When Vladimir Putin needed another made-up excuse on Monday to seize more of Ukraine in his stiffly staged security council meeting, he turned to Alexander Bortnikov, the longtime head of Russia’s all-powerful Federal Security Service (FSB).
The former KGB and up-from-the-ranks FSB operative, assembled with other top security officials in the Kremlin’s grandiose St. Catherine Hall, was visibly nervous. Under the bright light of the massive chandeliers, two deep vertical wrinkles appeared between his eyebrows, giving an even more ominous appearance to his habitually unsmiling face. Bortnikov never liked being in the public eye, and now he was clearly uncomfortable.
But Bortnikov, 70, delivered the goods for Putin. He claimed that his border guards had captured alive a Ukrainian military saboteur, a member of two “sabotage groups” that had slipped into Russia to do damage. Resolute action by his border guards, he claimed, had destroyed the other saboteurs.
The Ukrainian military quickly denied the report, which was widely dismissed in the West as a complete fabrication, of the kind U.S. intelligence had been expecting.
After the pre-taped assembly of compliant security chiefs, Putin went on an epic rant of grievances over Ukraine, culminating in his decision to sign a decree recognizing the self-proclaimed independent republics of the Donbass. By recognizing the separatist entities, Russia was inviting a war, perhaps the most violent conflict in Europe since the end of World War Two.
Bortnikov was undoubtedly eager to return to his office in Lubyanka, the ornate, late-19th century complex occupied by various iterations of Russia’s secret police since the Bolshevik revolution. Tasks awaited him: not just the ongoing dark and dirty work of political repression and financial extortion that was handed to him by Vladimir Putin, his old Leningrad KGB colleague, almost 14 years ago: Bortnikov had immediate duties in Ukraine— running agents, bribing politicians, drawing up lists of Kiev officials to be rounded up and executed (according to a leaked letter from Bathsheba Crocker, the Geneva-based U.S. ambassador to the UN and other agencies).
Given his long Kremlin service, Bortnikov has perhaps become the most loyal and trustworthy of Putin’s aides among the siloviki, or strongmen, atop the power ministries. He has turned the FSB into the “punishing [and deadly] sword” of Putin’s regime, the old Bolshevik phrase for the Cheka. His wrinkled face and the lingering hostility in his eyes are the literal embodiment of Russia under Putin. He will unquestioningly follow Putin’s orders until the end of his days.
Bortnikov’s FSB is both the brain and the heart of the Putin regime, a “state within the state,” according to an in-depth investigation by the Dossier Center, an organization funded by the exiled Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The FSB’s control of Russian political, economic and social life is unrivaled in the nation’s history, even greater than the KGB during its Soviet heyday. There’s no communist ideology or party nomenklatura to limit and restrain its power. And as an organ of the Russian kleptocracy under Vladimir Putin, the FSB has proved adept at intervening in financial matters for the personal enrichment of its top leadership, starting with Bortnikov and his family. He is no doubt one of the richest political figures in Russia.
The Loyal Soldier
In contrast to several other top officials in the Putin regime, Bortnikov is not a native of St. Petersburg, where the president and his cronies made their first post-Soviet fortunes. He was born in the Urals, in the provincial Russian city of Perm, in November 1951, in the depths of the Cold War. His official biography is predictably bland and has him growing up as a modest and quiet young man.
Allegedly unpretentious and humble, Bortnikov, according to his hagiographers, distinguished himself from his classmates by his “logical thinking and highly developed intuition.” Evidently, the young Bortnikov matched the profile of the ideal Chekist, as defined by its founder Felix Dzerzhinsky as an individual with “a burning heart, cool head, and clean hands.” Of course, as with many a KGB recruit, Bortinikov’s hands got very dirty over time, but his cool, even icy personality and enthusiasm for secret police work fit the bill for a successful career.
In 1973, Bortnikov graduated from the Leningrad Institute for Railroad Transport Engineers, but he evidently wanted more out of life than a job in some remote train station improving the efficiency of shipments on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
It is unknown how he attracted the attention of Leningrad’s KGB officers, but the sentiments must have been mutual, because instead of Siberia, Bortnikov was brought to Moscow to train at the prestigious Higher School of the KGB. It turned out to be a good fit: Bortnikov loved the Chekist work so much that he never cared to look for any other job opportunities, even after the collapse of the Soviet colossus and the dissolution of the KGB. While others scrambled for other work, Bortnikov stayed at his desk as Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first president, began experimenting with ways to reorganize the state security apparatus. Amid the uncertainty of the agency’s future and material hardship among its rank and file, Bortnikov kept putting in his hours, faithfully, mechanically, day after day, according to his official biography.
Unlike Sergey Naryshkin, the current director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Bortnikov has never revealed publicly when and where he first met Putin. Their encounter could have taken place early on in Moscow during their KGB training, or later when they both started working in its Leningrad branch.
Putin may have taken note of Bortnikov’s specialty in counterintelligence. Given his later responsibilities in the FSB, it’s possible that he was assigned to economic counterintelligence, a separate directorate created in the 1980s to control the Soviet economic opening toward the West brought on by the perestroika reforms.
