It is extremely unusual for any country to see and hear the head of its foreign intelligence service interviewed for almost one hour twenty minutes on evening television. Russia has definitely scored a first here that his foreign counterparts are unlikely to imitate.
Sergei Naryshkin, who trained and graduated from KGB school under the code name “Naumov” along with Vladimir Putin, code-named “Platonov”, has enormously expanded public outreach by the SVR; not only through the publication of hitherto classified documents from the past – most recently on the run up to the Great Patriotic War – but also testimony from former operatives published in the media. And Naryshkin is a great believer in the value of human intelligence – humint, which he highlighted – over national technical means – comint. So the interview, though a bolt from the blue, sits well with his new approach to public relations.
The interviewer in this instance was the notoriously controversial and ebullient Vladimir Rudol’fovich Solov’ev, a Jewish journalist of considerable wit, who has long made a name for himself firing full blast at unsuspecting targets on the issues of the day. Not, of course, at the country’s president, Mr Putin, for whom he has expressed his undying admiration.
But, contrary to what one might have expected, this was by no means an obsequious interview. Without a note in hand, delivering a bravura performance, Solov’ev relentlessly formulated a serious of questions – some highly inflammatory – head to head with his receptive host at SVR headquarters out in the woods at Yasenevo. Indeed, it is hard to think of any questions he posed that would not have been put by a persistent Western journalist, and certainly with more charm and humour than few could muster.
Of course, Naryshkin did not have a convincing response to the Litvinenko murder, the Skrypal’ attempt and the Berlin assassination; but, then, these were the work of his sister organisation, the FSB, about which he must have let loose a tirade of invective at the time because of the inevitable disruption of normal operations by ignorant interlopers at Dzerzhinsky Square and further afield in military intelligence.
Perhaps the most interesting moment was minutes 41 to 42 of the exchange. The interview was on 2 August. Solov’ev referred to an unnamed American general who had apparently said that the evacuation of Afghanistan would enable the United States to focus on Russia as the most immediate enemy. At which point Naryshkin reacted as though someone had just punched him in the gut – kung fu style, where the punch is directed to go though the body to damage the internal organs but leave no outward mark. A deep intake of breath was accompanied by intense concentration on the part of the victim. It was as though, for that brief moment, the weight of the entire world had fallen in on Naryshkin’s shoulders. No, he said, Russian intelligence did not focus on a particular enemy; rather the strategic balance and international terrorism (where he had already gone out of his way to emphasise, co-operation with other states was ongoing.)
The reason why this response, clearly unrehearsed, is so interesting is not only because of the very recent reaction in print by the editor of Nezavisimaya gazeta, illustrated in the two previous blogs, indicating deep concern at the dramatic turn of events in south-central Asia, but also the appearance on Russian television for barely two minutes of a veteran of the KGB and FSB in his football shirt and clearly in his cups, who, unprompted, also emphasised the threat to the Russians that the untimely American evacuation posed. Clearly the enemy within requires more, not less, co-operation than many in the West have presupposed.
VGTRK, 2 August 2021:
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