, censorship, purges and large-scale arrests.

In April, Russia passed new treason legislation that further gave the FSB the power to crack down on criticism of the war. In May, the spy agency, using wartime powers, said it would begin searching homes without court approval.

US embassy staff noticed that Russian agents were following the ambassador's children to school, to soccer practice and to a McDonald's, US officials once stationed in Russia said. Diplomats found their homes burgled, and a diplomat working in the defense attaché's office returned home to find his dog dead, in what appeared to be poisoning.

Today, Russia has become a dangerous place for everyone there, both foreigners and Russians themselves.

Image: author