It is not known how Bortnikov’s work was evaluated by his supervisors. But they must have seen something different in him than in his colleagues Putin and Naryshkin, who were selected for advanced foreign intelligence training at the Red Banner Institute in Moscow. After a year of polishing their espionage tradecraft and foreign language skills, they were dispatched abroad, Putin to East Germany, Naryshkin to Brussels. In contrast, Bortnikov remained at home, on the domestic secret police track. Whether that was his personal preference or a recognition by the KGB that his personality lent itself more to political repression, including murder, is not known, but his physical rigidity and lack of charm in rare public appearances suggest the latter was probably the case.
The Russian Wild West
In the early 1990s, Bortnikov’s former colleagues Putin and Naryshkin were back in St. Petersburg trying to recover from their failed espionage careers by obtaining lucrative posts in the city administration. They were getting rich, but Bortnikov was not just looking on, either. As Catherine Belton describes it in detail in her 2020 book Putin’s People, the St. Petersburg of the 1990s was the place where the line between law enforcers and law breakers had become blurred. Not only did the latter pay the former to look the other way, but they became partners in crime. It is doubtful that Bortnikov was an exception.
His dogged loyalty, along with a refined habit of doing what he was told and asking questions later (or never) apparently enabled his rapid rise through the FSB’s St. Petersburg ranks.
His big break came in June 2003, when Sergey Smirnov, chief of the St. Petersburg FSB, was sent to Moscow to become the agency director’s principal deputy. Bortnikov was promoted to fill his position. Less than a year later, in February 2004, Bortnikov was also summoned to the Kremlin.
It was a reunion of sorts. Putin, whom Yeltsin had appointed FSB director in 1998, moved up to be acting president when Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned a year later. Smirnov and Putin’s FSB successor, Nikolay Patrushev, were bringing in the loyal Leningrad Chekists to strengthen Putin’s hand as he was getting ready to run for the second term as president. Sergey Naryshkin, the current head of the SVR, was also transferred from St. Petersburg to Moscow at the same time.
The Kremlin Money Tree
Bortnikov was appointed to one of the most powerful positions within the FSB, head of its Economic Security Service, or SEB, the central instrument of the Putin regime’s control over the Russian economy. Since the late 1990s, every major Russian company has been forced to allow the SEB to “embed” their officers into its corporate leadership and, in this way, monitor and control the company business activities from the inside. This privileged position provided the SEB—and the FSB as a whole—tremendous leverage over company owners and allowed it to extract million-dollar bribes and personal favors from them. As one former SEB officer said to the Russian investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan: “The SEB has enough material to close down any major Russian company and jail any of the company owners whenever they want.” That is the basic truth of the current state of the Russian economy: The FSB holds a gun to the heads of those who run it and whacks them with the barrel (both literally and figuratively) every once in a while.
The practice of strong-arming businesses and making them do the FSB’s bidding had already intensified under Bortnikov’s predecessor at the SEB, Yury Zaostrovtsev. Zaostrovtsev was later implicated in a corruption scandal involving smuggled furniture from Italy (the so-called Three Whales Affair) and pushed into premature retirement. Far from being a sign that the FSB was becoming less corrupt in its operations, the affair was a public spill-over of the internal infighting among rival FSB clans in which the Patrushev-Bortnikov group emerged victorious. Under Bortnikov, the same SEB practices continued and even proliferated.
Most recently, in 2019, another egregious corruption scandal involving SEB officers emerged. It involved three officers of the SEB’s Department “K,” in charge of surveilling Russia’s banking sector. The three, it turned out, owned numerous apartments in Moscow and had millions of dollars in cash stashed away. The scandal has yet to be sorted out in court, but its outcome can be expected to serve the FSB’s interest.
While overseeing the infiltration of the Russian economy, Bortnikov was allegedly also involved in “highly sensitive” political matters, like assassinations. Russian opposition media, such as Novaya Gazeta, whose editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, and Novoye Vremya, edited by well-known Putin critic Yevgeniya Albats, linked Bortnikov to one of the most shocking state-sanctioned murders of the first decade of the twenty first century: the November 2006 poisoning of former FSB Lt. Colonel Alexander Litvinenko, felled by radioactive polonium in a chic London hotel.
Litvinenko, who had also served in the KGB in the 1980s, escaped from Russia in 2000. Two years later, he and historian Yury Felshtinsky published Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within, which was full of shocking revelations, including an accusation that the FSB had planned and carried out the September 1999 “false flag” bombings of apartment buildings in Russia in as a pretext for the second Chechen war.
The FSB continues to deny any connection to the 1999 bombings and the death of Litvinenko, but at the annual ceremony for the Day of the Chekist, a Russian state security holiday, Bortnikov was promoted to the highest Russian military rank, General of the Army. At that time in December 2006, according to Soldatov and Borogan’s classic book The New Nobility:
The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB (2010), he became one of the highest ranking security officers in Russia. There were only three other Generals of the Army in the FSB, plus two in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and one in the GRU, Russian military intelligence.
