The purges in Putin’s inner circle

I recently spoke by phone with Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist and expert in Russia’s state intelligence apparatus. Currently in London, Soldatov – with Irina Borogan – has written “Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russian Exiles, Emigrants and Agents Abroad”; the couple also founded and edit the website, which reports on Russian security services. (On Sunday, the site was blocked in the Russian Federation.) I called him to discuss recent reports of purges within the security services after Russian diplomatic and military failures in Ukraine, but our conversation ended up touching on a wide range of topics, including possible reasons for Vladimir Putin’s turn against his intelligence agencies, the growing power of the military in Russia, changes and contractions within Putin’s inner circle over the past decade, how ordinary Russians view the current conflict and why Soldatov himself left Russia in 2020 The conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

What do we know about the internal changes that have taken place in the Russian military and security services since the start of the war in Ukraine?

What we do know is that since the beginning of the war, Putin has already attacked the agencies, as far as we know. So the war began at that now infamous meeting of the Russian Security Council, where Putin publicly berated the director of the SVR, the foreign intelligence agency, which directly succeeds the KGB’s spy section Two and a half weeks later we heard from the foreign intelligence branch of the FSB, because the FSB also has a foreign intelligence branch that is under attack. We now know that two people, two senior officials of this department, were interrogated and placed under house arrest.

Then, last week, we learned that the Deputy Chief of the National Guard had been forced to resign and would likely face some sort of criminal investigation. And he’s not just a national guard. This guy is a veteran of the security services. He was in Putin’s personal security before joining the National Guard, so he is known personally to Putin.

How did we, or you, get this information? And what do we know about the reasons for the moves?

Well, we know that the director of the SVR, Sergey Naryshkin, was humiliated, because it was done publicly and this meeting was broadcast. We know about the FSB purges because I investigated this particular unit of the FSB from 2002, when I learned that there was such a thing inside the FSB, which is supposed to be a purely agency national. But he got new powers, and he was given the power to conduct operations overseas, specifically in the former Soviet Union, that is, in Ukraine.

Last week’s news about the Deputy Chief of the National Guard was first broadcast on a Telegram channel, which we know is close to the FSB, and a few hours later it was confirmed by official sources . But, while the Telegram channel said the guy was detained, the official version is that he was just asked to resign.

How comfortable do you feel about speculating on the reasons for these moves? There’s a certain feeling that the war isn’t going well for Russia, and so that’s what’s behind them. Do you have any idea, in particular, why Putin might have gone after these people, and what that might suggest?

Yes, I asked all my sources, and not just me but many Russian investigative journalists, who are now talking to their sources within Russian security and asking them, “What’s going on ? It looks like Putin is getting really unhappy with the operation, but it seems he still believes the original plan was correct but there were issues with some elements. And that’s why his attack on the foreign intelligence branch of the FSB is not only about bad intelligence, but also about something else.

This unit is also tasked with conducting political warfare operations in Ukraine, that is, cultivating networks of operatives and supporters of political groups that may be pro-Kremlin and would support the Russian invasion. But that never happened and, as far as I know from my sources, one of the investigations is also about how they used the funds allocated to political groups in Ukraine. Maybe now it looks like Putin got angry at the lack of popular support in Ukraine for Russian troops.

But it seems that this story is developing very quickly, and now we have news that it is not only about the use of funds, but also that the military counterintelligence is looking into the activities of this particular department of the FSB And that could mean that eventually people in Moscow began to wonder why US intelligence was so accurate. Military counterintelligence is mainly about chasing moles, identifying sources of leaks. So now it looks like Putin is getting angry, not only about bad intelligence and poor performance in Ukraine, but also about where the American intelligence came from on the invasion, and why American intelligence was so good before the invasion, and why Americans knew so much about what was to come.

So Putin doesn’t think the overall invasion plan, or its military dimensions, were necessarily bad. But he’s upset with both the amount of intelligence America had and Ukraine’s political response to the invasion?

Yes exactly.

There have been numerous reports in the Western press that Putin is now isolated, either because he has been in power for so long or because he is not meeting many people due to the pandemic. Do you have any idea how accurate these types of reports are? And do you know who Putin is talking to and what kind of inner circle he has now? Seems like maybe people had a better idea of ​​who was in his circle ten years ago.

Yeah. It’s true, and there’s a reason for it. Ten years ago, Putin listened to at least several dozen different types of people. It could have been a very strange collection of characters: at one point, he was a director with crazy ideas about Russia’s imperial past. And, at another time, he was a journalist who was a big Pinochet fan. There were priests. So it was a multitude of people, but now, starting in 2016, 2017, that circle has gotten smaller and smaller. And what I take from my sources is that, these days, Putin only listens to three or four people. There is Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whom he trusts, and that is why Shoigu played the leading role in this invasion. There is Nikolai Patrushev, his head of the Security Council, and one of his oldest friends, who is still close to him and who succeeded him as the leader of the FSB And probably one or two other friends from Saint Petersburg , But that’s about all .

And so, in addition to the smaller circle, do people feel like his mindset has really changed in some way, or his character has changed in some way? I don’t want to go too far in his psychoanalysis…

I am not a psychology expert. But I see, and everyone can see, that he’s always very quick to respond to people. Or, judging by his public performances, it seems he reacts very quickly to what people say. So that means that mentally or intellectually he is still fine, but he may have developed ideas from people’s adulation towards him. Basically, when you’re around people listening to you, you come to believe that you’re the smartest guy in the room and you know better – and I think that was the biggest challenge for the security agencies and intelligence reporting to him what is happening in Ukraine, because everyone knows that Putin has his own strong opinions about Ukraine. He writes about the history of Ukraine and talks about Ukraine all the time. How can you challenge him?

It’s not very clear how you can do that, especially because of this atmosphere of fear over the last seven years or so because of what I would call selective elite repression. And that’s a big thing now in Russia. It’s not just that Putin tried to poison Navalny and kicked the political opposition out of the country. It is also about governors and ministers in prison. You have so many people in prison now, even people from the FSB. So if you think, from a military general’s point of view, is it really safe to say something to Putin that he doesn’t like? I think it’s a big challenge for them.

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