In May 2008, it was Bortnikov, and not his former St. Petersburg FSB boss Smirnov, who was chosen to succeed Patrushev as head of the FSB.
Patrushev, whom Putin made Secretary of the Security Council, a powerful body that includes the heads of all the national security ministries, might have wanted his high school buddy Smirnov to succeed him. But Putin evidently saw something in Bortnikov that made him a better choice to run internal security. Almost 14 years later, the one-time railroads expert still holds the job. A special law was even passed by the Russian Parliament last year to allow him and other Putin stalwarts to serve in government posts beyond the age of 70. According to Russian media reports, Bortnikov, who turned 70 in November, was also awarded the title of Hero of the Russian Federation, the highest honorary title in Russia.
Long Arm of the FSB
Under Bortnikov, the FSB has expanded its operations both domestically and internationally. Its repressive state-security capabilities have been amplified and employed to silence Putin’s critics both at home and abroad, in ever more brutal ways.
Shakedowns, death threats and assassinations have become commonplace. Just a list of the FSB’s violations of Russians’ human and civil rights since 2008 could fill volumes. Perhaps the most publicized recent case is the attempted poisoning of the opposition activist Aleksey Navalny, now jailed, but there are many others. Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent Navalny protégé and journalist, was the target of two poisoning attempts linked to the FSB. Then there are the sudden, suspicious deaths abroad of several whistleblowers and vocal critics of the Putin regime, such as Alexander Perepelichniy, Mikhail Lesin and Denis Voronenkov, whose fates have been linked to Bortnikov’s FSB by independent investigators and journalists.
There are also indications that the FSB has institutionalized the organization of subversive covert operations beyond Russia’s border through its 5th Service, responsible for foreign operations. Officers of the 5th were allegedly active in several former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, in recent years. Though there is no direct evidence (as yet), it is highly likely that the 5th Service is playing a prominent role in the present conflict there as well. On Jan. 20, the Treasury Department sanctioned four Ukrainians, including two members of parliament, who it said were “engaged in Russian government-directed influence activities to destabilize Ukraine” on behalf of the FSB. Russian “false flag” operations in Ukraine could also come under its jurisdiction, but would most likely be carried out in coordination with the SVR and the GRU.
A Man For All Seasons
Putin likes to underscore his trust of Bortnikov with publicized events. In August 2018, he invited Bortnikov to go on a Siberian hunting trip with him and his minister of defense, Sergey Shoigu. Just the three of them: No other top Kremlin official was listed in their party. Unlike Putin, who revels in showy displays of his masculinity and athleticism, however, Bortnikov was not photographed rafting or swimming, a likely reflection of the fact that he’s far less fit than his boss.
Putin also has a habit of tapping Bortnikov as his personal emissary to former Soviet republics. In mid-December 2020, the president sent him to both Armenia and Azerbaijan soon after their conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Ten days later in Moscow, he hosted a ballyhooed meeting between the Armenian and Azeri state security chiefs. This past December, Putin dispatched Bortnikov to Uzbekistan for a meeting with the Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
Bortnikov also chairs the National Anti-Terrorism Committee, which coordinates counterterrorism measures across Russia and has taken credit for the substantial decrease in the number of terrorist incidents in the last decade. In a June 2020 televised meeting with Putin—the kind of stiff, staged affair the strongman favors— Bortnikov claimed that many countries were impressed with FSB counterterrorist successes and were eager to learn from them. “We gladly share information with them,” he said while Putin looked at him intently. Some 42 governments and eight international organizations, he added, had requested access to the FSB database of known terrorists. Today, a veteran Russian diplomat, Vladimir Voronkov, heads the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, which provides the FSB with annual chance to showcase its counterterrorist credentials.
In January 2018, together with the two other chiefs of Russian intelligence, the SVR’s Sergey Naryshkin and Igor Korobov, then chief of the GRU, Bortnikov visited Washington at the invitation of the Trump administration’s CIA director, Mike Pompeo. Bortnikov said that the meetings dealt with counterterrorism and regional security issues, and were overall positive and productive. “They were very useful,” he added.
Bortnikov also confirmed that the good vibes between the FSB and the CIA abruptly stopped when Gina Haspel replaced Pompeo as CIA director. At a rare press conference in Moscow in November 2018, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath before deflecting a question about Haspel. She obviously had shattered the budding bromance with Pompeo.
(Korobov, by the way, died suddenly 11 months after the CIA junket, “after a long and serious illness,” according to the official media. But insiders noted his demise came shortly after the “badly bungled” assassination attempt in England on Sergei Skripal, a former British mole in the GRU. “My spy instinct tells me that Korobov was murdered. Everyone sitting inside GRU would understand this, 125%,” another GRU defector, Viktor Suvorov, told the Guardian newspaper.
Who knows? In the treacherous waters of Putin’s police state, people say all sorts of things. Still, Bortnikov’s people may well have been tasked with carrying it out. Since that time, the FSB chief has been sanctioned by the Treasury Department for alleged FSB involvement in the poisoning of Alexei Navalni. Considering the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, it’s doubtful he’ll ever make it to Washington again.